Game Theory-Spiking and Clock Management

Super Nomario

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Spike the football after a first down.
LOL, I am reading The Essential Smart Football and just got to a chapter entitled "Why Spiking the Ball Is Almost Always a Bad Idea." I thought of you. (I don't really have a dog in this fight. It does seem like the conventional wisdom has shifted and you see spikes way less than you used to)
 

Deathofthebambino

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LOL, I am reading The Essential Smart Football and just got to a chapter entitled "Why Spiking the Ball Is Almost Always a Bad Idea." I thought of you. (I don't really have a dog in this fight. It does seem like the conventional wisdom has shifted and you see spikes way less than you used to)
I will fight this battle to the death. If a team has to go 60-70 yards in a minute or less, and they throw a pass over the middle for 15 yards, for a first down, and don't spike it, it's so bad I can't even wrap my head around it. Because when they don't, it costs them probably 15 seconds or so, and they are always rushing, so the next play is almost always an incompletion or a bad play with a bad result, etc. So, the odds are they are still going to end up in 2nd and 10, but now, they just lost 20+ seconds.

If they don't spike it, in an effort to save the down, and they need all four downs to keep the drive alive, they will use up so much clock just getting their next first down that it won't matter anyway. You can't think "I've got 4 downs here," you don't. If you've got a minute left and 70 yards in front of you, you need to get a first down every other time you snap it (unless of course you're getting out of bounds, penalties, etc.)

I don't call for a spike in every situation, it's really only when there is less than a minute, maybe 1:10 left in the half or the game, and the offense has no timeouts, and they still have to go 60+ yards. There is also a relationship between how many yards they need to go versus how much time is on the clock too. If they have 45 seconds, but they only need to go 30 yards, then fine, don't spike it, but if there's 45 seconds and you still need to go 65 yards, and you're wasting 20 seconds getting a play ready at the line and then throw an incompletion, you deserve to lose.
 

DanoooME

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Yeah, I always thought the rule of thumb was if you had more seconds than yards to gain, you were okay, but as soon as that flips, you are in trouble.

If it isn't a rule of thumb, it should be.
 

Super Nomario

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I will fight this battle to the death. If a team has to go 60-70 yards in a minute or less, and they throw a pass over the middle for 15 yards, for a first down, and don't spike it, it's so bad I can't even wrap my head around it. Because when they don't, it costs them probably 15 seconds or so, and they are always rushing, so the next play is almost always an incompletion or a bad play with a bad result, etc. So, the odds are they are still going to end up in 2nd and 10, but now, they just lost 20+ seconds.
If teams are losing 20+ seconds running a real play rather than spiking it, they should definitely spike it. But there's no reason the difference should be anywhere near that much. OTOH, Chris Brown blithely assumes you can run a real play in essentially the same amount of time as a spike; that's probably not true either. I would think it depends on your QB, your system, and whether the game's at home or on the road (where it's harder to go no-huddle). If I've got Brady in Erhardt-Perkins at home, I'm probably not spiking. If I've got Trubisky in a Walsh offense on the road, he should probably spike it and huddle up.

If they don't spike it, in an effort to save the down, and they need all four downs to keep the drive alive, they will use up so much clock just getting their next first down that it won't matter anyway. You can't think "I've got 4 downs here," you don't. If you've got a minute left and 70 yards in front of you, you need to get a first down every other time you snap it (unless of course you're getting out of bounds, penalties, etc.)
You need to average a first down every other play, but it may not work out like that. It might take three or four throws to convert a first down in one sequence, and then you rip off a 25-yarder on the next play. Obviously there's a point where the down doesn't matter, but you're assuming too much here.
 

joe dokes

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I will fight this battle to the death. If a team has to go 60-70 yards in a minute or less, and they throw a pass over the middle for 15 yards, for a first down, and don't spike it, it's so bad I can't even wrap my head around it. Because when they don't, it costs them probably 15 seconds or so, and they are always rushing, so the next play is almost always an incompletion or a bad play with a bad result, etc. So, the odds are they are still going to end up in 2nd and 10, but now, they just lost 20+ seconds.

