Officiating gaffes continue to be a story line of the 2015 N.F.L. season, and the problem is not just human error.
Football rulebooks are too complicated and too freighted with zany distinctions: In high school, players must wear shoes, but socks are optional, while in the pros, players must wear socks but don’t need to wear shoes.
And was it a catch or not a catch? In the off-season, the league said, “The language pertaining to a catch was clarified.” The clarification — it’s below — is 158 words and incomprehensible to a Supreme Court clerk.
Rulebook simplification would improve officiating. As for replay review, how about making it blind? If the reviewing official did not know what call was made on the field, he or she wouldn’t have observer bias.
More on that in a moment: first the rulebooks. The N.F.L.’s is 79 pages single spaced. The rulebook used in college, and in high school play in Massachusetts and Texas, is 73 pages single spaced. The National Federation of High Schools rulebook employed in all other states drones on for 112 pages.
No official could possibly remember everything in any of these documents. When zebras botched the call at the end of the Detroit-Seattle contest on “Monday Night Football,” no one on the officiating crew knew how to enforce the rule regarding deliberate batting of a loose ball. Excessively complicated football rules reflect the over-lawyering of contemporary life — they are another way in which the National Football League holds a mirror to American society. But rules of half the length would be twice as good.
Football happens fast — “bang-bang” is the apt description. College action is faster than high school play, while at the N.F.L. level, every player was the fastest guy on his college team. High-speed collisions mean that errors of judgment are inevitable; trying to keep all the rules in your head makes the situation worse. Simplifying the rulebooks would allow officials to concentrate on judgment.
Here’s the “clarification” of catch/no catch:
In order to complete a catch, a receiver must clearly become a runner. He does that by gaining control of the ball, touching both feet down and then, after the second foot is down, having the ball long enough to clearly become a runner, which is defined as the ability to ward off or protect himself from impending contact. If, before becoming a runner, a receiver falls to the ground in an attempt to make a catch, he must maintain control of the ball after contacting the ground. If he loses control of the ball after contacting the ground and the ball touches the ground before he regains control, the pass is incomplete. Reaching the ball out before becoming a runner will not trump the requirement to hold onto the ball when you land. When you are attempting to complete a catch, you must put the ball away or protect the ball so it does not come loose.
Got that? In this Bill Belichick transcript, scan for “specific rule.” Belichick goes on and on and on trying to explain penalties. Maybe a reason for the Patriots’ success is that New England has a secret committee of shamans and mages who actually understand every line of the rules. (Or alternatively, has Ernie Adams.) The web of rules regarding how to treat blocked punts versus field goals when the ball crosses the line of scrimmage, or how to enforce fouls occurring while neither team has possession, is excessively complex. And if you think you’re ready to be a Supreme Court clerk, take a gander at the All But One Principle. Good luck keeping it in your head at game speed.
Rules variations among the high school, college and pro levels add more layers of confusion. In high school, all kicks that reach the end zone are touchbacks. In the pros, some kicks that reach the end zone are live. In high school and college, downfield blocking is legal before a pass caught behind the line of scrimmage; in the N.F.L., it’s not. Different levels of the sport have different standards about where to spot the ball after a missed field-goal attempt and about exactly where a quarterback’s body needs to be to avoid an illegal forward pass. Pass interference is enforced differently in the N.C.A.A. than in the N.F.L. Some flags that are automatic first downs in the pros are not automatic first downs in college. Deliberate batting of a loose ball? Always illegal in high school, O.K. in the pros if the ball is batted toward the sidelines. But not if batted parallel to the sidelines!
People who become N.F.L. officials usually begin at the high school or college levels — the celeb referee Ed Hochuli started by working Pop Warner games. If rules were standardized, zebras would need only to keep one set of rules in their heads, and would get more reps enforcing the unitary standards.
Maybe the solution to N.F.L. yellow-flag woes would be full-time officials. Pro zebras average about $200,000 a year in pay and deferred compensation, for part-time work. Most hold other jobs; Hochuli is a lawyer. The roughly $25 million the N.F.L. spends annually on officials is petty cash to a $12 billion organization; higher pay for full-time positions could be arranged. But even if N.F.L. officials did nothing all year but prepare to call games, the rulebook complexities and bang-bang speed would remain problematic. Complexity, at least, can be reduced.
