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The Art of Calling a Timeout in the NFL

Even the smallest margins become incredibly important in the playoffs, and timeouts are one of the most overlooked—and misused—aspects of the game. How do coaches use them? How should they use them? And what role will that play this postseason?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Peyton Manning was miffed. The clock was ticking away in the Broncos’ 2022 season opener, and rookie head coach Nathaniel Hackett had frozen. Denver was down a point with possession at Seattle’s 45-yard line, and there were about 65 seconds left in the game. Hackett had all three of his timeouts but decided not to use one. Instead, Russell Wilson rushed the offense to the line of scrimmage, but by the time they got there only 35 seconds remained. Manning, a former quarterback for the Broncos who was analyzing the game for ESPN, started to get upset.

“I think we should call a timeout,” Manning said, seeing the clock tick away while Wilson tried to get the Broncos set.

34, 33, 32 …

“Like … now.”

Eventually Denver did call a timeout, just before the play clock hit zero. The game clock was down to 0:20 by that point, and Manning was left speechless, going full surrender cobra.

From the moment the previous play had ended up to the timeout, 45 seconds had melted off the clock and the Broncos’ win probability had dropped by more than eight percentage points, according to Pro Football Reference’s model. Short on time, and with his team facing a fourth-and-5, Hackett opted to try a 64-yard field goal. Brandon McManus missed, giving Seattle the win and Denver its first feeling of buyer’s remorse. Hackett’s issues with timeouts continued over the opening weeks of the season, and in late September, general manager George Paton hired Jerry Rosburg, a longtime NFL assistant, to help Hackett with those matters. Rosburg eventually replaced Hackett after his firing in December.

Timeouts are valuable. They’re not always going to swing your win probability eight percentage points in the wrong direction—Hackett’s blunder is an extreme example—but Brian Burke, ESPN’s director of analytics, found in 2014 that each timeout is worth about 3.1 points of win probability. Coaches get six timeouts a game, meaning that can stack up. And while it may be dramatic to say timeouts swing every game, they definitely affect the tightly contested ones—especially in the postseason.

So with the playoffs kicking off this weekend, it’s a good time to examine how teams use their timeouts, how they should use their timeouts, and how the difference between those two may affect their chances this postseason.

Last January, FiveThirtyEight’s Josh Hermsmeyer, working off the research of Burke and the NFL’s analytics director, Michael Lopez, found that teams end up wasting a lot of timeouts to sort out operational issues—making sure the offense is in the best call possible, or that the defense has the right personnel on the field. Other times, timeouts are burned to avoid delay-of-game penalties. In-game, that may seem smart—no coach wants to lose 5 yards over a timing gaffe, or get stuffed at the line of scrimmage because the offense was out of sorts. But Lopez, who tracked and categorized every timeout called from 2018 to halfway through the 2021 season, found that those timeouts tended to be wasteful, and that timeouts used for time-saving purposes—like in the last few minutes of a half—were more valuable on average.

Using a similar definition for those “unnecessary” timeouts—those used outside of the last four minutes of the half—Hermsmeyer calculated how much EPA and win probability each team added on plays directly after a timeout and came to a similar conclusion. “Only two teams—the Dolphins and the Ravens—managed to extract surplus value from their operational timeouts [in 2021],” Hermsmeyer wrote. “Whatever benefit the other 30 teams received from stopping the clock and regrouping before the end of the half (or game) didn’t come close to covering the costs of the timeouts they spent to purchase those precious extra seconds.”

The lesson: Save your timeouts for the end of halves. The ability to squeeze out an extra possession will pay bigger dividends than getting in the perfect call or avoiding a 5-yard penalty.

Now, you may think Burke’s valuation of a timeout is too rich, and that a single timeout can’t be worth 3.1 percentage points of win probability; even if that’s true, the average incompletion, stuffed run, or presnap penalty is worth a tiny fraction of that. Meaning that if Burke’s valuation is even close to being accurate, a coach should always take the penalty or live with a bad play call.

A Delay of Game Is Less Costly Than a Botched Play

Play Type EPA/Play Win Probablity Added
Play Type EPA/Play Win Probablity Added
Delay of game -0.33 -0.7%
Incomplete pass -0.54 -0.6%
Stuffed run -0.46 -0.1%
Data via NFL FastR/TruMedia

*Win probability data on penalties is not publicly available as far as I can tell, so I used the average “win probability added” of plays that lost between 0.3 and 0.35 EPA to come up with a close approximation.

Extreme cases do exist in which burning a timeout on an operational matter makes sense. For instance, if a team has a clear flaw in its protection call that might lead to a quick sack—the average sack loses 4.4 percentage points of win probability. Or if a defense has only 10 players on the field or can’t get its coverage call communicated and that could lead to a bust and an explosive play. But using one to change personnel or get into a different coverage is, more often than not, a waste.

