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Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Football and limiting rules

In breaking down and defending the infield fly rule, I rely on the concept of limiting rules--special rules designed to recalibrate cost-benefit disparities that appear if some plays are left to the game's ordinary rules. I identify four features that, when present, show the need for limiting rules. I also discuss situations in which the absence of one or more feature shows that a limiting rule is not necessary. In a work-in-progress (hopefully forthcoming), I apply this model to football, focusing on several plays from the last two Super Bowls to consider situations that do or do not call for limiting rules.

But on Slate's Hang Up and Listen Podcast (go to around the 51:00 mark), Josh Levin identifies a play that exposes another hole in the rules that might justify a limiting rule. A defensive team trailing in the final minutes commits a penalty on a play on which the offense had gotten a first down; the penalty stopped the clock, even though the clock would have continued to run without the penalty.  In other words, it functionally gave the trailing defensive team a free timeout, forcing the offense to run more plays in order to run out the clock. This, Levin argues, incentivizes teams to intentionally take penalties to stop the clock and give themselves extra, an idea discussed on Football Commentary almost a decade ago. This arose with 2:14 remaining in last Thursday's Saints-Falcons game (the trailing Falcons committed defensive holding on a play) and arguably gave the Falcons a chance to get the ball back one final time (although they did not score) and still lost.

Warning: Another more-sport-than-law-post, so continue at your own risk.

This seems like a game situation in which a limiting rule is warranted, as it is defined by all four features: 1) the play produces a significantly inequitable cost-benefit disparity, as the trailing defensive team can stop the clock and give itself more time to get the ball back, to the detriment of the leading offensive team, which receives no benefit from the play; 2) the defense entirely controls the play, as the offense can do nothing to stop an intentional penalty or the clock from stopping, even by declining the penalty; 3) the cost-benefit disparity arises because the defense intentionally commits a penalty, something teams do not want to do under ordinary rules and practices and something that rulemakers probably do not want them doing; and 4) the opportunity to gain those advantages incentivizes the defense to make this move regularly.

In fact, the NFL recognized this gap iand tried to stop it with a limiting rule. The problem seems to be that the limiting rule has not gone far enough.

This play sits at the intersection of three rules.

     1) Under Rule 4-3-2(f), when the clock is stopped following a foul by either team, the clock starts as if no foul had occurred. So if the clock would have kept running but for the foul, the clock starts as soon as the ball is ready; if the clock would have stopped but for the foul, it starts on the next snap.

     2) But Rule 4-3-2(f) contains three exceptions: The clock starts on the snap when the foul occurs in the last two minutes of the first half, last five minutes of the second half, and when a specific rule prescribes otherwise.  R. 4-3-2(f)(1), (2), (3). 4-3-2(f)(2) covered the Saints-Falcons game.

     3) Finally, there is a specific rule prescribing otherwise:  Rule 4-7-1 prohibits teams from "conserving time" by committing certain acts, including "any other intentional foul that causes the clock to stop." R. 4-7-1(f). The penalty for this act is a 10-second run-off and the clock starts when the ball is ready.

Rule 4-7-1 is a limiting rule. It closes a gap in the rules by imposing the outcome that would have resulted on the play--clock runs, including the ten seconds it would have taken for the ball to be spotted--and putting us in the same place as if the had not been called. By imposing that outcome, the limiting rule eliminates any incentive to commit intentional penalties and thus to act in a way contrary to the game's expectation. The problem is that the limiting rule does not go far enough--it is limited to the final minute of each half, so it does not reach intentional fouls that occur with slightly more time remaining, even if those time-conservation incentives are as present. That seems to have been the case in the Saints-Falcons game. The rule also does not address unintentional fouls, meaning a trailing team might gain that significant cost-benefit advantage, even if only accidentally.

The answer is to expand the limiting rules. Perhaps Rule 4-7-1 should be extended to the final three minutes (at least of the second half), when a leading team is already in time-wasting mode and the trailing team is in time-conserving mode. The increasing sophistication with which NFL coaches understand and strategize those final minutes--discussed weekly on advanced metrics sites--suggests teams have an incentive to begin doing this earlier than the one-minute mark.

