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Holiday-Season Brainlock Epidemic Among NFL Coaches...By Nelson Lardner

As a hardcore multi-decade observer of NFL talent, I've become more or less immune to the sustained levels of impaired-thinking clock management demonstrated by a significant percentage of NFL coaches. Not that we'd mention any names . . . (Herm Edwards! Oh, sorry . . . not that Herm's alone in this), but any irregular flashes of genius displayed by pro football's Lords of the Sidelines can be all-too-quickly neutralized by mental short circuits during crunch time.

The saddest example this week came in Northern Virginia, where veteran second-term HC Joe Gibbs essentially brain-farted away a contest played under sad, somber circumstances, one that the Redskin Nation desperately wanted to win.

You know the background: Redskin defensive stalwart Sean Taylor was shot within the context of an apparent burglary attempt in Taylor's Miami residence, and failed to survive the ordeal. This was and is extraordinarily ugly business, requiring a high level of coping skills in the face of having to play a largely meaningless Sunday football game.

In the final moments, striving to retain a 16-14 lead, Gibbs called a timeout in an attempt to freeze Bills kicker Rian Lindell. Then, in an error of commission far out of the bounds proscribed by the NFL rule book, Gibbs called a second timeout. As referee Tony Corrente said to a pool reporter, "First off, we can't have consecutive timeouts. That's number one . . . Number two, if that timeout is called to freeze the kicker, it becomes unsportsmanlike conduct."

. . . which converted what was going to be a 51-yard attempt into a 36-yarder, which Lindell made easily for the Bills win.

Your heart goes out to Gibbs. As the venerable head coach put it, "I should know the rule. I can't blame that on someone else. I got to blame that on myself."

A tough one, for certain. But take it in tandem with what went on in New Orleans, in the closing moments of a pivotal NFC South battle between the Saints and Bucs . . . and you wonder.

New Orleans was nursing a 23-20 lead over Tampa, inside of four minutes. And the Bucs had burned all available timeouts. So, second and ten, from midfield, looking to keep moving the sticks and killing the lock, Saint HC Sean Peyton calls . . . a double reverse, which promptly blew up when Reggie Bush made a wholly errant pitch in the general direction of Devery Henderson, and Tampa promptly recovered and drove the field for the game-winning touchdown.

Not second-guessing, here . . . addressing the soundness of this call comes under the first-guess classification, when you consider that Bush's all-around ball-retention/control skills have been far from adequate (by NFL standards) this season. Henderson's haven't been, either . . . but you can't pin this one on the intended final recipient. Black marks to Peyton for resorting to this, especially given Bush's pivotal involvement.

Another variation . . . played out in Chicago, in the Bear/Giant entertainment. Chicago was nursing a 16-14 (note that margin, now . . .) lead, in the late going. Finally, at the Bear 2-yard line inside the two-minute warning, the conservative play (given the Bears had but one time out left) would have been for the Giants to burn clock with three rushing plays, then kick the chip-shot field goal for the win, while denying the Bears any last-gasp opportunity.

Eventually Giant HC Tom Coughlin didn't see it that way, and was quoted to the effect that ". . . we wanted to make sure that it wasn't a field goal that would beat us (after we scored)."

Come on, now . . . proper clock management would have precluded that, coach. But on first down, Coughlin sent Reuben Droughns outside, and the Bears (with full knowledge that their only viable chance at this point was to let Droughns score and force a Giants kickoff) pursued Droughns with something unlike reckless abandon. Essentially, Coughlin granted the Bears a final opportunity, which he could have denied had Lawrence Tynes converted a fourth-down field goal on the game's final play. You can argue the comparative strategies, but our way seems markedly safer to us.

There was a good deal of nudging and whispering about these developments as Sunday passed into history, but at least in the aforementioned Sabbath cases, you had coaches and players in the arena, attempting to perform to the best of their mental and physical abilities under the extreme pressure the NFL applies to its participants.

Then, there was Monday night, when a superlative emotional effort spearheaded by the Miami-Fla products (remember Sean Taylor! - again!) performing for Baltimore's Ravens went down the tubes in the final minutes . . . due, in part, to what seemed to many to be overtly-officious officiating.

You could write a 3,000-word article on this tour de force, and not be finished with all the nuances. Before focusing on the final two minutes, want to note that the greatest beef of all the Ravens might have had with the officials all night (which has largely been lost in the shuffle) came relatively early in the fourth quarter, when an grotesquely-obvious block in the back by Donte Stallworth facilitated the pass-and-run by Laurence Maroney which essentially set up the field goal which drew the Pats to 24-20.

The fourth-and-one stuff of Brady on a sneak with 1:48 to go, a play nullified by a time-out called by the Ravens' bench? Defensive coordinator Rex Ryan called it. To his eternal credit, Brian Billick tried to cover Ryan's responsibility -- but it was Ryan's call.

On the subsequent fourth-and-5 from the Ravens' 13, Brady missed Benjamin Watson in his first-down-conversion attempt. But Ravens DB Jamaine Winborne was all over Watson, well past the line of scrimmage, and the penalty was legitimate.

Then came the winning TD pass from Brady to Jabar Gaffney, which by a conventional interpretation of league rules, was a straightforward catch. Gaffney had control of the ball when he went out of bounds, and the call held up under review. I have high regard for Steve Young as an analyst, and he disagreed with the officials on this one, but everybody's wrong sometimes.

The pumped-up Ravens had their chances to put the Pats away - and didn't/couldn't get it done. I'm no Pats fan, but other than that Stallworth block (which was hugely-significant, in retrospect, in the grand scheme of things), I've seen much worse sustained strange-looking-refereeing scenarios than this one over the years.

But the bizarre Sunday coaching moves? Gibbs' demonstrates that we all get old, you're working in a pressurized environment, and it's easier to succeed when you're not saddled with such a high quantity of aging, overcompensated "talent". Sean Peyton's move with the Saints? Sometimes you can get too cute, purely and simply.

And Tom Coughlin's endgame strategy? Few of the highly-compensated geniuses will acknowledge this one - but it's frequently better to be lucky than good.

The handicapper's lesson - as if we needed to be reminded? This ain't an exact science.

Nelson Lardner

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