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Sunday, January 05, 2020

Limiting rules in football

On Saturday, the Tennessee Titans ran almost two minutes off the clock without a snap in their Wildcard Round win over the New England Patriots, exploiting a glitch in the rules that calls for a limiting rule.

Lining to punt on 4th down with the game clock running, the Titans took a delay-of-game penalty; the clock restarted when the ball was placed after the 5-yard walk-off. The Titans then false-started; the clock restarted when the ball was placed. The Patriots then jumped offside; the clock restarted when the ball was replaced. Finally, the Titans punted.

When a team commits a foul and the penalty yardage is walked off, the clock proceeds as it would have had there been no infraction--if the clock would have stopped, it restarts on the snap; if the clock would have run, it restarts once the ball is replaced. Inside of 5 minutes remaining in the second half, the clock restarts on the snap. As I explain here and here, the second rule is designed to inject excitement by preventing leading teams from wasting time and forcing them to run more plays, from the point in the game in which the incentive to waste time begins.

This game reveals three things:

First, although I did not think of it this way when writing the book (but should have), the second rule qualifies as a limiting rule addressing a cost-benefit imbalance under the default rule, akin to the Infield Fly Rule. The offense is acting contrary to expectation (taking a penalty); the time benefits it gains are much overwhelmingly greater than the yardage costs (and vice versa for the trailing defensive team);  the defense cannot do anything to stop the offense from intentionally committing pre-snap fouls; and a leading team has a perverse incentive to try this.

Second, the rules attempt to address the perverse incentives with two different limiting rules. Two successive delay penalties constitute unsportsmanlike conduct, a 15-yard infraction. This is why the second foul was not another delay, but false start. And a team cannot commit multiple fouls on the same down to "manipulate the game clock;" the penalty is 15 yards, time back on the clock, and the clock restarting on the snap. This rule is why, after the second penalty, the Titans were ready to punt. The third play came because the Patriots committed an infraction that gave the Titans extra time; the Titans cannot be blamed for the opponent's violation. But these two rules should be sufficient, unless officials are reluctant to find clock manipulation off one or even two false starts.

Third, the incentive for a leading team to waste time begins earlier than the 5-minute mark. It is not clear where it begins--that probably depends on score and location on the field. The only solution may be to change the default rule and always have the clock start on the snap following a penalty. That will necessitate other limiting rules involving clock run-offs to eliminate the perverse incentive for trailing teams to commit their own intentional fouls.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on January 5, 2020 at 05:47 PM in Howard Wasserman, Sports | Permalink


Is conserving time through defensive penalties really a concern? It seems like the combination of free plays, automatic first downs, and the yardage awarded are adequate disincentives. Take the example in your paper. That only worked because the Saints completed a pass that gained a first down. Anything short of that and the Falcons would have been worse off thanks to the penalty. The penalty would have negated a turnover (the ideal outcome for the Falcons) or a sack (the second best outcome, especially with two timeouts and the two minute warning). The penalty would have turned an incomplete pass into a first down five yards farther down the field. Given that it was second down, the Falcons almost certainly would have preferred a pass completion short of the first down with the clock running, bringing up third down and a chance to get the ball back, to an automatic first down with the clock stopped. It seems like the scenarios where the defense can exploit penalties to their benefit to preserve time are extremely limited.

Posted by: jph12 | Jan 8, 2020 1:28:16 PM

Not the same because: 1) holding the ball is not acting contrary to athletic expectations compared with intentionally fouling and 2) the trailing team has a defensive counter to the play.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Jan 7, 2020 9:38:50 AM

Okay now do soccer and teams running out the clock doing everything really slowly with 1-0 leads.

Posted by: Hugh down | Jan 7, 2020 9:29:12 AM

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