Better still, eliminate the exceptions in Rule 4-3-2(f) for the final five minutes of the game.  Instead, the clock always should start for the next play as if no foul had occurred on the previous play; if the clock would have continued running, it should keep running (as would have happened in the Saints-Falcons game). Rule 4-7-1 then could perform the narrower function of disincentivizing intentional fouls by imposing an additional cost--a 10-second run-off-- for any intentional fouls committed to stop the clock. In either case, the trailing team would no longer receive (intentionally or unintentionally) the equivalent of a time-out by committing a penalty, thereby presumably removing the incentive to commit the intentional foul.

This is a fun question, because it illustrates how rules collide. Levin does say in his commentary that he spoke with people from the NFL and they did not see this as a big problem. My best guess on that is that R. 4-3-2(f)(1) and (2) probably were designed to create more excitement in close games, by allowing the clock to stop more, allowing for more plays, and, perhaps, more comebacks. That purpose has now run into possible gamesmanship in taking penalties, but the league may consider the balance between excitement and gamesmanship properly struck.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on November 27, 2013 at 09:31 AM in Howard Wasserman, Sports | Permalink


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Fouling at the end of basketball games has never bothered me, because it is easy for the opposing team to make the fouling time pay for the strategy--make the free throws. Interestingly, under old international rules, the fouled team had the choice of shooting free throws or taking the ball out of bounds on the side; the latter was always the choice.

If the penalty happens on a play in which the clock is already running, the clock begins running again after the ball is replaced and ref signals ready-to-play; that is the point of R. 4-3-2(f). So for Curious' strategy to work, the offense would have to run one play to get the clock running (a running play on which the ball stays inbounds), then take the repeated penalties on second down.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Nov 29, 2013 3:30:39 PM

This is nothing compared intentional fouls in the closing minutes of a bsketball game - to me the most annoying practice in sports.

Curious -- I believe that the clock does not re-start until the ball is snapped, so it is not possible to run out the clock that way

Posted by: JT | Nov 29, 2013 9:13:32 AM

Howard --

With respect to your first point, a team at midfield could take nine false start or delay of game penalties (if they stop at the five), running six minutes off the clock. I can think of a lot of situations where a team would value running six minutes off the clock more than 45 yards of field position. Basically any time they're up by two scores or more in the fourth quarter.

Posted by: Curious | Nov 28, 2013 12:49:48 PM

Building on Russell's point: The defense only has an incentive to do this on a play in which the offense picks up a first down.

Curious: I assume because giving up yardage outside the final few minutes imposes too great a cost. Eventually a team is going to back itself up so far in its own end. The catch-all prohibition on palpably unfair acts may also provide a check.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Nov 27, 2013 3:37:43 PM


I think that's actually what makes the clock manipulation more acute.

The automatic first down is ordinarily a significant deterrent to a trailing defensive team committing a foul to try to artificially lengthen the game, since it gives the offense the potential for (at least) three more play clocks with the ball. Yet in cases in which the result of the play would already be a first down, that deterrent is absent (since the offense is already going to get those downs, even if it declines the penalty).

Posted by: Russell | Nov 27, 2013 2:14:44 PM

"My best guess on that is that R. 4-3-2(f)(1) and (2) probably were designed to create more excitement in close games, by allowing the clock to stop more, allowing for more plays, and, perhaps, more comebacks."

Um, aren't 4-3-2(f)(1) and (2) pretty specifically intended to prevent offenses from intentionally taking false start after false start to run out the clock in a close game?

Wait, why don't teams that are ahead by a couple of scores do that until the five minute mark of the fourth quarter? There must be another rule about this.

Posted by: Curious | Nov 27, 2013 12:17:00 PM

But defensive holding, which is what the Falcons were penalized for, is a bad example because that gives the offense an automatic first down. (As it happens, the Saints turned down that penalty because they got an 18-yard gain and real first down on the play.)

Posted by: Mark Regan | Nov 27, 2013 11:37:45 AM

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