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NFL rules explanation of the fourth timeout for injuries

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Did you know that a team could be charged a fourth time out? Looking through the NFL rulebook, it can happen - as we just saw.

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Editor's Note: In the 2015 Week 12 Sunday Night Football game between the New England Patriots and the Denver Broncos, the Broncos were assessed a fourth timeout when there was an injury stoppage. This 2014 post has been brought back as an explanation of the rule.

Something you do not usually hear in an NFL game is a team being charged a fourth timeout.  In the Saturday night contest between the Miami Dolphins and Dallas Cowboys, however, that is exactly what happened, and it was not an incorrect call.

With 1:18 seconds left to go in the half, Dallas was charged their third timeout when running back Ryan Williams was injured.  With the game under two minutes, NFL Rule 4, Section 5, Article 4 comes in to play:

After the two-minute warning of a half, the following shall apply:
a) If a team has not used its three charged team timeouts, the team of the injured player will be charged a team timeout,
unless:
1) the injury is the result of a foul by an opponent;
2) the injury occurs during a down in which there is a change of possession, a successful field goal, or an attempted try

Since there was no foul, and there was no change of possession, Dallas appeared to be out of timeouts.

On the next play, tight end Jordan Najvar was also injured, which everyone believed would require a ten-second runoff, since Dallas was out of timeouts.  Rule 4, Section 5, Article 4 continues with subparagraph b, though:

b) If a team has used its three charged team timeouts, an excess team timeout shall be called by the Referee, unless:
1) the injury is the result of a foul by an opponent;
2) the injury occurs during a down in which there is a change of possession, a successful field goal, or an attempted try

Once again, there was no foul, and there was no change of possession.

The notes section of the Article explain why there was no time run off:

Note 3: If an excess team timeout is charged against a team in possession of the ball, and time is in when the excess timeout is called, the ball shall not be put in play until the time on the game clock has been reduced by 10 seconds, if the defense so chooses.

If the clock were running, it would have been Miami's choice as to whether or not to ask for the ten-second run off (thus keeping offenses with the lead from being able to fake injuries to add additional time coming off the clock).  In this case, however, the play was an incomplete pass from quarterback Dustin Vaughan to fullback Tyler Clutts, meaning time was not in, so no ten-second run off could be enforced.

Teams cannot just continue to get excess timeouts without paying a price:

Penalty: For the second and each subsequent excess team timeout after the two-minute warning: Loss of five yards from the succeeding spot for delay of the game.

Thus, a fifth timeout, if one had been required for the Cowboys, would have been a five-yard penalty.  It's also clarified that the penalty is considered a penalty between downs, thereby being unable to offset another penalty or be a part of a multiple penalty play.

As odd as it seemed, even confusing the commentators in the game, the referees were correct in calling a fourth timeout for the Cowboys, and not enforcing a ten-second runoff.

UPDATE: In the Patriots-Broncos game, there was an added confusion that the clock re-started prior to the snap despite the excess timeout charged to Denver. The rule books adds:

ARTICLE 2. SCRIMMAGE DOWN. Following any timeout, the game clock shall be started on a scrimmage down when the ball is next snapped, except in the following situations:

(a) Whenever a runner goes out of bounds on a play from scrimmage, the game clock is started when an official spots the ball at the inbounds spot, and the Referee gives the signal to start the game clock, except that the clock will start on the snap:

(1) after a change of possession 
(2) after the two-minute warning of the first half
(3) inside the last five minutes of the second half

(b) If there is an injury timeout prior to the two-minute warning, the game clock is started as if the injury timeout had not occurred.

(c) If there is an excess team timeout after the two-minute warning, the game clock is started as if the excess timeout had not occurred.

Basically, the 10-second run off if an offense has the ball is used to make sure an offense does not fake an injury to stop the clock when they are out of timeouts (imagine an offense gains 10 yards, then fakes injuries, takes the 5 yard penalty to stop the clock, and keeps doing that with big gains, then 5 yard penalty, but stopping the clock). The defense is given the choice of whether or not the 10-second run off occurs so that an offense cannot purposely cause the runoff when they are ahead. The clock re-starting immediately after the injury is off the field makes sure a defense cannot stop the clock and prevent an offense from running the time.