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What stops the clock in the NFL? What are the rules regarding ball out of bounds?

In a game that prizes clock management almost as high as any physical attribute that a player has, what are the rules around stopping the clock in the NFL?

In a game that prizes clock management almost as high as any physical attribute that a player has, what are the rules around stopping the clock in the NFL?

I have a confession to make. I have lived more than half of my life in Europe. Although I grew up in south Louisiana (New Orleans Saints represent!), and went to college in Georgia, I married a Spanish girl and made my home on the other side of the pond. All of my adult experiences, paying into a pension, getting a mortgage, having children, have been through the lens of Europe. My mother claims that I am now more European than American. And if it weren’t for my love of baseball and the NFL, I might agree with her.

But with the NFL now playing four regular season games per season in London, and the ever-present rumors that an expansion team will be located there in the not-too-distant future, surely Europe and the NFL are not mutually exclusive, you say. And you would be right. Tens of thousands of European fans, possibly even hundreds of thousands across the entire continent, are every bit as devoted to the game as anyone in Green Bay or Dallas would ever be. But there are a few common questions that, as an American, I have heard and answered a million times. They all revolve around two things: the pads and the clock.

Europeans, and indeed anyone from outside of North America, will parrot the same words when they are first exposed to American football. “It’s so stop-start. Why is it always stopping?” It is like a broken record and over the years of explaining and re-explaining, I thought that perhaps it was time that I should get a proper handle on the clock situation in the NFL.

Clock management

The manipulation of the game clock and play clock, typically near the end of a half, is the heart and soul of football. It is in no way unique to football, though, as even the most cursory glance at all of the flopping on the ground, feigning injury and making pointless substitutions in the dying minutes of any soccer match will tell you. The difference might be that clock management strategies are a significant part of the entire American football match, not just the waning moments, and an elaborate set of rules dictates when the game clock stops between downs, and when it continues to run.

The Game Clock

The game is 60 minutes long, consisting of four 15 minute quarters. At the change of each quarter, the teams face the opposite direction on the field and at the end of the second quarter, there is a 15 minute half time break. In its basic form, the idea is simple; any time the ball is in play, the clock counts down from 15 minutes to zero. In the early days of the game, this was simple and direct.

Originating in rugby, early American football was primarily a running game where the ball was almost always in play. The rules surrounding the clock as it pertains to the running game give a nod to this era of the game’s history. Even when an offense elects to huddle rather than just go straight to the line of scrimmage, the clock runs. It is only if the ball goes out of bounds that the clock stops, and even then only long enough to allow the referee to reset the ball on the field before starting the clock again. Tweaking the rules, seemingly the NFL’s greatest delight, has led to a separate set of rules being dreamt up for the final two minutes of the first half and the final five minutes of the second half, where the clock restarts on the snap of the ball for the next play.

The domination of the forward pass in the modern game has altered the state of clock management drastically. Harking back to the origins of the game once again, the idea was to stop the clock when a forward pass fell incomplete in order to allow the referee the time to reset the ball on the field. Unlike after a run that goes out of bounds, however, the clock doesn’t simply automatically restart once the ball is set. The clock only restarts once the offensive team snaps to begin the next play. And this quirk of regulation is the key to modern offenses’ exploitation and management of the clock with so much effectiveness.

The Play Clock

Another holdover from its origins in rugby is the delay of game rule. Unlike in rugby, however, where there is no set time limit to put the ball in play but rather goes by the referee’s judgement, the NFL has created the play clock. This counts down from the time the previous play ends and gives the offense has 40 seconds to put the ball back in play. There are certain situations when this play clock is only 25 seconds, generally when possession of the ball changes. The referee can call for the play clock to be reset to 25 seconds by pumping his hand in the air vertically, an action most memorable in recent years by becoming the subject of controversy when, in the immediate aftermath of the Deflategate controversy, Tom Brady used this signal to ask for the play clock to be reset. When the officials agreed with him, the impression to opposition fans was one of cheating by the New England Patriots.


One of the most uniquely American ways to stop the game clock is by the use of timeouts. These have been in use since the very dawn of the sport and each team has three per half to use. They must be used or lost, as unused timeouts do not carry over to the next half. These allow the clock to be stopped for 60 seconds at any point in the game.

In addition to the 12 team timeouts available during the game, there are free timeouts at the two minute mark in each half. This two minute warning was brought in by the AFL and later taken to the NFL as a measure of building tension in the crowd as well as allowing for the television channels to cut to commercial. And in this same vein, the modern game has twenty “television timeouts” mandated, of which the two minute warning and the end of the first and third quarter are obligatory and the rest may happen at any opportune moment.

“The first time they stopped the game to cut away to a commercial, that was the end.”

Al Pacino, Any Given Sunday


Now there is another element to throw into the mix. The instant replay review. Each team is given two challenges per half that, if successful, are in addition to their three timeouts. The clock is stopped while the officials take a look at the play in question and the game restarts when the next snap occurs.

The complicated relationship between the NFL and the clock is something that is often looked at and changes made in 2006 and 2008 led to more confusion and less game play than previously. Especially disastrous to this end, the 2006 season saw fans treated to 25-30 less plays per game. The 2008 rule change saw the NFL adopt the majority of the rules in effect today. Have they learned their lesson about meddling with Father Time? Somehow, I doubt it.


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