Thursday, September 20, 2012

Rule Rehash: Timeouts and Challenges

Today I present a rule lesson that is a reprisal of the “Timeouts and Coaches’ Challenges” post that I ran last year to explain the rules for timeouts, strategies for using them and how the coach’s challenges work. I'm publishing it again because I've revised the second half to reflect the rule changes that have been made to the coach's challenges. Hopefully this will clear up any confusion that you may have from seeing these changes in action.



Each team is given three timeouts during each half of the game (i.e., three to be used during the first two quarters and three for the second two quarters). With timeouts, you either use 'em or lose 'em; if you only use one timeout during the first half of the game, you still only get three to use in the second half, not five. As a rule, coaches would rather save their timeouts for the end of a half, especially toward the end of the game. They would rather not have to use a timeout at the beginning of the game because, for instance, players are confused and aren’t sure what the play is going to be. It’s embarrassing, and they’ll probably wish they had that timeout back as they approach halftime or in the final seconds of the game.


Why call a time out? Glad you asked. There are lots of reasons. Here a few--some that are obvious and some that are more interesting:



1. Avoiding a delay of game penalty: The offense has only 40 seconds after a play is over to snap the ball for the next play. These 40 seconds are counted down on the play clock, which is a timing mechanism separate from the game clock. If the play clock runs down to zero before the next play starts, the offense commits a delay of game foul and loses five yards. Most of the time teams get plays started without problem. However, things can go wrong (the wrong players are on the field, there are too many players on the field, the quarterback can’t hear the signals from the coach, etc.) and the offense has to call a timeout to avoid a delay of game penalty.


2. Preserving time: A team that is behind in the score close to halftime or the end of the game will call a timeout to stop the game clock. If that team is on offense, stopping the game clock gives the team more plays to run, and, therefore, more opportunities to score. If the team is on defense, stopping the game clock forces the team that is in the lead to make plays instead of trying to “run out the clock” by taking their sweet time between plays. This way, if the offense fails to make a first down, the team that’s behind will get the ball back and have a chance to score.


3. To avoid a procedural foul: There are other fouls beside delay of game that can be called on either the offense or defense before the next play starts. These generally fall under the category of “procedural” fouls. Examples include illegal substitutions, or offside, where a defensive player may still be on the offense’s side of the line of scrimmage when the ball is snapped. If a coach or player sees that his team might commit such an offense, he will call a timeout.


4. To ice the kicker: You’ll see this happen a lot, and its ethical status is the object of some debate. Say a team is behind by two or three points at the end of the game. There is one second left in the game and that team has brought out its place kicker to attempt a field goal to win or tie up the score. Even if that team has called a timeout before sending its kicker onto the field, the opposing coach can call a timeout a split second before the ball is snapped to the kicker. This is called "icing" the kicker, and is an attempt to psych out the kicker. The coach calling the timeout will actually place himself right next to the official on his sideline so he can ask for the timeout at the exact right moment. By the time that official has blown his whistle to stop the play, the kicker has probably already kicked the ball. Of course, it won’t matter if the kick was good. This tactic is seldom effective, though, and the kicker usually makes the field goal on the next play. There have been cases, though, where icing was successful:




Now, to the coach’s challenges.  Each coach is given two “challenges” to use during the game when he believes that the officials on the field made the wrong ruling about a play. When a coach thinks the officials got it wrong, he throws a red flag onto the field where the referee will see it. The referee (who, as you know from a previous post, is the head official) will then come over to the coach, who will explain what, exactly, he is challenging.

Once the referee hears the coach’s complaint and determines that the challenge can be considered, he will then step over to a covered video monitor where he will watch replays of the play in question. Note I said that the referee has to determine that the challenge can be considered. The NFL’s rules explicitly prohibit challenges to certain rulings by the officials, such as a penalty or an instance when a penalty was not called but maybe should have been.

Once a ruling is challenged, the referee heads to a curtained booth on the sidelines that houses a television monitor.  It is there that the referee can review the play in question using all of the views of the play that were captured by the television crew on hand.  So, when you are watching the replays that are being dissected by the TV commentators, you are looking at the same shots that the referee is reviewing.

If the referee confirms the ruling that was made, the team that raised the challenge will lose one of its timeouts. Therefore, a team must still have at least one timeout remaining for the coach to make a challenge. The coach also needs to decide whether it is worth the risk of losing a timeout. If the ruling is reversed, however, the team does not lose a timeout. If a coach uses both of his allotted challenges, and is correct on both, he will earn a third challenge for that game. And so we come across another reason for calling a timeout—to buy time to decide whether it should challenge the last play.

In addition to the types of rulings that can be challenged, there are also limits on when coaches can use their challenges. They are not allowed to use their challenges in the last two minutes of the second and fourth quarters. Instead, officials in the press box will review a close play before the next play starts and page the referee to let him know that he needs to review that play. Thus, another reason to call a timeout; a coach may want to give those officials time to see the replays.

Furthermore, rule changes in 2011 and 2012 have taken review of turnovers and touchdowns out of the coaches’ hands.  Because of a change made in 2011, every touchdown is reviewed by the off-field replay officials. Once they review a touchdown, they send a page to the referee to tell him that the score is confirmed or that the referee must review it. Starting this season, the same procedure applies to turnovers—i.e., fumbles, interceptions and muffed kicks.

Since these plays are by rule reviewed by the officials, coaches are actually prohibited from throwing a challenge flag when there is a touchdown or turnover. In fact, if a coach does challenge such a play, his team is assessed a 15-yard penalty! This rule was actually a source of controversy in the Week 2 game between the Washington Redskins and the St. Louis Rams during the 2012 season.

About midway through the second quarter, the Rams were lined up for a play at the Redskins one-yard line. Running back Steven Jackson got the ball and plowed toward the goal line, when he appeared to fumble the ball, and the fumble was recovered by Ryan Kerrigan of the Redskins. Whether Steven Jackson was down on the ground when the ball came loose was a very close call, and from replays being shown by the network (and on the stadium’s jumbotron), it appeared that Jackson may have indeed been on the ground--which would have meant that the play was dead and there was no fumble.
When it didn’t appear that the officials were going to take another look at the play (or even that the replay officials in the booth were reviewing it), Rams head Jeff Fisher tossed out the red challenge flag. The fumble ruling was reviewed, reversed, and play continued.

However, Washington's head coach, Mike Shanahan (above) was incensed because the officials not only reviewed the play but also didn’t issue the prescribed 15-yard penalty. Unfortunately, this chain of events was just one bad moment in a series of bad moments for the crew of replacement officials during this game. Click here for the article by Tracee Hamilton of The Washington Post that provides a run-down of the other gaffes by the replacement officials in that contest.


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