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Clock countdown could’ve caused controversy, as Steelers win at :00




Week 5: Steelers at Chargers (video)

An unusual clock error occurred in the final minutes of Monday Night Football, although it fortunately had little effect on the game.

The kickoff following the Chargers go-ahead field goal was a touchback with 2:56 on the clock. For whatever reason, the clock then began to run erroneously until the Steelers huddled up, at which time the clock stopped at 2:38. None of the officiating crew saw the loss of 18 seconds. On a kickoff, the clock runs when the receiving team touches the ball in the field of play; in this case no time should have run from the clock.

At the time the clock was running, the officials were getting the ball ready for play and counting up the incoming players. The side judge has clock-monitoring duties, and should have been aware of the fact that the kickoff time and the snap time were not equal. Failing that, any official should step in and make the correction, although the issue occurred at a point where is little reason to check on the clock. The clock cannot be reviewed in replay, except for very limited circumstances regarding the expiration of the game clock. However, the replay official could notify the crew through the wireless headsets if an error is detected (even if it is off of the written procedures). The crew has until the next snap to make the correction, at which point any error is rendered permanent. The entire crew is responsible for the error (quoting the 2013 rulebook with my emphasis; the provision is now contained in the officiating manual):

All members of a crew are equally responsible for any errors in Officiating Mechanics as prescribed by the Manual. … This applies to such errors, in mechanics or applications of rules, as those tend to increase the length of the game (elapsed time) and particularly so to those which result in undue loss of playing time (Crew Time).

The clock operator obfuscated the error by stopping the clock after 18 seconds, assuming that it was stopped deliberately and not because of some other cause. In this case, the clock could have continued to run or have it flash to 15:00 or :00 — all indications that there is a problem. At that time, the side judge would have to go to a sideline phone to contact the booth to get the time corrected. This happened during a measurement in a Rams-49ers game in 2012 (when the timing was a line judge duty). They could not ascertain the error, which resulted in a 73-second runoff in the first half.

Clock operators (one for the game clock and one for the play clock) are local people, generally officials at some level, hired and trained by the officiating department. In the playoffs, the clocks are staffed from another team’s city, usually not from the same conference.

Whatever the malfunction that occurred, it is notable that this is the third clock issue at San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium in two years. Last season, the play clock malfunctioned twice (once showing two different times and another when the numbers were indiscernible) resulting in the play clock being shut down. If referee Pete Morelli felt that the clock operation would need to be assumed on the field, the Steelers would only have a verbal announcement between plays to know the remaining time in the game.

Again, this seems to have not had any impact in the timing of the game after the two-minute warning, because it appears the Steelers would have run the ball twice to get to 2:00. This still does not detract from the magnitude of the error, but at least it did not have an effect on the result.

Update 10/13, 12 p.m. ET:League spokesman Michael Signora sent the following statement to Football Zebras:

With 2:56 remaining in the fourth quarter, San Diego kicked off to Pittsburgh. The kick resulted in a touchback.  By rule, the game clock does not start if the receiving team possesses the ball in the end zone and does not carry it into the field of play. Because of an error by the clock operator, the game clock was incorrectly started before the Steelers’ first play from scrimmage following the touchback.  That first down snap came with 2:38 left to play instead of 2:56, a difference of 18 seconds. The official game time is kept on the stadium scoreboard, but it is the responsibility of the side judge to supervise the timing of the game.  Had the side judge or any of the other six on-field officials noticed the timing error, they could have corrected itThe game clock is not subject to instant replay review unless there is a timing issue on the last play of the first half or the last play of the game. The performance of the clock operator and game officials will be reviewed per the standard procedure for reviewing every play of every game.

Image: Tim Case

Ben Austro is the editor and founder of Football Zebras and the author of So You Think You Know Football?: The Armchair Ref's Guide to the Official Rules (on sale now)