Wednesday, January 14, 2009

I Hate the "Clock Manipulation" Portion of the Football Game

In my opinion there's just something unsportmanlike about it and it diminishes the game. That's probably an extreme position to take on it, but come on. There's something lawyerly, something unfriendly about those last two minutes where people are spiking balls, calling time-outs, running out of bounds, taking a knee, doing goofy things on the field for no other reason than to manage the clock.

I've said this before and I'll say it again. The rules of a sport exist to serve the sport. It's not the other way around. Football is an athletic contest. It's offense versus defense, broken down into discrete plays. The rules should be structured to promote the finest and fairest possible contest, so that pure athleticism is the deciding factor. If a running play is called for, but clock considerations force you to run a passing play instead, then you've got some flawed rules. The rules should always promote best play, all the time.

I don't think this is a hard line position. I've been complaining for years that I think there's something ugly about a basketball team running out the clock, and I've always faulted the rules of bridge for arbitrarily penalizing a 4 contract in the minors and a 5 contract in the majors. But football just takes it to a whole other level. Now, I come to football as a really casual fan. I don't watch a lot of it. I didn't grow up with it. When I sit through a game, there are always a few questions that come up for me about penalties and technicalities. I don't know all the rules.

But I know enough of the game to see that there are really 5 quarters. There's quarters 1-4, and then there's the really unfornutate final 2 minutes which can often last longer than a full quarter. Now, I don't fault the players or the coaches. They're just doing the best they can under the given rules. It's the governing body that's at fault. They've created a game which is doomed to always conclude with 10 or 20 minutes of pointless micromanagement. They've created time-outs for one purpose: extra time to confer about the next play, only to have coaches use it for a different purpose: stopping the clock. They've created distinctions about which plays cause the clock to stop and which kinds of plays cause the clock to keep going, that end up determining which plays players have to run.

As a spectator those last two minutes of gametime offer a completely different football experience, one that's not so much about great athleticism as it is about efficient coaching and a creative expoiting of the rules. Longtime, passionate football fans don't see this. To them, the whole micromanaged, litigous conclusion to the game is just part of the fun. To me, it's just kind of crass and it doesn't have anything good to show about the sport.

Do I have an alternative? Well, I don't have any well thought out plan - but clearly you need to rethink the clock, and some of the ways it can be cleverly manipulated. Baseball has no time limit. Other games like hockey and soccer manage to have time limits without the game turning into molasses at the end. Maybe you need to need to have a "last possession" rule when time expires. The clock ticks down to zero, at which point it's officially the last possession. Then you could see some real football because the team with the ball wouldn't be burdened with a time limit.

I don't know how many great, historic football coaches are now spinning in their graves, but I stand by my heresy - these rules are no good. I've got other suggestions as well: why should the winner of the overtime coin-toss get such a huge advantage? but that's an argument for another day.

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