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Any Fool Can Make a Rule...

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While he's on the NFL for a moment, let SMQ exploit the opportunity of championship weekend among the professionals to point out the minor advantages of the college product. This is not about "passion" or "rivalries," etc., or even the bland, uniform strategy dictated by the necessarily conservative response to crazy-fast NFL defenses, but about the actual conduct of the game on the field, with the introductory caveat that all football is inherently great by definition:

Sane Pass Interference Rules: The Patriots' Ellis Hobbs was flagged in the end zone Sunday night for a terriffic defensive play in which he did not come close to touching or otherwise physically impeding Colts receiver Reggie Wayne in any significant way, but was nevertheless guilty of "face-guarding" because he didn't turn to look at the ball. The fact the ball was underthrown and Hobbs swatted it cleanly anyway without actually interfering with the receiver couldn't save his team from a flag that put Indianapolis on New England's one-yard-line for a very easy tying touchdown. What was Hobbs supposed to do here, exactly?

On a more regular basis, how could any penalty conceivably be worth the incredible yardage regularly assessed to pass interference fouls? If you drag the opposing team's quarterback out of his own huddle by the facemask between plays, that's 15 costly yards. But put your hand on Marvin Harrison's shoulder in the process of trying to do your job, that's 40 yards and the equivalent of a game-changing play the offense doesn't have to make by actually, you know, completing the pass. If a defender is beat, why can't the NFL admit, "Smart play by him to interfere" and mark off a perfectly frustrating 15 yards? SMQ does not see many intentional attempts to interfere by clearly burned college corners. Or any at all, in fact. It's to their credit NFL officials seem to have given defenders more leeway on this rule the last couple years, but combined with the maddening and inconsistently-applied "illegal contact" - a rule instituted after the Patriots' effective mugging in the 2003 AFC Championship specfically for the benefit of the style of play embraced by the Indianapolis Colts, by the way, with apparently the desired results at last in Sunday's 38-34 thriller - it's almost unfairly difficult to play cornerback in the league with any regular success.

Sane Rules About Everything Else: Most egregious here is what masquerades as "roughing the quarterback," a penalty whose assessment is so far past the furthest bounds of absurdity at this point its earlier, lower levels of absurdity are subconsciously creeping into the college game in the form of "helmet-to-helmet" hits and the like (in the regular course of play, such contact is the purpose of a helmet, lest it be skull-to-skull). Last night, on a play that could have sealed the game for the Patriots had they managed to come up with the ball they popped into the air from Reggie Wayne's grasp, the hypothetical recoverywouldn't have even mattered because of a flag for a "blow" delivered to the head of Peyton Manning, a grazing effort by a totally blocked defender that probably didn't even induce one of Manning's precious neck muscles to so much as flex in response. It was 15 extra yards towards the winning touchdown, at any rate, and possibly the difference between that score, on a third straight Indy handoff (much easier to run when the ball's moved inside the opponent's ten for you) and a tying field goal. Any time he watches the NFL, SMQ feels like he's watching players on egg shells, perpetually at the whim and mercy of an official judgment they couldn't avoid.

The larger problem with this is the judgments pro officials are forced by rule to make, personified by roughing the passer and the ludicrous "tuck rule" (which actually is not inherently ludicrous except as applied in its most famous incarnation), but also present in less egregious situations. Sometimes, as with the intentional grounding penalty that cost the Saints a safety and momentum against the Bears, judgment is unavoidable and, on a play like Drew Brees' blind toss to a would-be back who didn't make it into his outlet route, could conceivably go either way (to clarify, because SMQ is such a partisan for the Saints, the grounding was definitely not a bad call, but he has seen that kind of throw allowed when a back gets tied up). But why leave it up to an official to determine, for instance, whether or not Jabar Gaffney was pushed out of bounds on a third quarter touchdown catch against the Colts? He didn't get two feet in bounds, ergo, he's out of bounds; who cares why he didn't get two feet in? Again, why the insistence of taking this heady play away from the defender? In college, DBs can push a receiver out of bounds on his way down with a catch, and the receiver is just out. That's good defense. It's the receiver's responsibility to get his foot, or feet, in bounds, and either he succeeds or he doesn't; the official's judgment as to the cause of the placement shouldn't be relevant.

Clock Killers: The NCAA screwed its clock rules all up with the adoption of rule 3-2-5-e, which likely will not make it intact to next fall. But the outrages of that football-stealing rule pale in comparison to the NFL's extreme friendliness to slow-down ball by two means: continuing the game clock during first down plays and the excess of a 35-second play clock.

Both steal way, way more plays from games than 3-2-5-e, most likely in service of the same commercial masters. On the latter, if college offenses can line up and get off a snap in 25 seconds, why can't highly-paid professionals with coaches dictating strategy directly into the quarterback's ear? If anything, pros should have less time. Over a five-minute period, the extra ten seconds on the NFL play clock can conceivably cost up to four plays, which could mean 48 plays over a sixty-minute game. That's what, six to eight decent possessions? In practice, it's probably more like four or five fewer possessions per game in the NFL (that is an unscientific guess, but the average number of plays in an NFL game is roughly 125, whereas, even post-3-2-5-e, the average number of snaps in college games was more than 152) which is plenty significant. Teams can sit on the ball at the end of a game for too long; the Saints, earning a first down at the two-minute warning against the timeout-less Eagles back in October, proceeded to take three straight knees before kicking the winning field goal with less than ten seconds on the clock. Great strategy, but the clock rules shouldn't allow so much of what's supposed to be the most exciting portion of a tense game to tick away exclusively on kneel-downs.

Clock-milking is further encouraged - and comebacks dramatically stunted - by continuing the clock while chains move after a first down. College games only gain by allowing the offense time to gather itself for a spike or another play after first downs, where pros are often scrambling wildly to get up to the line with no way to stop the seconds from slipping away as no actual football commences in the interim. Again, the shortening effects on the cumulative game length are primarily in service of more beer and truck commercials after every kickoff, and at the expense of the game itself.


Eroding time for actual football with marketing catchphrases? Brilliant!
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Anyone interested in what they think the NFL does better than college - SMQ has his short list, headed by "playoffs" - is encouraged to discuss in the comments.