Our offseason Four Downs series ends with a look at the NFC West's biggest remaining holes and their most notable UDFA signings. The Rams and 49ers have to kick-start their passing games, Arizona's offense lacks a big dimension, and the Seahawks continue to rely on Russell Wilson's magic tricks.
03 Oct 2005
by Russell Levine
I can't believe I'm about to advocate this, but here goes: I want less college football.
Yeah, I'm the guy with GamePlan and the DirecTV Sports Pack so I can see UTEP play on ESPNU. I'm the guy that gets fired up for the midnight kickoff at Hawaii (not that I'm ever awake for much of the game).
But I've had it, and I'm taking a stand.
I've had it with four-hour plus games. I've had it with endless replay reviews that are horribly inconsistent. I've had it with the clock that stops after more plays than it doesn't.
On DirecTV, the GamePlan channels allow a 3 1/2-hour window per game. When I checked Saturday, none of the Noon kickoffs were over by 3:30, meaning fans who have paid extra money to see their team missed the early part of the game, even if what they were forced to watch was the interminable ending of Texas's blowout of Missouri.
We had a pretty healthy discussion about this topic on the message boards after last week, and I'm OK with college games being a little longer than the NFL. I'm OK with the longer halftime that allows the bands to perform. I'm not crazy about the college overtime system, but I like the fact that it's different than the NFL's.
But when 3 1/2 hours is no longer enough time to play a football game, something is wrong. There are several changes that should be immediately implemented that could shave 15-20 minutes off the game time, and allow contests to be completed within those pay-per-view windows.
That's it -- four changes that would probably knock 20 minutes off your average game time, and yet would not have a discernable effect on what the game looks like. I remember when the NFL moved to restart the clock on out-of-bounds plays a few years ago to speed up its games. There was much whining as to how much it would change the game, then the season started, and nobody really noticed the difference.
As far as replay goes, I have two separate issues. One is the stated desire to speed up the games, but the other is that I'm seeing far too much inconsistency in what is reviewed, and what is overturned in the college game. And this idea that "every play is reviewed" whether or not the game is stopped to consider reversing the call is ludicrous. Most conferences are handling replay by putting a TiVo machine on a TV in the booth. That's it. The replay operator can rewind the play to his heart's content, but doesn't have the ability to choose different angles or re-run slow-motion replays that aren't shown on the TV broadcast. Although TiVo has a slow-motion feature, anyone who has used it to try and do a home review of a controversial call knows that the feature comes up lacking. You get choppy video that advances a few frames at a time, and you can't see much of anything.
There's another issue that bugs me about college replay, and it's that the decision is made by a "replay technician," and not the game officials. We all laughed when the NFL instituted its challenge system and the referee came jogging over to the sideline to stick his head under the hood of the video system. But now I see the wisdom in the NFL's decision. There is no man in the stadium who knows the rulebook as well as the referee, so it makes sense that he should decide replays as well as the calls on the field.
I bring this up because a lot of replay decisions are not black and white -- was the receiver in-bounds, etc. -- but involve rules interpretations. Those are the plays you need an official making the call. It's not going to happen in college because of the added cost of having replay equipment on the sidelines rather than just sticking a TiVo in the booth, so the conferences have to make sure their replay technicians are as well-versed in the rulebook as the game officials.
You probably know where I'm going with this. In Saturday's Michigan-Michigan State game, the Spartans tied the score in the fourth quarter on a fumble return for a touchdown. The fumble occurred when Michigan QB Chad Henne was hit as the pocket broke down. Henne's arm had clearly come forward while still in possession of the ball, but replay made it look as if he was attempting to pull the ball down when it came out, squirted forward a few yards and was eventually picked up by the Spartans.
Now you New England and Oakland fans know that situation well ... it's the infamous "tuck rule." At least that's what it is in the NFL. I wasn't sure what the rule was in college, but when Brent Musberger dutifully informed me that there is no tuck rule in college, I assumed that the call of a fumble would stand up on replay -- which it did. But Musberger's comment bugged me to the point that I looked up the college rulebook after the game was over. As far as I know, there is no "tuck rule" in the NFL either -- that is, there's nothing in the rulebook that specifically defines a "tuck rule" situation. All the rulebook does is to specifically define what constitutes a forward pass, which is the arm coming forward while still in possession of the ball. The NFL rulebook states that no matter what happens after the arm comes forward, the result is a forward pass. That's why the Brady call against the Raiders was correct. After that season, the NFL opted not to change the language of the rule, because keeping it as is gives a black and white definition of what is a forward pass and prevents the officials from having to judge the quarterback's intent with the ball. Intent -- to pull the ball down, to pump-fake, etc. -- doesn't matter, only that the arm moved forward.
