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Zorn’s strategic error costs Skins

Dec 29, 2008, 1:31 AM EDT

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There really isn’t a whole lot to break down about today’s game. The teams traded hot streaks for 55 minutes and then they exchanged scores at the end.

It’s the Niners’ last score, the game-winning field goal, that is the focus here. San Francisco never should have had a chance to try it, or at least it should have been a much greater challenge for them. They got the chance, however, because Jim Zorn made a rookie mistake.

Go back to the end of the Redskins’ tying drive. At the 2:00 warning, the Redskins have a second and goal at the nine. Clinton Portis runs for two yards to the seven and the clock keeps ticking. On third and goal at the seven, the ball is snapped with 1:28 left and Campbell completes a pass to Chris Cooley for five yards down to the two. It’s fourth and goal at the two and the clock is running. With 1:15 left, Zorn calls timeout.

That was his big mistake.

Why stop the clock then?

Sure you want to talk about the fourth-down play. After all, it’s your last shot. If you score, you can put it into overtime. If you don’t, you lose.

But why call timeout with well over a minute left with the clock running? It became a one-play game. Zorn needed to let the clock run down as far as he could, as though they were trying a game-winning or tying field goal, because you want to leave the other team as little time as possible to answer your score.

Cooley went down with about 1:21 left. The 40-second play clock started at about that time. Had Zorn chosen to burn off the maximum time before going for it on fourth, there would have been about 42 seconds left for the fourth-down play.

After Campbell scores, the Niners would have had about 35 seconds left to try to score. It wouldn’t have been impossible, but certainly the extra 30 seconds they had thanks to the early timeout helped them dramatically.

I can think of a couple of reasons why Zorn might have wanted to preserve some time, but neither really holds water. He may have wanted to have some time with which to work had the Redskins failed to score but a penalty had given them a first down. But they still had two timeouts left. They would have been able to take four shots at the end zone in 35 or 40 seconds easily and they would have been able to run or pass.

Zorn might also have been thinking that he wanted to save time should his team not reach the end zone. But if Campbell’s run fails, the 49ers get the ball with about 1:09 to go and the Redskins have two timeouts. Two kneel downs followed by the Skins’ two remaining timeouts and there’s about a minute left. Another knee on third down and the Skins can’t stop the clock. At about 20 seconds, San Francisco has to run a fourth-down play.

The safe-aggressive call in that situation is to have your punter run around in the end zone and take an intentional safety. You then have a free kick from the 20 with 15 seconds left. It then takes a miracle.

If I’m missing something here, let me know.

  1. Ben Folsom - Dec 29, 2008 at 4:24 AM

    Rich, I do not think this was the key strategic error in this game, yes burning off more time would have given the 49ers less time, in the moment the Redskins were focused on scoring, burning clock is a choice you make when you are tied or ahead.

    The blunder in this game was on the defense, after Shaun Hill’s first down spike at the Redskins 45 yard line with 45 seconds left the defense seemed to be caught off guard by the Chargers’ quick huddle. After the snap Shawn Springs got turned around on Bryant Johnson and was behind the play, check the photo at Curly R‘s gamewrap, it shows how close Shawn was to knocking away that pass, still he was behind the play.

    When the Chargers broke the huddle faster than the Redskins expected, Washington still had two timeouts and should have called one. The clock was not running and a timeout would not have given the Chargers a clock advantage.

    Instead the Redskins defense went with what they had and left the middle of the field wide open. Bryant Johnson > spike > kneeldown > game over.

    The defense is what made the Redskins good this season, it may not be fair to rap them for this or other losses, they could not get it together when they needed to.

  2. Anonymous - Dec 29, 2008 at 8:03 AM

    Ben-
    a) 49ers not Chargers
    b) that picture is from much earlier in the game when Springs knocked down a pass in the end zone. He wasn’t close at all on the play on the last drive
    c) Zorn’s poor clock management sure didn’t help his players out…once again

  3. Rich Tandler - Dec 29, 2008 at 11:31 AM

    I see what you’re saying, Ben, but if Zorn allows the clock to tick, the entire dynamic of that last 49er drive is different.

  4. Anonymous - Dec 29, 2008 at 2:04 PM

    Rich, I believe you are correct, but I also think that this mistake was just one of several key plays in the game that cost the Skins the game.

    a) Failure to convert the 1st half interception into 6 points. The Skins got 3, they should have gotten 6.
    b) Clinton Portis fumble
    c) The failure of the defense to bend, but not break in the 2nd half. I could forgive them if the defense had kept the 49ers out of the end zone, but they didn’t do it. In particular, the Skins pass rush is anemic. They put little pressure on Hill and the secondary leaked like a sieve.
    d) The dropped passes by Moss. He dropped 2 passes he should have caught and one of them stalled a drive that had good momentum
    e) The end of the game clock management. Just as you pointed out, the Skins obviously were not going to call timeout on the first 3 downs in their scoring drive, so why not let the clock tick down to the last second before calling TO?

