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MHR Primer Looks At: The Four-Minute Offense (Wait . . . the What?)

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     At some point, every Denver has watched the Broncos go into their "two-minute offense." The two minute offense, of course, is a form of quick tempo plays performed during the last two minutes of a half or game with the focus on scoring in order to either tie or win the game. We are all familiar with teams using this strategy. Recently, Jeremy Bollander made a comment about the "four-minute offense."  I realized that I had never heard that term before, and thus, it might make an interesting study for MHR Primer.

     After the jump, we'll take a quick review of the better known two-minute offense, then look at the concept of the four minute offense and finish with a look at what the Broncos did with the four minute offense over the last  two years.

The Very Familiar Two-minute Drill.

     This is a fast-paced strategy used typically in the last two minutes of a half or game (hence the name) where the  goal is get in as many plays as possible and score before time expires. This approach can utilize any or all of the following: player substitutions, time outs and plays to stop the clock (such as spiking the ball or running out of bounds) as well as the normal running and passing plays. The emphasis in play-calling is on plays likely to gain large chunks of yards (more often than not through passing) along with plays that will allow the team to control the clock (passing or running towards the sidelines, for example). This strategy may be used in the first half to narrow the gap in the score, tie the game, or extend a lead. Typically, the two-minute drill is seen in the second half only when the team is either tied or losing.

Enter the Four Minute Offense

     The four minute offense seems to be most commonly attributed to Bill Walsh and  his West Coast Offense. Whereas the two minute offense tries to put as many plays as possible into a given time span and score, the four minute offense is focused on slowing the game down and not necessarily on adding to the score. The primary goal of the four minute offense is to keep possession of the ball and run out the clock. Thus, like the two-minute drill, the four minute offense is most commonly seen toward the end of the second and fourth quarters, but unlike the two-minute drill is most typically used when a team is either tied or ahead (if it's the first half) or  ahead in the score (if it's the second half).

     With all of the commercials, replays and broadcaster commentary that goes on between plays, it might enter into our conscious thoughts that a team can easily run forty seconds (or more) off the clock simply by having a play that does not: go out of bounds, end in an incomplete pass, or draw a penalty. By the same token, the average pass play in a fast-paced two-minute drill can fill that forty seconds with as many as four passing plays. Since two minutes has three forty-second segments, it can be seen that -- in theory -- a team in a two-minute drill could have as many as twelve passing plays in that span. The point of the four-minute offense is to deny the opposing team the opportunity to have those plays and by so doing, deny the opposition the opportunity to put points on the board.

     At some point during the off season teams will devote some time to practicing the situation in which they have the lead with four minutes left and need to maintain control in order to run out the clock. The coaches stress how they can win the game if they simply manage the simple things: staying inbounds, not committing penalties, not throwing incompletions, getting a first down, not fumbling the ball, etc. The point of the practicing,  of course, is to be prepared run the clock down and deny the opposition the chance to score, should the correct situation arise, and as a bonus, perhaps score yourself.

Denver and the Four-Minute Offense

     This is merely a very nice intellectual exercise about the game of football, unless we take it one step further and look at how Denver has done with the four-minute offense. I chose to limit the review to the 2009 and 2010 seasons -- so that I would not have to write an encyclopedia to share my findings.

     There were thirty-two regular season games played by the Broncos in the 2009 and 2010 seasons. Denver did not have an opportunity for a four-minute offense in twenty-one of those games -- either because they were not leading in the last four minutes of the second or fourth quarters or they were unable to hold the ball for the last four minutes of the half/game. Those games were:

2009 -- Cincinnati, New England, both San Diego games, Pittsburgh, the New York Giants, the home game against Oakland and Phildelphia (8 games).

2010 --  Jacksonville, Indianapolis, Baltimore, the New York Jets, both Kansas City games, both San Diego games, St. Louis, Arizona, both Oakland games and Houston (13 games).

      There were six games where Denver had long drives near the end of a half or the game, but did not actually burn the last four minutes of the half or game. These games also did not necessarily see Denver with the lead. As a result, while there were long, time consuming drives, these four games do not fit the definition of the four-minute offense. These games were:

2009 - Game #3: @Oakland 23-3
     In the second quarter, leading 10-3, the Broncos got the ball with 6:37 left in the half. Denver proceeded to run over five minutes off the clock.  The Broncos ran the ball 5 times for a total of 44 yards. Orton went 3 for 5 in passing and tallied 37 yards. They recorded five first downs, committed one offensive penalty and spent one time out. The drive ended with a field goal that increased the lead to 13-3.

