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The Long Halftime: How NFL Teams Navigate a Super Bowl Challenge

Sometimes - a lot of times - it’s the little things that trip you up. Something you considered unimportant or inconsequential enough to prepare or plan for that ends up crushing your dreams.

Five years ago, Doug Pederson left no stone unturned preparing the Philadelphia Eagles for their Super Bowl LII battle against Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots. That included the game’s interminably long halftime.

During the regular season, NFL halftimes last 12 minutes, which is barely enough time to walk to the locker room, go to the bathroom, chug down a bottle of Gatorade, get a quick retape on that sore ankle and listen to some very brief second-half instructions from the coaches.

But the Super Bowl is an Extravaganza, with a capital E, complete with mega-star entertainment, a supporting cast of hundreds and a stage the size of an aircraft carrier.

Super Bowl halftimes last 30 minutes. That’s great for fans of Rihanna, Justin Timberlake, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Jennifer Lopez and other Super Bowl halftime acts, but not so great for the teams playing in the game, who must adjust to much longer down time.

Last year's Super Bowl halftime show performance with Dr. Dre, Eminem, Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar, Mary J. Blige and 50 Cent lasted over 14 minutes.

“A lot of coaches that play in that game, they either forget [about the long halftime] or don’t really think it’s that important,’’ said Pederson. “But I felt it was extremely important to understand just how much time our players were going to have and what was the best way to deal with it.’’

Pederson had Jon Ferrari, then the Eagles’ director of football compliance and now assistant general manager with the team, do some research to find out how other teams had dealt with the half-hour break.

Then, Pederson became the first coach in history to actually practice for halftime. The Eagles practiced the week before Super Bowl LII at the University of Minnesota’s indoor facility. Midway through Thursday’s two-hour practice, he instructed his team to leave the field and return to the locker room. Kept them in there for 30 minutes, then brought them back out for the final half of practice.

“I had communicated with the team that I was going to do it,’’ said Pederson, who now is the head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars. “Some of the players gave me some crap. Said I was lengthening practice and this and that. I said, ‘I might be lengthening practice, but I think you’re going to appreciate the fact that we did it.’ ’’

When the team got back to the locker room, Pederson put them on the clock. He broke down halftime into 10-minute segments.

“The first 10 minutes was just having the players get off their feet and hydrate and rest,’’ he said. “The coaches prepped for the second half.  During the second 10 minutes, the coaches got together with the players and did their halftime adjustments.

“The last 10 minutes was our strength and conditioning staff doing some dynamic warmups and stretching with the players. Just getting the muscles firing again for the second half.’’

Pederson had talked with the team’s strength and conditioning and nutrition staffs in the days leading up to the game, making sure they both had plans in place for halftime.

“Funny story with it,’’ Pederson said. “Even though we had prepped it and had talked to the entire team about it, we come in at halftime on game day. I always meet with my O-line guys. (Offensive line coach) Jeff Stoutland was in my office. So was (offensive coordinator) Frank Reich.

“Stout starts shouting out all of these adjustments to his guys. I said, ‘Jeff, stop. We have 10 minutes. Relax.’ He said, ‘Oh yeah. I forgot.’ ’’

When his Indianapolis Colts made it to Super Bowl XLI in 2007, Tony Dungy called three colleagues – Andy Reid, Bill Cowher and Mike Holmgren – for advice on how to handle the many different aspects of the game, including the long halftime. Reid was in the Super Bowl two years earlier with the Eagles (they lost to the Patriots, 24-21). Cowher had been there the year before with the Steelers (they beat Seattle, 21-10). Holmgren had taken teams to the Super Bowl three times, twice in the late ‘90s with the Green Bay Packers and the previous year with the Seahawks team that lost to Cowher’s Steelers.

“I played in the Super Bowl with the Steelers [in 1979], but that had been more than 25 years ago,’’ Dungy said. “That’s why I called those guys for advice. The one thing all three said was the time before the game for pre-game warmups and the halftime were so much different [than the regular season].

“I remember Andy telling me when the Eagles played New England, he thought they were going to win because his guys were all pumped up and ready to go [before the game]. He watched the Patriot guys during the [player] introductions and they were lollygagging around. He said he told one of his coaches, ‘They’re not even into this.’ Then he realized that they still had 30 minutes to go before the game started and his guys were all worn out by the opening kickoff. So he said you have to prepare for the long pre-game and the long halftime.’’

