Each NFL team receives three timeouts per half. This is a standard thing in every contest. But in the second and fourth quarters, each team is given a free timeout called the two-minute warning.
Where did this come from? No other sports league on the globe calls a timeout as the game or half winds down. Why does American Football do this?
First off, let’s define what the two-minute warning is.
This portion of the game affects the game clock. It is only performed in the professional ranks, more precisely the National Football League. When the game clock winds down to two minutes to play in the second and fourth quarters, and overtime play. The game is stopped similar to a time out. The amount of time elapsed for this stoppage is also two minutes in duration.
If the gameplay runs past the two-minute mark, once the ball is dead, the clock is stopped for this warning regardless of how much time is left.
So there. Essentially, the two-minute warning is an extra time out per half, making four total that a team can use to stop the clock or discuss the situation on the field.
But why do teams need to know that there are two-minutes remaining? Is this a way to insert another time out for both clubs? And why is professional football the only league that uses this function?
For over half of the history of the NFL, the official time was not on the scoreboard.
Swiss watchmaker Longines
The NFL plays American Football. This sport was derived from rugby with new rules and playing conditions which have evolved over 100 years. Rugby came from the game of soccer, which is called football. This sport is only called soccer in North America.
So, rugby is the father of American Football and soccer is the grandfather.
And because these two sports morphed into American Football, the other two games were used as guidelines for what American Football has ultimately become.
American Football plays 11 men on the field. Why 11? Why the odd number? Because that is how many players soccer uses. American Football has a kickoff, punts, tackles, goal lines, penalties such as offsides and holding, goals, referees, and interceptions to name a few of the dozen of situations that American Football simply borrowed with its version.
The Referee is the main official in soccer and also in American Football.
Even though modern soccer stadiums have game clocks on display, the official time is on the wrist of the Center Referee. The other two officials are called Linesmen (another American Football utilization), but neither keeps the game time.
Because soccer kept the time on the field, American Football did the same. As crowds for games became larger, patrons wanted to know how much time was left in each quarter - especially at the end of the game. The problem was most NFL stadiums used baseball parks, which had no use for game clocks.
NFL stadiums contracted with the Compagnie des Montres Longines watch and clock makers based in Saint-Imier, Switzerland, to manufacture and install clocks in each stadium. Longines was founded in 1832 and was known worldwide to produce the most accurate watches and clocks. The NFL needed clocks that were dependable in all weather conditions since all stadiums were outdoors and subject to some extreme conditions.
At the time, Longines supplied the United States military with watches and had a reputation for their unrivaled technical achievements with timepieces.
After installing the clocks in NFL stadiums in the 1930s, the official game time remained with the Umpire. This meant the clock on the wall was not necessarily the correct time left in each quarter but was used more as a “reference point” so that fans, players, and coaches could at least get an idea of where the time stood in the game.
With this system, time at the end of each quarter would often be a lot less than was assumed. Coaches had their strategies and often needed to know where the game stood in situations of punting the ball with the hope that the defense would hold and their offense would get the ball back, or keep the ball and run a play on fourth down.
The stadium clock was ruled “unofficial.”
For the necessity of coaches, fans, players, and....television
At the end of the first and third quarters, the teams switch ends. At the end of the second and fourth quarters, the teams are given a warning that there are only two minutes left to play.
Even before Longines installed their game clocks in stadiums, players and coaches would have to ask the referee how much time was left. Fans and coaches became frustrated with this process especially the surprise at the end of the second and fourth quarters that the time wasn’t nearly as much as was expected.
Although college football had four, at the beginning of the NFL there were only three officials – the Referee, the Umpire, and the Linesman. Later a Field Judge was added. Their attire was a small-billed newsboy-style red or white hat, white shirt and pants, and a black bow tie. This color palate is the origin of their uniforms now. If the crew wore caps, the Referee wore a red cap, and the Head Linesman, Umpire, and Field Judge wore white hats. Back in the day, the Referee kept the game clock but soon after that became the Umpire’s responsibility.
