Scoreboard at a a high school football game

Understanding Clock Management: Seconds Count on the Gridiron

Hall of Fame executive Branch Rickey famously described baseball as a “game of inches,” correctly observing a single inch can mean the difference between a safe or out call on the bases, a home run or a foul ball, a bases-loaded walk or a strikeout, a harmless fly ball or a line drive.

Legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi offered a similar statement when he said “Football is a game of inches and inches make the champion.”

This bromide is veritable when the chains come out for a measurement or when a runner/receiver is close to a sideline or the goalline. But with all due respect to one of the most iconic head coaches in NFL history, football should instead be described as a “game of seconds.”

Football is a Game of Seconds

In football, the clock may more often decide winners and losers than the tape measure. College football teams are granted 3,600 seconds of game time to play a regulation contest and high school football teams receive only 2,880 seconds.

Although the abundance or lack of game time becomes more noticeable at the end of each half, great coaches properly manage the clock whenever it is running, even during the first series of the game.

Even a few seconds erroneously wasted or left on the clock can mean the difference between a win or a loss. Accordingly, officials must acknowledge the importance of each second by accurately applying rule book principles.

Everyone on the Crew is Responsible for Clock Management

It is not the referee’s sole responsibility to recognize how the clock will start following a stoppage. All officials should monitor the clock status (running or stopped) and should comprehend how the clock will restart (on the snap or the referee’s signal). As part of their pre-snap routine, select crew members can support the referee by signaling or verbally stating how the clock will start.

How the Clock Will Start

NFHS (3-4-3) specifies the events that will cause the clock to next start on the snap. It’s a good idea for officials to memorize the applicable list as some of the events do not often occur during the game. It’s also helpful to consider two important factors when considering how to next start the clock: For what reason did the officials stop the clock and what action preceded the stoppage?

For example, following a running play that ended inbounds, referees occasionally fail to start the clock with the ready-for-play signal following a player injury. Prior to the official’s time-out the clock was running, so it should start on the ready-for-play when the injured player departs.

Starting the Clock Following a Legal Scrimmage Kick

It is also important to understand timing rules following a legal scrimmage kick.

Play 1: In the first quarter, it is fourth and six from the K-50. R30 catches K10’s scrimmage kick and is downed on the R-10. Team R accepts the foul for Team K’s illegal formation. (a) Team R chooses to enforce the foul from the previous spot and have Team K replay the down, or (b) Team R chooses to enforce the foul from the succeeding spot and snap from the R-15. Ruling 1: In (a) the clock will start on the ready-for-play (3-4-3) and in (b) on Team R’s snap (10-4-2). The clock will start on the snap when either team is awarded a new series following a legal kick. Consequently, if Team K recovers a muffed kick beyond the neutral zone, or if a Team R foul gives Team K a first down, the clock will start on the snap.

Starting the Clock Following a Change of Possession

A change of possession during a down does not necessarily mean the clock will start on the snap.

Play 2: Second and 10 from the A-30. B33 (a) intercepts a pass or (b) recovers a fumble on the A-45. B33 then fumbles and A70 recovers on the A-25. Ruling 2: In (a) and (b), Team A is awarded a first down and the clock will start on the ready-for-play. Although Team A has a new series, the clock will not start on the snap.

When a Foul is Committed

The NFHS code provides the offended team with the option of starting the clock on the snap when a foul is committed with less than two minutes remaining in either half (NFHS 3-4-7). Note: the offended team does not have to accept the foul to have this option. The converse of this rule does not apply; the offended team cannot request the clock start on the ready-for-play if it would otherwise by rule start on the snap.

Play 3: Team A is ahead by 6 points with 1:10 left in the game. Team B is out of timeouts. Third and 10 from the A-30. A33 runs around the left end and is downed inbounds at the A-36. A70 is flagged for holding at the A-35. Ruling 3: Team B’s coach can decline A70’s foul (with limited time on the clock, Fourth and 4 is likely a better option than Third and 15) and have the clock start on the snap.

Attempt to Illegally Conserve or Consume Time

NFHS 3-4-3h and 3-4-6 address clock management when one team attempts to illegally conserve or consume time. The verbiage in the NCAA rule book provides foundational statements NFHS referees can likewise use when adjudicating the “unfair tactics” concept.

NCAA 3-4-3 says “The referee has broad authority in the timing of the game. He shall order the game clock or play clock started or stopped whenever either team conserves or consumes playing time by tactics obviously unfair. The term “obviously unfair” is open to individual referee interpretation; both rule books are silent in its definition.

It is recommended officials apply the term “obviously unfair” to the consequences of a foul instead of attempting to deduce the intent behind the foul. By definition, any foul is unfair and illegal. Consequently, although a player may not appear to purposefully foul to try to gain an advantage, referees can apply NFHS 3-4-6 to prevent the offending team from gaining an unwarranted time advantage.

Play 4: Team A is ahead by 11 points with six minutes left in the game. With one second remaining on the play clock, A75 false starts. Ruling 4: Following penalty enforcement, the referee can start the clock on the snap instead of allowing Team A to consume 24 additional valuable seconds before snapping the ball.