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Thursday, September 20, 2018

An infield fly rule for fake fair catches?

Last weekend, North Texas pulled off an amazing trick play, scoring a touchdown on a punt return by having the entire team (and everyone had to be involved) pretend the returner had called for a fair catch, then racing upfield when opposing players ran to the sideline believing the play was over. On Tuesday, there were conflicting reports as to whether the NCAA was considering outlawing the play. This New York Magazine piece by Will Leitch suggests a rule change may be necessary, with arguments sounding in the infield fly rule.

The infield fly rule (and similar rules) is necessary to address situations defined by four elements: Team A acts contrary to ordinary athletic expectations or fails to do what is ordinarily expected; that move produces an extraordinary cost-benefit advantage; Team B is powerless to counter the move in light of the game's rules, practices, and structure; and that imbalance creates a perverse incentive for Team A to try this often. Leitch's piece suggests that this is a situation requiring a limiting rule.

The key is the third element of Team B's powerlessness to counter the play in light of the game's structure. The punting team's counter is obvious--play to the whistle and hit the ball carrier unless you see the fair-catch signal and/or hear the whistle. But Leitch argues that the renewed focus on head injuries and player safety has changed that calculus. Tacklers no longer want to light-up a defenseless ball carrier and likely will draw a penalty for doing so, even if the hit was legal, because it "looks bad" and results in an injury. And it already can be hard for the punt coverage team to see and determine the fair catch signal.  North Texas' coaches essentially exploited that reluctance and that limitation on the tackler.

So while there is a counter, it is one that the tackling team will be unable to utilize without risking penalties on anything that looks close, making not a meaningful counter. Alternatively, if such hits are not going to be called, Team B gets its counter, but it is one the game's rulemakers will not want to encourage. This become a situation that gives one side a cost-benefit advantage (and thus a perverse incentive) and leaves the other powerless to respond, at least without creating other problems in the game's structure.

My first thought after this play was that it was a one-time, not-replicable event, because punt-coverage players now will be instructed to hit the returner unless they hear the whistle on the fair catch. Leitch's piece convinced me otherwise, that the cultural shift away from hitting defenseless players creates a limit on the tackling team and thus a control disparity that requires a limiting rule.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on September 20, 2018 at 11:50 AM in Howard Wasserman, Sports | Permalink


Surely there is a middle ground between doing nothing and clocking the return man. It is pretty easy to wrap up a stationary player and take him the ground without any real risk of injury.

Posted by: gdanning | Sep 21, 2018 11:36:34 AM

I'm not a huge fan of the play, but I'm coming around to the idea that it shouldn't be banned. From what I've seen, the returner didn't do anything to simulate making a fair catch signal (something that should be absolutely prohibited and strictly enforced). He just didn't move after he caught the ball. Even on an ordinary return the gunners are responsible for knowing whether or not he signaled for a fair catch while the ball is in the air. On many to most punts have to decide whether to tackle the returner before the returner catches the ball, and certainly before the whistle is blown, so I don't think playing to the whistle is an unreasonable option. There are plenty of examples of returners who should have signaled for a fair catch, but didn't, getting blown up just after catching the ball and before they had an opportunity to make any kind of football move (or for a whistle to blow).

Posted by: jph12 | Sep 20, 2018 2:15:56 PM

Another counter theoretically available to Team B would be for their coaches to instruct the coverage team to surround the punt-catching player and then stand there until either the refs end the play or the player tries to take off running, at which point they would be free to tackle him. However, this is also not an effective counter because the game clock would continue to run during this stand-off, and the punting team may not want to waste those precious seconds if they're trailing and hoping to get another shot after a defensive stand.

Posted by: Dan | Sep 20, 2018 12:57:40 PM

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