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A brief history of the 10-second runoff rule and why it doesn’t belong in today’s NFL

The NFL’s rulebook is archaic and needs a facelift.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Detroit Lions Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been over 24 hours since the Detroit Lions and their fans were blindsided by a 10-second runoff rule that many players and fans didn’t even know existed before Sunday afternoon. In the direct aftermath of the game, many cried foul with how the game ended, claiming the Lions shouldn’t be punished 10 seconds for a play that was called incorrectly on the field. Others just didn’t think a 10-second runoff based on ref error was any way to end a game.

Those fans are right, but to understand why, we have to understand the history of the rule and what got us to this point today.

Why is there a 10-second runoff anyways?

The reasoning for the rule is to simulate what may have happened had the call been correctly made on the field. Let’s illustrate this point with a hypothetical:

Let’s say Matthew Stafford throws a bomb 60 yards down the field and Marvin Jones catches it right at the goal line. The officials originally call it a touchdown, but review clearly shows he’s down at the 1-yard line. There’s two seconds remaining on the clock. Had the officials correctly called him short during the play, the Lions would not have been able to get to the line and the game would have been over.

If there was no runoff, Detroit would have essentially been given a free timeout because of the rule, which is admittedly unfair.

When did the NFL implement this rule?


As former NFL VP of officiating Dean Blandino explains in this Periscope, the rule was implemented because of a similar play that happened in Week 7 of the 2009 season. Drew Brees was marching the Saints down the field at the end of the first half. With 12 seconds to go, Brees heaved a pass over the middle of the field to Marques Colston for a 21-yard touchdown.

You can watch the sequence of events here at the 1:40 mark

The play was reviewed and found that Colston was down at the one yard line with just five seconds remaining. New Orleans had no more timeouts, so they wouldn’t have been able to stop the clock had the play been originally called short. With the stoppage for the review, the Saints were given one more play and they punched it in for a touchdown. The score helped the Saints mount a 21-point comeback and eventually win the game 46-34.

The next season the competition committee decided to make a rule to prevent teams from getting that extra stoppage in time by enforcing a 10-second runoff.

Why 10 seconds?

Here’s where things get interesting. Blandino, in the same video posted above, explains the reasoning for choosing 10 seconds, and it’s quite baffling:

“It’s a standard that’s been in place since the ‘50s. The 10-second runoff was a guideline that says that’s, in general, how long it will take for a team to get lined up.”

Excuse me? Did you just say the fifties? As in 1950? When the league-leading quarterbacks had a 59 percent completion rate and threw for a whopping 3,000 yards?

Indeed, the 10-second runoff rule has long been the standard set by officials.

However, the history of the 10-second runoff has nothing to do with unintended consequences of a video review, but rather to prevent teams from getting a stop in clock due to a penalty, whether it was committed intentionally or not. Without a 10-second runoff, a team could purposely commit a false start, for example, to stop the clock temporarily and get gathered for the next play.

In that example, a 10-second runoff seems very understandable. A team should be punished for committing a foul that stops the clock and gives the team, essentially, an additional timeout. The punishment is somewhat fitting of the crime, whether 10 seconds is truly how long it takes for a team to get lined up or not.

Why this rule doesn’t belong in 2017’s NFL

While the 10-second runoff rule was considered a punishment in the 1950s, when it was added to reviews, the point was not to punish, but instead fairly take off time that would have expired anyways. It absolutely makes sense to implement this rule, but it makes no sense to use the standard set by a game nearly seven decades old.

As brilliantly pointed out by the Detroit Lions official twitter account, the league has changed drastically over recent years. Detroit managed to move 27 yards between plays in only seven seconds during last year’s contest with the Minnesota Vikings.

On Sunday, the Lions wouldn’t have had to move more than a single yard after Golden Tate’s catch. If Detroit was truly organized and prepared to run another play, there’s no doubt they could have before time expired.

And Blandino admits as much. “It’s certainly reasonable to think that Detroit could have gotten lined up legally in that instance, but no one really knows,” Blandino said. “And where do you draw the line? Is it 3 seconds? 5 seconds? 8 seconds?”

Unfortunately, there’s no one answer to Blandino’s hypothetical question. Obviously different situations would call for different lengths of runoff. If a team has to run 50 yards down field, certainly more time would run off the clock. If, like Sunday, a team barely had to move to get lined up, then only a few seconds may run off the clock.

So the answer in how to fix the rule isn’t exactly clear right now. But it is clear that the NFL should not be using a 70-year old standard to apply to the NFL as it is right now. The NFL needs to find a better solution or there will be more controversies like this to come.

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