It is the football offseason and that means it is time for the NCAA rules committee to come up with its annual recommendations for rules changes. This year’s set of recommendations was released this week and has already caused a lot of controversy and discussion. Before I moved to Australia for work last year I was a high school football official in Michigan so in this column I take a look at these proposed changes from an official’s perspective, as well as a fan’s.
The biggest, and by far the most controversial, proposed rule change concerns the rule about targeting of a player above the shoulders. The current rule states that it is a foul when a player target’s and initiates contact to the head or neck of a defenseless opponent with his own helmet, forearm, elbow, or shoulder; the rule also states that if there is doubt in the official’s mind about whether or not it is a foul, then it should be considered a foul. While there is no change to the wording of the rule, the penalty is changed from a 15-yard penalty to a 15-yard penalty and an automatic ejection from the game. This proposed change is obviously based on player safety which has become a major point of emphasis at all levels of football in recent years. Considering the growing evidence about the long term damage caused by repeated blows to the head, even those that do not cause concussions, more does need to be done to cut down on the number of hits to the head that players sustain.
Most fans will hate this new automatic ejection rule, the current targeting the head rules are not popular and adding an automatic ejection to the penalty is going to have an even bigger impact on a game than just the 15-yard penalty and fans are not going to be pleased about seeing a player from their team removed from the game. From an official’s perspective I am also not a fan of this penalty change. Targeting to the head is a judgement call that must be made in a split second and ejections shouldn’t be based on calls like that. Making things worse is that the wording of the rule states that when in doubt about a hit, it should be considered a foul for targeting to the head. This means that if the officials are calling things by the book then a player will be ejected after a hit unless the official is absolutely sure it wasn’t a blow to the head.
Player safety, especially concerning hits to the head, is very important and despite the complaints from fans that rules limiting big hits are hurting the game, it is not worth maiming or causing long term damage to a player just to satisfy our lust for hits. That said, I do not think that this rule will have the desired effect. I suspect will we actually see less penalties called for targeting the head due to officials not wanting to eject players for borderline cases. This will likely lead to pressure from the conferences partway through the season to call this penalty more often and you will see an uptick in calls and ejections sometime around week 6. The other problem is that I suspect that very few hits to the head are intentional and instead most are just the result of a player trying to make a big play because that is how they have been taught to hit or they want to get on Sports Center or whatever. If we want to cut down on the blows to the head it needs to start on the lower levels with an increased emphasis on teaching proper tackling techniques, I recommend making players watch game film of rugby matches.
Another new rule that I suspect will cause controversy is the proposal to require a minimum of 3 seconds on the game clock in order to spike the ball to stop the clock; if less than 3 seconds remain a team can still run a play but they cannot spike the ball. My guess is that this is to cut down on the instances where it is not clear if a team manages to spike the ball before the clock runs out, causing mass confusion amongst the teams at the end of games. The problem with this new rule is that it just pushes that deadline forward 3 seconds and you will still get controversial calls about whether there was at least 3 seconds on the clock. This will also make it tougher to spike the ball in order to set up for a last second field goal.
Another new timing rule has been proposed which would add a 10-second runoff in the last minute of either half if the clock is stopped only due to an injury. I have mixed feelings about this proposal, on one hand a team shouldn’t be able to gain a competitive advantage because one of their players suffers an injury. Currently the clock would stop due to the injury and restart on the referee signaling ready to play, this gives the team a chance to get lineup and conserve time that would have otherwise run off the clock while getting to the line-of-scrimmage and getting set. A 10-second runoff after an injury, where there is no other reason to stop the clock, would compensate for the amount of time that would have runoff without an injury; there would be no change if the previous play had gone out-of-bounds or been an incomplete pass as the clock stops for reasons other than the injury in that case. The problem I have with the rule is that it would potentially encourage players to play through an injury when they really should be off the field.
The last time rule change that has been proposed is to allow instant replay to be used to adjust the clock at the end of quarter; currently it can only be used to do this at the end of each half. I think this is a good rule, you have instant replay you may as well use it.
Another rule that will generate some complaining by groups of fans concerns uniforms. Under this proposed rule teams would have to have either their jersey or pants in color that is a contrast to the color of the playing field. This should probably be called the Boise State rule as it seems like it is a direct shot at the Broncos, their blue uniforms, and their smurf turf. Overall this rule won’t impact too many teams, just teams who have green as a color and Boise State. I don’t entirely see the point of this rule and I doubt that opposing teams have too much trouble distinguishing between moving players and the field but maybe it will make a difference. Some positives of this rule is that it would put a slight dent in the number of uniform combinations that Oregon has, which is currently approaching infinity, and it destroys the hopes of all green uniforms that Michigan State fans have.
Two of the proposed rule changes concern how officials work during the game. The first of these would allow the use of electronic communication by the on-field officials. The SEC experimented with this last season and it worked well, allowing officials to communicate with each other after plays concerning penalties without having to come together in a huddle. This speeds up the flow of the game and leads to less confusion in case the referee were to forget the number of an offender when reporting a foul. Officiating crews would not be required to use this equipment but they would have the option.
The other new officiating rule is that the Big 12 will be allowed to experiment with using an 8th official on the field in conference games. I am a big fan of this, and the communication equipment. An 8th official will mean there are more eyes on the field and the officials will have fewer players and a smaller area of the field to focus on, improving the ability to see penalties that occur. Having an additional official also means that there will be one more viewing angle on the field which may come in handy on close plays. There will be some growing pains during this season as the officials involved will have to get used to adjusted coverage areas and responsibilities but ultimately it is good for the game.
The final two proposed rule changes concern numbering on player uniforms. Players who change numbers during the game, due to a damaged uniform or some other reason, would be required to report this change of numbers to the referee who will announce it. The other rule would prevent teams from having repeat numbers at the same position. Currently the rule is that you can repeat numbers however you want as long as there are no repeat numbers on the field at the same time; the new rule would mean that two quarterbacks could not have the same number and play in the game, even if they weren’t in the game at the same time. Both of these two rule changes aren’t a big deal and are designed to prevent teams from using uniform numbers to confuse their opponent, which is a bush league move to pull and any college team who tries it should be ashamed of themselves.
These new rules are only recommendations as of now and they will still have be voted upon by the appropriate people in the NCAA. It is likely that most, if not all, of these will be implemented and it will be interesting to see the impact that the automatic ejection, the 10 second runoff, and the 3 second limit on spiking the ball will have on the game.