And there are other ways of wasting a timeout, too. Throwing a bad challenge flag, for instance. Mike McDaniel, who didn’t win his first challenge of the season until last Sunday, asked officials to review a clear Josh Palmer catch in the first quarter of Miami’s Week 14 loss to the Chargers. It was predictably upheld and the Dolphins were charged a timeout. No big deal, right? Well, later in the half, the Dolphins were unable to prevent Los Angeles from letting 40 seconds run off the clock before Austin Ekeler rushed for a 1-yard touchdown with 18 seconds left. Had McDaniel saved that timeout, Miami would’ve had a better chance at scoring before the break. The team ended up losing by six points.

In last year’s regular-season finale, Chargers coach Brandon Staley elected to use a timeout at the end of overtime in order to get more stout run defenders out on the field. Some believed that the Raiders, needing only a tie to make the playoffs, were content to let the clock run out before Staley’s timeout. Whatever the case, the Raiders ran for just enough yardage to set up the game-winning field goal. Staley’s sub didn’t work.

In Week 12 of this season, Staley’s Chargers were on the other end of a similar tactical timeout. Los Angeles, trailing Arizona by a point with seconds left in the fourth quarter, lined up for a go-ahead two-point conversion. Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury called a timeout to give defensive coordinator Vance Joseph more time to consider his play call. The Chargers came back out in the same formation, and the Cardinals defense did, too. Presumably the timeout was spent making sure the defensive players were aware of L.A.’s tendencies in that particular formation, but it didn’t make a difference. Tight end Gerald Everett shook Isaiah Simmons with an angle route and caught the game-winning score.

With only 15 seconds left to mount a game-winning drive of its own, Arizona was likely headed for a loss either way, but that extra timeout could have extended the game for at least one more play. Maybe a play like this.

This kind of timeout usage wasn’t a rare occurrence for Kingsbury. Only two coaches burned through more operational timeouts this season, and rarely did that extra time to think improve Arizona’s performance on the following play—the Cardinals lost an average of 0.76 EPA per play out of a timeout and lost a total of 74.3 win probability percentage points over the 17-game season. Here’s how each team performed on plays following timeouts called outside of the last four minutes in 2022:

“Out of Timeout” EPA and Win Probability Added, 2022 NFL Season

Team Timeouts EPA/Play Total Win Probablity Added
Team Timeouts EPA/Play Total Win Probablity Added
PHI 10 0.79 4.1%
ATL 10 0.51 -22.1%
NYJ 12 -0.66 12.2%
DAL 11 0.15 -3.1%
LAC 11 -0.39 13.5%
DEN 9 0.48 3.2%
NO 12 0.43 8.4%
BUF 16 -0.36 -7.5%
IND 14 -0.30 -23.1%
TB 13 -0.38 3.0%
TEN 15 -0.89 20.4%
JAX 16 0.29 30.6%
DET 15 -0.51 17.7%
HOU 15 -0.01 2.1%
NYG 12 -0.64 16.2%
SF 17 -0.10 -5.0%
KC 17 0.12 25.5%
WAS 15 0.04 8.7%
BAL 16 0.89 6.8%
CHI 21 0.04 25.7%
CAR 17 -0.01 6.5%
CLE 21 0.33 34.2%
LV 20 0.80 -4.1%
PIT 21 0.33 -23.9%
ARI 27 -0.76 -74.3%
NE 22 -0.38 -5.2%
MIN 21 0.45 39.4%
CIN 29 0.57 38.9%
SEA 27 0.14 43.9%
GB 28 0.59 -16.8%
LA 32 0.36 28.7%
MIA 32 0.27 32.9%
Data via NFL FastR

And below is the breakdown of why those timeouts were called. If we view timeout usage through the (admittedly narrow) lens, where calling one for operational purposes is bad, and factor in timeouts lost to challenges and delay-of-game penalties, we can assess which teams are doing the best job of saving their timeouts for when they’re most useful.

The Eagles, who finished tied for the league’s best record, did the best job of preserving their timeouts for end-of-half situations, rarely calling them outside of the last four minutes, losing just two challenges, and taking a pair of delay-of-game penalties. Among the other playoff participants, the Chargers also fared quite well with just 14 operational mistakes. That was tied with Dallas, which might be shocking to anyone familiar with Mike McCarthy’s work, but it appears the oft-maligned coach is making progress. Andy Reid and Kyle Shanahan, two play-calling geniuses who have struggled with clock management in January, both landed in the middle of the pack this season, so maybe there’s some hope for them this postseason. Meanwhile, Zac Taylor (Bengals), Pete Carroll (Seahawks), and Kevin O’Connell (Vikings) have just been throwing timeouts around this season and may want to practice a little more restraint now that the stakes are higher.

If you’re looking for a pattern, it seems as if the young coaches who also serve as their team’s chief play caller tend to use the most timeouts. Carroll is an outlier, of course, but Taylor and O’Connell are taking after their former boss, Sean McVay, who led all coaches in “unnecessary” timeouts, according to Lopez’s research. Those wasteful timeouts didn’t stop their teams from getting this far, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be an issue over the next few weeks.

In last year’s playoffs, every game from the divisional round on was decided by fewer than six points. The conference championships and Super Bowl were all three-point games. That’s how thin the margins are in the postseason. Any mistake could end your season—and misusing timeouts is an easy one to avoid.