We see head coaches in the NFL mangle clock management at the end of halves on a weekly basis. Too few coaches can think tactically, getting the play call for the down and distance correctly, while simultaneously getting the strategic aspect of play calling right.
Last night, Saints honcho Sean Payton made a series of calls which turned a potentially losing possession sequence in his favor. It's a case study in how thinking small won big.
The Super Bowl on Centre Court
New Orleans problems started when they won the coin toss and then promptly flopped on their first possession. The Colts methodically drove 11 plays and kicked a field goal. The Saints gained one first down the next time out but had to punt after Marques Colston dropped a deep in on the Colts side of the 50. Manning again led an eleven play drive, this time reaching the end zone.
At the end of the first quarter the Colts had 149 total yards and ten points. Saints DC Gregg Williams' game plan was to make Manning play slow-ball; he ran a lot of 3-3-5 fronts, and was changing his coverages behind his line. Williams' quickly learned that neither of his outside linebackers, Scott Fujita or Scott Shanle, could provide pressure as edge rushers. (Manning would leave the game unsacked, and was rarely pressured.) If the Colts were going to be stopped, the Saints secondary would have to make plays. Some help from the Colts would also be welcome.
At this point, the Super Bowl looked like a tennis match, where the Saints had twice been broken and the Colts had held their first two serves. New Orleans' offense found its legs on its third series, grinding for its own 11-play field goal drive, but Payton knew he had to get back on serve, or Manning would simply stay one possession ahead of him. Think of Indy's win over the Chiefs in the '04 divisional playoffs, a 38-31 shootout where neither team punted but a Chiefs turnover left them one score short of the Colts all day.
Pierre Garcon gave one possession back to New Orleans when he matched Colston's drop of a first down pass. New Orleans again moved methodically down the field and looked ready to tie the game when a twisting 27 yard catch-and-run by Colston put New Orleans at first-and-goal on the Colts 3. Here, Payton showed that how you score means as much as getting the points.
The clock showed just over 4:00 when Colston made his play. A quick Saints score could have pushed pulled New Orleans even, but Manning would have roughly three and a half minutes to put his team back in front, and there was little evidence the Saints defense could stop him at this point. What's worse, the Colts were due to get the second half kickoff. The Colts were anticipating two consecutive possessions. It was quite possible that Manning could put them up 20-10 or 24-10 or 24-6 and leave the Saints gasping for life. Nobody would find surprise with such an outcome.
Payton went for the quick score, throwing to Lance Moore on first down. He was stopped for no gain. Then, the Saints got a happy accident, one which appeared awful at the time. Backup lineman Zach Strief, a situational short-yardage blocker, was flagged for a false start, moving the Saints back to the eight.
Payton then called a run for Pierre Thomas, which gained seven yards. Just as important, it moved the clock to the two-minute warning. The Saints called a second run, which was stuffed at the line. The Colts called time out at 1:55, setting up a 4th-and-1 decision for Payton.
He could take the easy field goal, and cut the lead to 10-6, but he would give Manning the ball after the kickoff somewhere in decent field position, with around 1:45 left and two time outs. The same two-straight-possession situation would apply. Payton decided to go for the touchdown, figuring that even if he failed, he would leave Manning at his own one, and lessen the odds that he would throw down the field.
Indianapolis again stuffed a Saints run, but Payton's field-position gambit worked perfectly. Starting at his own one, Manning called three consecutive runs, trying to get one first down before stopping the clock. The Colts don't run well when you know runs are coming, and a key 3rd-and-1 stop by the Saints D got New Orleans the ball at their 48 with 35 seconds left in the half. Drew Brees found Henderson in the middle for 19 yards on the very next play, setting up Garrett Hartley's 44 yard field goal. The Saints went to intermission down 10-6.
New Orleans still got points from the end-of-half sequence. The Saints would have preferred a touchdown, no doubt, but by pinning Indy at its one, Payton took the ball out of Peyton Manning's hands. The coach did it again when he called a gutsy -- and successful -- onside kick to open the second half. New Orleans found the end zone on that drive and the Saints had a 13-10 lead.
The wisdom, and perhaps the necessity of Payton's moves was demonstrated on Indy's opening 2nd half drive. Manning led the Colts on their third double-digit play scoring drive. This one covered 76 yards in 10 plays. Instead of putting the game away, however, it merely answered the Saints' touchdown.
Sean Payton had stopped two Colts series, one with field position passing shot and the second with a special teams ace. Add Garcon's double fault and the Saints were back on serve. When the Colts continued to blow possessions, missing a field goal, throwing an interception and turning the ball over on downs, the Saints rally was complete.
This Super Bowl was a ball-control affair. New Orleans finished the game with nine possessions. The Colts had eight. By negating the last Colts 1st half possession and stealing their anticipated opener in the 2nd, Sean Payton turned a tight game into a runaway. He took strategy from a game which doesn't have a clock and ran out the time on the Colts' title hopes.
Game, set and match to New Orleans.