Almost every Green Bay Packers game seems to feature a moment where Aaron Rodgers is attempting to change a play or move people around the formation, only to run out of time, call a timeout, and storm over to the sideline in a huff. This seems to happen a lot, but I was curious if other teams were so cavalier with their timeouts, as it’s possible I simply notice this more simply because it’s the Packers.
Using timeouts early in a half (especially on offense) is almost always a bad idea, as it usually saves the team a delay of game penalty and a measly five yards. The optimal use of timeouts is at the end of a half or at the end of the game when your opponent is attempting to kill the clock. After all, having a complete, or near-complete set of timeouts can create an extra possession for your offense. Possessions are what offense is all about, and clever use of timeouts can actually grant a team a few extra possession over the course of the game. Timeouts can in some instances, grant your team the functional equivalent of a turnover, or close to it.
In any case, I wanted to see if the Packers really were as bad at conserving timeouts as my eyes told me, so I decided to find out. I pulled all of 2018’s play by play data by following these handy instructions from The Athletic’s Ben Baldwin.
Once I had the data, I eliminated all timeouts that were caused by losing a replay challenge, as challenges can, and often are, high leverage events. I then broke timeouts down into “early” and “late” categories, with the idea that early timeouts are unwise and usually used to avoid a procedural penalty, and “late” timeouts are the timeouts you call when trying to get the ball back.
After running a few iterations I decided to classify “late” timeouts as any called in the final two minutes of the first half or final five minutes of the game, whether in the fourth quarter or overtime. That cutoff is somewhat arbitrary, and I originally set it as the final four minutes of each half, but in looking at some of the underlying data, it’s not uncommon for teams to start using timeouts to get the ball back fairly early in the fourth quarter. For whatever reason, teams don’t have the same urgency about creating an extra possession as the end of the first half and they wait longer to start using timeouts, if they use them at all. A more accurate cutoff is possible, and some early timeout usage is probably smart; but generally speaking an early timeout, whether due to an impending procedure penalty or because a team is caught in the wrong defense, is a wasted timeout, and reflects poorly on the preparation of that team.
So, do the Packers waste timeouts? You bet they do. Green Bay has played six games thus far, and therefore they have had the opportunity to call 36 timeouts. They have not used all of them, as they’ve occasionally taken them into the half, but given 36 opportunities to stop the clock, the Packers have used 14 (39%) of them outside of the end of a half or game. That leads the league, and the league leaders here aren’t exactly a group you want to be emulating, with one notable exception.
“Wasted” Timeouts in 2018
Jon Gruden’s extremely dysfunctional Oakland Raiders are tied for second with 13, followed by the Cowboys with 11. The team that sits tied with the Raiders, however, is Sean McVay’s Los Angeles Rams, one of the smartest, most efficient teams in the league. It’s possible that McVay considers play selection paramount and the Rams, who lead the NFC in scoring, are as close to a model franchise as you will find, but it is interesting to note that early timeouts are not necessarily a sign of dysfunction.
Among NFC North teams, the Packers are a huge outlier, as the rest of the NFC North combined has only wasted 15 timeouts so far. Detroit leads the way with four, Minnesota has five, and the Bears just are just a tick behind with six.
Among teams that truly value their timeouts, you will find the Super Bowl Champion Eagles the best in the league with two, tied with Jacksonville and Indianapolis. It’s worth noting that new Colts’ head coach Frank Reich came over from the Eagles. The Patriots are also unsurprisingly good in this category as well, with five.
While we can’t say decisively that a team is disciplined or sloppy based on this list, leading the league just ahead of the Raiders is probably not where you want to be. The Packers would be wise to tighten up their timeout usage. Mike McCarthy finds himself settling for 52-yard field goals far too frequently, and maybe Aaron Rodgers would have an easier time coming back if his team was more disciplined in the first place — or, failing that, if they understood the relative value of a possession versus five yards.
I linked to a fascinating piece by Brian Burke of Advanced Football Analytics above. While context matters greatly, he found that in general a timeout is worth .03 WP (win percentage), and three together for about .09 WP. For context, a turnover moves WP by about .15, which is close to the same value as a full game’s worth of timeouts. The average NFL team has wasted 7 timeouts so far in 2018, or about .21 WP. The Packers are about double that, and have wasted about .21 WP over average, putting them on pace for something like half a win’s worth of WP wasted by timeout usage (compared to an avege team) over the course of a season.
The Real World
This may all sound academic, but consider the Packers’ tie with the Vikings earlier this season. In the first half, Green Bay used a timeout just 4 minutes into the game after Rodgers was sacked by Everson Griffen and Sheldon Richardson, setting up a 3rd and 17. Rodgers was slow to get up, but still had plenty of time to get the next play off, but instead, this happened.
Taking a timeout to save five yards on 3rd and 17 has to be among the worst uses of a timeout possible, and it cost the Packers in a big way. They would use their final two timeouts to get the ball back at the end of the half with 1:37 remaining, but, due to some truly baffling play-calling and a seeming lack of urgency, they would end up kicking a field goal on 1st and 10 from the Minnesota 19. It’s very likely that an extra timeout (or better clock management generally) would have allowed them at least two or three shots at the end zone.
In the 3rd quarter, Rodgers used another timeout after a nice completion to Davante Adams and a penalty moved them down to the Minnesota 18 yard line. Not getting the next play off in time is pretty inexcusable, but saving the five yards also didn’t accomplish much as the team ended up settling for a 40-yard Mason Crosby field goal anyway.
Green Bay would waste yet another timeout early in the fourth quarter, before a 3rd and 2 play deep in Minnesota territory.
This may seem defensible as it was a high leverage play, and the difference between 3rd and 2 and 3rd and 7 seems large, but Burke’s analysis showed that in terms of WP, a timeout is still worth more than those five yards. Plus, given that the Packers decided to run a slowly-developing draw play to Jamaal Williams that the Vikings easily stuffed for a loss of a yard, you might argue the Packers would have been better off with seven yards to go.
This would all come back to bite them, as the Packers would get the ball back with the score tied and 31 seconds remaining. They would gain 11 yards and lose 14 seconds on a pass to Jamaal Williams, followed by a deep ball to Jimmy Graham that got them into long field goal range. But due to a lack of time, they would settle for a 52-yard try on 2nd and 7 with 4 seconds left. Having one more play to get Crosby another 10 yards (or more) would have greatly increased his chances of winning the game and avoiding the tie, but 52-yarders are fairly low percentage tries, and he missed.
In overtime, the Packers used their two timeouts to ice Minnesota’s soon-to-be-cut kicker, which is an entirely different discussion, but it’s clear that poor use of timeouts cost Green Bay in this game. Sometimes stats don’t seem like they match up with real world outcomes, but the Packers have indeed lost half a win to poor timeout use already, and if they don’t clean this up, it will keep costing them.