Game Play Thursday : All About Clocks

football, advanced, clocksYou’re watching a game. There are 12 minutes left in the 4th quarter. But while the quarterback is making changes at the line before the snap, there is a little clock that is ticking down a dwindling number of seconds. The game clock says 12:00, but the other clock is counting down 5…4…3…2…before the quarterback motions for the snap and the play begins.

So, what gives?

There are two clocks running during every football game, and they each calculate different expanses of time. Just to make life more interesting.

The clock that counts down the time remaining in each quarter is the game clock. There are 15 minutes in each quarter. Once started, the game clock only stops:

  • when an incomplete pass is thrown
  • when a player with the ball runs out of bounds
  • at the end of a kicking play, a scoring play, or a quarter
  • when an official review is needed (measurement, replay, challenge, etc)
  • when a penalty is called
  • when an injury occurs
  • when a timeout is called (um, duh)

The game clock does not run during extra point attempts, even if a team decides to go for two.

*There are a few caveats to the main clock-stoppage plays as described above, but those are the primary plays in which the clock will be stopped. 

The play clock counts down the amount of time a team has to get a play started. You usually only see it (up by the scoreboard or electronically placed on the field) when time is close to running out. A team has 40 seconds from the end of a previous play to start the next play, unless it is one of the following situations, in which case the play clock is set to 25 seconds:

  • a change of possession
  • a charged team time out
  • the 2-minute warning
  • the end of a quarter
  • a penalty is called
  • an extra point attempt
  • a free kick

So unlike the game clock, the play clock does run during extra point attempts. It’s helpful to note that the game clock and the play clock are not always running at the same time.

Just in case you wanted to be thrown for another loop, here’s this: For most of the game, the play clock stops when a player goes out of bounds and is restarted once the officials spot the ball at the correct yardage marker. But during the last two minutes of the first half and the last five minutes of the second half, the play clock stops when a player goes out of bounds and doesn’t restart until the ball is snapped on the next play.

The NFL: Making Life Complicated Since 1920.

Need help remembering all of this?

  • The game clock keeps time for the game as a whole, and only starts and stops – the length of time isn’t added to or subtracted from (unless there’s an error).
  • The play clock keeps time in between plays and is almost always running – the length of time it’s set to (25 or 40 seconds) can change depending on the play.

So what’s up with the mini clock that’s counting down quickly when there’s still 12 minutes left in the game? That’s the play clock. If the offense doesn’t get the ball snapped before the time on the play clock expires, they will be charged a delay of game penalty, which is a 5-yard penalty.

Make sense?

This is where clock management comes into play. In a nutshell, clock management is using the time on the clock effectively – the game clock and the play clock – to put your team in the best position to win. The responsibility of clock management falls mainly on the quarterback, through the leadership/play calling of the head coach. If there are only 10 seconds left on the play clock, the quarterback needs to call out the play and get everyone set on the line of scrimmage immediately before the clock runs out. It’s each player’s responsibility to get the play and get lined up effectively, but the quarterback needs to orchestrate that sequence.

Have you ever heard commentators talking about a “2-minute drill”? That’s clock management as well. If a team is behind with a short amount of time left in the game – about 2 minutes or so – they usually have a set plan for how to proceed in a way that will lead to a win. That’s not to say that it will work, but the 2-minute drill is practiced every week to ensure that everyone is on the same page for clock management and play calling at the end of the game.

Clock management isn’t just for teams that are losing at the end of the game. Teams also practice 4-minute drills to run out the clock at the end of the game if they’re on top so that the other team doesn’t have a chance to get the ball back with a lot of time left to work with. Running time off the clock usually entails a lot of running plays – they take more time off of the clock because they are often short-yardage plays in which players stay in-bounds, so an effective running team can take lots of time off of the clock by slowly but surely plowing down the field.

You’ve surely also heard this at the end of almost any game: “And with that, the (insert team here) can run out the clock,” and this signals that the team will win the game without running any more plays, besides the quarterback kneeling down in victory formation several times. Why?

Two minutes = 120 seconds, right? You know what also equals 120 seconds? Three expirations of the play clock. 40 seconds x 3 downs = 120 seconds. So if the team in possession of the football at the 2-minute warning has the lead and a first down and the other team is out of time outs and therefore can’t stop the clock, the team with the ball can take a knee three times to “run out the clock” and win the game.

But let’s be clear: clock management isn’t just for the end of the game! In last week’s Ravens at Patriots Conference Championship game we saw the Patriots practice terrible clock management skills at the end of the first half. Head coach Bill Belichick and QB Tom Brady uncharacteristically mismanaged time by calling a quarterback sneak – a play that tends to stay in-bounds – with about 20 seconds left on the clock. Then, instead of using their last time out of the half, they tried to get to the line of scrimmage in time to clock the ball (taking a quick snap and downing it right at the line of scrimmage to stop the play clock and prepare for the next play) and try for a touchdown pass on the next play. But they couldn’t get everyone to the line before time expired, so they missed an opportunity for that touchdown try – or a field goal at the very least.

Clock management – though critical at the end of each half – is something that both teams manage well for the entire game, not just when it matters most.

Who knew clocks could generate such a long post? But now you should feel comfortable with the ins and outs of clock management in all its crazy glory. Questions, comments, or anything I missed? Leave ’em in the comments!