     In the fourth quarter, with a 23-3 lead, Denver got the ball with 3:22 left in the game. The Broncos were able to run out the clock -- despite Oakland using 1 time out. They ran the ball 5 times for 44 yards and Orton was 1 for 1 in passing and that play gained 17 yards. The drive ended with Orton kneeling down to run out the clock.

2009 - Game #4: Dallas 17-10
     Denver held the ball from 6:28 to 1:51 in the second quarter while trailing 7-10. The Broncos ran twelve plays: 1 run for 5 yards, Orton completed 6 out of 7 passes for 65 yards. Denver committed three offensive penalties. Dallas used one time out. The drive ended in a punt and Dallas ran the clock out to end the half.

2009 - Game #7: @Baltimore 7-30
     Denver nearly brought the first half to a close while trailing 0-6. They held the ball from the 4:58 mark of the 2nd Quarter until there was only 27 seconds left in the half. The Broncos ran the ball 3 times for 8 yards. Orton completed 5 out of 7 passes for 33 yards. There was one offensive penalty; each team spent a time out.

2009 - Game #13: @Indianapolis 16-28
     In the second quarter, while trailing 0-21, Denver controlled the ball from 7:58 to 2:23 and scored to cut the lead to 7-21. The Broncos ran the ball 4 times for 14 yards. Orton completed 6 out of 7 passes fro 63 yards. Indianapolis burned one time out during the drive.

2009 - Game #16:    Kansas City        24-44
     Trailing 7-10, Denver held the ball from 5:03 to 0:27 to eat up the clock at the end of the first half. The Broncos used 3 runs (14 yards), 5 out of 7 passing (60 yards) and one time out to reach a position to kick the tying field goal.

2010 - Game #8:    San Francisco    16-24
     Denver was trailing 0-3 in the 2nd quarter when they held the ball from 3:54 to 0:01. The Broncos ran the ball 2 times for 5 yards while Orton complete 5 out 7 passes for  32 yards. There was one defensive penalty, one offensive penalty, 1 sack and each team used a time out. The drive ended when the Broncos kicked the tying field goal.

Thus, we can see that there were only five games -- in that thirty-two game span) -- in which Denver had both the opportunity, and demonstrated the ability to successfully run a four-minute offense.

2009 - Game #2: Cleveland 27-6

     Denver was leading 10-6 when they got the ball at the 4:00 mark. The Broncos ran 15 plays -- 4 runs for 14 yards, and 4 completed passes (out of 11) for 41 yards. They earned five first downs and the Browns committed a defensive penalty. The drive ended at 0:23 left in the half when the Broncos missed a field goal.

Then in the fourth quarter, leading 27-6, the Broncos burned over five minutes off the clock. They held the ball from 6:52 to 1:47, using 9 runs to move the ball 37 yards and forced Cleveland to one of their time outs.

2009 - Game #9: @Washington 17-27
     With the score tied 14-14, Denver closed out the first half by holding the ball from 6:30 to 0:05 left in the half. The Broncos ran the ball 7 times for 25 yards. Orton completed 6 out of 11 passes for 70 yards. Denver used two time outs and kicked a field goal to take a 17-14 lead.

2009 - Game #12: @Kansas City 44-13

     Denver led 44-13 in the fourth quarter. The Broncos got the ball at the 6:03 mark and never gave it up again. They ran the time off the clock using 7 runs that went for 50 yards. There were not passes on this drive. Denver committed one offensive penalty and ended the game with three straight kneel downs.

2010 - Game #2: Seattle 31-14
     After building a 10-0 lead, the Broncos held the ball from 6:18 to 0:11 in the 2nd Quarter. They netted 20 yards on 7 runs. Denver added 56 more yards on 6 out 8 passing. Denver used all three of their time outs and the Seahawks committed one defensive penalty. The drive ended when the Broncos kicked a field goal and extended their lead to 17-0.

2010 - Game #4: @Tennessee 26-20

     With the game tied 7-7 in the 2nd Quarter, Denver held the ball from 4:51 to 0:23. The Broncos used 10 yards gained on 2 runs, 72 yards added on 8 out 10 passing, overcame an offensive penalty and used one time out to position themselves for a go-ahead field goal.

Some Observations

     The first thing that leapt out at me was in how few games Denver held the lead at the 4-minute mark in the 2nd or 4th Quarters (5 times in 32 games or 16%). By the same token, it should be noticed that Denver was able to sustain long drives (nearly four or more minutes) near the end of the half or the game 34% of the time.It would be interesting to see how this compares to the rest of the league over the last two years. Two other things that might be an interesting study would be: (1)How many sustained drives have the Broncos had during that same period and (2)How many of those sustained drives came up empty in terms of points.