"Call time out," I shouted at the TV. Thousands of other Bears fans and me, all wondering what the heck Marc Trestman was doing, all screaming the same thing: "CALL TIME OUT!"
But as the seconds ticked away and the Baltimore Ravens, down by three, crept ever closer to Chicago’s end zone at the end of the fourth quarter in the Week 11 matchup, Trestman refused to stop the clock.
(There are rumors that profanities registered on the Richter scale during that span.)
The implication was that if the Ravens scored a touchdown, the Bears would need to answer with a score. By letting the clock tick, Trestman was forgoing that chance.
It appeared to be a terrible coaching decision that worked in spite of the strategy, not because of it. In other words, he got lucky.
Or did he?
Trestman addressed the topic in a press conference on Monday. He explained his rationale, in detail—in fact, in nearly two minutes of detail brimming with nuance and sabermetric-type numbers.
And everyone went, “Ooohhhhh, that actually makes a lot of sense.”
And we remembered how people call him a mastermind. A genius. A mad scientist. And we all went on our way. Well, most of us.
Here’s what I think, and I bet Mitch Tanney, the team’s director of analytics (basically a football sabermetrician), would agree with me: Trestman played the numbers wrong.
He had the right figures in front of him, and some of his thinking was sound, but at the end of the day, hanging on to his timeouts as the clock ticked away was a detrimental move.
Let’s look at Trestman’s actual explanation, per Rich Campbell of the Chicago Tribune, to shed some light on where he steered off course.
“When you start a drive from the 16-yard line, you have a 13 percent chance, probably in the last five years, to score a touchdown,” Trestman said in the press conference. “So, the percentage of them scoring…It’s a leap of faith. They went all the way down the field. Three points yes. Tied the game. Seven points? We’re talking 13 percent.”
There’s a major flaw in Trestman’s logic here, and if you’ve ever gambled—or taken basic algebra—you probably caught it. Trestman references a figure stating that teams starting from their own 16-yard line (where the Ravens drive began) score a touchdown 13 percent of the time. No problem there. But then he says that, even after the Ravens had driven down the field, even with a 1st-and-goal from the Chicago five-yard line, the Ravens still only had a 13 percent chance of finding the end zone.
Don’t let this man near a roulette table.
Trestman is forgetting a cardinal rule about probability: Odds reset. For example, even if you flip a coin and it lands on tails 10 times in a row, on that 11th flip, there’s a 50/50 chance that it’ll hit tails again.
At 1st-and-10 from the five-yard line, wherever the drive started is insignificant. In that moment, the odds reset to the situation, and the question becomes: What are the chances the Ravens punch it in from five yards out? I’ll let you speculate that answer for yourself, but consider the NFL’s average red zone touchdown percentage is about 54 percent.
Granted, this flawed logic wasn’t the core of Trestman’s argument, and it clearly wasn’t his most compelling evidence. What resonated more strongly with fans and media were the segments that discussed strategy—how not calling timeout limited what the Baltimore offense could do.
“They had to call a play out of their two-minute package instead of using their red zone package,” Trestman said.
In a more general sense, he said, “As a playcaller, I know if you call timeout, you get what you want out there. If not, you’ve got a limited bag of plays you can use.”
Trestman is absolutely right. A timeout lets an offense organize itself. It opens up the playbook. But notice the way he starts the quote. “As a playcaller…” He’s thinking about the situation solely from an offensive standpoint. And yet it’s his defense that is on the field. Sure, put yourself in your opponent’s shoes. Try to figure out what they’re thinking. But don’t forget about your own guys.
How about a mention of the benefits of giving the defense a breather? Because the truth is that hurry-up offenses, even if they limit personnel changes, benefit the team with the ball. That’s one of the reasons Peyton Manning and other great quarterbacks love to run it. That’s one of the reasons Baltimore’s three plays leading up to the 1:16 mark were gains of three, 11 and 11.
On the other hand, a stoppage of play, contrary to what Trestman says, actually benefits the defense. Take 2-point conversations, plays that always follow a short break. Offenses score only 46 percent of the time, per Advanced NFL Stats.
In addition, defensive players are more likely to be fatigued, especially on the tail end of a long drive. A timeout ensures they’re closer to 100 percent when the ball is snapped.
There’s one last facet to Trestman’s explanation, something he repeated several times throughout his discourse: that even if he had used the timeouts, the Bears would have taken over with less than 20 seconds remaining in the game.
“The fact of the matter is that there was really no time to use the timeouts,” Trestman said. “If you call three timeouts right there in succession, you’re still only getting the ball back at 18 seconds.”
The “right there” he’s addressing is the specific moment that most of us were calling for a timeout. Ray Rice had just run 11 yards down to the Chicago five-yard line. As he hit the ground, the clock showed 1:16 left in the game.
Had the Bears called timeout there, Trestman is correct that three successive stoppages of play would have left very little time for the offense. But he’s misguided in his thinking. He’s basing his decision on the least likely scenario—that Baltimore would run three plays in a row that would be stopped in the field of play.
(What’s ironic is that, if that scenario came to fruition, the Bears wouldn’t need their timeouts anyway because they would have held Baltimore to a field-goal attempt.)
There are more likely scenarios out there. Here are a few: that the Ravens would score on first, second or third down. Or that the Ravens would pass, as they did on third down, which would stop the clock. Throw an incomplete pass into the mix and the Bears get the ball back with about 50 seconds left.
But Trestman didn’t account for those scenarios. He instead left his offense with no options but to watch from the sidelines.
In the end, none of this mattered. The Bears won and moved into a tie for first place in the NFC North. But moving forward, it could matter. Poor timeout management could cost the Bears a game. With little room for error, a lost game could spell the end of the season.
My hope is that, behind the scenes, Tanney and Trestman have investigated the end-game scenario in further detail and realized that, though Trestman was admirable in justifying his decisions to the media, the next time around they’ll have to interpret the numbers and the situation with a keener eye.