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2020 Rule Changes

Clock-draining fix to rules would not adequately address the glaring loophole



It was the master who used a loophole in the rules, only to have the student use it against him in a Shakespearean twist. We are now in the third act of the play, where the weapon is buried, never to be used again.

Except that is not how this play will end. The proposal on the table does nothing to fix the clock-draining tactic used multiple times by Patriots coach Bill Belichick, then wielded by his former player, Titans coach Mike Vrabel, in the final quarter of the Wild Card playoff between the two.

Outside of 5 minutes in the fourth quarter, the clock runs after any foul when the ball is made ready for play. This is largely to move the game along until time truly becomes of the essence, when the clock remains stopped for all fouls, accepted or declined. By taking a delay of game foul plus a false start, typically in punting formation, it allows the offense to take an additional 25 seconds off the clock. Wash, rinse, repeat, 25 seconds. Two consecutive delay of game fouls is a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct, but if one of those fouls is a false start, you get around the unsportsmanlike conduct.

UPDATE: The rule proposal below was passed by owners.

Scorecard of the 2020 owners videoconference meetings [live updates]

The Competition Committee has a proposal to address this tactic, but they do not adequately fix the issue. Very simply, it should be a 15-yard penalty on the second foul that prevents the snap. Instead, the clock will start on the snap for all offensive dead-ball fouls in the fourth quarter or overtime. The problem is, the defense must accept the penalty in order to erase the offense’s clock advantage. In all cases where this loophole was seen in the 2019 season, it was a fourth down where the defense did not want to give the punter a 5-yard cushion to avoid a touchback. Additionally, it is ripe to be exploited yet again, as there are no additional penalties included in the proposal.

This could be fixed one of two ways: the first is to attach it to the list of unsportsmanlike conduct fouls in Rule 12-3-1, with the change in bold:

(n) Two successive delay-of-game penalties or, in the judgment of the Referee, other successive dead-ball fouls that prevent the snap to manipulate the game clock during the same down.

This avoids a 15-yard penalty on a rookie lineman who is just really twitchy, and allows this to be expanded only to situations where it is clear the coach is just running the clock down. Officials would be given enforcement instructions to only use this added provision when the play clock has been run down.

The second method is to add this to the existing language that was added to the rules when the offense or defense used multiple fouls on one play to manipulate the game clock. Currently, Rule 12-3-3, which is still in the unsportsmanlike conduct section, currently reads:

A team may not commit multiple fouls during the same down in an attempt to manipulate the game clock.
Penalty: For multiple fouls to run off time from the game clock: Loss of 15 yards, and the game clock will be reset to where it was at the snap. After the penalty is enforced, the game clock will start on the next snap.

This can easily be reworked to add a sentence including fouls by the offense that prevent the snap. The penalty would then have to reflect that there was no snap, so essentially the referee could put 25 seconds back on the game clock on the second foul.

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)

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