If they don't spike it, in an effort to save the down, and they need all four downs to keep the drive alive, they will use up so much clock just getting their next first down that it won't matter anyway. You can't think "I've got 4 downs here," you don't. If you've got a minute left and 70 yards in front of you, you need to get a first down every other time you snap it (unless of course you're getting out of bounds, penalties, etc.)

I don't call for a spike in every situation, it's really only when there is less than a minute, maybe 1:10 left in the half or the game, and the offense has no timeouts, and they still have to go 60+ yards. There is also a relationship between how many yards they need to go versus how much time is on the clock too. If they have 45 seconds, but they only need to go 30 yards, then fine, don't spike it, but if there's 45 seconds and you still need to go 65 yards, and you're wasting 20 seconds getting a play ready at the line and then throw an incompletion, you deserve to lose.

The best substantive response is that the offense knows (or should know) what it wants to do next (dont they still call two plays in the huddle?) and keeping the defense from getting completely organized increases the chance of using those extra seconds to get real yardage on the 2nd play.

Also spoiled by watching the Patriots, who generally seem to get it right without spiking it.
 

Deathofthebambino

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The best substantive response is that the offense knows (or should know) what it wants to do next (dont they still call two plays in the huddle?) and keeping the defense from getting completely organized increases the chance of using those extra seconds to get real yardage on the 2nd play.

Also spoiled by watching the Patriots, who generally seem to get it right without spiking it.
The Patriots almost never end up in a situation where they have to go very far, and don't have any timeouts. It just doesn't come up that often, but when it does, they have spiked in these situations pretty regularly (if they didn't, there would be game threads everywhere with me losing my mind). Over the last couple of years, when they get into these situations, especially at the end of the first half, generally they call a draw or a screen something in their own end, and unless it pops and they get a first down, they let the clock run down. Folks have gotten pretty upset about it actually, because it seems like BB isn't being as aggressive in these situations as he has in the past. But once they decide to get going (usually once they reach their own 40 yard line or so), any first down in the field of play is typically met with a spike on the next play if the clock is getting low.
 

Deathofthebambino

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If teams are losing 20+ seconds running a real play rather than spiking it, they should definitely spike it. But there's no reason the difference should be anywhere near that much. OTOH, Chris Brown blithely assumes you can run a real play in essentially the same amount of time as a spike; that's probably not true either. I would think it depends on your QB, your system, and whether the game's at home or on the road (where it's harder to go no-huddle). If I've got Brady in Erhardt-Perkins at home, I'm probably not spiking. If I've got Trubisky in a Walsh offense on the road, he should probably spike it and huddle up.


You need to average a first down every other play, but it may not work out like that. It might take three or four throws to convert a first down in one sequence, and then you rip off a 25-yarder on the next play. Obviously there's a point where the down doesn't matter, but you're assuming too much here.
Chris Brown is wrong. 100% dead wrong. First of all, he's running under the assumption that everyone on the field knows what play is going to be run. That's not true. If it were, you wouldn't see the QB running around like a chicken with his head cut off telling his receivers what the play is, or the running back leaning in behind him to find out, or the lineman looking backwards. When you're spiking, everyone knows exactly where they're going, and they get there, and the snap happens. When you decide to run a play, you have to know which guys are on the LOS, which guys are not, someone has to check in with the ref on the outside, etc. Seconds just tick and tick and tick, and by the time the snap happens, it's almost always 10+ seconds that just oozed off the clock.

I promise, just spend the weekend in the game threads watching college and pro football. There isn't a single weekend that goes by where some coach doesn't screw up by not spiking after a first down. Not one. Shit, they are wasting so much time that I have time to come in and post "SPIKE THE FUCKING BALL" before they can get the next snap off. It's hard to watch. And like I said, it's not even so much the time that gets wasted while they're calling and setting up a play at the LOS, it's that almost EVERY SINGLE TIME they do it, and rush, that next first down play is a fucking disaster. Incompletions are usually the best outcome, but a completion where a guy gets tackled in bounds short of a first down, or an interception or a sack, happen almost as often. You almost never see a team rush to the line after a 1st down, snap the ball, and then make a good play on 1st down. And when you do, it is the exception to the rule.

