Some times, the most frantic time on a football field is the last two seconds of the play clock. Sometimes the offense is milking the clock, other times the coach sees something and calls an audible. Sometimes the quarterback snaps the ball when the play clock hits zero or the coach calls timeout right as the clock hits zero. So, is it delay of game, a charged timeout or a legal snap? The NFL has a set of mechanics to cover the play clock.
The back judge is in charge of the play clock. He is the sole authority of ruling on delay of game. Each stadium has a play clock situated near ground level in each end zone. The quarterback can clearly see the clock. The back judge places himself where he can see his keys: 1) the eligible receiver he’s supposed to watch 2) the play clock and 3) the snap.
Anatomy of Delay of Game
When the play clock starts to wind down, the back judge watches the clock. He uses his peripheral vision to watch the offensive formation. When the play clock hits zero, the back judge shifts his eyes to the line of scrimmage. If the offense still hasn’t snapped the ball, he blows the whistle and throws a delay of game flag. Mike Pereira explained that it takes a quarter of a second for the back judge to shift his gaze from the play clock to the ball. The offense gets a quarter of a second grace period.
What about a timeout?
If a coach sees there could be delay of game, he can call timeout. But he can’t get the back judge’s attention because the official standing in the middle of the field and looking at the play clock. So the coach will run up to a wing official to call timeout. The wing official knows if the coach got the timeout before the back judge blew his whistle for delay of game. If the wing hears the coach call timeout and the back judge a split second later blows the whistle, the wing official will run in and report to the referee that the coach called timeout before the back judge called delay of game. So then we’ll hear the referee announce something like, “Before the delay of game, timeout (team).”
But, the onus is on the coach to get the official’s attention and call timeout. The officials have to watch the field, so the coach must be close to the official. There was controversy in Week 1 as San Francisco head coach, Kyle Shanahan, didn’t get the timeout called in time. He yelled at down judge Hugo Cruz that he called timeout before the delay of game (video). But, if you look carefully at the video, Shanahan sprints to Cruz calling the timeout, but Cruz didn’t see or hear Shanahan. Shanahan could cuss at Cruz all day, but that foul was on him.
So while things can get a little crazy as the play clock winds down, the NFL officials have well-defined mechanics to rule of delay of game.