Wednesday, September 26, 2012

An Act Common To The Game

Ironically, an "act common to the game."
In the aftermath of the Seahawks/Green Bay/referee Monday Night game, the NYT printed the NFL's own rulebook language that was in play at the time.
 I enjoyed last night’s ending because it revolved around two concepts that used to be passed down as verbal history (well, it revolved around one, but the one invokes the second): “ground can’t cause a fumble” and “tie goes to the reciever.”  Both of these verbal shorthands, which encapsulate both the word and spirit of game's rules, now have been bent to rulebook legalese that includes literally made-up words and patently fake notions of physics.  Not surprisingly, officials – real and fake – get them wrong all the time.

   One of these quipy triumphs of received lore was a good idea.  One, though catchy, was actually rather dumb.  Guess which basic idea reamains in the rulebook, though encased in a molasses of legalese, and which basic idea has been written out of existance?

-          On a simultaneous catch, the rule book still insists that a “tie goes to the receiver.” Why? Why do the “passers” (rulebook’s word) always get arbitrary possession? Doesn’t that just incentivize defensive player to do something less that optimal from a football perspective?  Or just dirty?  Doesn’t it reward the “passers” to play for a tie?  We want receptions or interceptions, not knockdowns or tomahawk chops for those needing to avoid a tie, nor bear hugs by those looking for a tie, right?  If a defender has a chance to get the ball due to some “possession/tie-breaker”, won’t he try to make a play more often than just avoiding the tie? In a bygone era, eventual possession after a scrum might have worked, but today a multi-tiered system would be fun: award the ball to the team with fewer assessed penalty yards to that point in the game, and beyond that… I don’t know.  A possession arrow would even be favorable, right?  That might be a terrible idea, but the “tie goes to the receiver” is arbitrary and dumb.

-          In the case of possession, here is the NFL definition: “Maintains control of the ball long enough…to enable him to perform an act common to the game.”  The rulebook then lists examples of “act(s) common to the game”: pitch it, pass it, advance it, avoid or ward off an opponent.  But the stated point of the rule is to define the smallest amount of time – or, more precisely, smallest amount of control – that a player can ‘possess’ a ball and still be given ‘possession’.  Why list more than one act?  They should cite the shortest act and make that the standard.  Examples only introduce uncertainty.  If they cited a single, observable act that is already common to most attempts to gain possession of the ball, they would not only reduce uncertainty, but players would then train to perform that act, making the ref’s job even easier both for successful acts (there, he did it!) and unsuccessful ones (didn’t get it that time).  So very quick, very simple, but clearly deliberate – how about: “control of the ball long enough… to move the ball into a protective position, such as cradled to the torso.”

-          Also: that definition of “possession” is incompatible with the idea of “simultaneous”.  You can’t fulfill the requirements while another person is also fulfilling them with the same ball at the same time.  Can’t happen.

-          Possession must be maintained “throughout the process of contacting the ground.”  As literature, that is magical realism: it looks and sounds like the real world, but physical rules counter to reality - i.e. magic - underpin it.  Contact is not a process.  It is a Boolean state.  You are in contact or you are not.  Touching the ground with the ball should always, instantaneously, create possession.  We can debate the definition of “instantaneous,” but only if we are particle physicists.  Otherwise, it’s a single point in time, not several, and certainly not a “process”.  Does a ball go through a “process of contacting the ground” on a dropped pass?  No – if it touches, it’s down, incomplete.  Why is there a “process” for a player?

-          Of course, this very issue was once covered by “ground can’t cause a fumble” which could only mean that someone who falls with possession is down as soon as they hit the ground, a sort of “freeze it!” moment of live play versus after-the-play – instantaneously, you might say.  If the ball comes loose because of the rarely-insignificant effects of contact with the ground, it doesn’t matter: the ground can’t cause a fumble.  It can only end a play.

-          “ground can’t cause a fumble” is not in the rulebook but “muffed” is.  Helpful.