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Monday, February 04, 2013

Intentional safety = Infield fly?

One of the non-baseball plays often suggested to me in arguments over the Infield Fly Rule (and why the Rule is not necessary) is the intentional safety late in a football game. Like the infield fly, the argument goes, a team is intentionally not doing what we ordinarily expect it to do--here, running sideways or backwards and intentionally surrendering points. So should this play, which helped clinch Super Bowl XLVII for the Ravens last night, be banned, just like the dropped infield fly?

Under my model (introduced here and being refined in a current work-in-progress), three features define a sports situation as so out-of-balance as to warrant a special rule that limits a team's strategic options: 1) Negative incentives for a team to intentionally not do what we expect under ordinary rules and strategies; 2) total control over the play resting with one team and leaves the other helpless to counter the play; and 3) overwhelming cost-benefit disparity, with substantial benefits in favor of the controlling team and substantial costs imposed on, and absolutely no benefits gained by, the opponent. Applying that standard, the answer is no-- the intentional safety is not like the infield fly and should not be banned or limited.

One thing to keep in mind about football (distinct from baseball) is that there are several moving parts--teams not only worry about scoring and gaining maximum yardage on a play, but also about field position, sets of downs, and time. So football teams regularly make small cost-benefit trade-offs, intentionally failing to seek maximum yardage on a play in exchange for time off the clock. On the play in question, the Ravens incurred a cost--two points, meaning a field goal could tie the game, and they still have to kick the ball away--in exchange for the benefits of eight seconds off the clock and a more advantageous punting position (twenty yards upfield and no rush). The Niners, in turn, experienced both of those in reverse. The Niners also were not helpless or out of control on the play--although they could not stop the safety, they could have anticipated the play better, brought more pressure, and not allowed as much time to run off the clock (although there was a pretty blatant offensive hold on the play). The Niners also benefited by getting the ball back (and they would have had more than four seconds if they had played it better) and an opportunity to make a counter-play--a run back on the kick, Hail Mary pass, or (as CBS play-by-play announcer Jim Nantz discussed) the fair-catch kick (a field goal attempt from wherever the Niners caught the free kick)  had the Ravens punter shanked it. So the second and third features are clearly absent on this play. This looks like just one more example of teams exchanging small costs for small (but, it hopes, slightly greater) benefits.

This calculus would change  if the safety occurred on the final play of the game (say, where the play starts with :01 on the clock). The play now contains all three features--there is a far greater cost-benefit imbalance, and the trailing team has no control and will not get the ball back or have the chance to take advantage of the safety. But that does not undermine the intentional safety or require a limiting rule. Any problem there can be remedied by still requiring the team to free kick after the safety, even with no time on the clock, giving the trailing team an opportunity to do something on that play (including the fair-catch-and-free-kick). In other words, treat a safety at the end of the game the same as any other safety. We already some precedent on this. A game cannot end on a defensive penalty. And a team that scores a game-winning touchdown on the final play still must play the point-after, even with no time on the clock.

So another fun example of sports rules in action, further supporting my idea that the rules of a sport are akin to the rules of procedure in governing how players operate and strategize in a process (whether a football game or litigation). Just as last fall's National League Wild Card had everyone talking about the IFR, I am glad this Super Bowl has people talking about the intentional safety. But it further illustrates how just unique the Infield Fly Rule is.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on February 4, 2013 at 09:31 AM in Howard Wasserman, Sports | Permalink


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Where does the basketball strategy -- often used in the NBA and even more routinely in college basketball -- of repeatedly, intentionally fouling near the end of game, in hopes the other team will miss free thows and allow the fouling team to catch up, fit into this theory?

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Feb 4, 2013 9:39:21 AM

Same thing--2d and 3d features are missing. The fouled team has full control to counter the strategy--make the damn free throws and/or play defense when the other team gets the ball back. But this is a good example of the trailing team giving up something (some points) in exchange for something it hopes to be greater (more playing time, a chance to trade 3 points for 2 or 1, and the chance that the other team will gack the FTs).

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Feb 4, 2013 10:19:13 AM

A bit off topic, but is it just me, or did Jim Harbaugh not screw up when he decided to go for one down by sixteen?

It seems like his plan was to score three touchdowns and then go for two on the last one. That gives you roughly a 45% chance of getting to overtime (assuming you do score the three touchdowns and Baltimore doesn't score again). If he had gone for two on the first touchdown, it would have given him that same 45% chance of cutting it to 14 (where he could have either played for overtime -- or even better, go for two again on the middle touchdown, which gives you a roughly 10% better chance of winning). PLUS he'd have another 20%ish chance of successfully converting two two-point conversions to make up for missing the first.

Posted by: Off topic | Feb 4, 2013 10:56:03 AM

You could say something similar about the incentive for the Ravens to hold on the play. The penalty for holding would be a safety, the result the Ravens wanted anyway. But if every offensive player simply tackled a defensive player, the punter would only have to avoid 1 free rusher, and could run even more (and perhaps all the remaining) time off the clock. You are incorrect about what would happen if time expired and the result of the play was a safety, though. 49ers would still get the option to receive a free kick after the safety under Rule 4, Section 8, Article 2(h).

Posted by: Patrick Luff | Feb 4, 2013 11:50:23 AM

Patrick: John Hollinger made that point on Twitter.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Feb 4, 2013 3:58:16 PM

Bill Barnwell at Grantland (http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/8912868/bill-barnwell-puts-ravens-win-perspective) points out another potential example of a strategy that satisfies your (1), (2) (possibly), and (3): Put a bunch of extra players on the field to thwart an offensive play if time is more valuable than penalty yards, e.g. when you're up by a touchdown with less than a minute left.

The Giants did this (maybe intentionally) in last year's Super Bowl (http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/7545771/the-patriots-giants-super-bowl-rematch-disappoint), and Barnwell points out its similarity to Buddy Ryan's "Polish Goal Line" defense: http://smartfootball.com/defense/buddy-ryans-polish-goalline-tactic.

So, Howard, would you say the defense "has full control over the play" in this situation, or, like the fouled team in basketball, could the offense theoretically thwart the strategy by succeeding against a 14-man defense?

Posted by: Jeff | Feb 5, 2013 10:35:00 AM

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