Inside the difficult art of clsoing out an NFL game

Inside the difficult art of clsoing out an NFL game

Two former NFL head coaches with 360 games between them couldn’t believe their eyes as they bounced from one television screen to another.

On the set of NBC’s “Football Night in America,” long before the Sunday pregame broadcast went on air, Tony Dungy and Jason Garrett hollered out: “What’s going on in Miami?” “Did you see what just happened in Cleveland?” Three hours later, similar scenes played out in Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

Everywhere the two football analysts looked, big fourth-quarter leads were evaporating. So, why has it become so difficult to close out a win?

“There’s no question that the fact that the league has become more spread out and more passing-oriented makes it more challenging,” Garrett told The Post. “Teams are more comfortable [trailing] in those situations than they were a number of years ago.”

No lead is safe in the NFL these days. Not when fourth-down tries for the offense jumped 10 percent from 2019 to 2020 and another 16 percent by the halfway point of last season, according to The Associated Press.

Eight teams have overcome a deficit of at least 10 points to win or tie through the first two weeks of this season — second-most to the nine comeback winners in 1987 (just before an in-season players’ strike). Eight games have been decided by a game-winning score in the final two minutes of regulation or in overtime through the first two weeks — tied for the third-most such games (2013 and 1979).

Cleveland Browns running back Jerome Ford (34) and tight end David Njoku (85) walk from the field after losing to the New York Jets.
The Browns’ late-game collapse against the Jets in Week 2 was just one of eight games in which a team came back from 10 or more points to win or tie this season.
AP

In Week 2 alone, the Jets sandwiched an onside kick in between two touchdowns (including a 66-yarder) in the final 82 seconds to turn a 13-point deficit into a 31-30 win against the Browns. The Dolphins used four fourth-quarter touchdowns (including a 60-yarder and a 48-yarder) and a short-field fourth-down stop to overcome a 21-point deficit in a 42-38 win against the Ravens. The Cardinals scored a defensive touchdown in overtime to complete a rally from 13 points down to win 29-23 against the Raiders.

“I think it’s just the explosiveness of the ability for people to strike quickly, whether that’s offensive big plays, whether it’s special teams big plays or defensively,” McVay said when asked by The Post about his remarkable record converting halftime leads into victories during this era of collapses. “The reason why we’ve been able to have some decent success is because our players have executed in those most important moments.”

Another theme seen in the eight comebacks? Poor clock management.

“That is a key factor for one of your job responsibilities as a head coach,” McVay said. “In a lot of instances, I’m leaning on people … because you’ve got a lot of different things [on your plate].”

McVay is 44-1 (.978 winning percentage) when leading at halftime, which is tops among all head coaches (minimum 40 games) since 2000, according to Elias Sports Bureau. The Bills’ Sean McDermott (40-4, .909), the Patriots’ Bill Belichick (198-22, .900) and the Seahawks’ Pete Caroll (85-13, .867) are the other active coaches in the top 10 at No. 2, No. 6 and No. 9, respectively.

Garrett was 42-11 (.792) over his final six seasons with the Cowboys, and Dungy had a near-perfect record with the Buccaneers and Colts any time his team built a 14-point lead.

Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay watches against the Cincinnati Bengals during the second half of a preseason NFL football game in Cincinnati on Aug. 27, 2022.
Sean McVay credits his players’ execution and the help of his staff for his nearly perfect winning record when he has a lead at halftime.
AP

But even McVay almost fell victim to the early-season madness before Jalen Ramsey’s acrobatic end-zone interception kept the Rams from blowing a 21-point fourth-quarter lead to the Falcons. Marcus Mariota couldn’t deliver where other quarterbacks did.

Of the seven quarterbacks responsible for the most fourth-quarterback comebacks of all-time, three are active (Tom Brady, Matt Ryan and Matthew Stafford) and two retired (Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger) over the last two offseasons.

“The pool of quarterbacks is much deeper, the skill guys are much better,” defensive-minded Jets head coach Robert Saleh said. “So, it is harder [than ever] in that regard, but it’s no excuse: You still have to get it done. In the fourth quarter, the game plan has already been revealed, they know how they are playing everything. In those fourth quarters when you have a good quarterback who is armed with all of the knowledge that he needs, that’s hard.”

Coach W L T Pct.
Sean McVay 44 1 0  0.978
Sean McDermott 40 4 0 0.909
Bill Cowher 61 6 1 0.904
Brian Billick 55 6 0 0.902
Bill O’Brien 37 4 0 0.902
Bill Belichick 198 22 0 0.900
Sean Payton 125 14 0 0.899
Mike Martz 43 5 0 0.896
Pete Carroll 85 13 0 0.867
Bruce Arians 54 8 1 0.865
Minimum 40 games when leading at halftime since the start of the 2000 season

Coaches have more information than ever at their disposal when it comes to how to manage a clock with timeout usage, fourth downs, two-point conversions and other late-game decisions. For example, Giants head coach Brian Daboll meets with his two top analytics advisors every day to run through various situations so that he is comfortable in any outcome because the decision-making process considered every angle, including weather, officiating and how possession was gained.

