Offensive coaches Gus Malzahn, Dabo Swinney, Hugh Freeze and Rich Rodriguez unite against NCAA's proposed illegal linemen downfield rule change.
When Dabo Swinney saw the NCAA Football Rules Committee’s proposal earlier this month, it made him think of basketball. “It would be like if everybody was getting away with breaking the three-second rule in the lane all the time and you say, ‘O.K., let’s make it a one-second rule,’” the Clemson coach said.
That would never happen, of course. “That wouldn’t make any sense,” Swinney said. Yet that’s why Swinney is so concerned about the football committee’s proposal to move from three yards to one the distance linemen are allowed to move downfield before a thrown ball crosses the line of scrimmage. Swinney and other coaches—mostly adherents of the hurry-up, no-huddle philosophy—who use a multitude of packaged plays worry that the change would severely restrict their offenses and legislate the play-action pass out of the game.
Proponents of the rule change are sick of officials missing linemen who drift five or six yards downfield before their quarterbacks throw. Defensive coordinators teach players that when linemen travel more than three yards downfield, the only legal plays become screen passes (caught behind the line of scrimmage) or runs. So, when linebackers and defensive backs see offensive linemen downfield, the defenders charge toward the line of scrimmage. On several critical plays last season, the quarterback saw this happen and then threw to a receiver who had slipped behind the defenders. One of the most egregious examples came in the first quarter of Kansas State’s 31-30 win at Oklahoma on Oct. 18. Wildcats center B.J. Finney was nearly six yards beyond the line of scrimmage when quarterback Jake Waters’ pass crossed the line of scrimmage bound for a wide-open Glenn Gronkowski, who caught it for a 62-yard touchdown. The play should have resulted in a penalty for an illegal man downfield. Instead, Kansas State cashed in on the officials’ refusal to call the obvious foul.
But coaches such as Swinney, Auburn’s Gus Malzahn and Ole Miss’ Hugh Freeze contend that those plays are too rare to justify such a major change. They have offered another, less drastic, solution to the committee’s chair, Air Force coach Troy Calhoun. “I recommended to Troy Calhoun that we just make it a point of emphasis this next cycle since it’s only a handful of plays anyway,” Malzahn said. “Just enforce the rule.”
The NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel will discuss the proposed change in a teleconference on March 5. Coaches can submit comments on the proposed change through a website until March 3. Until then, expect to hear plenty from Swinney, Malzahn, Freeze, Arizona’s Rich Rodriguez, Oregon’s Mark Helfrich and Baylor’s Art Briles. They’re mounting an organized opposition to the proposal, and intend to make sure their positions are known before any final decisions get made.
The fight over this proposed change differs from the fight over last year’s proposed 10-second rule that would have slowed hurry-up offenses. That was a philosophical struggle between coaches who prefer one style of offense and coaches who prefer another. While this debate highlights some elements of that divide, the lines aren’t so clear. Oklahoma runs a hurry-up offense—and will go even faster after hiring coordinator Lincoln Riley away from East Carolina—but Sooners defensive coordinator Mike Stoops has been one of the most vocal coaches about violations of the rule. Meanwhile, Kansas State uses a huddle but won a game last year thanks in part to having a lineman downfield on a pop pass. Keeping linemen from floating too far downfield on passes across the line of scrimmage helps every team with its defense. In other words, it helps everyone. But the coaches who prefer to use packaged plays in which the three options available to the quarterback are a handoff, a quarterback keep and a vertical throw feel their offenses would be unfairly targeted by the proposed change. They would prefer that officials simply enforce the existing rule instead of changing the game more radically.
“They want to penalize everybody else because the refs haven’t done their jobs,” Swinney said. “The clips that they’ve studied to make this decision should have been penalties. That’s just the bottom line. Call the dang penalty, because it was blatant.”
Freeze said the survey responses that prompted the proposed change stemmed from those obvious violations of the rule. Calhoun told USA Today last week that in a survey of FBS coaches conducted in January, 37 supported altering the rule, 27 were against altering it and one had no opinion. “The survey never gets done if those get called,” Freeze said. “There never even would have been a survey.”
Freeze said shifting the rule from three yards to one would severely limit play-action passing. “If you’re selling the run like you’re supposed to on the front side, that center’s got to come out hard with a low hat,” Freeze said. “If that defensive linemen goes away from him [the center’s] momentum is going to carry him past one yard.”
