Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Late-Game Clock Management

With how much roller derby has advanced in regards to skating skills and the strategy of the game itself, it's somewhat shocking that you still regularly see high profile bouts between mid- or top-tier teams where the clock management late in the game is seemingly not thought out at all.  Clock management is not something you should be trying to figure out on the fly.  That's how comeback attempts fall short or leads that could be held are lost.

You need to have a clock management strategy in mind before you find your team in a situation where how you manage the clock could be the difference between wining and losing.  This post strives to establish some basic strategies around late-game clock management.  It's not an exact blueprint to follow, but hopefully it will get you thinking about managing the clock and help you formulate a mental strategy.

The Basics.  First off, we should probably touch on why clock management is important.

When the outcome is in question into the final 15 minutes (i.e., the "4th quarter" of play), the clock can become your friend or your enemy, depending on whether you're ahead or behind.  Actually, there are really 3 positions that a team could be in: leading significantly, trailing significantly, or neck-and-neck with the opponent.  Each should have it's separate strategy planned out that you should play to.

I generally define the "neck-and-neck" position as a bout where the lead could change in any jam.  You might be ahead or behind by a small margin, but that doesn't really change your strategy until the last 2-3 minutes.  If the game is really close and there are still 2+ jams to play, the strategy should be the same whether you're leading or trailing.

For games neck-and-neck into the closing minutes, the strategy is pretty simple:  Set up the final few jams, and try to have the lead last.  This generally means staying out of the penalty box and trying to win every jam as you normally would. However, it's also a good idea to put your team in a position to have the strongest possible lines over the last few jams, when winning a single jam can have the highest impact.  —Think about how baseball teams set up their bullpens: They build in strength leading to a dominant closer.  Obviously, how you do this will vary greatly from team to team.  Maybe you want to rest your top blockers a bit so you can lean on them harder at the very end.  Maybe you want to change your jammer rotation for the final few jams...  You're not managing the clock so much as you're adjusting your lines based on the time remaining.  I'll let you figure out how your team should set up the endgame of a close bout.  Just keep in mind that you likely want to have a "closing" plan in place to steal victory at the end of a neck-and-neck bout.

Your strategy should shift, however, if you have a reasonably large lead to protect or deficit to overcome.  When you have a significant lead, your strategy should be to shorten the game.  The fewer jams your opponent has to mount a comeback, the better.  When you are the team trying to come back, you will want to extend the game for as many jams as possible.  Essentially: The more jams remaining = the higher the chances the trailing team will get the really big jam they need to win the game.

Defining a Significant Lead.  So how do you know when you should be trying to shorten or extend the game?  In basketball or football, you will hear announcers talk a lot about the number of "possessions" that separate the teams' scores.  In basketball it's 3 points per possession, and in football it's 8 points per possession.  Basically, the idea is that if the leading team can keep the differential greater than the maximum number of points that one team can score in one possession while burning the clock, then that team is assured victory.  The trailing team's focus becomes trying to get the game to within a possession so they then have a chance to take the lead away at the end.

Roller derby doesn't have "possessions" because both teams are always playing both offense and defense, but the basic concept still applies.  It's just a question of when a game is within one big jam of a lead change.

Even with the passive offense strategy leading to massive power jams, making up more than 25 or 30 points in one jam is rare.  So that's a good starting point.  If the game is within 25 points, you're probably going to be in the neck-and-neck mindset and not focusing as much on manipulating the clock.  The exception to this would be potential final jams where the leading team is focusing on actually ending the game, but we'll get into that later.  For now, we're talking about more than 2 minutes remaining.

As I stated, 25 points is just a starting point.  That figure can, and should, be adjusted based on the flow of the game.  In a really tight, low scoring game where getting a 4-0 jam win seems huge, then 20 points might feel like the most that could be overcome in one jam.  In a game filled with power jams and sparse packs, 30-35 points might feel like a more appropriate "significant lead."

This also varies depending on the time left on the clock.  A 40-point lead with 12 minutes remaining is not the same thing as a 40-point lead with 5 minutes remaining.  I like to use this formula as a starting point:  Significant lead = 5 × (the number of minutes remaining) -or- 25 points, whichever is greater.  If you're within your figure, then you should be managing the game based on your neck-and-neck plan.  If the score gap is greater than your figure, then you need to switch your focus to burning the clock or mounting a comeback.

Burning the Clock to Protect a Lead.  So your team is up by 50 points with 9 minutes to play.  What do you do?

I can't tell you how many times I've seen a team in a position like this take a quick 1-0 jam win or call it off after a 15-second scoreless jam.  It makes me want to pull my hair out.  For the team with a commanding lead, every jam represents an opportunity to kill 2 minutes without the opponent being able to use a timeout.  Your goal should be to end the game in as few jams as possible.  Your opponent is looking for opportunities to get the big jam they need to close the gap.  Calling off a jam quickly just gives your opponent a chance to reset and try again.  You don't want to do that.

I've heard some people argue that calling off the jam helps the team in the lead because it immediately burns 30 seconds between jams.  In my opinion, this argument is very short-sighted.  Yes, there's 30 seconds of game clock time that runs off between jams.  However, your opponent likely has timeouts to counter that.  If you call off a jam quickly, your opponent calls a timeout, and the game clock immediately stops ticking.  Even if your opponent can't or won't use their timeouts, that 30 seconds is in the bank anyway.  It's waiting for whenever the jam ends, so why not delay that as well?  If you can waste an extra 90 seconds of game time during a jam before the 30 seconds in between jams, then you've killed 120 seconds as opposed to 30.  That's essentially one jam at the end of the bout that was just eliminated.

