Over-Ruled

I’m a big fan of (American) football, but a lot of people are surprised to learn that I never played organized football. It was largely a matter of timing– the coaches when I was in junior high were not people I’d’ve been interested in playing for, and when they hired a good guy to run the program when I was in high school, I was already playing soccer. And in college, I played rugby

One of the lingering consequences of not having played organized football is that I really haven’t internalized all the rules. Which means that, when I watch the game, the one major weakness I see is that it seems overly fussy and technocratic. There are a whole host of non-obvious rules that seem to serve no obvious purpose other than bogging the game down from time to time.

For example, there are a whole slew of “illegal procedure” penalties. Some of these are obvious– you don’t want a back getting a running start before the ball is snapped– but many of them are kind of obscure. There’s a penalty for having too many men at the line of scrimmage, and another one for “leaving the tackle uncovered” or some such. Either of those can generally be fixed by having one guy take a step or two forward or backwards. I’m always baffled by those calls, mostly because I’m not at all clear what Bad Thing they’re intended to prevent.

Another good example is the myriad of rules regarding what counts as a catch, and what counts as a fumble. The Detroit Lions (in)famously lost a game earlier this season when their star knucklehead Calvin Johnson caught a ball in the end zone, then set it on the ground as part of his celebration. Because he did this too smoothly, though, they ruled it an incomplete pass, and lots of the commentary about the play seemed to see no problem at all with having something that would’ve been a catch out of the field be an incompletion in the end zone. Or there’s the Eli Manning play last week against Philadelphia, where the fact that he dove forward onto the ground meant that when the ball was jarred loose on impact, it was a fumble, but had he bumped a Philly player on the way down, or done a baseball slide, the play would’ve ended. Of course Philly tried to rules-lawyer a similar play yesterday, claiming that the Chicago player who recovered their onside kick attempt hadn’t been touched, and thus had given up the ball when he dropped it to celebrate. The officials neatly undercut that one by declaring that the player had “given himself up,” which they won’t review (I was betting on “the whistle blew,” which is the other great official’s cop-out).

It’s hard to avoid feeling like the game just has too many rules. There are a bunch of rules that are clearly essential for fairness and safety– some version of the false start and offsides rules, prohibitions on dangerous blocking and tackling– but a lot of what’s on the books just seems excessive to me. If you want to line up with fewer blockers on the line, go nuts– it’s your job as an offensive coach to balance the increased chance of having an open receiver against the increased chance of having your quarterback flattened. If you have a guy on your team who can both snap the ball as the center, and catch a pass, go ahead and throw to him.

(I’m particularly fond of the last one, as a charter member of the international fraternity of Big Slow Guys… One of the best things about rugby is that, while second-row play is almost all drudgery, you do get the occasional shot at glory in the line-out. You couldn’t pay me to play tight-head prop, though.)

I’d also like to see a little more flexibility in the rules that are essential. While you clearly want some variant of the false start rule in place, it really shouldn’t be called unless it affects the play. If the left tackle hiccups and nobody else moves, or Cal’s kicker takes a half-step forward, there’s no reason for that to be a penalty. Call it if the movement fools somebody on the defense into thinking the play started, otherwise, let it go, and keep the game moving. I’m not tuning in to watch the officials confer, I want to see some football.

The best criticism soccer and rugby fans have of (American) football is that the players spend too much time standing around between plays. A lot of that is unavoidable, but you could cut it down some by getting rid of some superfluous rules, and make it a more fluid and entertaining game in the process.

Comments

  1. #1 cisko
    November 29, 2010

    It’s often struck me that for all its violence, football is an incredibly formalist game; it’s as rigorously structured as a fugue or villanelle. So I think the complexity of which you speak is more of an intended feature than a bug.

    That said, it gets painful. My wife got terribly frustrated this weekend when I tried to explain the different rules for an in-bounds catch between pro and college, but that’s only one obvious example.

    And while I agree that football has too much standing-around time, I don’t know that the rules are a big part of that. Most of the idle time has to do with resetting the ball after a play and using up the play clock. Cutting the rules may reduce the number of penalties, but only a bit. And the really time-consuming penalties are all “let’s talk about this” stuff like personal fouls and multiple infractions, which will stick around regardless of how you redefine the rules.

    Now, if you also reduce the number of refs, then maybe you’re on to something…

  2. #2 Steven Colyer
    November 29, 2010

    Eli Manning did in fact redeem himself yesterday, didn’t he? :-) Outscored 17-6 in the first half by the Jacksonville Jaguars, the New York Giants’ DE Justin Tuck lit into his squad at halftime, which apparently worked, because the Giants came back (thanks largely to Eli as well) to outscore the Jags 18-3 in the 2nd half to win 24-20.

    Here’s a matrix for you, Chad, have fun with it in class as a teaching tool:

    17 3 = 20
    6 18 = 24

    Throw in some bits from Weyl, Born, Jordan and Heisenberg for extra added pleasure.

    Rugby man, eh? Coolness. I had you pegged as a offensive lineman in AF, as such men have to have 3 things going for them: Big, Fast, and SMART, all 3 of which you seem to have. You missed a great career in the NFL, man, I think you would have been spectacular. (Chris Snee got your job, btw, :-))

    I played organized American football (starting Strongside Linebacker for the Catholic U. Cardinals), the helmets and pads stuff, which frankly upset me a tad as all that padding meant I could hit and be hit harder, otherwise. Kinda sissy compared to Rugby, eh? Playing touch football for fun in high school was much tougher (and therefore more like Rugby), since we “touched” all right … very very damn hard. :-)

    I’m not sure if Rugby is the toughest of manly men sports, because I know nothing of Australian-Rules football. Any Aussies reading here care to comment?

