It was a subtle change to the rulebook before the season — but one that could cause a few ripples in high school football this season.
In February, the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), whose rules govern the game in Maine, tweaked the play clock, going from 25 seconds to 40 seconds. Under the old rule, after a play was finished, everything waited for the referee to spot the ball, blow the whistle and signal for the 25 seconds to begin counting down.
Now the rule has the clock starting at 40 seconds from the moment the play is over and the ball is dead. According to the NFHS website, the change was made “to have a more consistent time period between downs.”
According to Cony coach B.L. Lippert, that objective has been accomplished.
“To me, it’s absolutely the way to go,” he said. “I just like the consistency of it all. I just like the fact that we know it’s 40, so it doesn’t matter home or away or any of that stuff. It’s just a matter of 40 seconds.”
Maranacook coach Jordan DeMillo gave the new rule his approval as well, saying that 40 seconds versus 25 is better for players with a developing understanding of the game — particularly in the new eight-man format, which the Black Bears are playing this season.
“I’ve actually enjoyed that rule change, and I think the other teams might have enjoyed it as well,” he said. “All of us are running slightly different offenses, and getting that little bit of extra time to be able to get that right play call in there has been a little nice this season. Had it been a 25-second clock, I probably would have run into a few more delays … just because I’m running all new formations.”
Riley Geyer, the Cony quarterback, said he’s noticed the same thing.
“I feel like we have a lot more time to develop,” he said. “Last year, it was a difference. When I was running to the sideline and getting a play and coming back, I had to hustle through it. With a little bit more time, I feel a lot more confident with what I’m about to do.”
At the same time, the new rule makes for a different feel to the game. Players used to the rhythm of seeing the ball spotted and the whistle blown before proceeding with the play call now have to remember that there is no whistle. As soon as the play ends, the countdown for the next one begins.
“The new time stuff is taking a while for everyone, including officials, to work out,” Gardiner coach Joe White said in a text. “You can talk about what it’s going to look like all day long, but in the heat of the moment a lot of mistakes are being made by all involved.”
“It’s a little bit different calling plays, because you used to call a play, you’d hear the whistle and you’d go ‘OK, we’ve got 25 seconds,’ ” Lippert said. “Now there’s no whistle. … So the Pavlovian nature of ‘hear a whistle, call a play,’ now there’s going to be no whistle. And it’s a little bit different, but coaches will adjust to that.”
The rule could also affect game situations. Lippert pointed to the end of the fourth quarter, when teams are trying to run out the clock. Before, a fast or slow placement of the ball could determine how much time the winning team was able to chew off. Now, with 40 seconds ticking down regardless of what happens after the play ends, that endgame becomes more simplified.
“That used to be incredibly different. You might run a play, it might take forever for them to unpile. By the time they set the ball, 20 seconds could have gone off, 25, and now it’s 25 more seconds added on,” Lippert said. “Now it’s just 40 seconds. From the end of the play to when you have to snap it is exactly 40. It used to feel like sometimes on the road you’re trying to run the clock out and they are hurrying you up, they get it set really quickly, so it’s a lot more consistent.”
Long gains are also trickier. In previous seasons, a long play downfield came with a buffer of time afterward as the chain gang, officials and players caught up to the action. Now, with 40 seconds ticking down as soon as the tackle is made downfield, the rest of the offense needs to hurry to catch up.
Ditto incomplete passes. Ball boys need to have several balls ready on the sideline, since there’s less time to waste trying to chase down one that bounces away from the sideline.
Yet another change could be in offensive tempo. Winthrop/Monmouth/Hall-Dale coach Dave St. Hilaire said that without the referee determining when the ball is ready to be snapped, there’s a potential for no-huddle offenses — and, for teams looking for an even greater advantage, mass substitutions.
“Let’s say we have our power package in and we’re moving down the field, all of a sudden we run off and our speed guys run on,” St. Hilaire said. “Now the other team, they’re not going to be given that opportunity to make an adjustment. … A team could do that. Come with a heavy, go with a quick or vice versa, and catch the other team off guard.”
There’s a rule in the NFL making sure defenses have chance to match those substitutions. There’s no such rule in high school, and while St. Hilaire said he hasn’t seen a team take advantage of that style of play yet, he feels it’s a matter of time.
“Some teams eventually will do that. I’m just surprised we haven’t seen that yet,” he said. “I think with any rule change you say ‘How is this going to affect us, how can we use it to our advantage.’ … Some team will take advantage of it and be really good at it.”