Explaining NFL Challenges and Timeouts

Weíve all been there, your team is driving the field, you complete a pass to get into field goal range, yes! But oh no! The clock is still ticking and time is running out. Youíre out of timeouts, how did this happen? Thatís right, you lost that timeout after an unsuccessful challenge back in the third quarter, damn! Do the coaches of your team even understand the rules behind the NFL challenge system, do you? You will after this quick and in-depth guide to understanding NFL coaches challenges and timeouts. Feel free to send a copy to the office of your head coach.

Timeouts in the NFL

Letís start with timeouts, since timeouts and NFL challenges are intertwined. In the NFL, each team gets three timeouts per half. Should the game go into overtime, the team gets additional timeouts as well. The timeouts do not carry over between halves, so you never have more than three to work with at one time. If you want to challenge a play, you must have at least one timeout remaining, thatís because you lose a timeout for an unsuccessful challenge. Additionally, timeouts are sometimes mandated to be used to deal with an injured player in certain clock situations. The head coach, or any player currently on the field can call a timeout at any point before the ball is snapped.

How NFL Coach Challenges Work

The NFL challenge system has been in place since the league brought back instant replay in 1999. Challenges are started by the head coach of the team, and only by the head coach. He now has a special red flag he needs to throw onto the field to initiate a review. This has to be done before the start of the next play. Once the next play starts, the play before is no longer reviewable, no matter how obvious or egregious the mistake.

This of course gives the team with the ball an advantage. They can hurry their next play so a questionable catch or touchdown canít be reviewed. Or they can stall the beginning of the next play to decide whether or not they want to challenge. They can even take a timeout, giving themselves more time. While you lose a timeout for an unsuccessful challenge, you do not lose a second timeout for an unsuccessful challenge if you first called a timeout to get the challenge.

All NFL teams now have assistant coaches and various assorted personnel upstairs watching the replays on TV. Itís usually these coaches who initiate a challenge, they get a view on TV that the head coach on the field canít see, and they tell the head coach via headset to challenge the play.

After a challenge has been called for, the head official for the game will step off the field and into a special mini booth, where he can view all of the camera angles that TV captured of the play. He can see slow motion, zoomed in shots, and everything that those at home can view. Once heís in the booth, the referee has a maximum of 90 seconds of watching footage before he can longer review the play.

Each team begins the game with two challenges, and thatís for the entire game, not for each half. If however, you call two challenges and get both of them right, you get an additional challenge. As mentioned, you need a timeout in order to make an official challenge. If the challenge is upheld, meaning the original call on the field was overturned, then you do not lose the timeout. If the original call stands, the team that initiated the challenge loses a timeout.

Because you only receive two challenges in a game, coaches sometimes do not use them even in situations when the challenge would be won. You have to consider the value of the play, and what difference an overturned call would make. If itís not significant enough and you only have one timeout left, taking a challenge would not be a wise move. Additionally, in the last two minutes of each half, the teams can no longer initiate a challenge. At this point all questionable or close plays are sent to an automatic booth review, initiated by the review officials.

Indisputable Visual Evidence

The advantage lies with the team that had the call go their way the first time. Thatís because an NFL official needs to find indisputable visual evidence that the call should be overturned. If there are any lingering doubts, or if the play canít be seen clearly enough, then the call remains as it was originally called. Therefore the burden of evidence lies with the challenging team, and the original call on the field makes a huge difference on a fumble or goal line push, when camera angles could be hard to come by, and often times, whichever way the play is first called holds up.

Common Challenges in the NFL

Some challenges are by nature more common than others. Some of the most common NFL challenges include:

Goal line and touchdown situations where the review judges if the player crossed the threshold of the goal line with the ball.

Completions or incompletion reviews where many elements come into play, including whether the ball touches the ground, if the player maintains complete control of the ball at all time, if he holds onto the ball for a football motion and if he stayed inbounds. This applies to completions and interceptions.

Spotting, or placement of the ball, where the officials find the exact spot that the player first was downed and where the ball was, which is important for first downs.

Inbounds/out of bounds calls to see whether or not a ball carrier stepped out of bounds.

Fumbles where the review judges if the player was down before the ball began to come loose, if the player ever had complete possession if there was a fumble after a completion and whether or not a quarterback fumbled the ball or threw an incompletion.

That last sentence leads us to the infamous Tuck Rule. The Tuck Rule was created after playoff game between the New England Patriots and Oakland Raiders in the 2001 NFL season. On the field Tom Brady was ruled as having fumbled and turned over the ball. The play was then overturned by a challenge when the play was ruled as an incompletion.

The ruling was that even though Brady was in the process of stopping the throwing motion and tucking the ball back to his body, losing the football in the tucking motion still should be considered an incompletion. Of course, the Patriots went on to win the Super Bowl and launch a dynasty. The Raiders, well, we donít need to make matters any worse for them now do we?

Unchallengeable Plays

Not every single play in the NFL can be challenged. For starters, you cannot challenge whether or not a penalty took place. Penalties, whether they are missed or perhaps applied when nothing took place, cannot be challenged or reviewed. Originally, down by contact could not be challenged. That meant that when a runner was ruled to be down by contact, or tackled, on the field, the call could not be reviewed. Any fumbles or anything that happened afterwards could not have taken place. However, starting in 2006 that was changed, and NFL officials are now supposed to refrain from blowing the whistle and officially ending a play, leaving the door open for challenges.

This should clear things up for you a bit regarding the use of coachesí challenges in the NFL and the entire NFL challenge system. Next time your coach throws the red flag with no timeouts, or tries to argue the merit of the Tuck Rule, be sure to put him and any of your doubting buddies in place.