So, given that there's no "tuck rule" in the NFL rulebook, I wonder if the absence of same in the college book meant that Henne's play should indeed have been ruled an incomplete pass. Thankfully, the NCAA rulebook is available for download. I spent some time reading everything in it relating to the forward pass, and this is what I found in Rule 2, Section 19, Article 2b:
"When a Team A player is holding the ball to pass it forward toward the neutral zone, any intentional forward movement of his arm starts the forward pass. If a Team B player contacts the passer or ball after forward movement begins and the ball leaves the passer's hand, a forward pass is ruled regardless of where the ball strikes the ground or a player."
So we have the exact same situation as in the NFL -- a strict definition of what constitutes a forward pass, and not a word about intent. Unless I'm missing something elsewhere in the rulebook, it seems to me that the college rule is exactly the same as in the NFL. And, in that case, the failure to overturn the call in the Michigan-Michigan State game was a horrendous error in judgment by the replay official, because even the most die-hard Spartan fan would admit that Henne's arm came forward while still in possession of the ball. If the referee were reviewing that play, my guess is he would have overturned it. Perhaps the replay technician didn't understand the rules, and was judging Henne's intent -- which appeared to be to pull the ball down.
There was another replay situation in that same game that did go Michigan's way, and it too involved some controversy. Michigan intercepted a pass at about its own 2-yard line, and the defender was hit by the receiver and fumbled, but Michigan recovered at its own 13. At that point, the officials came running in and signaled incomplete pass. The play was reviewed, and replay showed a clean interception, and the defender taking at least two steps before fumbling, so the call was overturned. But since the play had been ruled incomplete, hadn't the officials blown their whistles? Or was it one of those delayed incomplete signals, where they watch the full play develop before deciding to rule, and only blow the whistle at that point? If it's the former, it should have been unreviewable, and ball should have remained with Michigan State. If it was the latter, then replay correctly overturned the call -- but where was the explanation? The referee simply announces that the call has been overturned, but did not address that the ruling on the field was incomplete pass.
The college replay system is very new, and there are bound to be some kinks. It is serving the greater good by overturning obviously blown calls, but its application must be made more consistent, and it wouldn't hurt to cut down the number of plays that are reviewed.
Sunday was an interesting day for the NFL's unbeaten teams. Three of the four -- Cincinnati, Tampa Bay, and Washington -- hadn't exactly been common playoff picks in the preseason, and their fast starts were being met with ho-hum attitudes. The fourth, Indianapolis, was on everyone's short list of Super Bowl contenders, but had looked positively un-Colts like in winning three straight low-scoring games.
Sunday presented each team the opportunity to silence some of the doubters. Clearly, the Colts made the loudest statement, continuing to display a dominant defense but finally getting the passing game in gear in a rout of Tennessee.
Washington, which had narrow wins over Chicago and Dallas to its credit, came out of the bye week with the chance to prove it could beat a 2004 playoff team in Seattle. The Seahawks, as they always seam to do when playing on the East Coast at 10 a.m. body time, got off to a slow start before rallying to send the game to OT -- but not before seeing a potential game-winning kick hit the upright on the last play of regulation. Given second life, Mark Brunell moved the Redskins into position for the wining field on Washington's first possession of OT.
It was a win that will at least make people pay attention to the Redskins. They're still a flawed team, but Brunell at least looks competent after seemingly forgetting how to play last season, and so far Joe Gibbs seems much more comfortable with the logistics of the modern NFL game. We haven't seen the errors in clock management and replay judgment that plagued him on the sidelines all last year. The Redskins are far from a powerhouse, but they are showing signs of life for the first time since 1999.
Against Detroit Sunday, Tampa Bay got a glimpse of what can happen when their game plan goes awry. The Lions completely shut down Cadillac Williams, who eventually left the game in the third quarter with a sore hamstring. Detroit stacked the line of scrimmage and dared the Bucs to beat them with the pass, and what ensued was vintage Brian Griese -- that is, he kept both teams in the game. The Lions scored all 13 of their points off Griese turnovers, but he hit two long touchdown passes to provide the winning margin in a 17-13 victory.
I'm fairly convinced that the Bucs can win with Griese, but they can't put themselves in too many situations where they have to win because of Griese. He works well as a component of the offense. He generally makes the right reads and is pretty accurate. To be fair, he took a pretty vicious head shot early in Sunday's game and may have played a little bit woozy -- or worse -- the rest of the way.
