Einstein taught us that in the universe, time is relative.
Time is also relative in football, but in a different way: Though speeds don’t approach those at which Einstein’s relativity is important, each team views the time on the game clock differently.
The Length of a Professional Football Game
In some sports, the length of a contest is measured by basic entities such as innings (baseball) or games and sets (tennis).
But it’s a game clock that governs many major sports: football, hockey, basketball, soccer. Regulation play (play excluding extra time needed to decide ties) of a football game is 60 minutes, divided into four 15-minute periods.
Starting And Stopping The Game Clock
In soccer, the game clock continues to run until the game is over: ninety minutes plus whatever time the referee adds for time taken for injuries or other stoppages.
In basketball, hockey, and football, the game clock stops and starts; time becomes critical near the end of the contest.
When Does the Game Clock Run in Football?
The game clock continues to run when the ball is in play, and after a play in which the runner is tackled on the field.
The game clock stops when a player goes out of bounds, a pass is incomplete, the ball changes possession from one team to the other, a player is injured, or a team calls time out.
The Play Clock
In basketball and football, the game clock is not the only clock in town. The other clock is called the play clock.
In basketball, the offensive team must shoot the ball within 24 seconds of gaining possession. In football, the offensive team must begin a play within 40 seconds after the end of the previous play, or within 25 seconds of a referee’s signal.
The play clock can be running when the game clock is stopped.
Near the end of a football game, the team with the lead wants the game clock to run, while the team behind would like it stopped as often as possible. End-of-Game strategy becomes critical, and many games are decided on a team’s last possession.
A team that is behind can stop the clock in several ways:
- Using plays that are likely to end up with the runner out-of-bounds. Passes are thrown near the sidelines, and running plays are designed to go to the sides of the field.
- Calling time out. This stops the clock, but each team only has three time-outs in each half.
- Spiking the ball. The quarterback throws the ball directly into the ground, which is an incomplete pass. Though the rules forbid intentionally grounding the ball — that is, deliberately throwing the ball so it will be incomplete, the applicable rule includes the phrase ‘to avoid being tackled.’ So spiking the ball stops the clock without penalty, since the quarterback does it as soon as he takes the ball from the center, and before he is in danger of being tackled.
Because the clock stops for an injury, special rules take effect in the final minutes of a game to prevent a team from faking an injury to stop the clock.
When the Clock is Running Out
Near the end of a game, the play changes significantly, because everybody sees that the clock will soon run out. In today’s NFL, teams have a ‘two-minute drill’ designed for situations in which a team needs to score quickly near the end of the game.
The drill is designed to conserve time in every way possible: calling time-outs (each team only has three each half); spiking the ball; beginning a succeeding play as quickly as possible after the end of the preceding one; running out of bounds; or throwing long passes which will either result in long gains or an incompletion.
Teams that are ahead will try to take as much time as possible. They will use running plays and use the middle of the field, so that when the runner is tackled the clock continues to run. They will use all the time on the play clock before starting the next play.
Special Tactics at the End of the Game
Teams will do things near the end of a game that they never do at any other time:
On-side kick: When a team is behind by more than a touchdown and time is running out, they cannot afford to let the other team have the ball and use up the clock. After scoring a touchdown or field goal, the scoring team kicks off, and normally kicks the ball as far as possible.
However, the kickoff rule provides that if the ball goes at least ten yards, it is a free ball. Various strategies are used to kick the ball just the minimum distance and try to recover it. The receiving team will put all its sure-handed receivers and ball carriers in the game to try to secure the ball.
During the 2014 season, onside kicks succeeded 16% of the time. Strangely, three teams combined to recover seven of 11 onside kick tries. The rest of the league succeeded only twice in 45 attempts.
Running the clock down before scoring: Teams have become so proficient in their two-minute drills that a team which is attempting to score a go-ahead touchdown or field goal will try to do it at the last possible moment — hopefully on the last play of the game. The strategy may include deliberately not scoring so the clock can continue to run.
Using the two-minute warning: Two minutes before the end of each half, the clock stops for a timeout that is not charged to either team. A team trying to conserve time might run a play in the middle of the field (which would otherwise keep the clock running) on the last play before the two-minute warning.
Time Waits at the End of a Football Game
The tide may wait for no man, but near the end of a professional football game, a team may use many tactics to keep the game clock standing still.