When the proposal was announced, I initially considered it to be a good idea because I thought about it like a speed limit. It’s difficult for an umpire to tell whether a lineman is three (legal) or four (illegal) yards downfield with bodies flying everywhere and other calls, such as holding, to be considered. So, if three yards acted like a 55 mph speed limit (no tickets until the driver breaks 65) maybe one yard would act like a 45 mph limit (no tickets until the driver breaks 55). If changing the distance to a yard would prompt officials to actually throw the flag when linemen go beyond three, that change would be necessary to help defenses.
But the hurry-up coaches make a valid point. What happens if the rule changes and the officials decide to call it by the letter of the law? Then play-action passes do change dramatically. The game would start to look more like the NFL, which has creativity-stifling rules that make it less fun to watch than the college game. So, why not try a season of simply enforcing the existing rule, and, if the problem persists, make a change? Freeze believes flags for linemen drifting past three yards would cut down on the problem, just as ejections for targeting helped cut down on head shots. “We put a point of emphasis on targeting, and you’ve seen it drastically go down,” Freeze said. “All the coaches started coaching it better.”
Freeze offered another potential solution. While the eighth official—another proposal approved by the committee—will stand in the offensive backfield opposite the referee, why not have the alternate official stand on the sideline three yards beyond the line of scrimmage and stare down the line like a tennis line judge? Crews now have radio communication between officials, so this one could call “over” when a lineman passes the three-yard mark. If the quarterback then threw across the line of scrimmage, officials would flag the offense.
Freeze would also like to throw a flag of his own on the process for changing the rules. Coaches were blindsided by the 10-second rule proposal last year, and were blindsided by this proposal this year. Freeze said a survey conducted while most coaches are heavily involved in the home stretch of recruiting isn’t going to get the most thorough response. “Half of us don’t even see the survey,” Freeze said.
“I never saw a survey,” said Arizona’s Rodriguez, who noted that this proposal has no impact on player safety and doesn’t need to be implemented so quickly.
The coaches don’t understand why potential changes can’t be discussed at the head coaches meeting at the American Football Coaches Association convention every January. That way, the committee could get a better idea of how coaches really feel. “There’s none of that where it goes to everybody,” Rodriguez said. “Here’s two years in a row of stuff coming up and no one knows anything about it. ... It's extremely poor communication. And it's not Troy's fault. The process just needs to be reviewed.”
This proposal may or may not alter the game. If the intent of changing the rule to one yard is to make the officials call a penalty at three yards, then there wouldn’t be any fundamental change. In fact, the game would be better because it would treat defenses more fairly. But as Swinney, Malzahn and Freeze said, that same increase in fairness could be achieved by accurately calling the rule that’s already on the books. “Let’s just enforce the rule that’s in place,” Freeze said.
A random ranking
These are the top five terms NFL people use when trying to decide which former college stars to select.
1. Bubble: With apologies to Forrest Gump, it's the but-tocks, sir.
2. Twitchy: This has nothing to do with caffeine intake. In fact, it’s actually considered a good thing.
3. Dancing bear: A shockingly nimble man for his massive size. Former Washington defensive tackle Danny Shelton is the ursine Fred Astaire.
4. Run the arc: This is neither a new game on The Price Is Right nor a new hip-hop supergroup. It refers to a pass-rusher's ability use his strength and agility to take the most efficient path to the quarterback.
5. Sand in the pants: A player with a big enough bubble doesn't need to worry about this.
I spent the past few days in Indianapolis for the NFL combine. Though the players who participated have finished their college careers, they have plenty of opinions about their former teams. Here’s an Exit Interview edition of First-and-10.
1. The hottest topic in Columbus was also a pretty hot topic in Indy when former Ohio State cornerback Doran Grant sat down for an interview. Which of the three excellent Buckeyes’ quarterbacks does Grant guess will be the starter in 2015? “If I had to guess, I’d say Cardale Jones,” Grant said. “Those last three games—even though those were his first three starts—to win games like that in the fashion that he did is unheard of. You don’t really see it at all. He can take on more.”
2. Grant is planning to use some of his first NFL salary to help create a foundation called Akron’s Very Own to help disadvantaged children in northeast Ohio. “In the inner city, we want to show them that there is more than athletics that you can branch off into,” Grant said. “We’ll provide academic [support] and tutoring and also arts and music just to give them a different outlook on life. … Where I’m from in Akron, all the kids want to do is play basketball or football. They’re not really supporting all the talents they truly have.”
