Professional football players are creatures of habit, which can make halftime at the Super Bowl feel pretty weird. A regular season halftime period might last 12 to 15 minutes. At the Super Bowl, because of the elaborate show that takes place on the field, that period can be more than twice as long.
New England Patriots left tackle Nate Solder has had to sit through two Super Bowl halftimes now. He is familiar with the odd feeling that creeps in around the 20-minute mark after coaches have finished their mid-game talks: “Usually it's like we're sitting around looking at each other waiting for halftime to get over,” he says.
In 2012, the Patriots actually practiced Super Bowl halftime. On the Wednesday before the game, head coach Bill Belichick stopped practice and made his players go back to the locker room for 30 minutes. He even gave his team a pep talk.
“It really gets into a whole restarting mentality,” Belichick said then. “It’s not like taking a break and coming out in the second half. It’s like starting the game all over again. It’s like playing a game, stopping, and then playing a second game.”
Not every team that goes to the Super Bowl will prepare for halftime to the extent that the Patriots did.
(And the Patriots wound up losing the game — more on that in a bit.) But every team is forced to break their well-manicured intermission routine. Players sometimes change pads and warm back up as if they’re preparing for the opening kickoff all over again.
“Is it a frustration?” Solder says. “No, because there's nothing you can do about it.”
The wait may be unavoidable, but players do have a preference. Roman Harper has played in two Super Bowls — last season with the Carolina Panthers, and in 2010 with the New Orleans Saints. He says that teammates would unwind more during the longer break — lay down, spend more time getting massages, even chew tobacco — but ultimately, they would have preferred to get back on the field sooner.
“You don't need all that other stuff. But hey man, that's what brings in all the bucks,” Harper says. “It just comes with it, but nobody wants to sit out for 20 minutes in the middle of the game. Of course the shorter halftime is a lot better.”
Sometimes, the dynamic of a game can change while players are sitting. In 2013, the Baltimore Ravens were outscored 17-7 in the third quarter after taking a 21-6 lead into halftime against the San Francisco 49ers. Atlanta Falcons outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw was on that Ravens team. Not surprisingly, he also hates sitting.
“If you've got that momentum, you want to be out there,” Upshaw says. “You don't want the momentum to go away because of a long halftime. But it's part of the process.”
The flip side of that unnecessary cool down is the extra time it affords for game planning.
Kevin Gilbride designed the offensive game plans that beat the Patriots in their last two Super Bowl losses, both to the New York Giants. He prefers the extra time he gets during the Super Bowl. He was able to fit in what felt like a leisurely 10-minute meeting with assistant coaches about what happened during the first halves of both games, and didn’t have to worry about “going at a dizzying pace trying to get everything that probably takes a good 20 minutes, 25 minutes, compressed in about five or six minutes.
“By the time you walk in, get to it — in some place longer than others — and then two minutes, three minutes to get in, two or three minutes to get out, you've got five or six minutes to get everything done, it's not a lot of time,” Gilbride says. “So this was nice. This was great.”
The Giants used that time to make larger adjustments than they normally could during a normal halftime period. In tight games — those games were decided by three and four points — those adjustments made a big difference.
Gilbride gives an example:
In 2007, he says that the Giants liked to run a play in a two-back formation in which quarterback Eli Manning would play fake and the wide receivers would run comeback routes. Tight end Kevin Boss had an option over the middle. If the secondary was in single-high coverage, he would sit down in the middle of the defense, and if it was two-deep coverage he would run a post.
However, the Patriots had the play sniffed out in the first half of Super Bowl XLII by having safety Rodney Harrison play close to line on the tight end side of the formation. If Harrison read pass, he would run underneath wide receiver Amani Toomer while Plaxico Burress was double covered on the opposite side of the field. Boss would technically read this as two-deep coverage, but the post route put him in the path of Harrison.
The adjustment came up during halftime.
“I said to the tight end, to Kevin Boss, I said, 'We're going to do it differently,’” Gilbride says. “If it's single-high, set it down at the 10-to-12-yard mark and find that passing lane, but if it's that look that we're facing, just run a seam and actually widen away from that far safety.”
On the Giants’ first snap of the fourth quarter, Gilbride called the play, and Boss rumbled for 45 yards on what would be a go-ahead touchdown drive.
The Giants made great use of their time (evidently), but they still weren’t fully prepared for all the time they had on hand. In Super Bowl XLVI four years later, the coaches had the time period mapped out.
“We had our chalkboard up there and our grease board,” Gilbride says. “Each guy came in, we knew that we had time to let them put their thoughts up there — not just articulate them verbally, but actually see them up there. And then we could organize them in an order of priority.
“We recognized that we would have more time than we felt that there would be. Even though you knew it intellectually, to actually experience it, it was definitely different. It was nice to know that we could be a little bit more structured.”
You can only prepare for so much, of course.
In 2012, the Patriots took a late lead in the first half on a Danny Woodhead touchdown, and seemed to be in great shape having practiced for the forthcoming 30 minutes of waiting. The Giants, once again, had to reconfigure the offense in the locker room.
“We had three tight ends. And whether we were in two backs with one tight end; one back, two tight ends; three tight ends in short yardage — we always had a tight end in,” Gilbride says. “And suddenly all three tight ends were hurt. We had no tight ends. We had to change our game plan right in the second half to two backs and three wide receivers. Or four wide receivers.”
Gilbride knew that the Patriots knew that the Giants would be rolling out unfamiliar formations, too. Neither side knew what it was in for. The Giants outscored the Patriots 12-7 in the second half for a four-point win and a second Super Bowl win because, on the fly, they were the better team.
Still, over a long run, Belichick’s Patriots have proven they will come out on top more often than not.
“I've practiced against these guys in training camp, and they literally practice over every situation you could ever imagine,” Harper says. “That's why they're always so prepared. It really kind of shows in all the games, because they never seem to beat themselves, they're so smart about everything they do. Everything has a purpose.”
In a weird way, the Patriots’ extreme routine and rigor has made them better than almost every team at handling the unexpected.
“We kind of get into a routine, especially during the season, during the regular season, and even in the playoffs where we're used to halftime being a certain length,” Patriots fullback James Develin says. “I think we have to be prepared for it. It's just the reality of the situation.
“You have those extra minutes. We can utilize them.”