Sure, if everyone is on the same page, and everyone executes perfectly, then yeah, spiking probably isn't the right answer. But everyone isn't always on the same page and everyone certainly doesn't execute perfectly. If they did, we wouldn't be laughing at how poorly other teams are coached on a weekly basis.
 
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Deathofthebambino

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Thanks Dogman. I look forward to the first opportunity to bump this thread when some team runs themselves out of time at the end of the half or a game. I figure if it doesn't happen today during the FCS playoffs, it'll happen during the 1:00 games tomorrow.
 

Jed Zeppelin

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I am 100% on Team Death here as we are usually quoting each other’s posts late on any given Sunday night.

The way offenses run these days, literally the only thing preventing you from getting into field goal position in most situations is time. Offenses are too dynamic, too many weapons. You certainly don’t need four downs to go ten yards.

Laughable to think an offense is generally ready to run a good play in a timely fashion after a big gain. I guess there’s an argument about letting the D make subs but it’s not like a team’s two minute drill defense is including beefy run stoppers that need to get off fast or something.
 

snowmanny

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When teams decide to run a play there is, too often, time spent getting folks in the proper alignment for the next play and then time spent on the line calling the play/reading the defense, etc. It often looks as if teams have a belief they are going to get the play off way faster. If the whole team knew that the next play after an in-bounds first down catch was sprint to the line and spike you'd save so much time and you'd probably catch the defense offsides here and there.
 

SMU_Sox

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In theory if you can have 1-3 options of a play to have based on an alignment you get from the defense and everyone has that down cold I am ok with that. I assume if in that hypothetical if the defense gave them an unfavorable look then spiking it would be the only option. But in practice? Seems like one of those risk rewards where the better average gain is not spiking it but the negatives there are much worse than if you just spiked it. I don’t have a dog in this fight. Both sides make sense depending on how well coached the team is and how risk averse you are.
 

Harry Hooper

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And like I said, it's not even so much the time that gets wasted while they're calling and setting up a play at the LOS, it's that almost EVERY SINGLE TIME they do it, and rush, that next first down play is a fucking disaster. Incompletions are usually the best outcome, but a completion where a guy gets tackled in bounds short of a first down, or an interception or a sack, happen almost as often. You almost never see a team rush to the line after a 1st down, snap the ball, and then make a good play on 1st down. And when you do, it is the exception to the rule.
Agreed, and you can add in the distinct possibility of an illegal procedure or other penalty on the offense when trying to scramble to get a play off.
 

maufman

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LOL, I am reading The Essential Smart Football and just got to a chapter entitled "Why Spiking the Ball Is Almost Always a Bad Idea." I thought of you. (I don't really have a dog in this fight. It does seem like the conventional wisdom has shifted and you see spikes way less than you used to)
Any chance you could summarize the anti-spiking argument? I’m on Team DotB, but I’m persuadable.

Sure, if everyone is on the same page, and everyone executes perfectly, then yeah, spiking probably isn't the right answer. But everyone isn't always on the same page and everyone certainly doesn't execute perfectly. If they did, we wouldn't be laughing at how poorly other teams are coached on a weekly basis.
This is the crux of it. I think the reason you don’t see more spikes is because coaches are, for obvious reasons, loathe to adopt a strategy that assumes less than stellar execution. But when you type “SPIKE THE FUCKING BALL” in a game thread, I’m nearly always nodding in agreement — because when you look at how long it actually takes to get off a play that’s not a clusterfuck, it’s the right play.
 

Super Nomario

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Chris Brown is wrong. 100% dead wrong. First of all, he's running under the assumption that everyone on the field knows what play is going to be run.
He's sort of making that assumption, but he understands what it entails. Brown is a big fan of no-huddle offenses, especially tempo ones like Chip Kelly runs or the Pats did a lot in 2012. If you can run no-huddle, you have already solved the problem of how you get plays in from the sideline quickly, get guys lined up and the play communicated. He is aware that not every team has solved this problem, but he argues that that should be viewed as a deficiency - they ought to simply verbiage or whatever to the point where they can do this. Brown argues this is an advantage of the concept-based Erhardt-Perkins offense; the playcalls are formation-agnostic and usually one or two words, so it is a lot easier to get lined up and run something than in a Bill-Walsh-based offense where the playcall is like nine words.

