The overly complicated rules for American football


This upcoming Sunday is the biggest sports day of the year in the United States: The championship game for the professional league for playing American Football. Chicken wings take over the country. (It would be funnier if chickens took over the country.)

The rules for American football are overly complicated, so much so that even the officials get it wrong with some frequency. One part of the complexity comes from the variety of limiting rules, or rules designed to address an imbalance. (Another part of the complexity comes from the fact that the people who wrote the rules are insane and wish to impose that insanity on everybody who reads the rules.)

For example, some penalties cause the game clock to stop running, and a team that is losing can intentionally commit penalties, thereby prolonging the game and giving themselves more opportunities to attempt to score. To address this, there is a special rule that enumerates specific conditions under which a clock-stopping penalty also causes ten seconds to be taken off the clock, thereby discouraging the intentional foul by removing the clock-stopping benefit.

These conditions are quite precise.

The problem with the rule is that, of course, it adds yet another rule, and then you have to be careful that the new rule doesn't create its own weird side effect. But of course, it does have its own weird side effects, and these side-effects have occurred a number of times in the history of American football. For example, one rule takes effect when there are five or fewer minutes remaining in the game, but a limiting rule does not take effect until the clock drops below three minutes, resulting in a two-minute loophole. Wasserman proposes a second limiting rule to close the gap, but I claim that this just makes the situation even worse.

My counter-proposal is to remove all the clock-related limiting rules and substitute just one: If a penalty is committed that stops the clock, the team that did not commit the penalty has the option of requesting that ten seconds be removed from the game clock.²

This closes the loophole because any situation in which a team could commit a penalty to stop the clock and gain an advantage would be negated by the opposition exercising its option to remove ten seconds from the clock. There is no need to enumerate in the rule book all the cases where a clock-stopping penalty would be advantageous because the decision can be made on the field by the opposing team. If one team finds a loophole, the other team can immediately close it.

American football already has a limiting rule of this sort: If a team commits a penalty, the opposing team has the option of accepting the result of the play as if no penalty had occurred. (This is known as declining a penalty.) This removes some of the incentive to commit an intentional penalty far away from the ball because the opposing team can merely instruct the official to ignore the penalty.

Except that in American football, some penalties cannot be declined. For example, a delay-of-game penalty (which more accurately should be called excessive delay of game) cannot be declined, and it is not uncommon for a team to commit an intentional delay-of-game penalty in order to improve the kicking angle of a field goal attempt. (I look forward to the situation where one team repeatedly commits the delay-of-game penality and the other team repeatedly declines it, until the amount of time remaining on the clock drops to the level that the team with fewer points decides that any further loss of time is not worth the short-term advantage.¹)

Another source of unnecessary complexity is that the rules of the game change based on how much time remains in the game and even based on the score! For example, the removal of ten seconds from the clock takes place only if the game is tied or the the team in possession of the ball is losing. Imagine if other sports changed the rules of the game based on the game progress and the score. In baseball, a batter is normally out after three strikes, but in innings eight and beyond, the batter is out after only two strikes if their team is winning. In basketball, a basket is worth two points, unless the game is in the final minute, in which case a basket is worth five points if scored by the losing team.

The fact that the rules of the game change when the clock crosses five minutes, three minutes, and two minutes means that a single game of American football is really four games played one after another.³

No wonder it's so complicated.

¹ Canadian football addresses this issue by having the referee inform the offense that any further delay of game will result in loss of possession.

² After I drafted my proposal, Josh Levin made the same proposal on his podcast. Thereby proving that great minds think alike.

³ Since the rules change when the clock reaches certain points in each half, it's actually four games played one after another, and then the same four games repeated.

Bonus Super Bowl reading: A brief history of "What time is the Super Bowl?", "the most legendary act of SEO trolling ever."

Comments (20)
  1. Chad says:

    I believe that the strategy of intentionally committing delay-of-game-like penalties is no longer effective.

    From NFL Rule 4-7-1:

    "Two successive delay penalties during the same down, is unsportsmanlike conduct (12-3-1-o). After enforcement of the 15-yard penalty, the game clock shall start on the snap."

    While the defense could repeatedly commit encroachment penalties to keep the clock stopped, the repeated application of 15-yard penalties would eventually move the offense into easy touchdown-territory.