Now the blind review idea. The basic premise of N.F.L. review is that the call on the field should be overturned only if the replay official is certain the call was wrong. There are, for example, lots of was-it-a-fumble situations that can be called either way. Unless there’s clear proof the call was wrong, whatever was signaled on the field should stand.
Technology has made possible a shift of challenges to the N.F.L. office in Manhattan; the replay official no longer attends the game. Since the replay official now sits in an office, reviews would be more credible if the reviewer did not know what had been called on the field. He or she would see the play out of context, and have this option:
The reviewer could say, “I am positive this is _____.” Or the reviewer could say, “It is not possible to be certain what happened.”
In the first case, the reviewer’s decision is enforced; in the second, the call on the field stands, without the reviewer ever knowing what the call on the field was.
In standings news, if the postseason began today, two losing teams, Indianapolis and Washington, would host playoff games while a winning team, Pittsburgh, would not be invited. The Colts are 6-7 and have been outscored by 70 points in their last two contests. Yet the goofy N.F.L. playoff formula favors them over the 8-5 Steelers. Time for a seeded tournament!
What’s the most important stat in the N.F.L. right now? Perhaps this: Carson Palmer is on a 24-4 streak. Because Palmer spent most of his career on mediocre teams, the football world tends to forget that coming into the league, he was expected to be the new John Elway. Now that Palmer is on a good team, he shines. An Arizona-Carolina N.F.C. title game would pair quarterbacks who were No. 1 overall draft selections. Since Arizona leads the league in yards and Carolina leads the league in points, a crowd-pleasing high-scoring contest may occur.
Any team that has to play Arizona should blame Tim Tebow for the Cardinals’ recent success. In 2011, Bruce Arians was the Steelers’ offensive coordinator. That was the year Pittsburgh’s season concluded with a playoff loss at Denver in which Tebow threw for 316 yards and two touchdowns. Since the vaunted Steelers’ defense could not possibly have been to blame, Arians was scapegoated and cashiered. Now he’s the boss at Arizona.
Stats of the Week. The Cardinals are 18-4 at home under Arians.
Ohio-born Ben Roethlisberger is 19-4 in N.F.L. contests played in Ohio.
Jacksonville has scored touchdowns on nine consecutive red-zone possessions.
Washington snapped an 0-9 streak on the road. Chicago has lost 13 of its last 16 at home.
At Lambeau Field, Aaron Rodgers is on a hard-to-believe streak of 57 touchdown passes versus three interceptions.
Russell Wilson has 13 touchdown passes in his last three games.
Atlanta opened 5-0, and has since has gone 1-7.
Seattle opened 2-4 and since has gone 6-1. Kansas City opened 1-5 and since has gone 7-0.
Sweet Play of the Week. Denver leading 12-9, the Raiders faced third-and-15 on the Broncos’ 16 in the fourth quarter. Oakland uses a lot of hitch screens, often with the backup tight end Mychal Rivera, who rarely sees the ball, split wide to block. Rivera split wide to block, then the Raiders faked a hitch on his side as Rivera headed upfield uncovered for the touchdown that allowed Oakland to snap an 0-8 streak versus Denver. Calling a play for a guy who rarely sees the ball is sweet. Fun stat: The Raiders won despite gaining 126 yards on offense.
Sour Play of the Week. Carolina leading Atlanta 7-0, Ted Ginn, covered tightly by Falcons corner Robert Alford, caught a sideline pass at midfield. Alford came to a stop briefly and began whining to officials about offensive pass interference as Ginn ran another 50 yards for a 74-yard touchdown.
There Should Be a Ramen Bowl. Get your air-poppers ready for 40 big-college bowl games, plus the Division I-AA, Division II and Division III finals. The much-lamented Weed-Eater Bowl may be no more, but this year the AutoNation Cure Bowl pairs colleges with a combined record of 11-13. The N.F.L. is relentlessly Darwinian: just one team survives. Because of bowls and playoffs, dozens of college football programs end their seasons dancing on the field.