The way offenses run these days, literally the only thing preventing you from getting into field goal position in most situations is time. Offenses are too dynamic, too many weapons. You certainly don’t need four downs to go ten yards.
Yet teams don't always get 10 yards in four downs, do they? I haven't looked at this exhaustively, but among the Pats last six or so spikes, there are two examples where spiking cost them a down that wound up mattering. One was earlier this year at Buffalo; they spiked the ball on 2nd-and-6 after a 4-yard completion with 17 seconds left. That gave them only one down to convert the first, which they didn't, leading to a 50-yard field goal attempt, which they missed. The other example was the disastrous loss to Philly in 2015; they spiked on first down with 35 seconds left, then threw three incomplete passes and turned it over on downs.

There are spiking success stories, too; they spiked right before the Kenbrell Thompkins TD against New Orleans in 2013 (the "unicorns and showponies" game). Unfortunately, it is hard to search for examples where they didn't spike so I don't have a lot of counterfactuals. I think you can view any examples as a tautology based on your philosophy (if they couldn't convert in three downs, how were they going to score in that time anyway?). But there certainly are examples of teams needing four downs to convert. Again, without a real dog in this fight, I would say that losing a down matters unless the clock is very low. It may not matter as much as the clock, but we shouldn't be dismissive of giving up a down except in obvious circumstances (like, with 7 seconds left).

In general, I think the logic of spiking decisions are usually dwarfed by other considerations in two-minute situations. Like, in the Buffalo game, the decision to throw a four-yard pass in bounds on first down is way more questionable than the decision to spike it on second.
 

Deathofthebambino

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Exhibit A on why you spike the ball.

The Rams tonight versus the Eagles. You'll never know how the 2nd down plays would have gone had they spiked it, but all else being equal, not spiking probably cost them about 20 seconds that they really, really needed.
 

lexrageorge

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<snip>

Yet teams don't always get 10 yards in four downs, do they? I haven't looked at this exhaustively, but among the Pats last six or so spikes, there are two examples where spiking cost them a down that wound up mattering. One was earlier this year at Buffalo; they spiked the ball on 2nd-and-6 after a 4-yard completion with 17 seconds left. That gave them only one down to convert the first, which they didn't, leading to a 50-yard field goal attempt, which they missed. The other example was the disastrous loss to Philly in 2015; they spiked on first down with 35 seconds left, then threw three incomplete passes and turned it over on downs.
I'm not sure spiking the ball was the wrong decision in Buffalo. Given that they were on the 32 yard line with 17 seconds left and no timeouts, the most likely scenario in that case is going to be a field goal. Even if they were to get another first down at say the 20-25 yard line, they would have to hurry and spike the ball to set up the FG try before the half expired. I think the play calls around the spike were more questionable (as you noted in your post), but even so, that situation is probably very close to 50/50.

Exhibit A on why you spike the ball.

The Rams tonight versus the Eagles. You'll never know how the 2nd down plays would have gone had they spiked it, but all else being equal, not spiking probably cost them about 20 seconds that they really, really needed.
Both of those 2nd down plays were 2nd-and-short. The first one may have been a 50/50 situation with 45 seconds left, but there were only 25 seconds left on the second play, and they only needed to pick up 2 yards for the first. Failing to spike the ball there was a missed opportunity for another shot or two at the end zone.
 

Gunfighter 09

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One thing the NFL could do to vastly improve the effectiveness of end of game situations for the offense would be to add communications capability to all offensive player's helmets, like QBs and middle line backers have now. It seems weirdly regressive to limit the communications capability to just the on field leadership Teams could play so much faster if the coordinator was making the call directly, even if you continued the 15 second cutout like we see now. It would also limit the huge variances is performance that we see as a direct result of superior sign stealing or code breaking in the game now.
 

Deathofthebambino

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Both of those 2nd down plays were 2nd-and-short. The first one may have been a 50/50 situation with 45 seconds left, but there were only 25 seconds left on the second play, and they only needed to pick up 2 yards for the first. Failing to spike the ball there was a missed opportunity for another shot or two at the end zone.
I'm not sure we're talking about the same thing. Are you talking about spiking the ball after 2nd down? If so, we're not on the same page, because I'm talking about spiking it after they get a first down.

