Clock errors surely happen all the time in any sport that relies on a human being periodically turning the thing on and eventually turning it off. At the lower levels of many sports, it presents an ideal opportunity for the phenomenon known as “home cooking.” At the highest level of football, it’s a potential integrity-of-the-game donut hole that needs to be taken seriously.
Per a source with knowledge of the situation, regular-season NFL clock operators are indeed hired by the league, and not by individual teams. They typically have college football officiating experience, and they live in the same geographic area as the home team stadium. The fact that the NFL uses postseason clock operators from outside the geographic area of the home team’s stadium highlights the possibility that local residents during regular-season games may have a bias that would cause them to hit the off or on button too slowly or to quickly, depending upon the circumstances of the game.
In most cases, the subtle shaving (or addition) of a few seconds here and there would likely go unnoticed, especially for a clock operator who is skilled at deliberately hitting the button a little late or a little early on a consistent basis. This dynamic makes it critical that the clock operators are truly unbiased, that they have a high degree of personal integrity, and that they are conscientious about turning the clock on and off at precisely the right moment.
Monday night’s Steelers-Chargers game involved a very different phenomenon. In the fourth quarter, it wasn’t a case of someone forgetting to turn a running clock off or a stopped clock on. Instead, the clock was off, it was supposed to remain off, and it inexplicably was turned on. For nearly one third of a minute.
It’s the kind of bizarre outcome that cries out for an investigation. Not a Ted Wells “independent” (or not) investigation, but a thorough and appropriate in-house probe into what happened and why no one in a position to fix the situation noticed.
With the Patriots and their footballs at the AFC title game, the league presumed guilt and worked backward. In this case, it would be dangerous to presume inadvertence and move forward. It’s entirely possible that someone tried to influence the outcome of the game through what by all appearances was a mistake.
If the NFL is going to scorch the earth (and bastardize science) to prove that the Patriots broke the rules, the NFL should at least apply some basic curiosity to a situation that never should have happened, that possibly happened on purpose, and that now cries out for an overhaul to the way the NFL ensures that each game consists of exactly 3,600 seconds — no more, no fewer.