As you might have heard, the Buffalo Bills lost a heartbreaking playoff game to the Houston Texans. There are plenty of fingers being pointed, most of them in the right direction even. But, while I don’t think the officials had a perfect game, one controversial no-call doesn’t deserve the blame it’s getting. Let’s examine the delay-of-game penalty that wasn’t called on a critical 3rd-and-18 in overtime.
Unlike the last time I broke out the NFL Rulebook, this one is cut and dry. Here you go:
“It is a delay of the game if the ball is not put in play by a snap within 40 seconds after the start of the play clock. The play clock operator shall time the interval between plays upon signals from game officials. The 40-second interval starts when a play ends, unless Article 2 below applies.”
Let’s get this out of the way. By rule Deshaun Watson committed a delay of game. By practice though, it’s a different story. Let’s move away from the rules and dive into responsibilities and reality.
The Back Judge
There’s a link I love sharing and here it is again. Seriously, click on this link right here. It’s an interactive graphic on the responsibilities of all the officials. Hover over a role and you’ll get a list of all the things they’re supposed to be doing. We want to focus on the Back Judge.
The Back Judge is the little guy in the light blue circle up top. This official is solely responsible for keeping track of the play clock. They’re also responsible for counting the defensive players on the field. Then they need to find the tight end so they can cover that position when the play starts. They need to focus too, because they can’t lose the player if they go in motion. While all that’s going on they’re also keeping an eye on the clock.
Note that not once have I said they’re looking at the ball. It’s only after the clock hits zero that the back judge looks for the snap. This requires the official to move their gaze from tight end to the center and make sure the ball has not been put in play. And only then can they reach for a flag.
The shifting gaze, decision, and subsequent reach for the flag takes time. Not much. But some. This tiny bit of time is like an unofficial grace period for the offense. As this article from FootballZebras.com suggests, the NFL is fine with the ball being snapped at zero. Put another way, while fans want the flag “at” zero, the practice is closer to calling the flag at “-1.”
How close was Watson’s?
Luckily the mighty GIF maker can give us a real good estimate of things. The software I use is not perfectly stable for timing, but is pretty darn good at capturing things at 21 frames per second. You may recall me mentioning running a bunch of tests on this so I could run more accurate data for measuring velocity on passes. Anyway, here’s the GIF of Watson...
The Texans get the snap off less than a third of a second late. Yes I’m acknowledging it’s late. That’s a fact. This next thing is opinion. I think that’s a reasonable amount of delay between the clock hitting zero and the ball being snapped to make it a no-call in consideration of the reality of the process outlined above. More opinion here, but in my experience I don’t mind the deviation from the letter of the law because it seems like every team gets the same grace period.
I’m even willing to bet that if someone tried really hard, they could come up with examples of other teams not being called for delay when the clock is at zero. Who knows, perhaps you could even find another team getting a much longer grace period.