NFL’s Soup of Rules Makes the Game Perplexing

12/12/2007 8:42:48 AM

I once invited my lawyer to watch an NFL game with me, in hopes he could explain the rules.

No, he said, he didn’t understand them either.

The National Football League has long made an annual habit of tinkering with its rules.

There are a lot of reasons for this. Safety is the best one; pro football players are exposed to enough risk of injury as it is, and if rule changes can help reduce that risk without compromising the nature of the game, good.

Another is to keep up with the changing athlete. For whatever reason(s), pro football players are larger and faster than they were 20, 30 or more years ago.

Players of bygone eras disdain the “in the grasp” rule, but then quarterbacks didn’t have 350-pound linemen bearing down on them.

Kickers have gotten so much better that the goalposts needed to be moved back and kickoffs made from farther away to keep the kicking game from becoming a joke.

Yet another big reason for rule changes was to keep up with coaches and players finding loopholes.

One that comes immediately to mind is the Oakland Raiders’ famous fumble in 1978. With 10 seconds left, about-to-be-sacked Ken Stabler threw/fumbled the ball forward to Pete Banaszak, who threw/fumbled the ball forward to Dave Casper, who kicked/fumbled the ball into the end zone and fell on it for a game-winning touchdown.

The NFL quickly put in rules to prevent such chicanery. Here is how it stands:

On a play from scrimmage, if an offensive player fumbles anywhere on the field during fourth down, only the fumbling player is permitted to recover and/or advance the ball. If any player fumbles after the two-minute warning in a half, only the fumbling player is permitted to recover and/or advance the ball. If recovered by any other offensive player, the ball is dead at the spot of the fumble unless it is recovered behind the spot of the fumble. In that case, the ball is dead at the spot of recovery. Any defensive player may recover and/or advance any fumble at any time.

Not too complicated, but what about the rules for timekeeping in the final two minutes of a half?

Faking injuries late in the game in order to stop the clock without a time-out was long an art form for football players. The NFL has tried to legislate this practice out of existence — hard to argue with that — but at a high price to the simplicity of rules.

The NFL’s Website has a separate section on “Timing in the Final Two Minutes of Each Half.” Here’s what it says:

1. On kickoff, clock does not start until the ball has been legally touched by player of either team in the field of play. (In all other cases, clock starts with kickoff.)

2. A team cannot buy an excess time-out for a penalty. However, a fourth time out is allowed without penalty for an injured player, who must be removed immediately. A fifth time out or more is allowed for an injury and a 5-yard penalty is assessed if the clock was running. Additionally, if the clock was running and the score is tied or the team in possession is losing, the ball cannot be put in play for at least 10 seconds on the fourth or more time out. The half or game can end while those 10 seconds are run off on the clock.

3. If the defensive team is behind in the score and commits a foul when it has no time outs left in the final 40 seconds of either half, the offensive team can decline the penalty for the foul and have the time on the clock expire.

4. Fouls that occur in the last five minutes of the fourth quarter as well as the last two minutes of the first half will result in the clock starting on the snap.

There are other issues — defenders’ contact with receivers more than 5 yards downfield, intentional grounding and more — where the rule isn’t so complex but requires an official (for whom this is a part-time job) to exercise precise and/or rapid judgment in order to consistently apply those rules.

My bottom line: To be worth the head-spinning, the sport needs to be very, very good. Too often, it’s not.

Craig Swalboski is sports editor for the Post-Bulletin.

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~ by Sactown Raider Boosters on December 12, 2007.

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