    All in all, I am glad this season is over. I am sorry the Skins didn’t get in the playoffs. But, I am sure if they had got in, they would have been bounced by one of the superior teams in their conference pretty quickly. The Skins have some work to do in the off season to fix problems and to get better at doing what Zorn wants them to do with his version of the WCO.

  5. drwnc - Dec 29, 2008 at 2:58 PM

    Was said “But, I am sure if they had got in, they would have been bounced by one of the superior teams in their conference pretty quickly.”
    And the Redskin Insider(Washington Post) stated “was not a team worthy of being in the playoffs or capable of doing any damage there,”
    The way the NFL is setup, getting to the playoffs is the opportunity!
    The Redskins would have had just a good an opportunity to win in the playoffs as Arizona, Atlanta, Minnesota, & Philadelphia.
    The NFC match-ups next week! This game played out the season with the loss being the same as not making it into the playoffs.

  6. Ben Folsom - Dec 29, 2008 at 6:06 PM

    Anon-

    Doh, that is what I get for blogging and trying to post pseudo thoughtful copy late at night while half in the bag. We were watching the Chargers whip the Broncos when I dropped that comment and you are right about the photo, it is from the 49ers’ first drive of the fourth quarter, I misread the caption from the service where I nabbed the photo.

    Central point still valid, if it is true the defense was not ready, as it looked, they could have killed the play with a timeout and did not, there is your game management problem.

  7. Boss Hog - Dec 29, 2008 at 9:45 PM

    Rich, I was raging about this basic time management error from the moment Zorn took the TO with 1:15 left. It makes no sense at all. Even though there were many other reasons, as commenters have pointed out, why the Skins lost the game, the early timeout was the most basic, most obvious, and most easily reversible.

    Did anyone ask Zorn about this timeout decision after the game? I was especially surprised by the mistake, since normally JZ is extra-cautious (some say over-cautious) about trying to avoid giving the ball back to the opposition in 2-minute situations. Did Zorn attempt to “explain” his “strategy” there, or did he admit to an error?

    The frequency with which NFL coaches, even good ones (see Reid, Andy) make horrific clock-related errors almost makes a case for a special time management coach. If there’s a guy in the booth being paid to look at replays and assess challenge-able plays, why not a clock-management guy? Snyder has the cash. Zorn wouldn’t have to listen to the guy in all situations, but if it’s somebody he trusts, isolated from the chaos of the field, etc, I’d prefer that set-up to the current mess.

  8. Ted Unnikumaran - Dec 29, 2008 at 10:10 PM

    Rich,

    You are the only one mentioning the issue. I agree with you regarding the time-out. I didn’t like that time-out call on 4th down.

    I thought we should have kept our 3 timeouts in case we didn’t convert. Had we not converted the 4th down, we would have still been able to get the ball back on this side of the 50 with about a minute left (had we stopped the 49ers from getting a first down).

    Additionally, I thought we should have called a time-out after the 49ers moved into field-goal territory – At least give us a chance to make a come-back, with about 30 seconds left.

    However, Zorn has called a time out on just about every 4th down call this season, so it wasn’t unexpected.

  9. Anonymous - Dec 29, 2008 at 11:16 PM

    Humorous thought. Consider, if the Redskins were in the AFC West. They would have ended the season tied for first place with their 8-8 record. They would have been tied with the Chargers and Broncos who also ended the season 8-8.

  10. Anonymous - Dec 30, 2008 at 1:28 AM

    The Skins have major problems from top to bottom in the organization or should I say “disorganization.”
    The owner – needs to stay in his box and hire real football people to run this team – see Ozzie Newsome in Baltimore.
    The GM or whatever Vinnie’s title is – fire him – again see Ozzie.
    A coach who isn’t afraid of his players – stop patting Clinton on the back and kick him in the a%$$.

  11. ruffin - Dec 30, 2008 at 1:59 AM

    It’s fourth and goal at the two and the clock is running. With 1:15 left, Zorn calls timeout.

    That was his big mistake.

    Why stop the clock then?

    Thank you. I wondered what I was missing.

    And taking the time out fooks you twice. If you’ve got three time outs, you get another run at the end zone if you screw up on 4th. It was a lose-lose. If you want more time in case something doesn’t work, you’ve gotta keep the time outs.

    Clock management has been a real issue this season. And that’s a problem that’s nothing but coaching. I like Zorn in general, but this was one serious screw up.

  12. allen - Dec 30, 2008 at 3:02 PM

    Thanks for pointing this out Rich. Honestly, I totally missed this one in real-time. At the time, it didn’t bother me that Zorn used a timeout to set up the play (which actually worked!), but you are right – if you must use a timeout, at least let the clock run down as far as possible. Also, please answer Boss Hog’s questions as related to the Zorn press conference. – thanks

  13. Rich Tandler - Dec 31, 2008 at 3:05 AM

    Nobody asked about this either in the post game or in the Monday presser. The Monday deal was mostly focused on the upcoming months and so I can see it not being address there, but I’m surprised that none of the beat writers caught it.

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