One of the reasons the New York Giants bungled their clock management in the final two minutes of Sunday's heartbreaking loss to the Dallas Cowboys was because they miscounted the Cowboys' timeouts. When running back Rashad Jennings was told not to score on second down, Jennings, quarterback Eli Manning and others believed the Cowboys were out of timeouts. That's because they thought the Cowboys had called one following the 16-yard Odell Beckham Jr. catch that had converted a third down two plays earlier.
But that was not a timeout. The clock stopped following that play because the Cowboys had been called for an offsides penalty. And even though the Giants declined the penalty, the rules say the clock doesn't start until the snap after penalty enforcements in the final five minutes of the game -- even if the penalty is declined.
I found that rule odd. What's so special about the final five minutes that the rules are different? So I asked the NFL and got this explanation from league spokesman Michael Signora:
"Prior to 1985, the game clock started on the snap after all penalty enforcements.
"In order to shorten game time while retaining the number of plays at the historic level of about 155, in ensuing years a number of rules adjustments were made, including the reduction of the play clock from 45 to 40 seconds, while starting the game clock on the ready signal after a player going out of bounds or after certain penalty enforcements.
"Because the end of the first half and the end of the game are particularly exciting parts of games, there was no desire to reduce the number of plays that might occur in those time segments, and the traditional timing rules were retained for the last two minutes of the first half and the last five minutes of the second half. During those periods the game clock starts on the snap after all out of bounds plays and after all penalty enforcements."
So basically, it used to be this way for the whole game, but 30 years ago they decided games were getting too long and that one of the ways to combat that was to run the clock after some penalties. But they exempted the final two minutes of the first half and the final five minutes of the second half because those periods of the game are too important and exciting. Fair enough.
What's weird is that jumping offsides would benefit the Cowboys at a critical time of the game, and that leads one to ask why a defensive team wouldn't just do that as a strategic gambit. The reason is that it's awfully unlikely to help. Unless you know what's going to happen on the free play that results from your offsides penalty, you're taking a huge risk. Anything positive you do on the play -- a sack, an interception, whatever -- would be wiped out by the penalty. And while the clock stoppage obviously helped the Cowboys in Sunday's specific instance, it came at a price. Even if Beckham hadn't converted the third down, the Giants would have had another shot at it. And as it stood, they had a first down on the Cowboys' 4-yard line.
Obviously, what hurt the Giants was the confusion, and their belief that Dallas had called its second timeout following the play. Jennings was ordered not to score on first down, after which the Cowboys took what the Giants believed was their final timeout. So they ordered Jennings not to score on second down, thinking 40 seconds would run off the clock between second and third downs. Obviously, they made more mistakes from there, but confusion about this particular rule seemed to contribute somewhat to the issues.