Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

05 Sep 2006

Confessions of a Football Junkie: Can I Get a Ruling?

by Russell Levine

College football's new timing rules had a clear impact on the opening week of games, and much of the reaction has been unfavorable. In Michigan's game against Vanderbilt, for example, the teams combined to run 125 plays, about 20 fewer than a typical game from 2005. The math says that's about 17 percent fewer snaps, but I don't expect the impact to be quite that severe by season's end.

Mostly that's because coaches and players are still getting used to the changes, with many clearly failing to grasp the impact of a running clock on change-of-possession plays. There were some teams -- Michigan among them -- that failed to run the play clock down to the final seconds following a change of possession. In Michigan's case, this mean leaving an extra 20 seconds or so on the game clock during its final offensive possession of a 27-7 win. But by my very unofficial observation, there were as many if not more teams who let time tick off the clock while trailing at game's end, a situation that I expect will be rectified as the season goes on. Coaches will learn to have their offenses ready to go, play called on the sidelines, after a change of possession.

Coaches also need to adjust their thinking at the end of games when deciding whether to go for it on fourth down or punt, hoping to regain possession. The best example of this from the opening weekend came from Alabama-Birmingham coach Watson Brown, whose team had a chance to take Oklahoma to overtime. Trailing 24-17 with 2:53 remaining, out of timeouts, and facing a fourth-and-12 at his own 31, Brown elected to punt the ball.

Under any circumstances, this was a poor call by Brown. His best-case scenario under the old rules would have gotten his team the ball back with 20-25 seconds to play. That assumes Oklahoma would have begun its drive with roughly 2:45 on the clock and run three times. Figuring approximately 45 seconds per play (the 25-second play clock, plus five seconds to run the play, plus 15 seconds to spot the ball), the Sooners would burn a minimum 2:15 off the clock before punting. But under the new rules, Oklahoma's first snap didn't come until 2:22 remained. The Sooners simply ran three plays and watched the clock expire.

The play-by-play from this game reveals another terrible shortcoming of the college timing rules -- namely, the 25-second clock. In college football, the play clock doesn't start until the officials untangle the pile, spot the ball, and signal ready-for-play. All that time, the game clock continues to tick. And college officials are eternally slow to complete that process. Oklahoma's first snap of the above sequence came at 2:22, the second at 1:24, the third at 25 seconds. Assuming 30 seconds of each interval is accounted for by the running of the play (five seconds) and the play clock (25 seconds), that means the officials took 28 and 29 seconds to spot the ball! What were they doing for all that time? It's not like the Sooners were running 40-yard pass patterns.

The NFL's 40-second play clock is far superior for these situations. It begins as soon as the previous play is blown dead, and prevents the variance of how long it takes officials to spot the ball from affecting the outcome. With a 40-second play clock, we can assume the Sooners would have snapped the ball at 2:22. 1:37, and 52 seconds. A fourth-down snap would have been necessary, and Oklahoma would have had to decide whether to punt or take an intentional safety.

As I wrote in analyzing these rule changes last month, they strike me as an attempt by college football to simply be different from the NFL, and with predictable results. There were many ways the NCAA could have shortened its games without affecting late-game strategy.

As an aside, Brown's decision to punt, effectively giving up on his team's last chance to pull off a monumental upset, would make him an obvious choice for the season's first John L. Smith Trophy if not for the antics of a certain MAC coach on Thursday night -- more on that below.

The other major rule change under widespread scrutiny this weekend was the adoption of a unified instant replay system, with the added wrinkle that coaches may now challenge one call per game.

I have always supported the use of replay in college to prevent obviously blown calls from determining the outcome of games. But the system as it currently exists simply does not work well enough. The combination booth review/coach's challenge is confusing for all parties. The challenge was added after coaches routinely found themselves having to call timeout in order to give the booth more time to decide whether to review a play.

But here, too, the NFL system is superior. Why review plays if the coach doesn't feel strongly about them? I would adopt the NFL system, but with one tweak: Give each coach two challenges per game. If the second challenge results in an overturn, give the coach another one. The booth takes over in the final minutes of each half.

I also feel the on-field referee should make the decision whether to overturn a play. I'm not sure who the replay officials are or where the conferences get them, but they seem to frequently misunderstand their role. Replay is supposed to overturn a play only when there is conclusive, indisputable evidence of a blown call. Time and again, you'll see replay overturn a call on far shakier evidence, almost as if the replay official pays no attention to the call on the field. I've also seen college replay officials fail to understand the tuck rule, which is the same in college as in the NFL, and rule a fumble even after the quarterback's arm has clearly started forward.