“There are formulas to win in those games,” Garrett said. “Being aggressive is important for every team, but you also want to be smart. Coach Dungy talks about keeping everything in front of you, rally tackling. As an offense, you have to be willing to run the football and bleed the clock. It might not be as sexy, but it’s pretty effective.”

Garrett spent a huge chunk of every year analyzing late-game situations around the league and practicing them beginning in OTAs in three categories: Play it out, where one side gets the ball; play it all the way out, where possession changes between two sides until the clock runs out; got-to-have-it plays. A nine-play situational script was part of every Saturday walk-through before a game and “he never got out of a training camp practice without implementing some sort of situation.”

Brian Daboll celebrates during the Giants' win over the Panthers.
Brian Daboll meets daily with Giants’ analytics advisors to plot out how he should handle a variety of game situations in hopes of avoiding a game-changing error.
Robert Sabo for the NY POST

“The idea is when these situations come up, you yawn at them and say, ‘We’ve been there,’” Garrett said. “Very few people have handled those situations perfectly. Those [blown leads] probably happen more early in the year as you are building your team. Hopefully, you learn from those experiences and get better throughout the season.”

Record-breakers

Aaron Judge’s pursuit of the Yankees’, American League and steroid-free single-season home run record of 61 sparked an idea: What NFL single-season records soon could be broken?

While Roger Maris’ mark stood across MLB for 37 years and remains the gold standard (for now) in the American League after 61 years, many NFL records already have been topped this century. And more will be now that the NFL is in its second year of a 17-game regular season — saying goodbye to the 16-game schedule that was implemented in 1978 to replace a 14-game schedule.

MLB kept an asterisk next to Maris’ record for 30 years because he hit 61 in 163 games, after Babe Ruth hit 60 in 154 games in 1927. The NFL will make no such differentiation. A player most likely to break each of these five records listed was chosen after consulting with a few NFL players and coaches:

Rushing yards: Eric Dickerson, Rams, 2,105 in 1984

Biggest threat: Jonathan Taylor, Colts

Running back Jonathan Taylor #28 of the Indianapolis Colts runs during the first half of the game against the Arizona Cardinals at State Farm Stadium on December 25, 2021 in Glendale, Arizona.
Jonathan Taylor has shown the durability to challenge for the NFL’s single-season rushing mark.
Getty Images

Taylor averaged 123.7 yards per game over 12 games last season — a pace of 2,102 — before tailing off over the final five games. He has reached 299 carries or more four times in the last five seasons (three in college), so his body is built for the pounding.

Passing touchdowns: Peyton Manning, Broncos, 55 in 2013

Biggest threat: Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs

Patrick Mahomes looks to pass during the Chiefs' 27-24 win over the Chargers on Sept. 15, 2022.
With a surplus of offensive weapons and a head coach who often favors the pass over the run, Patrick Mahomes could register 50 or more TD passes yet again.
AP

Mahomes and Brady both have thrown 50 in a season. Why Mahomes over his contemporary rival Josh Allen? Because Allen has a tendency to run (instead of throw) for scores inside the 5-yard line, and Mahomes’ head coach, Andy Reid, loves to use the short pass in place of the run.

Receiving touchdowns: Randy Moss, Patriots, 23 in 2007

Biggest threat: Stefon Diggs, Bills

Stefon Diggs hauls in his third touchdown of the game.
After catching 18 touchdowns in his first two years in Buffalo, Stefon Diggs has four through two weeks this season.
Getty Images

Jerry Rice’s former record of 1,848 yards (in 1995) has been topped three times in the last 10 years. His former record of 22 touchdowns (in 1987) is much harder to challenge and remains No. 2 behind Moss (no one else has more than 18).

Diggs is a bit of a surprise choice over Justin Jefferson, Cooper Kupp and Ja’Marr Chase, but he has missed only two games over the last four-plus seasons and is second in the NFL in red-zone targets since teaming up with Allen.

Sacks: Michael Strahan, Giants 22.5 in 2001 & T.J. Watt, Steelers, 22.5 in 2021

Biggest threat: Micah Parsons, Cowboys

Micah Parsons sacks Joe Burrow during the Cowboys' 20-17 Week 2 win over the Bengals.
Through the Cowboys’ first two games, Micah Parsons is on pace to shatter the single-season sacks record.
AP

Parsons is asked to do much more than rush the passer, which makes it all the more impressive that he became the first player with 17 sacks in his first 18 career games since the stat became official in 1982. Parsons might eventually be moved to full-time edge rusher.

Interceptions: Richard “Night Train” Lane, Rams, 14 in 1952

Biggest threat: Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers

Minkah Fitzpatrick returns an interception for a touchdown during the Steelers' Week 1 win over the Bengals.
Minkah Fitzpatrick’s ability to seemingly always be around the football on defense is a quarterback’s nightmare.
Getty Images

This record feels the most Maris-esque because it has stood the test of time. Only two active players have cracked double-digit interceptions in a season: Xavier Howard (10) and Trevon Diggs (11). Fitzpatrick’s career-high is five, which pales in comparison to J.C. Jackson’s last two seasons of nine and eight, respectively. But teams can throw away from a top cornerback. A ballhawking safety gets more opportunities.

