Monday, January 10, 2011

The NFL's Relationship with Rules

NFL rules dictate that overtime games will be decided by way of the sudden death system. This means that the first team to score wins the game. Whether by touchdown, field goal or safety--how cool would it be for an overtime game to end via safety?--the game automatically ends when the first points are scored. This system has raised serious questions of fairness from a host of critics. And these critics have a point. According to research done by Advanced NFL Stats, from 2000 to 2007, the team to win the overtime coin toss has won the game 60% of the time. Games are designed to measure talent, some combination of skill and effort. The better team should win most of the time. Why should a simple coin toss--the very definition of randomness--determine to such an extent the winner of a football game?

With these questions in mind, the NFL has decided to change the overtime rules for the playoffs. Thanks to Jason Kirk of SB Nation Atlanta for this quick summary of the changes:

The rules are designed to prevent the team winning the coin flip from getting a couple decent plays and kicking a field goal without the other team having a chance at the ball. The new rules:
  • Each team gets to receive a kickoff at least once, unless the team receiving the ball first gets a touchdown on its first drive. A touchdown ends it.
  • If the team that gets ball first scores a field goal, the other team gets to receive a kickoff. A touchdown on that drive ends it.
  • Once each team has received one kickoff, the next score wins, whether it's a field goal, touchdown, or what have you.
  • If the game is tied after 15 minutes, another period will begin, with the next score ending the game.

We're now one weekend--four games of varying excitement levels--into the 2011 NFL Playoffs. There has not, as of yet, been a game that required extra time to decide a winner. This in itself is not surprising: over the last five years, only six out of the fifty-five playoff contents went to overtime. Consequences are magnified in the playoffs, though. The staging of even one overtime playoff game a year means that the standard sixty minutes of football proved insufficient to determine a winner between two really good teams. A slight change in the basic rules of play may have a disproportionate effect on the outcome of an entire season. In 2007, the Chicago Bears defeated the Seahawks in overtime. The Bears progressed all the way to the Super Bowl. The next year, The New York Giants prevailed over the Packers in the NFC Championship Game. Thanks in part to the stickiest helmet in the world, the Giants won the Super Bowl. And last year, the New Orleans Saints needed overtime to defeat the Vikings in the NFC Championship Game before going on to defeat the Colts in the Super Bowl. Besides for the obvious lesson--Brett Favre sure does throw a bunch of interceptions in NFC Championship Games--it's important to realize that overtime has determined a Super Bowl participant in three out of the last four years.

I'm not saying that the playoff overtime rule is fairer than the regular season rule. I think there are issues with both systems. I just find it fascinating that the NFL would innovate in the very rules and strategy of the game but would limit such innovation to the playoffs. If the playoff rule is better, why not use this system for the regular season? If the regular-season rule is better, why bother changing it for the playoffs? Moreover, why would the NFL institute this change without testing it? (For a good example of a sport testing out its rules, see the NHL.)

Yahoo's Chris Chase describes the problem nicely, focusing on the potential benefits of the team that wins the toss deciding to kick off in order to know at the start of the possession which type of score is needed:
How would a team even know whether deferring is a good idea? It's not like any coach has ever been in a game situation involving these rules. Like or hate the new overtime rules, the fact that they're getting its trial run during the playoffs is insane. Whenever the rule comes into play, it will be the first time any NFL coach has ever dealt with it. What better time to test something out than in the biggest stage in the sport? Roger Goodell thinks ending a Super Bowl with a field goal on the first possession is bad? How about ending a Super Bowl with a new rule that nobody in football has ever had to deal with before? 

Let's take a step back and think about this for a minute: A new format that fundamentally changes the game is being instituted before the playoffs without any testing. Only the NFL could get away with that. Can you imagine if Bud Selig tried to do this in baseball. Maybe before the playoffs he issued a decree that a team has to win by two runs in extra innings. He'd be mocked in every sports column and on every sports station in America. The NFL does it and nobody bats an eyelid. Flippantly changing a rule that's been in use for 40 years and giving it no trial period? Sure, why not! 
I think the comparison to baseball is a helpful one. Chase is correct in anticipating the outrage a similar rule change in baseball would elicit. But more interesting are the two sports' relationships with rules and officiating in general. Baseball's rules are very clear. The runner is safe if he touches the base before the baseball touches him. The ball is foul if it lands on this side of a white line and its fair if it lands on the other side (or, on the line itself). Baseball officiating is, consequently, very clear as well. The umpire's job is to determine the facts of the play. Umpires are positioned around the field of play in order to observe as best they can what happened.

Compare this to football. Football referees are tasked with both observing the events on the field and interpreting the meaning of these events. Here, for example, is the key line in the NFL's pass interference guideline:

It is pass interference by either team when any player movement beyond the line of scrimmage significantly hinders the progress of an eligible player of such player’s opportunity to catch the ball.

What does it mean to significantly hinder the progress of a football player? Further complicating matters is the stipulation that the rule only applies when there is "[c]ontact by a defender who is not playing the ball and such contact restricts the receiver’s opportunity to make the catch." How can a referee know with any degree of certainty when the defender is playing the ball or not playing the ball? And, of course, there's the old discussion on what constitutes a football move.

It is the need for such interpretation that inspired Richard Deitsch, Sports Illustrated's wonderful sports media analyst, to name Mike Pereira the Sports Media Person of the Year. Pereira is the former NFL Vice President of Officiating who now works for FOX, offering commentary on the officials. Here's Deitsch explaining his pick:

Revolutions in sports television sometimes come with little fanfare. Fox initially thought Pereira, the former vice president of officiating for the NFL, would make his biggest impact on the web. But the opening week of the NFL season featured one of the more controversial plays of the year -- Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson's apparent game-winning catch against the Bears, and Pereira's insight on the play proved invaluable. "Most people thought it was a touchdown but when they came out of replay, I predicted they would leave it as an incomplete pass and they did," said Pereira, who works out of Fox's NFL studios in Los Angeles. "That play generated more talk than I could have imagined and I think Fox recognized the value of addressing this immediately on television."

Viewers have longed for broadcasters to provide accurate explanations from the NFL's byzantine rule book, and Pereira, thankfully, has taken the burden off ex-jocks and announcers, who can come off as befuddled as fans. He has correctly predicted the outcome of 49 of 50 replay challenges this season (he disagreed with the judgment of the refs on a Jeremy Maclin reception that was ruled a catch and fumble; Pereira predicted the refs would overturn a play to an incomplete pass), but more importantly, he has imbued viewers with added knowledge.

Can you imagine such a prominent role for a former umpire on FOX's baseball telecast? What would he even say?

Rules changes are nothing new in the NFL. After all, the NFL has changed its sport more than any other governing body. There has never been a rule change more drastic or influential than the NFL's decision to allow the forward pass. For the NFL, changing a major rule just in time for the playoffs is just par for the course.