Friday, December 31, 2010

UNC, Tennessee & the 10-second runoff that wasn't

Thanks to the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl pitting North Carolina against Tennessee, an entire nation of football fans and passers by wake up to something that - for most of them at least - is a new concept: a 10-second runoff. Diehards who know "all the rules" may still be a bit confused by this concept, but that's what this blog is here for.

Admittedly, my own knowledge of when 10-second runoffs are applied was taken to task on Christmas night in the Cowboys-Cardinals game [How the Cards stole Christmas] when Arizona's game-winning drive would have been thwarted by draining the remaining 10 seconds from the clock after an illegal formation penalty. The Cardinals right tackle was uncovered on the line of scrimmage, but instead of a 10-second runoff and thus a Cowboys win, instead the Cardinals were merely penalized five yards and allowed to kick the game-winning field goal. Bah humbug.

As far as penalties go late in the game, it's widely known that "a game cannot end on a defensive penalty" at really any level of football. Offensively, however, it's a little more complicated. In fact, plenty of games end on offensive penalties -- just ask Cowboys backup tackle Alex Barron after his holding penalty cost Dallas a Week 1 win at Washington. I always knew that if the clock is running inside the two-minute warning, and a player gets injured in a tie game (or the players of the injured team is losing, presumably on offense), and that team does not have any more timeouts, 10 seconds are run off the clock (see NFL rule). This is to prevent players from faking injuries to stop the clock and give a team an unfair advantage in driving for the last-second score.

The 10-second runoff due to an injured player on a team lacking timeouts might even be common knowledge, albeit a rare occurrence in the NFL today. However it can also be applied on some offensive procedural penalties. I say some because I used to think it was all until the Christmas night Cowboys/Cardinals game corrected my beliefs. To clarify, an offensive procedural penalty is something like a false start, two men in motion at the same time and not getting set, motion toward the line of scrimmage, too many men or not enough men on the line of scrimmage resulting in illegal formation. So prior to the Cowboys loss in the desert, I would have thought that any of these sort of penalties would result in a 10-second runoff if an offense was without a timeout, tied or trailing under two minutes in a half, to prevent the offensive from stopping the clock and absorbing a 5-yard hiccup of a penalty all to preserve time. It is for that reason exactly why when the Cardinals were able to spike the ball with 10 seconds left in the Christmas night game without being properly set on offense that the Cowboys bench thought they had won. That and, frankly, Jeff Triplett leaves much to be desired when it comes to portraying confidence in the calls he makes (the man looks so beaten down with every call, he makes Toby from "The Office" seem peppier than Oprah giving away cars to her audience).

You know the rest of that game, the Cardinals ended up with 10 seconds left on the clock from the time the ball was spiked, no runoff for not getting their offensive line set on that spike-play, and kicked the game-winning field goal on the next snap.

And that's not the first time this has happened in the NFL either.

In October 2006, the Rams and Seahawks were locked in a division match up (by the way, how that division will be decided on Sunday night with the 7-8 Rams and 6-9 Seahawks for a home playoff game makes the NFL awesome; no restructuring necessary). Here is an excerpt from an article about how that game ended and the Rams' frustrations with the 10-second runoff rule, which has not since been changed by the way:

The Seahawks, down 28-27, used a running play to reach the St. Louis 31 in the final seconds Sunday and hurried to the line. Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck spiked the ball with 4 seconds left to set up a field goal to win the game.

The yellow flag flew, and many of the Rams began to celebrate in anticipation of an offensive penalty that would require a 10-second runoff, which would have meant the game was over and the Rams won.


The Seahawks were whistled for an illegal formation, not a false start. The false start penalty would have required the runoff. The illegal formation call simply moved the ball back five yards.

Josh Brown made a 54-yard field goal to win it for Seattle (4-1), which moved back into first place in the NFC West, a half-game ahead of St. Louis (4-2).

Linehan didn't question the ruling, just the rule.

"I think the integrity of the 10-second runoff is in question here because the whole idea is you can't have an illegal play of any kind without any timeouts while the clock is running to ensure that you get a chance to get a kick," Linehan said.

Teams could use the loophole to their advantage, Linehan said. For example, a trailing team that completes a long pass might not have time to get the rest of the team to the ball in the waning seconds. So why not just have the receivers who are downfield run a play and take the illegal formation penalty?

That's the same situation that happened to the Cowboys on Christmas night. No 10-second runoff. Tough. At least the NFL is consistent, even if they need to revisit of the letters of their law so as to protect the spirit.

Now, back to the Music City Bowl from last night [recap] and the outcry of what people are saying would have been a different result in the NFL (which, sorry, Tennessee, that wouldn't have been the case. You still would have lost).

Trailing by 3 points with 16 seconds left in the game, the UNC Tar Heels faced 2nd & 10 from the Tennessee 25-yard line. Head Coach Butch Davis called for a run (and just because it worked certainly doesn't make it right!), and the UNC back runs 7 yards to the 18 where he is tackled, the clock running all the while. In a mad scramble that can only be described as Music City Mayhem (Music City Miracle was already taken ... and that time, there were "NO FLAGS ON THE FIELD!" but I digress), the UNC field goal unit ran onto the field while the main offense remained in place. With somewhere around 16 men on the field, the UNC quarterback received the snap and spiked the ball with :01 second left.

Yes, the referee initially signaled that the game was over, but it was reviewed and one second was put back on the clock, allowing UNC to kick a game-tying field goal to force overtime where they eventually pulled out the 30-27 victory over the Volunteers of Tennessee. And thus all the outcry this morning. How could UNC be allowed to get that :01 second back on the clock if they were penalized on the previous snap for illegal formation?! It shouldn't be allowed! It's a travesty! This would never happen in the NFL!

Actually, had it been a false start there would have been a 10-second runoff, and that final second would have harmlessly ticked away, giving Tennessee the Music City Bowl victory. And, no, it wouldn't have been a false start on the handful of Tar Heels running toward the sideline because they were never set prior to the snap of the ball. Instead it was an illegal formation, and UNC was pushed back 5 yards before the game-tying field goal was attempted.

So for the pundits crying foul -- and it certainly was -- just know that this play wouldn't have unfolded any differently in the NFL, except for the fact that I can't think of one NFL head coach who would be dumb enough to call a run in that situation. Heck, I even have to give time-management-impaired Andy Reid the benefit of the doubt here. It wouldn't happen in the NFL.

The harm of illegal procedure not being a 10-second runoff however is the fact that an offense could complete a LONG pass play and have its two speediest players race up to the line up scrimmage and execute a snap and spike to stop the clock with the rest of the offense still trying to get up to the line (although, I suppose technically they couldn't have any vertical motion toward the line of scrimmage, so just run sideways for a bit or stand still or something). That team could take the five yard penalty but still save all the extra time it would take for five fat lineman and your immobile quarterback to get up to the line, get set, and get the ball snapped and spiked. At some point, an NFL coach will test the rules and try to sneak a win out of this loophole -- Bill Belichick, anyone? -- and the problem won't be fixed until that time.

College football may very well need a 10-second runoff, but you better tap the breaks if you think the solution lies within the NFL's rule book.


Money said...

Josh-UNC had twelve players in formation i.e. participating in the play, not including the players running off the field. This should have been a 15 yard penalty. Would the illegal participation have resulted in a run off? Thanks

Anonymous said...

You must remember that Butch Davis did coach the Browns at one point

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