Lots of bowls mean lots of shiny objects for the college trophy hall, spreading happiness to alums and boosters. Don’t we want more happiness? If more happiness is the goal, then 40 bowl games is woefully insufficient. Here are bowls Tuesday Morning Quarterback would like to see:
■ The Siesta Bowl.
■ Papa John’s Presents the Domino’s Bowl Powered by Pizza Hut.
■ Oprah Winfrey Presents Oprah’s Oprah Winfrey Bowl Featuring Oprah Winfrey.
■ The Double-Down Bowl. Minnesota, Nebraska and San Jose State, the three 5-7 colleges that received bowl invitations because there weren’t enough .500 programs, participate in a marathon double-elimination round-robin that continues till one achieves a winning record.
■ The [Insert Name] Bowl. A live-broadcast auction would decide the name during the game as corporations, interest groups and presidential candidates bid.
Is the Nation Really Crying Out for Even More Football? That bowl games are fun is different from arguing that more football playoffs contests should be added. Now that there’s a four-team big-college postseason, many fans want it expanded to an eight-team bracket. As T.M.Q. notes, there are already too many football games for the health of players.
Saturday on ESPN, the sportscaster Ed Cunningham, who started on the 1991 University of Washington national championship team, noted the Huskies played 12 games with an average of 50 snaps. This year’s big-college finalists will appear in 15 games averaging 60 snaps, or 50 percent more downs in total than the 1991 Huskies title team. If the bracket is expanded, next season the finalists will play 16 games at 60 snaps, or 60 percent more downs: the equivalent of seven more games than in the 1991 season. “At what point are we going to care about what happens to college players’ bodies when they are 50 years old?” Cunningham said.
Then he voiced a forbidden thought: that still more college contests would be staged to please the networks, not because it had anything to do with the student-athlete experience. If only ESPN on-air personnel spoke like this more often! Then again, perhaps now we know why Cunningham doesn’t cover the major prime-time games. Here’s to you, Ed.
Stop Me Before I Blitz Again! Last month the Cardinals had Cincinnati on the ropes late in the fourth quarter and proceeded to blitz like mad; this allowed the Bengals to move the length of the field to tie the contest. (Arizona won on a field goal as time expired.) T.M.Q. noted at the time, “Frequent blitzing may be the Cardinals’ personality — but could bring Arizona to woe.”
Now it’s Arizona 23, Minnesota 20 and once again the Cardinals have an opponent on the ropes, the Vikings pinned on their 20 with 1:23 remaining. Till the game’s end, the Vikings netted 39 yards against blitzes by the Cardinals, while netting five yards and a lost fumble on snaps when the Cardinals played conventional defense. Frequent blitzing may be the Cardinals’ personality — but could bring Arizona to woe.
Note 1: Vikings at Cardinals was a Lend Me a Tight End contest exemplifying the modern N.F.L. game. Running backs combined to gain 169 yards; tight ends combined for 187 yards,.
Note 2. Going into Week 13, the Vikings led the league in rushing. Since then Adrian Peterson has 87 yards rushing on 31 carries, a 2.8 average.
Note 3. Jim Nantz of CBS and NFL Network introduced the game as occurring in “the house the Cardinals built.” Ken Belson shows that it’s much more correct to say “the house Arizona taxpayers built.” CBS is an N.F.L. broadcast partner, while NFL Network is the league’s house channel. Both have a financial stake in promoting the fiction that the N.F.L. is a free-market enterprise. Details are here.
Unhappy Hour in Hell’s Sports Bar. Hell’s Sports Bar offers $5 martinis made with small-batch local vodka, but they’re infused with a compote of sulfur, anthracite and plutonium. In the early slot Sunday, Houston became an actual Hell’s Sports Bar. While most of the country saw one or the other of two playoff-atmosphere contests, Pittsburgh at Cincinnati or Buffalo at Philadelphia, Houston viewers beheld Colts at Jaguars, combined record 10-14.