    Also, did you see Invictus? What did you think of it?

  3. #3 Emory K.
    November 29, 2010

    “…I’m not at all clear what Bad Thing they’re intended to prevent.”

    Maybe job loss and unemployment from reducing the necessary number of referees?

    Or something a physics prof can appreciate: Learning all those byzantine rules in referee school is a weed-out course. Keeps the less gifted from advancing into NFL officiating.

    Or perhaps they’re like most military drills – seemingly a waste of time, but they keep officials awake, alert, and looking in the right direction for real threats?

  4. #4 Alexander Woo
    November 29, 2010

    Question: Is 8 in the scrum a rule of rugby, or only the evolved solution to an optimization problem?

  5. #5 Loki
    November 29, 2010

    Try watching ice hockey, the rules are designed to interrupt the game at the minimum level while still maintaining a coherent structure and set of rules.

    Fast paced and with very few interruptions (in fact it is possible for an entire period to go without stoppage though that’s usually not the case).

  6. #6 Scott
    November 29, 2010

    Answer to #4,
    Eight in the scrum is a rule of rugby. The rules changed (I think in 1996) to make this compulsory. Prior to this point, the loose forward (6, 7 & 8) would often stand off to act as extra backline defenders. The rule was therefore changed to try and give backlines more space to score more tries.

  7. #7 James Davis
    November 29, 2010

    In some cases, rules are part of a complex system of preventing older styles of play that were very dangerous. For example, the rules about having the right number of people on the line of scrimmage and not having ‘false starts’ are related to the old practices of one or both teams trying to get a running start with all the team’s mass behind it, and then ploughing into the other team. (Mass plays). In those days, football was ridiculously dangerous.

    That said, they also didn’t have pads and medics like we do now. I think they should move back towards allowing mass plays as part of the game. It’d be interesting to see them in the game now that it allows the forward pass.

  8. #8 andre3
    November 30, 2010

    Want to speed up the game? Decrease the play clock. Make the players on the field call the plays. It’s funny to think that when I started watching football as a kid in the 80s, the play clock was even longer.

    However, I would argue that the standing around and time between plays is what makes football such a fun game to watch. Each play is a discrete unit with a pause in between. This gives the spectator a chance to play a game of “what-would-I-do” on every play, for both the offense and defense. This idea is also why football video games are so much fun.

    The first thing I would do if I were in charge of the rules? Limit the number of coaches and personnel on the sidelines (and in the booth). One head coach and maybe two assistant coaches. No need for a score of coaches nit-picking every little detail of the game.

  9. #9 CCPhysicist
    December 1, 2010

    Someone raised on American football freaks the first time watching Canadian football, where one back can be in forward motion at the snap. Personally, I won’t be surprised to see the NFL add that one as a way to further increase offense at some time in the future.

    The one rule violation I really hate is when linemen cheat back off the line to make up for their lack of mobility. Some teams have perfected the curved line of scrimmage so a tackle can be more than 1 yard off the ball, but only because the refs don’t call every violation of it they are supposed to see. This, like legalizing most holding, is tolerated to help the offense.

    The point made @7 is an important one, but doesn’t explain why the one man in motion (which eliminates mass attack plays) can’t be in forward motion. It also doesn’t explain why a VERY important rule from the reforms circa 1910 is no longer enforced at all: helping the runner advance. (The rule resulted from the deaths that resulted when a back was thrown over the line or over a flying wedge using suitcase handles sewn into his pants, as my grandfather described one play they used to use.) Offensive linemen should be flagged when they piledrive into the runner from behind on short yardage plays. I figure that won’t be enforced until someone is killed or injured because of it.

    One rule you mention (about men on the line and uncovered tackles) has changed significantly in my lifetime. The old “tackle eligible” play is now illegal because receivers have to have certain numbers. You used to be able to uncover the tackle by having an end step back and make another end ineligible (by stepping up to where he was covered by another receiver) to create “interesting” plays like a few of the single-wing plays that have been revived in recent years. You had to keep the number of eligible receivers limited, but you were not limited in how to do it. I think (in college ball) you can’t even report to the referee to become eligible if you have the wrong number.

    Much of that became necessary when unlimited substitution made specialization possible. Watch an old movie (“Horse Feathers” has some real football in it) to see how different the game was when only a few substitutions could be made and motion dominated the play.

  10. #10 Captain C
    December 2, 2010

    To elaborate on #7 and #9 on the need for 7 players on the line of scrimmage (i.e. the source of many illegal procedure penalties), before around 1906 or so, football was entirely a ground game, and the main strategy was to mass up and smash into the other team. Combined with other factors, this made football a dangerous enough game, with several fatalities per year on the college level, that President Roosevelt threatened to ban it. So, they came up with the rule that the offense had to have a certain number of people (7 of the 11) within a yard of the line of scrimmage.

    As to too many people on the line, the rules state that only the two people on the ends of those on the line are eligible receivers; you are allowed to have as many as you want, IIRC, but any extras on the interior are treated like Offensive Linemen (i.e. can’t catch passes, can’t advance past the line of scrimmage or X yards downfield until a pass is thrown), so if a receiver is accidentally “covered” when he’s not supposed to be, if he goes out for a pass pattern , he’s technically ineligible. On a running play he’d be fine (unless, of course, I’m misinterpreting the rules).

    I suspect that the rule of limiting eligible receivers (and the forward pass was legalized around the same time as the wedge was banned) was done to keep things somewhat manageable for the defense; plus, the prevailing view at the time was that football really should emphasize running and kicking, and that passing was a sideshow that robbed from the manly purity of the game, thus the powers that were felt the need to limit passing options.

    Too few men on the line, of course, goes back to eliminating the wedge and other such dangerous play.

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