Another frustrating thing about replay -- both in college and in the NFL -- was pointed out by FO's Michael David Smith in the college comment thread this weekend. In the Georgia Tech-Notre Dame game, replay correctly overturned a catch by Tech's Calvin Johnson. However, that same replay just as clearly showed Johnson being held by the Notre Dame defender prior to the pass being thrown. Why is replay allowed to overturn the catch, but not call the penalty? In this case, I don't advocate the use of replay to call penalties -- except for non-subjective fouls such as 12 men on the field. I think this play is perhaps the best indication as to why replay should be scrapped altogether. Allow human error to be part of the equation. Errors tend to balance out in the end. By using replay to correct only some of those errors, we potentially upset that balance.

John L. Smith Trophy

As mentioned above, the race for the season's first JLS Trophy was over as soon as Central Michigan concluded its game against Boston College on Thursday night. In fact, CMU coach Brian Kelly could have earned a season's worth of nominations for some of his decisions in that game.

The primary offense was of course his "swinging gate" play call, in which the guards and tackles never got out of their stance on the far hash while the QB took the snap from center on the near hash and threw a game-clinching interception while running for his life. For full details of Kelly's performance in the BC game, click here.

Being unconventional is fine. Steve Spurrier is unconventional. He's also Steve Spurrier, and if we forget the Redskins years, he's a pretty damn good coach. Kelly's team had a chance to upset Boston College when he called that swinging gate play. His team gave an incredible effort, only to have their last chance undone by that particular bit of coaching "genius." For that, Kelly gets the season's first JLS Trophy, and rest assured, we'll be keeping an eye on the Chippewas all season -- starting with this week's game at Michigan.

BlogPoll Ballot

This season, I'll again be voting in the BlogPoll, hosted by mgoblog. I'll post my ballot in Junkie each week. Feel free to comment -- I may make some changes based on the response.

A note on the methodology here: I'll be the first to admit my preseason rankings were largely guesses. Insofar as we learned some important things about certain teams (ie, Cal isn't that great, Tennessee isn't that terrible) I made major changes in the rankings from last week.

Rank Team Delta
1 Ohio State --
2 Auburn 2
3 Texas 1
4 Southern Cal 1
5 West Virginia --
6 Louisiana State --
7 Notre Dame --
8 Florida 2
9 Louisville 3
10 Florida State 4
11 Clemson --
12 Georgia 1
13 Virginia Tech 2
14 Oregon 7
15 Iowa 2
16 Michigan --
17 Oklahoma 8
18 Penn State --
19 Miami (Florida) --
20 Nebraska --
21 Tennessee 1
22 UCLA 4
23 Texas Tech 1
24 TCU 2
25 Cal 17

Dropped Out: Arizona State (#23), South Carolina (#25).

Posted by: Russell Levine on 05 Sep 2006

19 comments, Last at 09 Oct 2007, 3:26am by fooloof

Comments

1
by Theo (not verified) :: Tue, 09/05/2006 - 9:03pm

Allow human error to be part of the equation.
In soccer we hear things like "human errors from the refs ar part of the game. Or the more romantic one "The ball is a round".
Many games in soccer are won by teams that just plain shouldn't win, and vice.
But Football is not as sickly conservative as soccer is. Thank goodness.
Or else 1 of 4 teams would win the Super Bowl every year and the east coast would favor baseball.

2
by Omroth (not verified) :: Tue, 09/05/2006 - 9:27pm

I'm from Europe.

I hate soccer.

I really, really hate soccer.

3
by Pat (not verified) :: Tue, 09/05/2006 - 10:12pm

I know it's verboten, but am I the only one thinking that Ohio State should've dropped a bit after the weekend? Great offensive performance, but 343 total yards, at 5.1 yards a play? The only thing that OSU did right defensively was their third-down performance (NIU was 1-13 on third down).

4
by Marko (not verified) :: Tue, 09/05/2006 - 11:00pm

Another example of the effect of the new timing rules, as well as the failure of a team to take advantage of those rules, came at the end of the FSU-Miami game. Leading 13-10, FSU took possession after a Miami punt at Miami's 45 with 2:19 left. Miami smartly used a timeout immediately, before first down. Miami then used its second timeout after first down, with 2:12 now remaining. Miami then jumped offside before second down. In addition to the five yard penalty, the clock now started before second down, which should have negated the benefit of Miami's previously called timeout.

However, FSU snapped the ball with about 17 seconds still on the play clock rather than running it all the way down to take full advantage of the new timing rules. Ultimately, Miami took its last timeout before fourth down and FSU punted for a touchback. Miami took over with 1:05 left, which might have been enough time to get in scoring position if they had any kind of an offense. But they would have had far less time (perhaps around 50 seconds) if FSU had run the play clock all the way down before snapping the ball on second down.

