In their last two games, the Tampa Bay Storm have found themselves trailing by a score with possession of the ball and less than a minute on the clock.
Turns out, they’ve had their opposition exactly where they want them.
Three weeks ago, the Storm drove nearly the length of the field in 28 seconds against Cleveland, culminating in quarterback Randy Hippeard’s one-yard run into the end zone with three seconds to go to secure a 62-61 Tampa Bay victory.
This past week, following a bye, Hippeard again executed a last-minute drive to perfection and pulled off an end-of-the-game victory in Baltimore, his touchdown toss to a wide-open LaMark Brown in the back of the end zone coming with five seconds remaining to cap a 62-55 Storm win.
Through the first quarter of the season, the Storm have become masters of the one-minute offense, methodically moving the ball down the field for a touchdown while bleeding the clock virtually to zero to take away any opportunity for their opponent to answer.
“Well, it’s experience and having players that are unselfish and have experience as well,” Storm head coach Ron James said of his team’s late-game heroics. “A selfish player will try to score touchdowns in situations where you don’t necessarily need to score right away.”
Case in point is a heady play Storm wide receiver Kendrick Ings made on the game-winning drive against the Brigade. With the Storm facing a third and seven from the Baltimore 15-yard line, Hippeard threw into the flat for Ings, who was uncovered and had ample room to waltz into the end zone.
Except when he got to the four, he fell down to keep the clock running and force Baltimore to burn one of its remaining two timeouts.
Hippeard pushed the pile down closer to the goal line on the next play in order to get the Brigade to use their final timeout. After taking a knee and calling timeout of his own with 7.9 seconds remaining in the game, Hippeard was given ample time by his offensive line on the game-winning play, allowing Brown to work free in the back of the end zone and Hippeard time to find him.
Had Ings ran in for a touchdown earlier on the drive, however, the Storm would have left time on the clock for the Brigade to mount one more try for the winning score.
“It’s something we’re prepared for,” Hippeard said. “It’s something we get into the huddle before that play, ‘Get what you can and get down.’ It’s something we let everybody know and it’s about being selfless. That’s the biggest key there. Anybody could have easily ran that in and scored and said, ‘Hey, I scored a touchdown and I did this and I did that.’ But at the end of the day, we’re all here for bigger reasons. For (Ings) to go down like that just shows you the type of team we have.”
Getting players to buy in is easy with a quarterback like Hippeard leading the team. James said the four-year Arena Football League veteran is “the best surprise of the year” with his ability to execute his one-minute offense to perfection.
“Randy has picked up our one-minute drill faster than any quarterback I’ve ever had,” James said. “So, that’s really great because the shorthand that I have is different from other coaches. And the things that we try to accomplish maybe have a different spin to it than other systems. And so Randy’s really picked it up quickly. And if your quarterback picks it up quickly, it has a trickle-down effect.”
In James, coaching his 20th season in the AFL, the Storm have an experienced mentor to guide them through the ups and downs of a last-second drive and a calming influence that has an answer for any situation that may arise.
“They’re situations we work for and when everybody feels comfortable and understands, then you can come out and actually perform,” James said. “But if you don’t know what you’re doing in those situations or there’s doubt about what play call is going to happen, then everybody has doubt as to whether we can complete the mission. There was no doubt we could complete it or not, it was just a matter of how we were going to win that game in Baltimore. We had two plays at the end. Are we going to score the touchdown which we did or are we going to kick the field goal and give them virtually no time left? So it’s a scenario that we worked for and we had the two for one if you will in the play call situation. So it worked out very well for us. We’re excited that it’s coming together the way that it is, but we understand how fragile it is too.
James wasn’t always so calm in late-game scenarios but got there over time as his years in the league advanced. There’s a nuance to playing the final minute in an AFL game that goes against the conventional tenets of outdoor football. Teams with the lead in the final minute of an AFL game routinely go for an onside kick to either get possession back or maximize the amount of time they’ll have left should the opposition score. Last-second field goals are regularly eschewed for throws into the end zone, which tend to be more reliable. Players fall down short of the goal line with a clear path to the end zone in an effort to burn clock and give the opposition as little amount of time as possible to answer a score.
James understands it all.
“It’s a level of experience that I have in this game that helps me out to slow that situation down,” James said. “As a younger coach, I really felt like those situations were magnified or they were pressurized. Now I look forward to them.”
Apparently, so too does James’ team as the last two games have demonstrated.