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This question could be asked of a number of sports, but the example I'm using comes from football.

Yesterday, during the wild card round, the New Orleans Saints called a time out early in the second quarter, to give their defense a chance to recuperate, after the Philadelphia Eagles had driven to the "red zone."

The results fully justified the move. The next two plays resulted in defensive sacks for long yards that prevented a touchdown, and drove the Eagles to the edge of field goal range. The Eagles kicked and missed a field goal that might have represented a victory had the made it (the final score was 26-24, Saints).

Apparently this is unusual. Why is that? My understanding is that most coaches like to save key defensive resources (e.g. time outs in football, or closers in baseball) for the end of the game. Are some coaches now starting to move their key resources at "critical times" (e.g. time outs earlier in the game)?

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Who is this unusual to? You mention that "apparently this is unusual." Also, "key defensive resource" to describe a time-out (understand the baseball aspect) is misleading, in my opinion. –  edmastermind29 Jan 6 at 2:38

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Why do most coaches save [time outs] till the end of the game?

To stop the clock for the possibility of getting the ball back and the opportunity to score, if necessary.

An example is from a 2013 wild card game with the Kansas City Chiefs at the Indianapolis Colts. The Chiefs turned the ball over in downs with around 1:55 left, and the Colts ran out the clock to clinch the win. Had the Chiefs had one timeout, they may have been able to get the ball back for the opportunity to score.

Are some coaches now starting to move their [time-outs] at "critical times" (e.g. time outs earlier in the game)?

This is where I challenge the statement, "These coaches still would have preferred to be able to save their timeouts for later."

The circumstance you present involves the Philadelphia Eagles offense and the New Orleans Saints defense. You also state that the Saints took a time-out to give their defense a chance to recuperate. This very well may be the case, but I have a different perspective.

The Eagles offense is a college-style, fast-paced offense implemented by head coach Chip Kelly. This article goes into the reasons why NFL offenses are "picking up the pace." The following reasons apply:

  1. A faster pace leads to more plays and scoring opportunities.

  2. No-huddle offense limits defensive substitutions.

You address #2 in that the Saints took a time-out to give their defense a chance to recuperate. However, to address #1, coaches may be using their [time-outs] at "critical times" (e.g. time outs earlier in the game) to disrupt the rhythm of a fast-paced offense and to limit and/or disrupt plays and scoring opportunities.

One thing to note here is momentum. To disrupt the rhythm of a fast-paced offense is to disrupt momentum. I'm sure that not all three time-outs in a given half will be used for this purpose (as some are used to avoid delay-of-game penalties and other unforeseen circumstances)...but a strategically placed time-out during the middle of a rhythmic, fast-paced offensive drive may keep points off the scoreboard.

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Nothing's changed. The ideal is still to save your timeouts to the end in case you need to be able to control the clock late in a half.

But these coaches aren't doing anything different. The key word in the sentence above is "ideal"--it's not uncommon to be able to accomplish that, but it's also not uncommon not to be able to. Avoiding a delay-of-game penalty or changing out of an obviously bad play call in the here and now may, depending on the situation, be more important than saving them for later--and this is nothing new. These coaches still would have preferred to be able to save their timeouts for later; it's just that the way things played out didn't really make that possible.

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"Avoiding a delay-of-game penalty or changing out of an obviously bad play call ... may ... be more important than saving them for late." This did not hold true for the 2013 Wild Card matchup between the Kansas City Chiefs at the Indianapolis Colts. With the play clock running out on two plays, on 2nd and 8 and 3rd and 7 with around 7 minutes left in the 4th quarter, the Chiefs used two time-outs. I challenge that 40 seconds are more valuable than -5 yards...and you address this by stating the "ideal" is to save time-outs. –  edmastermind29 Jan 7 at 1:00
    
The word "may" is key here. –  Steely Dan Jan 7 at 2:26

Having remaining timeouts in football maximizes a team's ability to gain the final possession. Many games are decided by a single touchdown or field goal so there is advantage in holding the ball last.

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Oke, but why? And why does it maximize final possession? –  Jacob Jan Tuinstra Jun 1 at 6:07
    
This answer is too short to be useful to the OP. Please consider giving further explanation –  posdef Jun 3 at 8:30

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