5
by Kevin11 (not verified) :: Tue, 09/05/2006 - 11:06pm

I thought the new replay rule and the effect it had on the flow of the game was nothing short of torturous.

Not entirely to blame the new rules, but there were times during Miami v Florida State where it seemed there was a five minute break between every play.

6
by Mac (not verified) :: Tue, 09/05/2006 - 11:22pm

We had an odd clock event in the Hawaii-Alabama game, though I think I was the only one in the stadium who noticed it. Alabama was called for delay of game on their last possession, leading 25-17 with about 3 1/2 minutes to go. The officials then started the game clock after that penalty, allowing Bama to run off about 25 seconds. Considering that the game ended with Hawaii about 30 yards from the Alabama end zone trying a desperation heave that was picked off, those 25 seconds could have meant a lot. I'm pretty sure that the new clock rules don't call for the clock to start after a delay of game, because then any team with a lead in the fourth quarter could just sit on the ball.

7
by Marko (not verified) :: Tue, 09/05/2006 - 11:26pm

I had the same reaction regarding the flow of the game that you did, Kevin11. Particularly annoying was that sequence at the end of the third quarter, when just before FSU snapped the ball at the Miami goal line, the officials stopped the play for a replay review to see whether the receiver on the previous play got in the end zone. After upholding the ruling on the play, the clock then started again and time expired in the quarter just before FSU snapped the ball.

We then had to wait through a commercial break before FSU's third attempt to snap the ball at the goal line, which was about 10 minutes after the previous play occurred.

8
by David (not verified) :: Wed, 09/06/2006 - 12:06am

#6: I'm pretty sure that's the exact opposite of the point of a delay-of-game penalty. More of a delay-of-game reward. Wow.

9
by Craig Richardson (not verified) :: Wed, 09/06/2006 - 3:07am

Re: #2

I don't know why so many people consider hating one code of football to be some kind of status symbol. I like football. Association, Rugby, Australian Rules, Canadian, US NFL or college - they all have their strengths and they all have their weaknesses. IMO, anyone who dismisses any kind of football out of hand is not just missing something, but the very fact that they did so says something telling about them...

10
by Trogdor (not verified) :: Wed, 09/06/2006 - 7:38am

Sweet, it looks like my DNS finally propagated. Or something.

I know Miami had a lot of turnover on the coaching staff, but I didn't realize they had replaced their QB coach with Aaron Brooks. Wright made some nice throws and all, but he also took some ridiculous 17-yard sacks, including a few that were called back by penalty. His response when someone came unblocked was to turn around and run backwards as fast as he could, apparently either believing he could outrun a fast LB with a running start, or trying to lose as much yardage as possible. I hate Miami and all, but still I was hoping he'd realize these sacks were inevitable, and either throw it away or step up and lose less yardage. He looks like he could be a really good one, but he has some bad habits that need to be unlearned.

Now Pat, you could be right, and if I was voting honestly I'd probably rank USC first based on week 1 (and obviously rankings would be open to wild fluctuations early on). But I have to think that if I had an actual vote, I'd have put OSU/Texas at 1 and 2, just so we could have a 1/2 matchup early on. After this weekend, one of them would probably be #1 and the other will drop anyway, so why not throw them up there and have fun with it?

Oh, on the timing rules. Miami definitely knew what they were doing, calling that immediate timeout. However, I happen to think it's silly that they should have to use a timeout there. And the problem of taking too long to spot the ball can easily be made worse by teams taking their sweet time getting off the pile. Officials need to have the balls to call a delay of game or unsportsmanlike conduct on players who are obviously stalling, and have the clock stop as a result. Of course, this will never, ever happen, even if it's allowed, so why am I wasting my time suggesting it? A switch to the 40 or 45-second clock would make so much more sense.

11
by princeton73 (not verified) :: Wed, 09/06/2006 - 10:00am

there's still something wrong with thesite ot his new server

pages won't load

12
by warnpeace14 (not verified) :: Wed, 09/06/2006 - 12:08pm

I'd like to throw up a LJ Smith runner-up:

Dan McCarney deserves a nomination for going for two half-way through the 3rd quarter w/ the score 20-8 (after the ISU TD). The instant this occured, I said, "Well, that's dumb as hell." Not to be results oriented, but Toledo scored a TD in the 3rd, and in the 4th w/ a successful 2 pt'r to tie the game after a 4th quarter FG by the 'Clones. So the game goes into triple OT.. with the Cyclone's managing a victory... but I just thought it was a well deserved shake down for a dumb call.

