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Forgotten Innovations: Football Without A Game Clock
Much of football's current form results from one-hundred and fifty years of the game's rule-makers adopting some proposed rules while rejecting others. Although football historians tend to focus on how new rules shaped the game, decisions to reject proposed rules can have equal impact, particularly those that address football's fundamental elements.
Adopting the forward pass (1906) and requiring teams to gain ten yards in four downs (1912) are example rules with far-reaching impacts, but both had strong opponents. The 1910 rules committee members voted to limit the forward pass to those caught behind the line of scrimmage, only to change their minds a few weeks later. Likewise, the 1912 committee included several members arguing for teams to gain eight yards in four downs rather than the eventual ten. Any number of other rejected proposals -decisions not taken- have shaped the game.
Among the less-well-known proposals that received serious consideration was the call to eliminate football's game clock. Unlike baseball, tennis, and volleyball, football derives from rugby, whose games lasted particular lengths of time. Initially, football had two forty-five-minute innings or halves. The halves became thirty-five minutes in 1894 and thirty minutes in 1906 before shifting to four fifteen-minute quarters in 1910. Early football did not have scoreboards, much less scoreboards with clocks, so one of the officials monitoring a pocket watch periodically notified players of the time remaining in the game. Our two-minute warning is a relic of those pre-scoreboard clock days. In the 1920s and 1930s, procedural and technical advances allowed us to synchronize the scoreboard clock with the official clock, but the two-minute warning stayed in the game.
The idea that football should be a time-based game has been challenged twice over the years, and for different reasons. The first challenge arose in 1920 when Harry R. Coffin, a Harvard grad, argued that football's quarters should last 40 plays each (excluding plays in which penalties occurred). Coffin was concerned that teams scoring first often stalled and played conservatively in the era's low-scoring games. Coffin pointed out that the team scoring first won 39 of the 40 Harvard-Yale games played to that point and that the number of plays per game varied dramatically. For example, in the Harvard-Yale games from 1910 to 1919, the number of plays ranged from 121 to 169 while the plays per quarter varied between 24 and 51. Although others pointed out that many factors contributed to those results, Coffin's idea gained support from Harvard's former coach, Percy Haughton, as well as Walter Camp.
Coffin presented his argument to the rules committee in 1920, but the committee did not act on it. Instead, the committee sided with Bob Fisher, Harvard's coach, who argued that there was nothing wrong with the game or with playing conservatively when ahead:
"If careful, clever playing that keeps down the chances of defeat is not fair, then a big scientific point of the game is all wrong. If there is a desire upon the part of the rule makers to speed the game, it can be done by instructing officials to be less lenient if a team gives evidence of playing for time."
It is worth noting that the football rules of 1920 did not regulate the time between offensive plays. By tradition, football enjoyed a rapid pace of play. One play ended, the offense immediately aligned on the ball, the quarterback called his "signals" at the line, and they snapped the ball.
That changed in the mid-1920s when teams began huddling rather than calling their signals at the line. Many considered huddling a violation of the game's unwritten rule regarding the pace of play and viewed it as a form of stalling. Concern that huddling might overtake the game led the rules committee to allow teams to use Coffin's system on an experimental basis. We know of two games played using Coffin's system. Under well-respected coaches, Edward Robinson and Reggie Brown, Brown University beat Boston University in a 1925 test game. The following year Brown and Robinson moved to Boston University, where they opened the season by losing to Bowdoin in the second test game. Although the feedback from these games was positive, the rule-makers focused on huddling, passing a 1930 "rule of thumb" that teams should huddle no more than fifteen seconds or be subject to a delay of game penalty. Conversations about the 40-play system disappeared for more than a decade, before reemerging.
The 40-play system popped up again in 1942 following Minnesota's ninth consecutive victory over Michigan. It seems the Gophers benefited when the game clock was improperly stopped while substituting late in the second quarter of the game. The stoppage allowed Minnesota to kick a last-second field goal, and those points proved to be the difference in the Gopher win. To avoid such timekeeping mishaps, Bernie Bierman dusted off the 40-play system, recommending its use. Bierman was an appropriate advocate since he coached Minnesota to five national championships in the 1930s and 1940s. Moreover, he was a somewhat disinterested observer in 1942 since he was coaching the powerhouse Iowa Pre-Flight Navy team, not the Gophers.
Two years later, the Big Ten coaches recommended the rules committee adopt the 40-play system, though many derided their recommendation, arguing the game clock added excitement near the end of halves or games. As one Birmingham columnist noted:
"The proposal to substitute 40 plays per period and eliminate the time element would leave football as flat as an eel's instep. The clock supplies drama -and football would be no good without this drama in close, hard-fought games."
The 1945 NCAA rules committee agreed with the columnist's sentiments, but the 40-play system was not dead. It merely needed more ammunition, which came in the form of the 1946 Army-Navy game. Army, led by Heisman Trophy-winning halfback, Glenn Davis, was about to complete its third consecutive undefeated season while Navy rode a seven-game losing streak. Despite expecting Army to dominate, the game's 100,000 fans watched as Navy, down by three points, reached Army's 3-yard line with 1:23 remaining in the game and no timeouts. Navy twice ran up the gut for no gain, and then took a 5-yard penalty for calling an illegal timeout. The game ended on the next play when Navy swept right, some thinking the halfback got out of bounds, others believing Navy called another timeout before the clock hit zero. The officials quickly ruled Army victorious, but the ending highlighted that while some saw tight game clock situations as dramatic, others considered them confusing. Bernie Bierman, Andy Kerr, Lou Little, and other prominent coaches renewed the call for the 40-play system. Still, those seeing drama rather than confusion won the day, and the call for the 40-play system has lain dormant ever since.
Switching to play-based quarters would have changed football since teams would not need to milk or run out a clock that doesn't exist. Likewise, quarterbacks would never spike the ball, and the rule that made spiking legal would never have been proposed. Players also would not run out of bounds to stop the clock or stay inbounds to keep it running. Instead, teams would have developed strategies to use or conserve plays depending on the game score and the number of remaining plays.
Although Coffin's idea is a historical oddity today, fans should recognize that many ideas for rule changes that were once considered odd later became the norm. Only a handful of football's rules have not changed over the years. The size of the football, the field dimensions, the goalposts' location, the points awarded for safeties, field goals, touchdowns, and extra points have all changed over the years. In fact, of the original sixty-one football rules of 1876, only parts of four rules remain unaltered today:
The definitions of dropkicks, placekicks, and punts remain intact.
Field goals may still occur by drop kick or placekick.
The goal post crossbar still stands ten feet above the ground.
An official, called a referee, remains in charge of the game.
Everything else about the game of football has changed since its rules were first established, some more than once. Still, many suggested changes never took hold, and we are left to speculate on how the changes that never came about might have contributed to or hurt the game.
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