As a reasonable person who wants sports to be fair and knows they wouldn’t exist otherwise, I’m so glad the Steelers didn’t lose the game because of 18 seconds that mysteriously disappeared from the clock before their game-winning drive. As a fan of drama and controversy, I wish the Steelers had gotten fucked over and we got to spend all day yelling at the NFL.

After the Chargers took a 20-17 lead, they kicked off with 2:56 left. The ball sailed through the end zone for a touchback. That’s when the game clock started running:

The ESPN graphic is not the official game clock, but in this case it was accurate. The in-stadium clock ran off 18 seconds, confirmed by the official NFL box score.

If you like conspiracy theories (and who doesn’t), clock operators in the regular season are locals. And the clock in San Diego was eventually stopped at 2:38, which makes you think the clock operator had to have manually stopped it—so even if the runoff was accidental (and there’s no reason to think it wasn’t), the operator noticed and didn’t alert anyone.

It still falls on the officials, specifically the side judge and referee Pete Morelli. Football Zebras provides some context for what could have and should have been done about the clock.

At the time the clock was running, the officials were getting the ball ready for play and counting up the incoming players. The side judge has clock-monitoring duties, and should have been aware of the fact that the kickoff time and the snap time were not equal. Failing that, any official should step in and make the correction, although the issue occurred at a point where is little reason to check on the clock. The clock cannot be reviewed in replay, except for very limited circumstances regarding the expiration of the game clock. However, the replay official could notify the crew through the wireless headsets if an error is detected (even if it is off of the written procedures). The crew has until the next snap to make the correction, at which point any error is rendered permanent. The entire crew is responsible for the error (quoting the 2013 rulebook with my emphasis; the provision is now contained in the officiating manual):

“All members of a crew are equally responsible for any errors in Officiating Mechanics as prescribed by the Manual. … This applies to such errors, in mechanics or applications of rules, as those tend to increase the length of the game (elapsed time) and particularly so to those which result in undue loss of playing time (Crew Time).”


The NFL declined comment on the clock error last night, but said this morning they are investigating; they’ll undoubtedly address it today, although I can’t imagine they’ll say anything beyond “everybody fucked up, sorry.”

It’s impossible to say how those extra 18 seconds might have changed the game, as the Steelers used every last one of their 158 seconds. Because Pittsburgh did win anyway, this controversy will blow over far sooner than it deserves to. We’ve been deprived of what would have been one of the great NFL clusterfucks of all time. It’s a tragedy, really.