How the NFL is closing a ‘loophole’ that Bill Belichick gleefully exploited

The new rule prevents teams from "manipulating the game clock."

Bill Belichick
Bill Belichick on the sidelines of a game last October. –Screenshot

Bill Belichick predicted this day was likely coming.

The NFL announced Thursday that the league’s 32 owners had officially approved a new rule to prevent teams from running down the game clock with consecutive dead-ball fouls during the fourth quarter. The change effectively closes a so-called “loophole” that Belichick somewhat delightedly utilized last season, though even he admitted it “probably should be closed.”

The minute tweak seems specifically targeted to ban a trick that first garnered widespread attention during a Patriots win against the New York Jets last October.

Lined up to punt in Jets territory with a 33-0 lead early in the fourth quarter, the Patriots took a fourth-down delay of game penalty — a fairly common tactic to both drain the clock and give their punter more room — but then followed it with a seemingly intentional false start penalty.

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The back-to-back penalties, which the Jets declined, allowed the Patriots to run off nearly 90 seconds of game clock in between the snaps. It also produced a rare smirk from the usually stoic Belichick on the sidelines that quickly went viral during the Monday night blowout.

The NFL’s intricate 90-page rulebook has tried to prevent that sort of general time-wasting gamesmanship. The clock automatically stops after a foul within the last five minutes of the game. And if a team takes two successive delay-of-game penalties on the same down, they’re subject to an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty resulting in a 15-yard loss and a clock stoppage.

However, by alternating between a delay of game and false start penalty, the Patriots were able to avoid the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and, as Belichick noted after the game, “run quite a bit of time off the clock without really having to do anything.”

“That’s probably a loophole that will be closed, and probably should be closed,” he said said the time. “But right now it’s open.”

Well, not anymore.

The change approved Thursday adds a new line that simply says that the clock will now stop if the offense commits any accepted dead-ball foul at any point during the fourth quarter or overtime:

If the game clock is stopped after a down in which there was a foul by either team, following enforcement or declination of a penalty, the game clock will start as if the foul had not occurred, except that the clock will start on the snap if:

(1) the foul occurs after the two-minute warning of the first half;
(2) the foul occurs inside the last five minutes of the second half; or
(3) the offense commits a dead-ball foul during the fourth quarter or overtime that is accepted;
or
(4) a specific rule prescribes otherwise.

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According to a document released by the NFL, the new rule, which was submitted by the league’s Competition Committee, will stop the Belichicks of the league from “manipulating the game clock,” even when there’s more than five minutes left in the final period (theoretically, the tactic could still be employed in with more than two minutes left in the second quarter or anytime during the first or third quarters).

Ultimately, it may be for the best.

After all, the loophole came back to bite Belichick in the playoffs when Tennessee Titans coach Mike Vrabel used it to burn off nearly two minutes late in the fourth quarter of the game that ended the Patriots’ most recent season. And that time, the Patriots coach didn’t find it so funny.

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