Of course, Tampa Bay could easily have lost Sunday had a controversial replay decision not gone the Bucs' way. For the record -- and take my bias any way you wish -- I think Marcus Pollard probably was out of bounds when he gained control of the ball, but I also think the call probably should not have been overturned after being ruled a catch on the field.
Cincinnati was in a similar situation to the Buccaneers'. Off to a flying 3-0 start, the Bengals hosted a Houston team that everyone believed they should beat easily. But sometimes those are the toughest games to win, especially for a team with no track record of success that is still learning how to play as a favorite. That Cincinnati was able to grind out a W bodes well for the Bengals down the road. Wins don't have to be pretty to count, especially for a team trying to convince itself that it's good.
There was no shortage of candidates for the Mike Martz award this week, especially in college. Reaching all the way back to last Monday, LSU's Les Miles could have picked up the honor for frantically trying to call a timeout after a change of possession in the Tigers' loss to Tennessee, but I have a short memory, so I'll let that one pass.
Other candidates include the namesake himself, Mike Martz, for his double-reverse call in the red zone against the Giants. To say the play want awry is an understatement. Trick plays were a theme among the Martz candidates this week: Iowa State's Dan McCarney earned some consideration for calling an end-around pass on the first play of overtime against Nebraska in a bit of foreshadowing to the award's actual winner. The Iowa State pass was thrown into double-coverage, as halfback and receiver passes often are. Backs and receivers don't get the chance to throw the ball very often, and they almost always chuck it up there, no matter the coverage. That's what makes them bad play calls in critical, red-zone situations.
The actual award goes to Michigan State's John L. Smith this week. Smith just couldn't help himself with the trick plays against Michigan. First there was the halfback pass, described above, that was intercepted to kill one drive. Then, after Michigan had given the Spartans new life by missing a go-ahead field goal in the final minute, Smith called for a hook-and-ladder play when MSU still had a chance to move into field goal range in regulation. Michigan had struggled to stop the Spartans' pass offense all game long, why not go with a conventional play? Two medium-length completions could have put MSU in field-goal range. Instead, the hook-and-ladder needlessly risked a turnover and was stuffed. MSU had another completion called back by penalty, and the game went to overtime.
1. Southern Cal (1): Two weeks from now in South Bend could be really interesting.
2. Virginia Tech (2): Wow. Just, wow. Impressive on both sides of the ball.
3. Texas (2): They were sloppy in rout of Missouri, and VaTech has just been that impressive.
4. Florida State (6): Congratulations for playing this week.
5. Georgia (5): I have no idea what to expect in Knoxville Saturday.
6. Ohio State (7): We all knew Ohio State-Penn State was going to be huge back in August, right?
7. Alabama (14): The Seventh Day Adventure reverse karma worked again.
8. Tennessee (10): Good win on a short week vs. Ole Miss.
9. Miami (Florida) (8): They get to kill Duke before another half-empty Orange Bowl this week.
10. Cal (13): Very interesting test coming up at UCLA Saturday.
11. Notre Dame (15): Purdue, feel free to start play D any time now.
12. LSU (11): Still feeling the after-effects of Tennessee loss vs. Miss. State.
13. Boston College (16): I can't believe Texas Tech didn't schedule Ball State.
14. Wisconsin (18): Badgers break out passing game vs. IU.
15. UCLA (22): Gritty come-from-behind win over Washington sets up Cal game Saturday.
16. Penn State (NR): Maybe we should have listened to JoePa.
17. Florida (4): Meyer fails first big-game test.
18. Michigan State (9): Uh, they have a weakness. It's called defense.
19. Arizona State (12): That's two they've let slip away, or we'd be talking about them for the Rose.
20. Texas Tech (19): Kansas barely qualifies as a real team, and they barely won.
21. Georgia Tech (23): DNP
22. Michigan (NR): Looks like another woulda, coulda, shoulda season for the Wolverines
23. Oregon (NR): Could still have a say in the Pac-10 race.
24. Minnesota (17): Penn State loss might not look so bad by the end of the year.
25. Nebraska (NR): Big revenge game coming up vs. Texas Tech.
Dropped out: Virginia (20), Purdue (21), Iowa State (24), South Florida (25)
Games I watched: Michigan-Michigan State, USC-Arizona State, parts of Virginia Tech-West Virginia, Texas-Missouri, Florida-Alabama, Iowa State-Nebraska, South Florida-Miami, Notre Dame-Purdue, Washington-UCLA.
59 comments, Last at 06 Oct 2005, 7:04pm by B