13
by CA (not verified) :: Wed, 09/06/2006 - 12:20pm

I'm guessing that others have brought this up, but in case they haven't...

If the NCAA is serious about reducing the length of football games, it doesn't need to start the clock upon the spot of the ball after a change of possession, get rid of the clock stoppage upon a first down, or switch to an NFL-style 40-second play clock. Such actions, especially the first two, would change strategies and incentives and therefore significantly affect the game.

Rather, all the NCAA has to do is reduce the length of the quarter, say to 13 or 14 instead of 15 minutes. I really can't see such a change significantly affecting coaches' strategies. Most high school football uses 12 minute quarters, so I don't see anything sacred about the 15 minute quarter.

That said, as a football fan, I am more than willing to put up with the classic 3:30 hour college football game. I don't appreciate the tinkering. But if the powers-that-be absolutely feel that it is necessary to reduce the length of games, they should do it in the least disruptive way possible, and to me that means shortening quarter length.

14
by Becephalus (not verified) :: Wed, 09/06/2006 - 12:29pm

Well spoken number 9.

15
by Tarrant (not verified) :: Wed, 09/06/2006 - 1:12pm

It's hard for me to fathom the suggestion of reducing the length of quarters to reduce the length of college football games.

The reason college football games are taking longer is partially due to the proliferation of passing offenses, true, but also because of a) the sheer number and length of television commercials and b) the oddly high amount of time it seems to take replay officials to make a damn decision. The things like the clock stopping for first downs, that's been the case for a long time in college, and unless you suddenly have three times as many first downs, that's not going to be a reason for a dramatic increase in game length.

But we all take note of the fact that televised college games (and NFL games) have the famous "touchdown, commercial, kickoff, commercial, play resumes" concept. After every punt. After every fumble. And the commercials are getting longer, not shorter.

Add to that the fact that it seems like it can take many inexplicable minutes for replay officials to make a decision. I don't know if those guys get paid by the minute or something like that but some reviews that seemed to me like 30-second decisions (just by watching the replays shown to us on TV) took upwards of 3 to 5 minutes. The NFL this season is trying to keep replay decisions to one minute or less, figuring that if it really takes 3-4 minutes of watching video closely to make a decision, then odds are the evidence isn't "indisputable". College should look at something like that too.

16
by Wes M (not verified) :: Thu, 09/07/2006 - 5:34pm

My personal pet peeve re: college game length has to do with tape delayed games.

Many Oregon State games are run on FSN on a tape delayed basis - later in the evening Saturday or on Sunday. Yet we poor souls in the stands still have to endure every television time out. [imagine ALL Caps, bold] It's tape delay, you can add commercials any time you want, you freaking morons! [multiple excalamion points][/end rant]

That feels better.

17
by kyle (tcn) (not verified) :: Fri, 09/08/2006 - 1:56am

congrats on being one of the few to rank notre dame where they belong right from the beginning.

i think auburn played great this weekend, but not neecessarily any better than texas or usc. neither team seems to have missed a beat from last year and they're both coming off of national championship game appearances... what more does it take to get into the #1 slot? i see it like this: texas, ohio state, auburn, usc, lsu... of course, we'll find out a lot this weekend, but auburn and lsu can't start trumping those top three until they start beating up on the rest of the SEC.

18
by Loose On the Lead (not verified) :: Fri, 09/08/2006 - 11:53am

Errors tend to balance out in the end.

So it would be fine if there were 40 bad calls per game, as long as they occurred more or less evenly across teams? Come on. Bad calls are bad things, period. Yes, if they're going to happen, it's nice if they even out, but reducing the total number of them should be a priority whether or not they're distributed evenly between teams.

19
by fooloof (not verified) :: Tue, 10/09/2007 - 3:26am

Personally, I think that the rule governing the number of challenges a team gets (NFL) should be modified a bit. I agree that if you lose your second challenge, you should be done, but I think you should have unlimited challenges until you've lost two. In this hypothetical scenario, it could go something like this: Let's say that you challenge once and lose, but then win the next three challenges. If you challenge a fourth time and lose, then you're out of challenges. The reason I say unlimited, is because a challenge is merely righting a wrong; it's not a bonus. Currently, a team can challenge up to 3 times if the prior two challenges were both successful. The problem is, what happens if a ref blows a 4th call or more? Then the team is SOL. And now, as I understand it, refs are instructed to let a play finish (as in the case of a questionable fumble) and then wait for the coach to challenge it. That forces the coach to use a challenge for something the refs are supposed to get right the first time. A team shouldn't be penealized for a ref's inability to get the call right. And I realize that the ref's have a tough job; I'm just saying don't make the team pay for the mistake.