An odd rule that was put into place in 1939 is the preamble to the two-minute warning.
Teams would often have a player fake an injury late in the game especially when they had extinguished all of their time outs as a method to stop play as well as the clock. A rule was put into place that during the last two minutes of the game the clock must be stopped for an injured player if all of that team’s time outs were used, then a penalty would be accessed plus the injured player must leave the field.
During those days, just like soccer, only three substitutions were permitted per game. By having the injured player removed, he could not return.
In 1942, the NFL put in a rule that the Umpire must notify the Referee when two minutes remained in both the second and fourth quarters. The Referee would then notify the captains of each team.
Then in 1949, the league made it official. At the two-minute mark of the second and fourth quarters, a time out would be called and both teams notified that two minutes remained in the half and the game.
In 1960, the American Football League (AFL) began with eight teams. They did a lot of things differently than their NFL rivals. For one, the official time would be kept on the stadium scoreboard. However, the Line Judge was also responsible for keeping the manual game time. Since 2015, this responsibility is part of the Side Judge’s job.
By the 1960s, scoreboard technologies had advanced. A dedicated clock operator was hired who would watch for signals from the Referee with clock stoppages and when to start running the clock again. For the entire duration of the AFL’s existence from 1960 to 1969, they used a scoreboard clock as their official time for games.
During this same period, the NFL used what they had always done with the time being with the Line Judge. However, from 1966-1969 during the first four Super Bowls, the two leagues used the AFL’s clock rule and the official game time was the scoreboard.
When the two leagues merged into one entity in 1970, the rule was adopted where the scoreboard was the official time, but the Line Judge would be used as a backup just in case the scoreboard had issues or failures.
By the 1970s, television was an integral part of professional football. It not only brought in extra revenue but was a catalyst used to bring the pro game into millions of homes every week. What the two-minute warning did for TV was give the network an added commercial break as well as serve as some broadcast tension building to the game’s conclusion.
The networks loved this time out because it allowed them a “pod” of commercials to be aired in a time frame when the audience at home wasn’t going to leave their television sets at such a crucial portion of the game for fear of missing some of the action. Networks charge extra for air time during the two-minute warning because of this aspect.
Occasionally in today’s game, the clock operator is instructed to make any type of adjustment by the on-field Referee to sync with the Side Judge’s time.
Is this function outdated and unnecessary?
The origins of the NFL the league kept game time in very odd methods. Coaches, players, and fans just accepted these practices. Players routinely asked the Referee how much time was left. Fans were left in the dark until the Referee raised his starter pistol which signaled the end of the game.
The two-minute warning at least gave everyone involved an endpoint that was approaching. But now? Why does the game need a warning? Why not just use the clock?
Is it time to abandon the two-minute warning? Technology appears to have trumped its usage.
But college football does not have this. Neither does high school football. However, in both of these levels, the Referee does inform both the coaches and captains that there are two minutes left in the half of the game but is not an official time out. The Canadian Football League has a three-minute warning while the Arena Football League featured a one-minute warning. But other than that, no other sports league that utilizes a clock during games has a time out to announce that the game is about to expire.
Why does the NFL persist in keeping it? The origins of this rule were that there weren’t any stadium clocks and was a method to let everyone involved know that each half was about to expire.
Certainly, the two-minute warning is woven into the fabric of the professional game. Plus, the networks are enamored with being able to run off six high-paying advertisers which line up for this treasured slot.
This planned stoppage also allows both the offense and defense of both teams a rare opportunity to regroup, plan and make necessary adjustments. The two-minute warning gives everyone a cautionary moment that the end is fast-closing with all the important moments of the contest about to be realized.
The two-minute warning is often an important factor in a coach’s clock management strategy.
Could the game accept losing the two-minute warning? Of course.
Should it be eliminated? Absolutely not.