Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Fake slides and the infield fly rule (Updated and Moved to top) (Twice)

I defend the infield fly rule as a response to sporting situations defined by four features: 1) A player acts contrary to athletic expectations; 2) that player gains an extraordinary, unique, and inequitable benefit; 3) that player exercises exclusive control over the play; and 4) the combination of ## 2 and 3 gives a player the perverse incentive to try # 1. The IFR responds by limiting # 1 to avoid the overwhelming cost-benefit advantage. (The IFR achieves this by calling the batter out and eliminating the force on the runners, thereby eliminating the cost-benefit advantage and thus the perverse incentive). A key to the defense is showing that the IFR situation is not unique--that similar problems arise in baseball and other sports and those sports respond to the problem with limiting rules similar to the IFR.

A new example comes from Saturday's ACC Championship between Pitt and Wake Forest. Pitt QB Kenny Pickett scrambled out of the pocket and ran upfield. After almost 20 yards and with two defenders closing in, Pickett slowed and begin to slide to the ground, only to stutter step, remain upright, and continue running for a 58-yard touchdown (video embedded in link). When a QB slides to the ground feet-first, defenders cannot touch him; the rule--instituted in the NFL in 1985 and the NCAA in 2016--is designed to protect quarterbacks.

How does this break out:

    1) Pickett acted contrary to the game's expectations, which are that quarterbacks slide in that situation. The health and safety considerations are built into the game's rules and expectations.

    2) Pickett gained an extraordinary benefit. When he pretended to start his slide, the defenders had to stop; when he continued running, it was too late for them to react.

    3) Pickett controlled the players and the defenders can do nothing to stop it. Pickett knew what he was going to do, but the defenders did not. The defenders had to stop chasing when they saw him begin sliding. If they continued moving, he actually slid, and they hit him, it would have been an unnecessary-roughness penalty (and perhaps a targeting ejection, if one of them unintentionally hit the sliding Pickett in the head). But once they stopped, it was impossible to start again when Pickett continued running. And Pickett knew this--he took advantage of a rule that prohibits defenders from hitting him.

    4) Quarterbacks have a perverse incentive to try this move, at least if willing to take a hit. At worst, they actually slide and get hit, gaining an extra 15 yards. At best, they can run upfield without fear of getting hit. Wake Forest Coach Dave Clawson suggested he would tell his QB to "fake knee" all the way down the field.

Pickett's play was not against the rules, but Clawson called for a rule change to prevent such fake slides. This would be a limiting rule a la the IFR. The question is what the rule would look like. The official could whistle the play dead when the QB looks like he is giving himself up. Or the move could be penalized, depriving the QB of the benefit of the fake and eliminating any yardage gained prior to the fake. Only the second deters the effort. Under the first, a QB might hope he can fool the official into not blowing the play dead, knowing that it is costless to try. Under the second, the QB loses something if he tries it and fails.  A new rule may not be necessary. Football has a foul for "palpably unfair acts," a discretionary catch-all unsportsmanlike penalty. Examples include players running off the sideline to make tackles and intentional blatant holding penalties to waste time on the clock. Perhaps it covers this sort of deception of a helpless defender.

Update, 12/11: The NCAA came through, ruling: "[A]ny time a ball carrier begins, simulates, or fakes a feet-first slide, the ball should be declared dead by on the field officials at that point."

Second Update, 12/14: A friend asks how the fake slide differs from Dan Marino's 1994 fake spike, when Marino faked that he was spiking the ball at the goal line with time running out, then pull the ball back and threw a touchdown pass. A good question. The difference goes to the defense's ability to counter the fake. The rules allow the defense to keep playing when the QB spikes (or appears to spike) the ball--if a player could move that far that fast, a lineman could sack a QB trying to spike the ball. The Jets defense infamously was fooled and gave up on the play, allowing the TD. But the rules did not require them to do that--they could have avoided that fake by not falling for the fake. By contrast, the fake slide forces the defenders to stop playing because they cannot hit the QB who appears to be giving himself up and cannot even come close; when Pickett continued running, the defenders could not respond quickly enough to the play unexpectedly continuing.

There is, as my friend argued, a "family resemblance" between the plays. But this shows the importance of the four features of the play, all of which must be present for the play to raise problems. Eliminating one eliminates the extraordinary cost-benefit imbalance that requires limiting rules. Rulemakers still may not like and seek to eliminate the play. They are not facing a fundamentally unfair situation.

Third Update, 12/15: Another reader makes the point that Marino did not really fake the spike. Everyone assumed he was going to spike it and the defense stopped playing, but he did not really try very hard to sell the fake. Which reenforces my original point--the defense could control this play and failed to do so. No need for special rules to protect them.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on December 14, 2021 at 10:31 PM in Howard Wasserman, Sports | Permalink


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