If you stayed up to watch the very end of the BYU-Boise State game Thursday night, you absorbed the spectacle which unfolds every now and then in college football: the chaotic scene in which longtime football writers aren’t sure of the rulebook and are puzzled by a given series of events.
Everyone knows that the clock stops — and restarts on the snap of the next play — following a few instances (this is not an exclusive list):
— an incomplete pass;
— a change of possession;
— an out-of-bounds run in the final minutes of halves
Imagine the confusion which flooded #CollegeFootballTwitter when BYU, trailing by one in the final 20 seconds, chose to kick a field goal on second down, only for Boise State to block it behind the line of scrimmage… and for the Cougars to recover the loose ball in bounds.
Each of those details matter, but the first point to make is that the down moved from second to third, on a play which did not involve an incomplete pass, change of possession, or an out-of-bounds run. By the standards of every normal scrimmage play, the clock should run. Yet, it did not.
A replay of the blocked kick and its immediate aftermath shows the official near the recovery of the blocked field goal waving his arms in the stop-clock signal. Nearly everyone wondered why this was the case. I will forthrightly admit to not knowing the rulebook here. Logic, however, suggested that the clock should have kept running.
The only way the officials could have been correct was if — somehow, for some reason — placekicks were given “protected status” as a stop-clock play with no restart on the officials’ ready-for-play signal.
@MattRHinton 3-3-2-d-8 says it starts on the snap after a legal kick down ends, so I think they handled it right.
— Tom Gower (@ThomasGower) October 21, 2016
The officials were right.
Within a narrow context, it’s reassuring to know that officials did not err in a messy, high-stress situation when it’s so easy to cut corners or forget nuances of the rulebook. However, that element of reassurance is washed away (and then some) by the realization that failing to protect a field goal (i.e., allowing it to be blocked) is, in several situations, profoundly rewarded.
Let’s briefly outline the extent to which “suffering” a blocked field goal really isn’t an occasion of suffering at all.
It is true that if a field goal is blocked on fourth down, or if the ball goes beyond the line of scrimmage, or if the defense recovers the ball, the blocked field goal cannot reward the offensive team. Yet, the BYU-Boise kick checked all the boxes in which the kicking team was given a substantial benefit for messing up. It avoided those scenarios just listed.
Realize this, given the rulebook as it exists:
If a coach chose to kick a field goal on first down with around 25 seconds left in regulation, that coach could conceivably attempt four field goals in those 25 seconds, provided that — as was the case in Boise Thursday night — the ball was repeatedly blocked behind the line of scrimmage and recovered by the kicking team.
Each blocked kick sequence could last roughly eight seconds. The clock wouldn’t re-start until the next snap. The team wouldn’t even have to use timeouts. This is an automatic clock stoppage. BYU, on Thursday night, didn’t have any timeouts, yet was given the gift of a rule-based reprieve.
Realize this, too: The kicking team is rewarded when the kick is blocked behind the line of scrimmage. Stop and consider that when a ball is blocked backward, genuinely rejected and sent in the direction from which it came, it stands to reason that the forcefulness and completeness of the block are more substantial than if the ball is blocked past the line of scrimmage, often grazed or only slightly redirected.
Yet, the ball blocked BACKWARD gives MORE relief to the kicking team, not less. The defense is punished — or is at least made more susceptible to punishment — by being better and more emphatic in terms of busting through the line to block a field goal, sending it back down the field.
That’s unfair… but it’s only the beginning.
When any coach — BYU’s Kalani Sitake in this case — chooses to kick a field goal on second down, he is refusing to take two shots at the end zone, or two shots at moving the ball closer for a more manageable kick. How DARE a coaching staff (Sitake) get REWARDED for forfeiting two downs to kick a field goal.
This leads us to the most fundamental field goal reform of all, in this quest to correct an obviously flawed rulebook: There should be no second chance or subsequent down after an attempted kick. Once the kicker kicks the ball, there should be no going back.
(If the snap is botched, and the kicker never kicks the ball, yes, THEN another attempt can be awarded, which is why a coach’s decision to kick before fourth down can still be recognized as wise.)
It’s not hard to grasp: When a kick is blocked, it is by definition no good, a missed kick. Should the down on which a missed kick occurs affect any of the other peripheral details? The kick is the end of a team’s possession. If it wanted to prolong the possession, it should have tried to throw the ball or gain yards on second and third down.
If that large-scale reform — making a field goal the end of a possession, period — is not adopted, let’s at least pass a smaller-scale reform to the rulebook: If a team does recover a behind-the-line-of-scrimmage blocked field goal as BYU did, it must either concede a timeout or suffer a 10-second runoff.
The field-goal rule architecture revealed in the BYU-Boise State game is not just one rule, but a collection of rules, which reward failure in several ways.
Surely, football — college and pro — can begin to reform rulebooks such that failure ceases to be rewarded.
We’re in the 21st century. We can’t solve a lot of much more important problems such as world peace. Let’s at least get football rules right.