April 15, 2011
As expected, the NCAA's top rules committee has formally approved a new rule that mimics the NFL's mandated 10-second runoff on clock-stopping penalties in the final minute of a game, in direct response to the bizarre circumstances that allowed North Carolina to beat Tennessee in December's Music City Bowl. Officially, per the NCAA release:
Another new football rule that will be enforced is a 10-second rundown of the game clock if a team commits a foul that stops the clock in the final minute of both halves.
The opponent has three options in these instances:
• Take the yardage penalty and the 10-second rundown.
• Take the yardage penalty without the 10-second rundown.
• Decline both the 10-second rundown and the penalty yardage.
In practice, it shall henceforth be known as the "Dooley Rule," for the coach whose pain willed it into existence. In the bowl game, North Carolina — out of timeouts and needing a field goal to tie in the closing seconds — managed to stop the clock with one second left by spiking the ball amid a chaotic fire drill of substitutions that resulted in at least six extra Tar Heels on the field at the snap. UNC was flagged for having too many men, but, because the spiking stopped the clock, was still able to line up for the tying field goal and eventually prevail in overtime — victory by staggering ineptitude. Under the new rule, the penalty would have automatically ended the game.
All legislation is subject to the law of unintended consequences, but the caveat in this case is less about the unforeseen results of the change than it is the specifically intended consequences. In the first place, the 10-second runoff isn't solving a rampant problem. It's only going into effect now because there was only just now a situation that seemed to call for it. It also escalates the consequences of a penalty to a degree that doesn't apply at any other point in the game, and can't be applied evenly to both sides. One team jumps offsides with 1:10 on the clock, it's just a 5-yard penalty; the other team commits the same offense 30 seconds later, and it's a 5-yard penalty plus 10 seconds of critical game time suddenly vanished into thin air.
Which brings us to the basic premise, the bizarre idea of subjecting arguably the least arbitrary element of the game to the most arbitrary element, an official's flag. A game is 60 minutes long, 3,600 seconds, in the same way that the field is 100 yards long, and a field goal is worth three points, etc. It's one of the inviolable boundaries that guides strategy and planning. That's the rule. Not only is it unwise to give a ref the authority to abruptly reduce the length to 3,590 seconds (or less): In practice, it's punitive. It's punitive when the NFL does it, too. A runoff always explicitly favors the team that holds a late lead, by imposing circumstances that didn't apply when it built that lead.
How popular will those vanishing seconds be when a bogus holding call costs a team a chance to run another play in the red zone, or kick a game-winning field goal? Does it make sense to suddenly declare "game over" over an intentional grounding call? It's like ending a game with a disqualification.
A situation like the end of the Music City Bowl bothers me a lot less than ending a game on a runoff, because the rules and the consequences apply equally to both teams at all times. A penalty is a penalty is a penalty, period. Start futzing with the clock, and you're manufacturing a whole new brand of screw job: Death by micromanagement.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.