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Sunday, September 20, 2009

Mike Leach's misplaced pique

Texas Tech head football coach Mike Leach threw a middle-sized fit Saturday night during Tech's 34-24 loss to the Texas Longhorns, insisting that the officials had improperly frustrated an attempted trick play by the Red Raiders. According to the Dallas Morning News:

Texas Tech coach Mike Leach was upset with the officials at halftime.

On the final play of the first half, Tech quarterback Taylor Potts pretended to take a knee before dropping back for a pass. Replays showed Potts' knee never touched the turf, but the officials blew the play dead.

"We never took the knee, and they whistled it down," Leach told ABC as he left the field.

Coach Leach could also be seen berating the officials immediately after the call, although the exact wording of his shouts wasn't audible on ABC Sports' broadcast sound feed, and I don't know if there was profanity to go along with his arm-waving. And Leach's fussing, combined with the replay, apparently convinced at least some observers that the refs had treated the Raiders unfairly. The Houston Chronicle's David Barron wrote, for example, that the "Red Raiders were waylaid by a potential borderline call by the officials that short-circuited an attempted trick play in the final seconds of the first half." Don Williams of the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal's RedRaiders.com website likewise noted that the "Red Raiders were irritated with the way the first half ended," and at least implicitly blamed the refs by pointing out that "a television replay showed Potts’ knee never touched the ground." Tech trailed Texas 10 to 3 at the half, so if the trick play had gone for a touchdown, that presumably would have resulted in a half-time tie and an even closer second half than that which actually ensued (the 'Horns didn't put the game away until the final 90 seconds).

But while Coach Leach was right that Potts' knee never quite touched the turf, he was dead wrong to fault the officials for blowing the play dead. There can be no doubt whether this was a deliberately called trick play — Tech telegraphed that by taking a timeout with one second left in the half before they tried it, and Leach could be seen giving detailed instructions to Potts that were clearly too complicated to be "Take a knee and let's go to the locker room, son." And as it was in fact executed, there likewise was no doubt whatsoever that Potts was deliberately trying to make it look to the 'Horn defenders like he was merely taking a knee to run out the clock, and the rest of Potts' teammates were cooperating in that farce. Based on the simulated kneel-down, the refs made exactly the right call:

From the NCAA Football 2009-10 Rules and Interpretations manual, Rule 4, Article 3, entitled "Ball Declared Dead," provides in pertinent part as follows (at pages FR-79 to -80, corresponding to pages 82-83 of the .pdf version):

A live ball becomes dead and an official shall sound his whistle or declare it dead:

....

o. When a ball carrier simulates placing his knee on the ground.

During the third quarter of the Tech vs. Texas game, the ABC announcers said they'd been informed by a representative of the officiating crew that the ruling was based on a Big 12 Conference rule, but so far I've been unable to find anything online to support that; I suspect they meant to reference the NCAA rule, which would be binding upon the Big 12 Conference anyway. The NFL also has a similar rule for simulated kneel-downs during the last two minutes of each half according to the most recent version of the Official NFL Rulebook that I could find online (from 2006). See Rule 7, Section 4, Article 1(b) (at page 45, corresponding to page 53 of the .pdf file).

It's not hard to understand why both the NCAA and NFL rules forbid the kind of trick Coach Leach was trying to pull. Certain types of deception are fundamental to football — the man in motion, the shifting formations; the disguised blitz; the pump-fake before a handoff to a running back, or the play-action pass preceded by a fake hand-off; the double-reverse, the halfback pass, and the flea flicker; the onside kick and the fake punt. All of these deceptive moves prior to or during plays, and many more, have their place. Indeed, we saw many of them at one point or another during this very game.

But when defenders reasonably believe the QB is taking a knee, they also reasonably expect to be penalized if they even touch him. It's fundamentally unfair to let the QB claim immunity from a normal hit while leaving him free to throw a touchdown; and if QBs who genuinely are taking a knee aren't protected while doing so, they will be much more likely to be injured. Moreover, defensive players all over the field relax and let down their guards when they have good cause to believe a play is over and that the ball is dead; players are, in general, far more vulnerable to injury when taken by surprise; and the same downfield block that might have merely knocked a prepared player off his feet becomes a career-ending spinal cord injury on the wholly unprepared player who's walking back to the defensive huddle (or to the locker room). We penalize the team whose punt returner tries to advance a punt after signaling "fair catch" for similar reasons — not because the rules are trying to crush all excitement and deception from the game, but because certain types of exciting deception are both unfair and unreasonably dangerous.

Of course, I'm a Longhorn loyalist and alum, but I'm generally a fan of Coach Leach and the Raiders when they're not playing Texas. Overall, they played a great game again this year, for which I congratulate them. Still, one might reasonably expect all NCAA Division 1 head football coaches to know what's in the rulebook. One might reasonably expect such a coach not to unfairly blame the refs on national TV for properly enforcing the rules as written. And those expectations might be especially appropriate for an NCAA Division 1 head football coach who's also a lawyer: Mike Leach earned his Juris Doctor degree from Pepperdine University School of Law in 1986.

Coach Leach owes a public apology to the referees from this game.

Posted by Beldar at 04:33 AM in Sports | Permalink

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Comments

(1) Diffus made the following comment | Sep 20, 2009 9:21:13 AM | Permalink

IIRC, Buddy Ryan's Eagles successfully executed a similar play against the Cowboys many years ago. I believe it was a game during the players' strike, or Ryan's retribution for something the Cowboys had done during a game featuring replacement players during the strike.

(2) SPQR made the following comment | Sep 21, 2009 9:16:02 PM | Permalink

Well, Pepperdine ... that explains it.

(3) Linus made the following comment | Sep 21, 2009 11:48:26 PM | Permalink

I trying to think: which of those other trick plays use official sanction, and the fear of official sanction, against the defenders? None, as far as I can see. The reverse, the flea flicker, the hook and ladder (my personal favorite), all use misdirection in the physical sense (get the defenders going one way then reverse things) because it's very difficult for humans to go physically full speed in one direction, then stop and go full speed in the other direction. Even the famous (now-outlawed) fumblerooski used this principle. Ok, only sort-of. Anyway, the fake knee thing doesn't do that. Like the fake fair catch, this tried to use players' willingness to follow the rules against them. If that kind of thing is upheld, players (who *cough, Oregon-Boise St.-cough* already have a tough time keeping their aggression within bounds) will have that willingness diminished. Then how long before someone catching a punt gets plowed into next Saturday and the offending player simply explains that it looked like a fake fair catch to him?

On a side note, think how well Texas would do running Texas Tech's offense. Wow.

(4) RadiCalMan made the following comment | Sep 24, 2009 3:28:37 PM | Permalink

What? Now coaches have to read the rule book! If our Congressmen and Senators don't have to read the legislation they vote into law, why should we expect a football coach to read and understand the rule book? %^)

(5) Cindy Stossel made the following comment | Sep 25, 2009 3:48:34 PM | Permalink

Could the officials be that aware of the rules with the helmet to helmet contact when Potts got leveled?? It is always one sided in Auston with the officials.

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