Several times a season, we get fans asking us about delay of game. The play clock on the TV screen hits :00, and an instant later the quarterback snaps the ball. It certainly looks like the offense is guilty of delay of game, but there is no flag.
Officiating mechanics build in a fraction of a second’s grace for the offense to get the play off.
The back judge is responsible for the play clock. He or she makes sure the clock runs properly and is solely responsible for ruling on delay of game. In every stadium, there are two play clocks, very visible from field level, located in each end zone.
As the offense is in it’s formation, the back judge first picks up his key in the offensive formation. Then as the play clock winds down, he focuses on the clock. When the play clock hits zero, he shifts his gaze to the offensive formation. If the center is snapping the ball, the back judge does not call delay of game. If the quarterback is still in his cadence and the center has not snapped the ball, then the back judge throws a flag for delay of game.
Since the back judge has to transition his eyes from the clock to the center, the offense naturally gets around an extra quarter of a second to get the snap off. The back judge can’t look in two places at once. Unlike basketball, there is no light or buzzer to indicate the play clock has expired (I doubt the officials could hear a buzzer in an outdoor stadium full of screaming fans). It is against the rules for officials to review the clock relating to delay of game. Not only that, but the Competition Committee does not want this parsed down to tenths of a second. They want the offense to be able to snap on the zero, but not after.
As the play clock winds down, the down judge and line judge need to be listening for the head coach to call time out. If the head coach calls timeout before the back judge blows the delay of game whistle, the team gets a timeout instead of a penalty.
While fans may not agree or be satisfied at this inexact science to determine delay of game, it is the same for both teams and helps keep the game moving.
If we went to an exact science of determining delay of game, the game would bog down with a big jump in delay of game fouls.