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Sunday Morning Quarterback

Sunday Morning Quarterback

Monday, July 31, 2006

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In seasonably appropriate fashion, like a fly to the zapper, or a politician to the crucial, soon-to-be-forgotten buzz crisis of the week, the excruciating dog days compel SMQ to join the bloviation surrounding the much-discussed and reviled Rule 3-2-5-e, enacted by the NCAA Rules Committee this offseason to shorten games by allowing officials to start the clock after changes of possession when the ball is set, rather than at the snap of the possession's first play.

This is the rule:

Rule 3-2-5-e, When Clock Starts
When Team B is awarded a first down, the clock will be stopped and the clock will start on the ready for play signal.

Rationale: By starting the clock, the committee estimates it will shorten the game by about five minutes, according to studies by several Division I-A conferences.

"Team B," we must conclude, is the receiving team of a punt, kickoff or turnover. A couple more less drastic changes, related to halftime length and starting the clock on "free kicks" (kickoffs), are also enacted among many other, mostly replay-related, amendments.

The ever diligent Wizard of Odds beats his drum against the rule here, here and here. Everyday Should Be Saturday laments the rationale and uses it to further urge the adoption of soccer-style, in-game ads at the expense of lengthy commercial breaks, which CBS already does, annoyingly, in addition to the more conventional ads. The L.A. Times documented the negative reaction of PAC Ten coaches at last week's media day.

Various griping about the overall length of college games - that is, from kickoff to final gun, not the actual playing time - wherein people present such arguments as "Obnoxious amounts of advertising can be tolerated, however, so long as you trim elsewhere," can be found here, here and here.

SMQ would like to say straightaway that long football games are not a problem. Such angst short of three and a half hours is entirely manufactured, and, one would guess, mostly by "fans" who like to tailgate and dress up and drink and engage in non-violent mob whooping and chanting, but ultimately don't really like football all that much. This is a problem for girlfriends and wives. What kind of "fan" is willing to invest three hours in a televised game, but not three and a half? Many folks - SMQ often among them - leave a game on TV and come back to it, and the length of a game affects this huge demographic not a whit. People attending the game, unless they simply do not care at all about the action from the outset, can hardly benefit from less action aimed at either sustaining or extending the length of mind-numbing TV timeouts.

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Look at us, oh my god, we loooove football! Go team!...Uh, are they still playing? Take our picture!

But this isn't about improving the quality of the game, is it? It's about enhancing ad time, at the expense of the central product - because "Obnoxious amounts of advertising can be tolerated...so long as you trim elsewhere." This widespread mindset shapes the game to fit the invioalable marketing, rather than work the money-making around the benefit of the game, and why not?. This is the same reason ESPN is all about "Sportstainment," rather than hardcore sports, because hardcore sports fans are already locked in. Want to grow your audience? Highlight everything around the game, so it's still interesting to people who don't care about the game. And sell them beer!

SMQ should be clear that the pageantry and emotion of college football is wonderful (and so, too, especially, is beer), and is its primary attraction over the blatantly corporate NFL. This is 3-2-5-e's greatest flaw: the number of plays will be reduced by about a dozen or so, very likely more, which will put numbers around an NFL-esque 145 or so plays per game. This has little to do with excessive outside marketing and much to do with the actual on-field product; the professional games in SMQ's view are notoriously bloated by very long play clocks (up to two-thirds of a game can tick, tick, tick away while people gesture wildly at the line of scrimmage) and non-stoppages for first downs, elements that hurt games by cutting the number of snaps to a bare bones, flow-crushing minimum. The length - as in the number of snaps college teams get off in a game - is one of the relative strengths, along with much wider variations in strategy and the aforementioned pageantry, of the "amateur" contests.

In this vain, Marty from the indispensible cfbstats.com, commenting at The Wizard of Odds gives us these national play totals for Division I-A games in 2005:

Rush: 55,967 (77.95 per game)
Pass: 47,430 (66.06)
Kickoff: 7,689 (10.71)
Punt: 7,663 (10.67)
Field Goal: 2,295 (3.2)
Total: 121,044 (168.5)

The two to really pay attention to here are kickoff and punt, as these plays are affected by the rule change in every instance. Rounding up, we have about 11 of each per game. Assuming time consumed by the early start mandated by 3-2-5-e costs about one snap per possession change, that's about 20 total plays in an average game, without factoring in changes following turnovers and missed field goals. The Wizard Odds' estimate of 20-30 lost plays per game seems more accurate than the loss of a dozen or so elsewhere. We have an hour of football available per game, maybe 25 percent of which is spent on real action. Any measure that reduces actual play time falls in the realm of 'not good.'

Those numbers don't even consider possible situational discrepancies that could directly affect the outcomes of some games, about which other detractors have fretted and SMQ has one specific, anecdotal example: when father of SMQ was a young high school assistant in the early 1980s, Mississippi high school rules dictated, as 3-2-5 and 3-2-5-e will now for colleges, that the clock start following turnovers whenever deemed ready by the official, not at the snap of the first play of the possession. So, at the end of a close game, with his team holding a slim lead and backed up on fourth down, father of SMQ (or another coach, this is not clear) decided to take a safety, and subsequently advised the team's punter to take the snap, hang around for a while, etc., and then run out of the end zone with a few seconds left. So the kid got the ball, ran around for a while and then dutifully ran out of the end zone - and was tackled around his own two-yard line. The back of the end zone! Run out of the back of the end zone! This is not precisely what they had instructed.

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Run the other way, idiot! The other way!

Anyway, the rule in question applies because: the opposing team, with an improbable chance to win, was unable to get a snap off after the change of possession because the clock ran out.

Is any incompetence remotely similar to this likely to happen in any actual collegiate game? Perhaps only if Kansas State is involved. The final scene of many tense, emotional games, though, as noted by detractors amateur and professional, far and wide, will be the same: anticlimatic scrambling, as the deserved opportunity needlessly ticks away.

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4:03 PM

The rule change seems to be more about fitting gametime into a nice controllable window for television programming on Saturdays than anything else.
Of course, if they would treat the passing game like they do the running game, and let the clock run after every incomplete pass just like they let it run after a rush for a loss, that would shorten the game right there.
But that would require thinking, and we all know we can't expect that.
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And don't let the name fool ya - second guessing the phenomenal athletic feats and split-second decisions of college kids under extreme physical duress is for every day of the week.

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