A model-based approach to football strategy.

November 8, 2004


Intentional Fouls For Clock Management

In this article we discuss situations in which the rules allow the defense to obtain crucial clock-management benefits from an intentional foul prior to the final minute of either half. It appears that at least some coaches are not familiar with these possibilities, which exist despite the half-hearted efforts of the NFL to eliminate them through recent rule changes.

Usefulness Of Intentional Fouls

In the Week 6 game between the San Diego Chargers and the Atlanta Falcons, the Falcons led 21-20 with 2:22 remaining, and had the ball at the Chargers' 48 yard line, 2nd down and 10 yards to go. The Chargers had no timeouts. On the next play Atlanta completed a pass for 24 yards and a first down, and both teams evidently believed the game was decided. The clock ran down to the two-minute warning, and then Atlanta took a knee three times to run out the clock.

But what if following the play that picks up the first down, a San Diego player commits a foul? For concreteness, suppose he takes off his helmet. The clock stops for the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty (Rule 12-3-1-g). Moreover, according to Rule 4-3-1,

If the game clock was stopped for a foul by either team (whether penalty is accepted or declined), it will be started when the ball is declared ready for play; except when the foul occurred after the two-minute warning of the first half, or the last five minutes of the second half, in which case the clock starts on the snap.

So, the Chargers are penalized 12 yards — half the distance to the goal — but the clock remains stopped until the snap, just as if the Chargers had called timeout. The Falcons then need another first down to run out the clock; they can't simply take a knee. Even if the Falcons score a touchdown or field goal, the Chargers get the ball back and have a chance to win.

Another case in which an intentional foul would have been beneficial arose during the Week 7 game between the New York Jets and the New England Patriots. The Patriots led 13-7 at the two-minute warning, and had the ball, 3rd down and 2 yards to go at their own 38 yard line. The Jets had one timeout remaining. On the next play, Corey Dillon ran for 4 yards and a first down, and the Jets' remaining timeout was insufficient to keep the Patriots from taking a knee three times to end the game.

If the Jets commit a foul immediately following the play on which Dillon makes the first down, the Patriots need yet another first down to run out the clock. If the Patriots don't make another first down, the Jets get the ball back with a chance for a winning touchdown.

As these examples illustrate, the intentional foul can occur after the play, when the ball is dead. However, it could also come while the ball is in play, once it becomes clear that the opponents have gained the first down on the play anyway. If the penalty is five yards, the opponents might even find it in their interest to decline the penalty, in which case you stop the clock at no cost. However, many fouls that occur while the ball is in play carry a risk of injury, and we would never suggest or condone an intentional foul that risks an injury to any player.

Notice that there can never be a clock-management benefit from a foul that gives the opponents a first down that they wouldn't have had otherwise. For example, consider the Week 5 game between the Baltimore Ravens and the Washington Redskins. Baltimore led 17-10 with 1:49 remaining, and had the ball 1st and 10. Washington had no timeouts. On the next play Baltimore quarterback Kyle Boller took a knee, beginning the process of running out the clock. Shoving that occurred well after the play ended resulted in an unnecessary roughness penalty against Washington. The clock stopped for the penalty at 1:38, and didn't restart until the snap. However, because the accepted penalty made it 1st down instead of 2nd down, the clock stoppage didn't help Washington.

The Final Minute Of A Half

Rule 4-3-10 says that

A team is not permitted to conserve time inside of one minute of either half by committing any of the following acts: fouls by either team that prevent the snap (i.e., false start, encroachment, etc.), intentional grounding, an illegal forward pass thrown from beyond the line of scrimmage with the intent to conserve time, throwing a backward pass out of bounds with the intent to conserve time, and any other intentional foul that causes the clock to stop.
Penalty: Loss of five yards unless a larger distance penalty is applicable. When actions referred to above are committed by the offensive team with the clock running, officials will run 10 seconds off the game clock before permitting the ball to be put in play on the ready for play signal. The clock will start on the ready for play signal. If the offensive team has timeouts remaining, it will have the option of using a timeout in lieu of a 10-second runoff. If the action is by the defense, the play clock will be reset to 40 seconds and the game clock will start on the ready signal. If the defense has timeouts remaining, it will have the option of using a timeout in lieu of the game clock being started.
Note: There can never be a 10-second runoff against the defensive team.

Because of Rule 4-3-10, an intentional foul cannot confer clock-management benefits in the last minute of either half.

Timing Anomalies From Unintentional Fouls

Under current rules, it's not extremely unusual for an unintentional penalty to yield clock-management benefits for the offending team. For example, in the Week 7 game between the New Orleans Saints and the Oakland Raiders, New Orleans led 31-26 with 2:17 left. The Saints had the ball at their own 44 yard line, 3rd down and 7 yards to go. Oakland had two timeouts. On the next play, New Orleans completed a pass up the middle for 11 yards and a first down. However, Oakland defensive lineman Tyler Brayton was offsides. In this case the foul surely wasn't intentional — Brayton couldn't have known that the play would yield a first down — so Rule 4-3-10 wouldn't have applied even if the clock had been under 1:00. But the damage to New Orleans was done. Even though the Saints declined the penalty, the clock remained stopped until the next snap. Had there not been a penalty, Oakland would have had to use a timeout, or else let New Orleans run the game clock down to the two-minute warning.

Of course, under current rules there are also cases in which the offense benefits from committing a foul. Consider the Week 9 game between the Chicago Bears and the New York Giants. The Giants trailed 28-21 with 1:49 remaining, and had the ball, 2nd down and 10 yards to go at their own 40 yard line. The Giants had no timeouts.

On 2nd down, Giants' quarterback Kurt Warner was sacked. In the last two minutes of either half, the game clock continues running after a sack. However, Giants' lineman David Diehl was called for holding. This stopped the clock at 1:42, to the Giants' advantage, and even though the Bears declined the penalty, the clock remained stopped until the snap.

Copyright © 2004 by William S. Krasker