In the late slot, Colorado was punished for buying every seat for the Broncos’ home game via blackout of Dallas at Green Bay, which the other 49 states saw. The N.F.L. can forbid a local network affiliate from showing a nationally televised contest because in addition to extensive taxpayer subsidies, the N.F.L. has an antitrust waiver. Imagine there were an auction for an antitrust waiver: What would Microsoft bid?
Buck-Buck-Brawkkkkkk. Trailing Pittsburgh 26-10 in the fourth quarter, the Bengals faced fourth-and-goal on the Steelers’ 9. As Marvin Lewis sent in the kicking unit, TMQ wrote the words game over in his notebook.
Visiting Green Bay, 4-8 Dallas faced four fourth-and-1s and punted each time. Then to prove it was no fluke, punted on fourth-and-3 when trailing in the fourth quarter. Facing fourth-and-goal at the Boys’ 1, the Packers went for it, and failed. But because the attempt was a rush, Dallas was pinned against its goal line, and three snaps later kicked back to the Pack.
What Stephen Curry Has to Do with Punting on Fourth-and-1. Golden State won the 2014-2015 N.B.A. title and is 24-1 this season. The Warriors are tearing up basketball to such an extent that little notice has been paid to San Antonio, also glistening at 21-5. What Golden State and San Antonio have in common is that both play team-oriented basketball, rather than the A.A.U. style that has taken over much of the sport.
In team-oriented basketball, players work together, and an assist is just as important as a basket. In A.A.U. style, players take turns standing around watching while someone goes one-on-one, the result often a crazy off-balance heave-ho. (Poor shot selection is the hallmark of much of A.A.U. basketball.) The goal of team style is to win; the goal of A.A.U. style is to convert players into athletic celebrities.
Yet though team style is demonstrably more effective than A.A.U. style, many N.B.A. teams opt for the latter. This is another example of the fact that it’s wrong to assume the first motivation in professional sports is victory. N.B.A. players may prefer taking egocentric bad shots to being on a winning team. N.F.L. coaches may prefer punting on fourth-and-short, and going on to lose, to taking the blame for a fourth-and-short try that fails.
If George McClellan Were a Football Coach. Army came into big-college football’s regular-season finale on the wrong end of 13 straight to rival Navy. Trailing 21-17 in the fourth quarter, the Black Knights faced fourth-and-3 on the Midshipmen’s 12 — and in came the kicker. Outraged, the football gods denied the try, and now Army is on the wrong end of 14 straight to Navy.
Stop Me Before I Blitz Again! No. 2. Green Bay leading 14-7 in the fourth quarter, the Packers faced second-and-25 on the Cowboys’ 30. An all-out blitz on both offensive edges left the middle unguarded. Green Bay’s call was a draw up the middle, James Starks going 30 yards for the icing touchdown.
Hidden Play of the Week. Hidden plays are ones that never make highlight reels, but stop or sustain drives. Potomac Drainage Basin Indigenous Persons leading 24-21 midway through the fourth quarter, Chicago faced third-and-10 in Washington territory. Presnap, Jay Cutler shouted something that Persons linebacker Will Compton recognized, either from film study or signal-stealing. Compton flashed a “birdcall” to his teammates — a new defense in reaction to a recognized offensive signal. When the play began, both sides of the Washington front seven dropped off, as if expecting a screen. The call was in fact a screen, stopped after a short gain. The Bears punted, and went on to lose by three points.
Stop Me Before I Blitz Again! No. 3. Bills and Eagles tied at 20-20 with 5:25 remaining, Philadelphia took possession on its 34. The always-boasting Rex Ryan called a safety blitz on three consecutive downs, and the Eagles advanced to the Buffalo 18; a moment later, they kicked the winning field goal. Ryan decision-making bonus: Facing fourth-and-5 on the Eagles’ 36, Ryan had the Bills punt. Teams that punt at the opposition 36 do not win.
Ryan inherited a Bills defense that led the N.F.L. in sacks in 2014, and was fourth over all in defense, using conservative tactics and rarely blitzing. Finding the defense was not broken, Ryan fixed it, changing schemes and moving players to new positions. Now the Buffalo defense is 30th in sacks and 20th over all. At Philadelphia, the Bills committed 15 penalties, including four for lining up offside. The all-but-uncoached Bills can’t even line up properly. “I thought we were the better team today,” Ryan boasted afterward.