The Rams took over on their own 43, with 1:08 left and no timeouts. On 1st and 10, they threw a pass over the middle for 12 yards. They should have immediately run up and spiked it at that point, but instead they ran a play. They actually moved pretty quickly though, and they snapped it and ran a 6 yard pass and the receiver got out of bounds with 45 seconds left. If they spiked it, they probably would have had around 52 seconds left, and 2nd and 10, but instead they ended up with 2nd and 4 and 45 seconds left.

But, here is where the problems start. On 2nd and 4, they snap with 45 seconds left, and Goff hits Everett for 5 yards for the first down. He doesn't get out of bounds. Instead of running up and spiking it with about 33-34 seconds left, they decide to run another play. It took them about 8-9 seconds to get that play set, and they snapped it on 1st and 10 with 25 seconds left. They got 8 yards, but they rushed the play, and Gurley forgot to get out of bounds and now, they had to spike it on the next snap with 4 seconds left, and the game was over after the next Hail Mary play to the end zone (I know, it's shorter than a Hail Mary, but it's the same result when you're trying to throw from the 18 into the end zone and everyone knows it).

If they had just spiked the ball after each first down, they save themselves about 20 seconds of clock, and they probably don't run plays on 1st down that get stopped in bounds. It turns into a fire drill. Give up the down on first down, get your offense set and run a good play. Save the time, and usually get a better result.
 

SirPsychoSquints

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I'm not sure we're talking about the same thing. Are you talking about spiking the ball after 2nd down? If so, we're not on the same page, because I'm talking about spiking it after they get a first down.

The Rams took over on their own 43, with 1:08 left and no timeouts. On 1st and 10, they threw a pass over the middle for 12 yards. They should have immediately run up and spiked it at that point, but instead they ran a play. They actually moved pretty quickly though, and they snapped it and ran a 6 yard pass and the receiver got out of bounds with 45 seconds left. If they spiked it, they probably would have had around 52 seconds left, and 2nd and 10, but instead they ended up with 2nd and 4 and 45 seconds left.

But, here is where the problems start. On 2nd and 4, they snap with 45 seconds left, and Goff hits Everett for 5 yards for the first down. He doesn't get out of bounds. Instead of running up and spiking it with about 33-34 seconds left, they decide to run another play. It took them about 8-9 seconds to get that play set, and they snapped it on 1st and 10 with 25 seconds left. They got 8 yards, but they rushed the play, and Gurley forgot to get out of bounds and now, they had to spike it on the next snap with 4 seconds left, and the game was over after the next Hail Mary play to the end zone (I know, it's shorter than a Hail Mary, but it's the same result when you're trying to throw from the 18 into the end zone and everyone knows it).

If they had just spiked the ball after each first down, they save themselves about 20 seconds of clock, and they probably don't run plays on 1st down that get stopped in bounds. It turns into a fire drill. Give up the down on first down, get your offense set and run a good play. Save the time, and usually get a better result.
Is it possible you're underestimating how long the teams burn to get their line set and get the spike off? Of the two spikes I found for Brady this year (@BUF and @TEN), the clock ticked 15 and 14 seconds for plays of 4 yards and 10 yards, respectively. On the first play, you're suggesting they would have saved 6 seconds by spiking, which means it would take only 11 seconds from snap to set to spike. On the second play, you're saying it would only take 11-12 seconds from snap to set to spike. That seems unrealistic, unless you have something to support it (I'm no expert).

I think the stronger point is the ability to reset and decide on a play, but I think you're overstating the time savings.
 

The Big Red Kahuna

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The Rams took over on their own 43, with 1:08 left and no timeouts. On 1st and 10, they threw a pass over the middle for 12 yards. They should have immediately run up and spiked it at that point, but instead they ran a play. They actually moved pretty quickly though, and they snapped it and ran a 6 yard pass and the receiver got out of bounds with 45 seconds left. If they spiked it, they probably would have had around 52 seconds left, and 2nd and 10, but instead they ended up with 2nd and 4 and 45 seconds left.

