Zorn's Strategic Error Costs Skins
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.
Rich Tandler blogs about the Skins at RealRedskins.com and he is the author of the upcoming book The Redskins Chronicle. You can reach Rich by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
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