Wednesday, January 6, 2010

On The Rules

Did you know it's been almost twenty-five years since the NFL adopted the instant replay rule? Well, it has, and yet I have a prominent writerly friend* who still hasn't quite gotten over it, who loves nothing more in the world than watching football and who constantly emphasizes rationality above humanity, and yet seems convinced that those five minutes of instant replay reviews--designed to assure fair play, and encourage rationality, and minimize human error--somehow cheapen his entire experience. At this point, it's not really a debate anymore; it's like arguing with Bronko Nagurski. But it remains a sore spot, something he cannot get over.

I bring this up because ESPN the Magazine ran a clever package this week, in which they suggested 31 minor rule changes that could actually improve sports. I agree with some, and I vehmently disagree with others, but it always fascinating to see something like this and realize how much of sport is derived from a tradition that may or may not be based in any sort of rational thought. We simply assume things are the way they are because that's the way they should be, even when we know they shouldn't.

So here are three suggestions I would add, specifically targeted to college football:

1. Disregard 87 percent of Peter Keating's ideas about fixing overtime; first of all, he calls baseball's overtime rules "great," and we all know that nothing has been great about baseball since 1994**. About the absurdity of college football overtime's statistics and yardage counting in the record books, he is utterly correct; all overtime numbers, with the exception of the score, should be disregarded. About college football's overtime process somehow being disconnected from the spirit of the enterprise, he is horribly misguided. College football's overtime is a strategic nirvana. College football's overtime is essentially a compressed version of the game itself, which is exactly what it should be, with one exception: Teams should take over at the 35, rather than the 25. This way, they would actually be forced (in most situations) to advance forward in order to gain three points. This way, overtime periods would sometimes end with neither team scoring at all, which would remedy Keating's concern over 61-58 final scores and inject another level of strategery into a system that is infinitely more perfect than the NFL's coin-toss solution.

 2. Graduation rates should somehow be tied into the BCS formula. That is, if the NCAA is actually serious about maintaining the ruse that amateurism still exists, and that a playoff does not exist because it will somehow cause several Texas linemen to miss their Candlepin Bowling final, then they should actually put some stock in these numbers. Either that, or they should just give up and embrace corruption and pay off everyone involved in the sport. Starting with the writers.

3. Bring back the five-yard facemask penalty. Apparently, it was abolished because it involved "interpretation" by an official, and interpretation is apparently too much for an official to handle when he is trying to avoid being mauled by several men the size of wheat threshers. This seems dubious, since the difference between a five-yard facemask and a 15-yard facemask can generally be interpreted in a matter of seconds by my girlfriend, who watches approximately three football games every year. I also understand that there is a safety issue here, but I presume that most football players don't set out to rip off helmets; it just happens. In fact, shouldn't this be the very reason to distinguish between an inadvertent facemask and a blatant (and sometimes intentional) facemask? Isn't this like the difference between grazing an old lady on a crowded subway, and punching an old lady in the face?

*Yeah, that's him. Welcome, Chuckolytes.
**Though I applaud Terry Pendleton on his election to the Hall of Fame.


WarningTrack said...

Great entry, though I disagree somewhat with the notion that we assume the rules are the way they are for a good reason.

I think this sort of thing is true throughout must of human history, but I think people are increasingly likely to question everything -- even good things. Possessing vastly superior technology has fooled us into thinking that we possess vastly superior judgment, to the point at which an alarming number of people are willing to upset the status quo without much thought.

By doing this, we force ourselves to re-learn, every generation or so, all the things (sports-related or not) that our inherited rules and laws are there to save us from having to re-learn.

Not to broaden the discussion too much...

Mike said...

One problem I have with instant replay in the NFL: there doesn't seem to be any consensus in the league as to what "incontrovertible" means. It drives me crazy when I see incomplete passes that don't look like catches in real time get overturned because, when slowed down to super slo-mo, it appears that someone had control for a millisecond. The opposite drives me crazy too.

Also the challenge system is inherently flawed: if you're really interested in accuracy, why limit the number of challenges? What if the officials have a really bad game?

As to the rest of your post -- you're exactly right about college football overtime. The basic framework is the best possible overtime for football, and I would like to see it installed in the NFL. Maybe with each team starting from midfield...

Michael Weinreb said...

You people are really smart. Please come back.

WarningTrack said...

Flattery will get you everywhere, dude.

Quick rant that's sorta-kinda on-topic: I think someone else has already said this (I forget where), but officials need to stop saying "the ruling on the film is confirmed." The ruling is supposed to be UPHELD, which is different. Saying "confirmed" is almost defiant, IE: "see, Wade Phillips, you were wrong and I was right. Now go back to staring vacantly at the field."

It's also technically wrong, because they're not supposed to be under there to see whether or not they can confirm their ruling. In fact, they're supposed to be doing the exact opposite: they're supposed to be actively looking for evidence that they're wrong. Perhaps the phrasing doesn't usually suggest otherwise, but it could very well be indicative of a faulty mindset, and that's the kind of thing that has a way of distorting these kinds of rules over time.

Re: the college system. I agree that it's ideal if the overarching goal is to ensure fairness, but that's not necessarily the first priority for the NFL. The NFL's goal is to ensure interest and entertainment, and fairness is only a part of that. If we were on a mission from God to find the best football team, the entire season would be different; we'd probably play more games, or we'd take point differentials into account, etc. Overtime has to be somewhat fair, but also very entertaining; I think the college solution tilts a bit much to the former.

Personally, the most interesting suggestion I've ever heard was to keep the coin toss but play "first to 6 points or better." This forces a team to either score a TD or kick a couple of FGs. Not perfect, as the coin toss remains important, but it's fairer than what we have now while still preserving the whole "could end on any play" suspense that, fair or not, is kind of cool.