College football game to watch

Notre Dame at North Carolina, 3:30 p.m., ABC

North Carolina is averaging 51 points per game and is expected to get back top receiver Josh Downs (nine catches for 78 yards and 2 TDs in one game) after a two-game injury absence.

“Amazing inside the hashes — he only had one catch (out of 101) outside the hashes last year,” Matt Miller of TheDraftScout.com said. “He’s going to be pretty strongly typecast as a slot receiver, but that’s OK. He’s quick, he has a knack for finding space and, while he’s not that big, he’s kind of stocky, which you like because he can get through contact.”

Notre Dame won’t be a factor in the playoff hunt this year, so watch tight end Michael Mayer (15 catches for 145 yards and 2 TDs in three games) and edge Isaiah Foskey (13 tackles, 2.5 sacks in three games) in September.

“Mayer is everything you want in the NFL,” Miller said. “He can line up in-line or in the slot. He’s a very accomplished blocker. He should be playing in the NFL right now.”

Michael Mayer #87 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish scores a touchdown against the Marshall Thundering Herd during the second half at Notre Dame Stadium on September 10, 2022 in South Bend, Indiana.
Michael Mayer projects as a tight end an NFL team can rely on as a receiver and as a blocker.
Getty Images

As for Foskey, Miller said he “has some of the best character stuff I’ve heard of in this class. Even opposing coaches talk about what a good kid he is. And he’s a heck of a player.”

Parting thoughts

1️⃣ A starting quarterback on a rookie contract is the most valuable salary-cap commodity in the NFL. A starting quarterback on a non-first-round rookie contract is the equivalent of striking oil in your backyard.  

The Eagles and Texans are the only teams with such a luxury right now. While the Texans roster remains an underwhelming rebuild, the Eagles are a textbook case of redirecting cap savings into the supporting cast. Hurts’ salary-cap hit ($1.64 million) in 2022 pales in comparison to the average of first three first-round quarterbacks ($8.43 million) from his 2020 draft class.

Jalen Hurts #1 of the Philadelphia Eagles runs in action during the game against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field on September 11, 2022 in Detroit, Michigan.
Jalen Hurts’ minimal cap hit has allowed the Eagles to allocate more resources to other parts of the team, such as the offensive and defensive lines.
Getty Images

General manager Howie Roseman’s salary allocation per year is higher than the league average at offensive line, wide receiver, edge rusher, cornerback and defensive line — considered the five-most important positions after quarterback — as well as tight end, as pointed out this week by OvertheCap.com. In addition to quarterback, they spend less than the league average at safety, linebacker, running back and specialist.

Makes you wonder why the Texans aren’t further along in their rebuild?

2️⃣ Six members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame — safeties Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu, receiver Calvin Johnson, running back LaDainian Tomlinson, guard Steve Hutchinson and defensive end Richard Seymour — began their careers after Tom Brady’s NFL debut. So, they entered the league, were great over an extended period of time, retired and waited at least five years for induction all during Brady’s “prime” years.

None of them faced Brady as frequently as Jets center Nick Mangold, who was drafted in 2006, retired in 2016 and will be enshrined in the Jets’ Ring of Honor on Sunday. Can he believe the 45-year-old Brady is still playing, after a month-long retirement fail?

“It’s shocking,” said Mangold, a father of three. “I joke that he got a taste of retired life, where you don’t have an end in sight. You always have an offseason where you get to spend time with the kids but you know you are going back to spring workouts and minicamps in sight.

“Once there was no end in sight — this is what we are doing — [he said,] ‘Ah, nevermind. I’ll come back for another one.’ I fully understand that. I don’t know if that’s how it went down, but it gets a good chuckle from me.”

3️⃣ Lovie Smith’s return to Chicago this week as Texans coach serves up a careful-what-you-wish-for reminder.

Defensive coordinator Lovie Smith of the Houston Texans reacts during the first half against the New England Patriots at NRG Stadium on October 10, 2021 in Houston, Texas.
Neither Lovie Smith nor the Bears have experienced much success since the two parted after the 2012 season.
Getty Images

Smith was 81-63, plus 3-3 in the playoffs (including a Super Bowl appearance), with the Bears. Since his firing, he is 8-25-1 as a head coach and the Bears are 62-85, plus 0-2 in the playoffs, under four different head coaches.

The Panthers made a similar move firing Ron Rivera, who went 76-63-1, plus 3-5 in the playoffs (Super Bowl appearance), near the end of the 2019 season. Since then, Rivera is 15-20, plus 0-1 in the playoffs, and the Panthers are 10-29 as Matt Rhule (10-25) sits on the hottest seat in the NFL.

It makes you wonder what’s in store for the Vikings, who fired Mike Zimmer after last season with a 72-56-1, record, plus 2-3 in the playoffs