  2. AdamWu says:

    > If a penalty is committed that stops the clock, the team that did not commit the penalty has the option of requesting that ten seconds be removed from the game clock.
    I am not that familiar with football, but would it be possible, like in soccer, to intentionally fault the opponent?
    -- If I am winning, and I could keep faulting my opponent, AND double penalize them by taking time off the game.

    1. Under the current rules, the foul stops the clock unconditionally, so your attempt to take time off the clock has failed. Under my rules, the opponent would decline the option to remove 10 seconds from the clock.

      1. AdamWu says:

        What I meant is that, what if you could commit an intentional action, which result in the opponent to be the faulting party.
        Under your proposed rule, if the opponent is at fault, you will be the one to decide whether to take the time off.

        1. The hard part is finding a way to induce the opponent into committing a foul.

          1. Bill says:

            It rather involved being on the other side of this airtight hatchway: Sportsball edition
            If you can induce the opponent to make mistakes, you might as well skip the fouling and make them let you score touchdowns.

        2. Kevin says:

          American football does not have diving like association football does. You only get "unnecessary roughness" if you were *really* being a jerk.

          1. George says:

            Back in the day, some punters were pretty good at flopping to try to get a "roughing the kicker" penalty called. I don't watch much football now, so I don't know whether that still happens.

          2. Joe Smith says:

            Well, American football does have a form of injury faking, but for the puspose of prolonging a game, rather than trying to get another player penalized. This comes from officals stopping the clock to allow for injured players to be atteneded and get helped off the field. If a team is badly hurting for time and is out of time outs, faking an injury can be beneficial in effectively creating an axtra time out. There are som rule tweaks that try to discourage this, but it definately still happens on ocassion.

  3. Chad says:

    Also Rule 12-3-2 would likely come into play for intentional delay-of-game-like penalties within 15 yards of the defense's goal line:

    "The defense shall not commit successive or repeated fouls to prevent a score.

    "Penalty: For successive or repeated fouls to prevent a score: If the violation is repeated after a warning, the score involved is awarded to the offensive team."

  4. John Ludlow says:

    Sounds a little like the offside rule from /real/ football.

    1. Mike Diack says:

      Well said that man! Soccer is real football. How can you have a game entitled "football" when most of the time, the players are carrying the ball?

      1. jmac_the_man says:

        Both gridiron football (played by the NFL) and association football (soccer) are derived from rugby. Rugby was originally known as "football" because it was played "on foot." The implication was that it was the game that peasants played. The comparison was to polo, which was played on horseback.

    2. Erkin Alp Güney says:

      Game of FIFA?

  5. Boris says:

    It's just a sport!

  6. Michael Puff says:

    Well. For Europeans (I am German.) the rules are quite confusing. It all starts with the name of the game: Football, but the ball is moved by hand most of the time. It is like as if we would call our soccer "headball".

    Actually the rules are simple. Carry the ball 10 yards, get four new attempts. Carry the ball in the endzone, score three points and kick the ball through the goal for another one point. Well "actually". But there are so many exceptions! I wonder if the Americans know all the exceptions.

    Plus, way too many breaks. I think my bladder is much too big for American Football. Or my refrigerator is much too small, ;) There is no continuous game play.

    But for some reason I like to watch it.

  7. Brian says:

    Well, after reading this last week, it was interesting to see this (the ten seconds removed from the clock) get called on the second to the last play during this past weekend's SuperBowl.
    BTW, I'm assuming when people talk about "real football" in these comments, they are referring to Canadian Football :-)

    1. Engywuck says:

      american football, canadian football - both are just rugby for wimps ;-) Shoulder polsters, helmets with metal grid before the face - but call it a full-contact sport. Plus all those substitutions possible - either you are good and hard enough to play the whole time or you need to find a better sport ;-)

    2. French Guy says:

      More likely, they're referring to the sport played mostly with the feet and where taking the ball in hand is legal for only 1 player on each team, and only in a restricted area.

  8. JoeWoodbury says:

    Re: Delay of game.

    What if the ball simply goes live at 25 seconds? If not snapped, it's treated as a fumble.

    (I also say; spike the ball--fumble.)

    (Of course, then there is the weirdness where the ball crossing the goal line is a goal, but out-of-bounds is determined where the feet are.)

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