But, here is where the problems start. On 2nd and 4, they snap with 45 seconds left, and Goff hits Everett for 5 yards for the first down. He doesn't get out of bounds. Instead of running up and spiking it with about 33-34 seconds left, they decide to run another play. It took them about 8-9 seconds to get that play set, and they snapped it on 1st and 10 with 25 seconds left. They got 8 yards, but they rushed the play, and Gurley forgot to get out of bounds and now, they had to spike it on the next snap with 4 seconds left, and the game was over after the next Hail Mary play to the end zone (I know, it's shorter than a Hail Mary, but it's the same result when you're trying to throw from the 18 into the end zone and everyone.
I’m in the “it depends” camp, and your first post of this occurring (Exhibit A) is not the best in proving your point. In fact, I think it proves the “it depends” argument. The first chance they had to spike they don’t and gain yards and don’t give up a lot of time (while leaving much more manageable first down yardage). That seems to have worked out well NOT spiking. And then the next one where it hurts them was 90% because Gurley screwed up. That’s on Gurley and not the “no spike” decision. I think in not spiking, you sometimes have ability to keep defenses off balance and/or tired. However, it needs to be done quickly and by a team that has practiced it and understands nuances (as in, don’t catch a 3-Yd pass over the middle when you’re just going to get tackled). Again, it depends.
 

Deathofthebambino

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Is it possible you're underestimating how long the teams burn to get their line set and get the spike off? Of the two spikes I found for Brady this year (@BUF and @TEN), the clock ticked 15 and 14 seconds for plays of 4 yards and 10 yards, respectively. On the first play, you're suggesting they would have saved 6 seconds by spiking, which means it would take only 11 seconds from snap to set to spike. On the second play, you're saying it would only take 11-12 seconds from snap to set to spike. That seems unrealistic, unless you have something to support it (I'm no expert).

I think the stronger point is the ability to reset and decide on a play, but I think you're overstating the time savings.
I admit, I could be underestimating a bit, but I don't think it's by much at all. For example, as I noted, after the first first down yesterday, I thought the Rams did a really good job of getting to the line, getting a play set and getting the snap off. They took over at 1:08, threw a 12 yard pass for first down, and then ran a quick pass for 6 yards out of bounds that ended with 45 seconds on the clock, so it took them 23 seconds to run the first down play, get to the line and run the next play, which was a quick 6 yard out that went out of bounds.

I think the Tennessee example works better than the Bills example, because in both cases, the first play began with a stopped clock (don't get me going on the Bills either, because I think the Pats should have been spiking earlier in that drive too and it cost them a chance later in the drive). In that game, Brady snaps with 21 seconds left, hits Allen for a 10 yard catch and then spikes it with 7 seconds left. So, it took the Pats 14 seconds to run the first down play and spike it.

If you estimate the 6 yard out the Rams ran took 5 seconds (which is probably conservative on the high side), that means it took them 17 seconds to run the 12 yard play and then snap, which is 3 seconds more than it took the Pats to run a 10 yard play and spike it.

It works out to about the same 3-4 seconds on the 2nd first down (although in that situation, the Rams only got 5 yards on the previous play, so presumably, it should have been faster, which is why you probably had a bunch of us in the game thread pointing out all of the milling around they were doing at the time).

As I've tried to explain quite a bit though, it's not just about the time savings. It's about that next play. Yesterday, maybe it only cost the Rams 5-10 seconds in the long run, maybe not. Maybe instead of rushing to the line and throwing a quick pass for 6 yards or 8 yards, had they spiked it and set up a good play where Goff can read the defense at the line, take his time, etc., they hit a 15 yard route on the sideline instead? Fortunately, they didn't make any huge mistakes with the clock running like we see all the time, (ie. they didn't take a sack, or penalty or turnover) until Gurley forgot to run out of bounds (which doesn't really have any bearing on the spiking conversation), so in the grand scheme of things, you can't say it cost them the game by not spiking it yesterday after 1st downs, but it certainly cost them some time, albeit maybe less that I was estimating originally, and it may have also cost them the opportunity to make a better play than what they did.

This was really just the first example I noticed in real time, but there will be more (much more egregious ones) soon enough. It'll be interesting to watch it play out, especially if the situation comes up in the playoffs.