Before the clock became the 49ers’ ally in their 23-20 win over the Green Bay Packers last Sunday, expiring as Phil Dawson’s winning field goal sailed through the uprights, it seemed to occupy a much more adversarial – and familiar – role for San Francisco’s offense.
The 49ers burned two timeouts within the first five minutes of the first and third quarters, and several with the play clock almost at zero. They called two timeouts on their opening drive of the game, and used another before their first play from scrimmage in the second half when quarterback Colin Kaepernick forgot his play-card wristband on the sideline.
While Kaepernick and his coaches this past week downplayed the timeout usage as mostly circumstantial, it remains that clock management has been a bugaboo for the 49ers all season. The offense was flagged seven times in the regular season for delay of game, and the team total of 10 led the NFL. More delay of games were avoided by spending timeouts.
“It’s not something you want to do, but sometimes it’s necessary,” Kaepernick said of using timeouts early. “You want to have things right. You don’t want to blow a play.”
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Offensive coordinator Greg Roman echoed that sentiment last week, adding he doesn’t believe the 49ers “wasted” timeouts during the season.
“Ideally, you’d like to keep all your timeouts in case you need them, unless something else comes up along the way,” Roman said. “We don’t want to mindlessly waste timeouts, but if it allows us to capture a rook, a queen, a king as opposed to a pawn, then it’s cost-benefit analysis.”
Sometimes that is the case, as in the 49ers’ 33-14 win over Tampa Bay in Week 15. The 49ers used a timeout before a first-down play on their opening drive and took a delay-of-game penalty later in the possession, but they ultimately scored a touchdown on the drive.
The result, though, is not always so tidy. Against the Packers last Sunday, the 49ers used their second timeout of the second half before a third-and-5 play from the Packers’ 25-yard line after players lined up incorrectly. Out of the timeout, Kaepernick was sacked and the 49ers punted.
The victory over Green Bay thus rendered the clock issues less significant than in, say, last year’s Super Bowl. On the 49ers’ final drive, coach Jim Harbaugh called a timeout as the play clock ticked toward zero on third down at the Baltimore 5, nullifying a Kaepernick run that might have gone for a touchdown.
The 49ers in the past have cited a detailed playbook and play-calling for the time that elapses between plays, and center Jonathan Goodwin reiterated last week there can be “plenty of things that slow it down.”
“It could be getting back in the huddle, getting up to the line faster, getting the play calls in from the sideline, Kap getting us the play call,” Goodwin said. “There’s a lot of different things that factor into it.”
Indeed, one of the 49ers’ first-quarter timeouts last week came after a 31-yard pass from Kaepernick to Michael Crabtree on fourth down, which required the offense to cover a lot of ground getting to the line of scrimmage while relaying in a play for first and goal.
It’s a tall order to simulate all those different scenarios in practice, which is one reason Goodwin said improvement in time management simply needs to happen during games.
“You definitely don’t want to burn timeouts,” Goodwin said. “Are we going to sit here and stress and go crazy about it? No. But it’s something we definitely don’t want to happen.”