A scramble at the end of the first half of the Monday evening game has the NFL officiating department focusing on their procedures when there is a running clock at the end of the half.
With seconds to go in the second quarter without timeouts on 3rd & 16 from the Steelers 24, Washington quarterback Alex Smith was sacked for a 7-yard loss. Knowing that the officials were going to spot a K ball — the specialized kicking ball that officials remove from a factory-sealed package in pregame — Smith tried to help the officiating crew by taking the ball off the field with him, trying to save a few seconds for his field-goal team. Typically, runners in this situation aid the umpire spot the ball when seconds matter, and Smith took this an extra step, thinking it would actually help.
However, umpire Roy Ellison was going to just spot the ball from the third-down play, but seeing there was no ball, feverishly looked to the sideline. Sensing a delay, Ellison stopped the clock under the rule that allows stoppages for administrative delays. Of course, the delay was exacerbated by Smith’s actions. We are going to assume that Smith’s intentions were to assist, because there is no way he could assume they would get a stoppage. This only is relevant from the standpoint that there wasn’t an intentional manipulation of the clock, but that does not factor into a decision to stop the clock.
The stoppage was reactionary to Ellison’s confusion, but it was not appropriate to do so under these circumstances. The league has addressed this going forward in the weekly training video disseminated to the officiating staff.
Football Zebras has learned from sources familiar with the contents of the training video, senior vice president of officiating development and training Walt Anderson specifically addressed that play and corrective actions going forward.
- Anderson reiterated that the crew can spot the scrimmage ball from the previous down rather than the K ball in a time-constrained running-clock situation. If the K ball is available in time, then use it. He said a guideline should be 20 seconds on the game clock, upping it from the “approximately 10” seconds under existing procedures.
- In these situations, the referee will have sole responsibility for determining administrative stoppages.
- In the case of an administrative stoppage, the clock must resume as soon as possible. Had an administrative stoppage been appropriate on this play, the clock should have been wound about 3 seconds later when a new ball enters the field, and that any official could have done so. There would not be a conference and an announcement by the referee as was done here.
- Teams are going to be informed of the 20-second benchmark and that there will not be an administrative stoppage in this situation.
Readers of my book So You Think You Know Football already knew the officiating mechanic on spotting a scrimmage ball in a hurry-up was established in 2009, when the Steelers were again on defense, and the Ravens scrambled to get a kick on the way in their Week 12 matchup.
As side judge Barry Anderson (now an umpire) and umpire Chad Brown scrambled to get the K ball in, the crew lost sight of the fact the third-down play ended on a forward fumble. When there is a forward fumble under two minutes, the ball returns to the fumble spot by rule. Had the field goal been converted by the Ravens, it would have been aided by the incorrect spot being more favorable by about 4 yards. Although the Ravens prevailed in overtime, the final wild-card seed that the Ravens attained through a tiebreaker with the Steelers would have been tinged by that incorrect spot on a decisive field goal at the end of regulation.
Vice president of officiating Mike Pereira then announced on the NFL Network segment “Official Review” (remember that?) that the mechanic going forward with a running clock, the crew will spot the best available ball, defaulting to the scrimmage ball if necessary.
Who has the K balls?
Because there is extraordinary scrutiny around the K ball supply and a Byzantine process surrounding it, a league-hired K ball coordinator is assigned to each game to ensure the proper K ball is used. (Each team has 3 K balls, and the same one is used by that team in that game until it becomes a fan’s souvenir or a defensive player’s trophy ball.) However, owing to coronavirus policies limiting the number of sideline personnel, the team ball handlers carry the K balls. It is important that those ball handlers have the situational awareness that the K ball coordinators did in previous years.
When it is possible to switch out the game ball, as umpire Paul King and down judge Ed Camp demonstrate, it is like a work of art when everything works in simpatico.