By Bob Socci, 98.5 The Sports Hub
There were 14 seconds left in the fourth quarter after Denver’s Javon Walker caught an 11-yard pass a decade ago in Buffalo. His Broncos were behind, 14-12, and though Walker’s grab at the Bills’ 24-yard-line put them well within the field-goal range of Jason Elam, they were also out of timeouts.
In that case, the Broncos could have conceivably hurried to the line and spiked the football — or “clocked it,” as some of us are wont to say on the radio — to halt the game timer and enable Elam to calmly strike his pre-kick pose in hopes of sticking a game-winner between the uprights.
But reportedly, mixed signals and shouts of “Toro! Toro!” on the Denver sideline cued the field-goal unit to rush out to replace the offense and attempt a 42-yarder with nary a second to spare.
“You can dress rehearse it, but the urgency in a game is so much faster,” then-Broncos special teams coordinator Scott O’Brien, who later served in the same role on Bill Belichick’s staff in New England, told reporters afterwards. “Guys are flying. They’re really not flying in practice.”
A year earlier, Elam told writer Stefan Fatsis, who participated in Denver’s 2006 training camp as an extra kicker for his book, A Few Seconds of Panic, that the ideal scenario for such a try would span 16 seconds; from an official’s spot of the ball to the swing of his right leg.
In this case, there was far less than that. Nonetheless, the Broncos’ field-goal unit executed the operation in time for long-snapper Mike Leach to release the ball with :02 on the game clock and Elam to strike it from the hold of Todd Sauerbrun as the final second elapsed.
Good. Game over. Denver departs Western New York a mile high, after a one-point win, 15-14.
“As long as you snap the ball before there’s zeroes on the clock, you’re OK,” O’Brien said.
Sunday afternoon in New Orleans, O’Brien’s one-time assistant and eventual successor Joe Judge observed from the sideline as the Patriots drove to the Saints’ 17-yard line and used the team’s final timeout of the first half with :27 left.
An ensuing incomplete pass off off the hands of Rob Gronkowski in the end zone consumed six of those seconds and left Tom Brady in a 3rd-and-9. It also left O’Brien’s ex-boss Belichick with a decision that presumably involved the input and definitely required the preparedness of Judge.
“There’s a couple of things that could have happened on that,” Belichick said of the situation during his Monday morning media teleconference. “The first would have been if we had gotten the first down on the (upcoming) play, then we could have clocked it on first down and I think had plenty of time to kick the field goal.”
Or they could have thrown again, either for a touchdown or an incompletion. But what if they failed to get a first down and/or stop the clock?
“Before the play we made the decision as to whether or not we would go for the field goal if the clock was running, or we would run another play offensively if the clock was running, because we wouldn’t have enough time to get the field goal team on,” Belichick continued. “We had to make that decision before the snap so we know what to do.
“If we were going to run another play offensively, then the field-goal unit wouldn’t go on the field and we would just line up and go for it on fourth down, as opposed to trying to get the field goal team on, which takes just a few seconds longer.”
Brady dropped back without an immediate passing option, before running through an opening in the middle of the field and reaching the Saints’ 10-yard-line. Tackled two yards short of the marker, he popped to his feet with the clock at :15. Brady ran off the field, circling his right index finger in the air to signal his offense to follow.
The Patriots were already ahead, 27-13. So the implications in New Orleans weren’t the same as those faced by Denver at Buffalo, where a win or loss was determined in those final seconds 10 years earlier. Still, there was equal urgency to produce the same sum: three points.
Before being alerted to the possibility that became reality on Sunday, Stephen Gostkowski had been shown Elam’s hurried heroics “hundreds of times” by O’Brien. And as a Patriot since 2006, he’d practiced that kind of kick under O’Brien and Judge hundreds of more times.
Gostkowski even had a running joke with snapper Joe Cardona and holder Ryan Allen that as often as they worked on it, the situation would probably never come up in a game. Go figure. It did, and they were ready.
With the Saints due to receive the second half’s opening kickoff, Gostkowski sprinted off the sideline intent on ending the first half with a 28-yard field goal to stretch New England’s lead to three scores. There was no chance to set up per usual. Either for Gostkowski or the officials.
“There wasn’t enough time to take my proper steps, so I just kind of eye-balled it. We practice it every week, so it’s something that is not new,” Gostkowski explained Monday afternoon. “We know that we’re not going to get a K-ball in there.
“We know in that situation the (officials) don’t have enough time to switch the balls in or out, so we use whatever ball the quarterback is using in practice.”
Allen had to make sure he dropped his knee down at the proper distance, eight yards behind Cardona. He also had to keep his head up for a quick count of teammates to make sure any offensive personnel cleared the field. Cardona understood to snap the ball back when the clock hit :02.
He did. Allen held. And Gostkowski delivered.
“It seemed definitely faster in the game than it does in practice sometimes in a controlled environment,” Gostkowski said, sounding a bit like O’Brien. “Even though it was a short field goal, it was one of those things (where) a play like that will stick out, compared to a normal kick. I’m just glad we got to do it successfully, after the hundreds and hundreds of times we’ve practiced that since I’ve been here.”
Midway through a 36-20 rout, the team that seemingly tries to account for every contingency once again offered a case study in the art of situational football.
“It’s a close call, close play,” Belichick said. “But I thought the players did a good job. The offensive team got off the field, the field goal team got on the field. We had time to set up and have a clean operation there. They did a good job on that.”
Bob Socci is the radio play-by-play voice of the New England Patriots. You can follow him on Twitter @BobSocci.