Rants & Raves

(Don Chance)

Football Rules that Should be Changed


I’m a big fan of football, such a big fan that I never go to games.  People who go to games are not the true fans.  They’re more interested in the social aspects, such as being able to say “I was there,” or “How many tailgate parties did you crash?”  At many college football games, the number of people who go to the area around the stadium but do not attend the game is estimated at maybe about a third the number of people who actually attend the game.  In some sense, the day is a giant party.  The game is an interruption of the party.

Serious football fans want to see the replays, follow the statistics, and hear the analysts’ commentary.  They also want complete freedom to get up and fix whatever food or drink they want at the time, without paying extortionist prices, and head to the bathroom during a timeout, knowing they won’t have to stand in line and won’t miss a play.  Serious fans watch a game at home, on their wide-screen televisions with surround sound, flipping channels to follow other games and even using the Internet to keep track of other games going on.  I qualify as a serious fan.

So, I’d like to get something off of my chest.  There are some rules in football that are absolutely ridiculous.  Unfortunately, these rules have been in force for so many years and are believed to serve a useful purpose so there is no chance that most of them will ever be changed.

The first rule is “blocking behind the back” and some variations of it.  This infraction occurs when an offensive player blocks an opponent from behind above the waist.  It is a 10 yard penalty in the NFL and NCAA.  A variation of this is clipping, which is a block behind the back and below the waist.  This penalty is 15 yards and an automatic first down.  These penalties usually occur in an open field, such as on a punt or kickoff or perhaps a long run or pass.  I have always understood that the purpose of the rule is that in an open field, a defender is most vulnerable to contact from behind.  He cannot see the blocker coming, cannot typically get away, and cannot brace himself for the contact.  These infractions are thought to prevent serious injuries, particularly those to the knee.

I challenge the NFL and NCAA to prove that such injuries occur on these types of blocks.

I have not done a study, but over the last decade or so of watching football, I have made mental notes that when these penalties occur, I have yet to see the blocked player get injured.  If the purpose of the penalty is to deter such blocks and thereby prevent such injuries, would we not see at least some such injuries when the rule is violated and a block of this sort occurs?  I am still waiting to see the first injury.  I hope it does not occur, but someone tell me if it does.  And one injury is not a good reason for a rule.  If that were the case, football would be impossible to play.

And you know why we do not see such injuries?  Because it is based on hearsay and not proof.  But even hearsay doesn’t hold up.  After all, receivers and running backs in open fields are not given such protection.  How many times have we seen a receiver run a pattern called a curl or button hook and get creamed?  He runs 5-10 yards past the line, turns around and awaits a pass.  During those couple of seconds his back is to the defensive back or a linebacker.  If the pass comes to him, the defensive player is at liberty to hit him in the back or below the waist as hard as he can.  The only requirement is that the ball must get to the receiver first.  This is the same kind of hit and arguably even more violent that is prohibited on an open-field defender.  The only argument I can think of that justifies the one and not the other is that perhaps it can be assumed that the receiver knows he has a good chance of being hit, as if that changes his behavior.  What is he going to do?  Tense up and risk not catching the pass?

This blocking-behind-the-back and clipping rules are ridiculous.  The NFL and NCAA should conduct a study to determine the frequency of injuries when such penalties are imposed.  If they did, I am sure they would find that few occur.  Then maybe they would reconsider the rule.

Having such a rule in the absence of a study to support it reminds me of the fact that a recent study concluded that it is quite possible that helmets cause more injuries than they prevent.  The study found that helmets give players more freedom and confidence to play violently.

The second rule I have a problem with is spiking the ball.  No, it’s not technically a rule and that’s the problem.  It should be a rule and should be prohibited.  Spiking occurs when the offensive team is running out of time.  The quarterback takes the snap from the center, steps back a foot or so, and then slams the ball to the ground.  This action counts as an incomplete pass, stopping the clock, giving the offensive team a few extra seconds to get itself coordinated, perhaps make some substitutions, communicate with the bench, and in general, plan what it is going to do next.

If the quarterback rolled back to pass and slammed the ball to the ground or threw it far away from any eligible receiver, it would be an infraction called intentional grounding.  The exception to this rule is if the quarterback has moved outside of the so-called “tackle box,” an imaginary line where his offensive tackles are positioned on the line of scrimmage, provided the ball goes past the line of scrimmage.  The general purpose of the intentional grounding rule is to take away the quarterback’s incentive to throw the ball away to avoid loss and to stop the clock.  The penalty for intentional grounding in the NFL is 10 yards or positioning the ball at the spot of the fall, whichever is furthest away, with loss of down.  If it occurs in the end zone, it is a safety.  In the NCAA, the penalty is to position the ball at the spot of the foul with a loss of down.  Thus, it is a severe penalty and rightfully so. 

So, why is there an exception for spiking the ball?  The sole purpose of spiking the ball is to stop the clock in a desperate situation.  There is clearly a loss of down, but the penalty is not severe.  Spiking clearly violates the purpose of the intentional grounding rule.  At a minimum, spiking should result in a 10-yard penalty.

Here’s another stupid rule.  In the NCAA, a receiver who catches a pass has to have only one foot in bounds for the pass to be ruled complete.  If one foot is in bounds and one out of bounds, the catch is legitimate, assuming of course he holds on to the ball until the play ends.  The NFL has that rule correct.  The receiver should have both feet in bounds.  You know why that is the correct rule?  Because in the NCAA and the NFL, if someone is running with the ball and one foot steps out of bounds, the player is considered out of bounds and the play is over.  The NCAA agrees with the NFL that one foot out of bounds means he’s out of bounds.  So why the exception for a pass receiver?  I don’t know.  It’s a stupid rule and one that contradicts another rule.

Another stupid rule is the penalty for defensive holding.  The rule is fine.  You certainly cannot have a defensive back grab a receiver and not let go.  But the penalty is ridiculous:  five yards and an automatic first down.  Does that make any sense?  By making it a five yard penalty, it implies that it is not a severe infraction.  But by making it an automatic first down, it implies that it is a severe infraction.  Even the 15-yard severe penalties are not automatic first downs.  Is anybody in the world of football rules paying attention?  The penalty contradicts itself.

And finally, while this is not a rule, I would like to see officials calling offensive pass interference or no call far more often.  The rules recognize that the defensive player has equal entitlement to the ball, but virtually any contact results in a call against the defense.  Only a blatant case of the offensive player pushing off will result in a call on the offense.  Come on refs.  Pay attention.  Tell yourself the offensive player already as the advantage:  he knows where the play is going.  Two players colliding is not defensive interference.  In fact, no call far more often would be an improvement.  After all, collisions occur on our highways that are just plain accidents, no one’s fault.  That too is true on the football field where chaos is the norm.

Perhaps there are other rules and I’ll get to those as I think of them.  But right now, these rules need to be reconsidered by the NFL and NCAA.  They make no sense whatsoever.


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Last updated: October 21, 2012