It happens nearly every game — the San Francisco 49ers either get flagged for a delay of game penalty, call a timeout at an unconventional time, or commit both football sins in the same game. Since football is a complex sport and the clock is right there for everyone to see, it makes sense that so many people believe themselves to be experts in clock management. Hey, if a team calls a timeout early in the third quarter, they won’t have an opportunity to use that timeout for a potential two-minute drill later in the game if needed. As a result, a coach who calls timeouts too early is considered as wasteful as someone who doesn’t recycle their aluminum cans.

Jim Harbaugh Colin Kaepernick 49ers OTAs 2012According to NFLPenalties.com, teams were flagged 131 times for delay of game in 2012 including the playoffs. The 49ers led the way, letting the play clock hit zero 11 times in 19 games (the Chargers were actually flagged more often per game, with 10 delay of game penalties in 16 games). The 49ers tied for the NFL lead with 10 delay of game penalties in 2011, although once again those came in 18 games. 10 delay of game penalties were also called that season against the Broncos (over 18 games) and the Raiders (who didn’t make the playoffs in 2011).

The 49ers were called for delay of game once against the Packers in Week 1, but the complaints about the timing of the team’s timeouts were louder.

  • The 49ers called their first timeout with 13:14 to go in the first quarter when facing 3rd-and-10.
  • Their second timeout came with 12:42 left in the second quarter on a 3rd-and-7.
  • They called their first timeout of the second half with 47 seconds left in the third quarter after Colin Kaepernick scrambled for a first down on 3rd-and-9.
  • Their second timeout of the second half came with 6:25 left in the game after Kendall Hunter’s run set them up at 1st-and-goal from the 9-yard line.
  • Their final timeout was expended with 3 minutes left in the game. The 49ers faced 4th-and-2 on Green Bay’s 36, and called a timeout after failling to draw the Packers offsides.

Fans gnash their teeth; writers ask what’s going on. “That was us not getting the play in on time,” said Jim Harbaugh in response to a question after Sunday’s game about the “play clock issues.”

“We just have to be faster,” said Kaepernick on Tuesday.

But are the 49ers even all that concerned with what many feel is some sort of large problem that needs fixing? I wondered this week whether the 49ers, who now possess the kind of explosive offense that can reach the end zone from anywhere on the field on a single play, care anywhere near as much about hoarding timeouts as the media and fans.

Greg Roman did a press conference today, so I asked him:

There’s been a lot of talk about timeouts and using them at different times. 

Roman: Mm-hmm.

Do you think among football observers that’s a little bit overblown, the idea that you really want to save all your timeouts until the very end of a game or a half?

Roman: You know … which came first, the chicken or the egg? Certainly you’d love to have all your timeouts and never have to use one. It’s something that you can always look back on after the fact and say, “Gosh, I wish we would’ve had a timeout here or there.” You’re always trying to save your timeouts. The bottom line is there’s times when you need to use them to perpetuate a drive in the fashion that you wish. Needless wasting of timeouts is inefficient. It’s not something we want to do. Now, is it overblown? I’m sure it is.

Just like there are benefits to coaching unconventionally during fourth down situations, there might be a method to the 49ers’ supposed madness. The 49ers have been calling timeouts at weird times and taking delay of game penalties ever since Harbaugh took over, and they weren’t slaves to the play clock on Sunday. Timeouts called early in halves don’t always work — San Francisco failed to convert on both third down situations after timeouts were called during the first half, for instance. But in the second half, the timeout after the 23-yard Hunter run was followed by an 8-yard run by Frank Gore that put the 49ers at the 1-yard line, and the 49ers were successful on perhaps the most important play of the game when Kaepernick found Anquan Boldin on 4th-and-2 after calling their final timeout.

If the 49ers faced more situations where the game clock expired before they could get in field goal range at the end of a game, timeout usage would be a legitimate concern. But the 49ers believe in executing each play as perfectly as possible, and whenever they’ve felt like a little more time was needed to figure out which play to call or how to attack a specific defensive formation, they’ve used it. Despite the cries from clock-watchers everywhere, look for that to continue.