Unified Field Theory of Creep. Balloting for the Pro Bowl has closed, though the season is not over. Those chosen should be called the 81 Percent All-Pros, since their selection is based on 81 percent of the season.
Adventures in Officiating. Tackle Duane Brown of Houston was called for personal foul for a “syrup” block. Brown knocked his man flat on the ground — that’s a pancake block — then jumped atop him so he couldn’t get up, which is putting syrup on the pancake. Syrup blocks are not common because they are hard to accomplish, but perfectly legal. No clue what was running through the zebras’ minds on this one.
Authentic Games Standings. At 13-0, the Panthers need two more victories, or one victory and a Cardinals loss, to lock up the first seed. This would be especially important if Carolina faces Arizona, which strongly prefers to play on its own field.
But once the Cats have home-field advantage, the best thing that could happen to them would be a nice defeat. Going 16-0 is meaningless compared with taking the Lombardi Trophy, and arriving at the Super Bowl 18-0 would crank the pressure up by several atmospheres. The Panthers need to “get the minkey off their backs,” as Inspector Jacques Clouseau of “Pink Panther” fame would say. The 2007 Patriots reached 16-0 and did not win the Super Bowl. The 2011 Packers reached 15-1 and did not win the Super Bowl. For a team with ambitions, regular-season record becomes meaningless once the first seed is locked.
The Steelers are second in the league in offense and have averaged 35 points per game in their last five outings. Traditionally a power-rush club, Pittsburgh has quietly gone no-huddle pass-wacky. Adjusting for sacks and scrambles, 62 percent of Pittsburgh playcalls this season have been passes. Facing third-and-1 at Cincinnati, the Steelers went empty backfield and threw deep; later Pittsburgh had four wide and threw on third-and-2. Ben Roethlisberger used to wander around the pocket absorbing hits — now he’s a convert to the two-second release for slants and curls, which is the essence of the Patriots’ offense. It would be a shame if the N.F.L.’s goofy postseason format sends the fascinating Steelers to an early vacation while granting the struggling Colts a home date.
New England won the Super Bowl not on the strength of flashy offense, rather, via a stout defense that shut out Seattle in the fourth quarter. Sunday, the Patriots went to Houston and held the Moo Cows to 189 offensive yards and 7 first downs. The Texans’ second-half possession results, in their own building: punt, downs, punt, punt, fumble, downs, punt. A Cats-Pats Super Bowl rematch continues to be what the Authentic Games Index predicts.
Reminders: My Authentic Games metric is unscientific; I can’t disclose my methodology because I don’t have one; lots of Authentic tests may count for more than victory percentage; and I reserve the right to retcon this item weekly. This week’s retcon is that the Colts are given the boot while the Raiders are added.
New England: 7-2
Kansas City: 5-4
Green Bay: 3-2
Giants, Minnesota, Seattle, Washington: 2-4
Jets, Oakland: 2-5
Weasel Coach Watch. As defensive coordinator at Auburn, Will Muschamp made promises to high school stars he recruited. Then money was waved by South Carolina and the promises evaporated. The prevailing mind-set in big-college football is that players can never, ever alter promises they make when signing an N.C.A.A. National Letter of Intent but coaches can break promises any time. After all, the whole reason the players are there is to generate money for the coaches!
A refreshing counterexample, noted by a reader, Josh Freeman of Camp Verde, Ariz., is that B.Y.U.’s Bronco Mendenhall said he would take the Virginia job only if he could first fulfill his promises to recruits at Provo. Breaking commitments, Mendenhall told The Washington Post, would not be “morally right.” That it’s news when an N.C.A.A. football coach acts honorably says a lot about how messed-up big-college sports business is. Here’s to you, Bronco.
Obscure College Score. Shepherd 34, Grand Valley 32 (Division II semifinal). Located in Shepherdstown, W.Va, Shepherd University hosts one of the country’s leading summer theater festivals.
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