May 10, 2019
By Grant Lindsley
Eating Time – Is running out the clock a viable tactic or an irritating gag?
In the first game of a double-header last weekend, the New York Empire employed a new strategy in the fourth quarter: run out the clock. It’s not a new tactic in other sports, but it hasn’t become widely popular in pro ultimate. Yet.
Soccer is the closest analog here. In both sports, player movement and the direction of travel are fluid – you can pass forward, backwards, and sideways – and there’s no time limit besides the game clock. In soccer, it’s a well-worn approach to pull back into a defensive formation and play keep-away in order to protect a lead.
In pro ultimate, this strategy hasn’t taken hold. Teams often race toward the highest tally possible, scoring at the first opportunity, regardless of a gap in score. That leads to offensive and defensive teams expending considerable energy, perhaps unnecessarily.
In the fourth quarter against the Philadelphia Phoenix, we asked ourselves a question. What if an offensive team could figure out how to hold the disc for a few minutes toward the end of the game? It would save the long, hard cuts that are customary to an offense that constantly attacks the endzone, and it’d spare the defense from having to step on the field at all.
The clock stops at the end of each quarter and in between points. That means a team could theoretically receive the disc on offense to begin the fourth quarter and run out the entire 12-minute clock, so long as they didn’t score or turn the disc over.
Those are two big “ifs.” When the Empire ran out the clock against the Phoenix on Saturday of the double-header, it worked: leading by eight goals in the fourth quarter, the Empire finally scored in 72 passes and successfully consumed four-and-a-half minutes of clock time.
Ben Katz, who eventually threw the goal to complete the marathon point and was consulted for this piece, emphasized the small cuts around the disc that did not advance the disc toward the endzone but were crucial to resetting the seven-second stall-count. “Beau [Kittredge] just [stood] three yards behind our normal dump the entire point,” he said.
But the next day, the Empire screwed it up (or rather, I screwed it up, as the overzealous experimenter, advocating prematurely for a shiny new tactic that had worked the day before). The offense swung the disc back and forth for a couple minutes against the Montreal Royal but then turned the disc over, which gave the Royal a chance to score against an Empire offense that was fatigued from playing for the last two minutes straight. The offense had used the tactic too early in the fourth quarter and with too small of a lead. When the Royal mounted a late-game comeback, the offense had to abandon the strategy in favor of more standard, aggressive offense.
But the potential remains. Professional ultimate’s offensive schemes focus almost entirely on scoring. The epitome of this approach is the end-of-quarter jump-ball: a last-second pass floats into the endzone above a crowd of each teams’ tallest players, and all of them leap for it like schoolboys playing 500. It may not be pretty, but it is exciting. A possession-based scheme, on the other hand, offers an aesthetic counterbalance to the jump-ball. It displays precision, patience, and endurance that aren’t visible elsewhere.
Why not adopt the technique if it’s effective? There’s a time and place for 500, just as there’s a time and place for keep-away.
Granted, everyone likes keep away when they have the ball. Even when it worked against Phoenix, the sequence didn’t make the highlight reel. One boisterous Phoenix fan could be heard yelling complaints from the stands. Both of which beg the question of eating time: is it bothersome, or is it beautiful?