The only exception to the "don't call it off" strategy is if you happen to find yourself on a power jam.  In that case, you generally want to call off the jam early to trap the opposing jammer in the box and give your team the opportunity to get an uncontested lead in the following jam.  That way you can potentially burn another 2 minutes off the clock in the next jam as well.

If the team in front gets lead jammer, the primary goal should be to waste game time so long as that safe lead isn't threatened.  If your lead jammer gets stuck on the second pass and starts hemorrhaging points, call off the jam.  But if you can trade a 4-point jam loss for 2 minutes of game clock erased, let the jam play out.  Just be sure to have your jammer skate conservatively, or better yet, field your cleaner jammers more often when protecting a lead.  High penalty/high scoring jammers are great when you're trying to mount a comeback, but they're less useful when you're protecting a lead. You don't care much about scoring a lot of points in this position, and the last thing you want to do is give up a power jam.  Thus high risk/high reward jammers become high risk/low reward when you're trying to burn the clock.

Your main goal in all of this is to get the bout into a final jam situation as quickly as possible.  If you can do so without letting your lead shrink to less than 25 points, or whatever your "safe lead" amount is, then you've already won.  If there's 1:50 remaining and you're up by 35 points, then you only have to get lead jammer and the bout is over.  This is ideal.  Just get lead, have your jammer disengage, and call off the jam when the game clock hits 0:00.  The end.  You win.

Extending the Game to Mount a Comeback.  Ok, let's flip the script now.  You're trailing by 50 with 9 minutes remaining.  What do you do?

Well, things are definitely much tougher for the team that's trying to catch up.  However, you almost certainly have timeouts and possibly an official challenge that you can use to stop the clock between jams.  How and when you use them will be key.  You need one or more big jams, so you want as many chances to make that happen as you can get.  The more jams you can squeeze out of this game, the better.  If you get lead and the opposing jammer also escapes the pack quickly, call off the jam and move on to the next.  You can't afford to trade points; you need to be lapping the opposing jammer.  Keep rolling the dice, and hopefully you'll hit a 20.

Now when it comes to using your timeouts, you need to keep one thing in mind:  They do you no good when they clock hits 0:00.  Use them.  Granted, you don't want to use them before you really have to, but when you're getting down to desperation time, spend your timeouts.  You should keep your challenge for the end in case something happens that you need to have reviewed, but don't let it go to waste either.  Every timeout or challenge that you don't use is essentially another jam that could have been.  When you've lost by 25 points with timeouts left unused, I bet you would trade one for another jam.

So how do you avoid not using your timeouts when you had a chance?  Well, it's pretty simple.  The decision to call a timeout should be made immediately when a jam ends, when it can save you the maximum of 25-30 seconds of game clock.

If you only have 1 timeout or challenge remaining, and a jam ends with less than 2:30 remaining, call your last timeout.  If you don't, the next jam will start with less than 2 minutes left.  In that situation, if your opponent gets lead the game is lost.  You want to delay that do-or-die jam as long as possible.  If you call a timeout now, you guarantee yourself an opportunity at another jam.  Beyond that, just add 2 minutes for every additional timeout you have:

• If you have all 3 timeouts + your challenge, call a timeout if a jam ends with 8:30 or less remaining.
• If you have only 3 timeouts -or- 2 timeouts + your challenge, call a timeout if a jam ends with 6:30 or less remaining.
• If you have only 2 timeouts -or- 1 timeout + your challenge, call a timeout if a jam ends with 4:30 or less remaining.
• If you have only 1 timeout -or- just your challenge, call a timeout if a jam ends with 2:30 or less remaining.

If a jam ends with more than 8:30 remaining, you don't have to worry about spending your timeouts yet because you'll be guaranteed opportunities to use them all later.

But what if you're out of timeouts and have already used your challenge?  In that scenario, you need to call off any jam where you won't take the lead with more than 30 seconds remaining to ensure another jam. Also, know that you need a jam to end with more than 3:00 remaining to be guaranteed 2 more jams.  —This is because of both 30-second run-offs before and after the next jam.

Again, the whole point of extending the game is give your team additional opportunities to get a power jam or get the opposing jammer stuck in the pack while your jammer is racking up points.  You need one or more big jams.  Generally, you should call off jams when the opposing jammer escapes the pack.  —The only exception to this is situations where your opponent might field an especially penalty-prone jammer.  In that case, it might be better to keep that jammer skating and hope you get a power jam out of it.

If are able to get that big jam you need and find yourself in a neck-and-neck scenario again, you can readdress your strategy based on the changed game situation at that time.  Hopefully that happens, but if it doesn't, at least you gave yourself every opportunity that you could.

Closing.  Hopefully, you have a good idea of how to approach late-game scenarios with regards of clock management.  The suggestions I have put forth aren't written in stone or anything.  You may well have a few different ideas of how you would handle each situation.  That's fine.  It doesn't really matter what your exact strategy is so much as it matters that you have one.  Just make sure you have a plan and execute it.