Dungy used two clocks in the locker room at halftime – one for the first 18 minutes and another for the last 12.

“We were going to let everybody change clothes, relax, eat,’’ Dungy said. “We had snacks for them. We weren’t going to do anything in terms of our prep work in the first 18 minutes. We were going to let the coaches work on that separately. Then, in the final 12 minutes, we would try to get into our normal halftime routine before the second-half kickoff.

“As it turned out, it worked out perfectly for us. Because everybody was so wet (the game was played outdoors in Miami and it had rained during the first half). We were changing clothes. We were changing shoes. So we did all of that and had a chance to relax and regroup and then were able to get into our 12-minute routine.’’

Dungy had four players on that Colts team with previous Super Bowl experience, including kicker Adam Vinatieri, wide receiver Ricky Proehl and defensive tackle Booger McFarland. He had them address the players during the week about dealing with things like the long halftime.

“We let them talk about what the players needed to do,’’ he said. “They talked about the routine and what you needed to be careful about. Some of our guys wanted to go out on the field and listen to Prince. I said that’s not going to happen. I think it was Adam who told them they would be getting a recording of the halftime show.’’

Ronde Barber actually did watch the Super Bowl XXXVII halftime show in San Diego when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers played the Oakland Raiders. The Bucs manhandled the Raiders, beating them, 48-21. They were up 20-3 at the half, having held the Raiders to 62 total yards and three first downs. Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon, who was the league’s Most Valuable Player that year, completed just 7 of 17 passes for 56 yards and threw two interceptions in the first half.

“We were beating the snot out of Oakland at the half,’’ said Barber, who is an analyst for The 33rd Team. “I took my shoes off and my pads off and went and watched the halftime show in the little room where the video guys were doing their work at halftime. I can’t even remember who performed that year (Shania Twain and Sting). But we were playing well. There was nothing to go over.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Jon Gruden raised the Vince Lombardi Trophy as he celebrated a victory over the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII.

“I think Jon (Gruden) was in front of us for like five minutes total. He told us to stay hydrated. That was pretty much it. I just tried to chill and stay relaxed. I often wonder if I would’ve done the same thing if we had been getting beat.’’

Probably not. Gannon definitely didn’t watch Shania. He said Raiders coach Bill Callahan barely mentioned the long halftime in the days leading up to Super Bowl XXXVII.

“We’re creatures of habit,’’ said Gannon, who also is an analyst for The 33rd Team. “To get thrown off your routine or rhythm, especially in a game like that, particularly if things aren’t going the way you anticipated, it’s a big deal.

“To say we handled it poorly would be a gross understatement. We barely talked about it. It was mentioned at the end of a meeting that, oh yeah, this is going to be a little bit longer halftime.

“I’m not trying to blame Bill. But we just didn’t handle that very well. We were down two scores and come into the locker room and don’t know what the plan is for the next 30 minutes. We basically just sat in front of our lockers.

“The coach could’ve easily said, ‘OK, guys. We’ve got 30 minutes of football left. Let’s take five minutes to talk about the first half. Take a deep breath. That kind of encouragement would have been beneficial to some people who were, quite frankly, shellshocked.’’

Gannon said the Raiders didn’t even have a plan for stretching during the long halftime.

“Even that wasn’t really talked about,’’ he said. “I’m sure somebody said something about staying loose or something. But that was it. Thirty minutes is a long time to be sitting around, especially for older guys like me (he was 37 at the time). You have to re-warm up. It’s almost like starting another game.’’

“One of your biggest fears is getting stiff during the game,’’ said defensive end Chris Long, who played in – and won – back-to-back Super Bowls with the Patriots and Eagles in 2016 and 2017. “Especially if you’re a little bit older. And at that stage of my career, I was a little bit older (he was 32 when he won with the Eagles). One of the teams had a (stretching) routine in the locker room, but I also had my own routine as well. Those Super Bowl locker rooms were so spacious that you could have the whole team stretching and doing warm-up stuff and band work.

“I can remember hearing the music from the halftime show echoing through the ceiling a little bit. It’s hard to stay focused. Even when you’re trying to focus on what Matt Patricia or Bill (Belichick) is saying, there’s always reminders that this is not a normal game.’’

Paul Domowitch covered the Eagles and the NFL for the Philadelphia Inquirer for four decades. You can follow him on Twitter at @pdomo.