Grant is partnering with former Ohio State teammate Devin Smith and former West Virginia defensive end Shaquille Riddick. Smith grew up in Massillon, Ohio, and Riddick—who graduated from Gardner-Webb before transferring to West Virginia in 2014—grew up in Akron. For Grant and Smith, the foundation will be a family affair. They are cousins, though they didn’t know that until after they became teammates in Columbus.
Grant’s great-grandmother on his father’s side died in 2012. While helping clean out her house, the Grants found a copy of a family tree. The family had come from Grady, Ala., and Smith’s father’s name was on the document. “We called each other like, ‘Wait. We’re related.’ Now it makes sense why we always hung out together,” Grant said.
3. Even though he was thrown off Washington’s team in November, cornerback Marcus Peters said he would be back on campus for the Huskies’ Pro Day on April 2. Peters was recently in Seattle to take care of a traffic violation, and stopped by the football complex to meet with Washington coach Chris Petersen.
“I had a real good conversation with coach Petersen,” Peters said. “We sat down and we talked about everything that happened. I sincerely apologized for everything I put him and the team through this year.” Afterward, Petersen decided Peters could participate in Washington’s Pro Day.
Peters described a report that he had choked a coach as “false,” but did admit to being less than coachable following the switch to Petersen from Steve Sarkisian, who left to take the USC job in December 2013. “It was miscommunication, mostly on my behalf,” Peters said when asked what inspired his dismissal. “I didn’t take the coaching transition too well.”
4. Former Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty has maintained a fairly strict diet while training for the draft. He goes heavy on the protein and leaves out the junk. But after he weighed in at a lean 230 pounds on Thursday, Petty allowed himself a small cheat. He ate one Boston crème doughnut to celebrate.
5. Former Georgia tailback Todd Gurley said he had no regrets about returning to the field following his four-game NCAA suspension for accepting money in exchange for autographs. In that return game, a 34-7 win over Auburn on Nov. 15, Gurley tore his ACL. “I don’t [regret returning]. I did it because I love football,” Gurley said. “That’s what I do. I’ve played football my whole life. Injuries come with the game. I wouldn’t take that game back for nothing.”
As for the autographs, which came to light when one of the men involved in a paid signing tipped off Georgia’s compliance department, Gurley said he learned to be more careful about the people he deals with. “That probably was one of the best worst things that happened to me,” he said. “You definitely want to keep your eyes on a swivel and just watch who you’re around because everybody is not for you.”
6. Speaking of the Bulldogs, here’s a mash-up of former Georgia receiver Chris Conley positively owning the combine drills.
7. Former TCU linebacker Paul Dawson did not have such a good time in Indianapolis. On Sunday he ran a 4.93-second 40-yard dash and posted a 28-inch vertical jump that prompted draftniks to cluck their tongues. Dawson, one of the cornerstones of an excellent TCU defense, responded perfectly.
8. Another former TCU defender faced a lot of confusion at the combine. Every time he tried to check in for anything, he was told he’d already checked in. Why? Former West Virginia receiver Kevin White’s group came two days ahead of this Kevin White’s group. So, which is “the other Kevin White?” Sure, the West Virginia product ran a blazing 4.35 40 and might have propelled himself into the top five, but the former TCU cornerback can say “scoreboard” after the Horned Frogs’ 31-30 win over the Mountaineers in Morgantown. “I would say he’s the other Kevin White based off, you know, we beat them and I had a pretty good game,” TCU’s White said. “So I’m the top Kevin White.”
White was also asked if he has any lingering bitterness over TCU getting snubbed by the College Football Playoff selection committee. He said no, because it was tough to fault the committee for putting in Ohio State at No. 4 given what the Buckeyes did against Alabama and Oregon. But when asked how TCU would’ve fared on the field, White said he believes the Horned Frogs would have won the national title. “I think so,” he said. “I really do. No doubt.”
9. Former Michigan wide receiver Devin Funchess showed off his vertical jump a few days before arriving in Indianapolis when he posted an Instagram video of a dunking display early last week. “Glenn Robinson used to go to Michigan, and he always joked that he was more athletic,” Funchess said of the current Minnesota Timberwolves guard. “Then his boy Zach LaVine won the dunk contest. I felt like I could have been in the dunk contest.” While there is no confusion about which sport Funchess will play, his position in the NFL remains a mystery. Will he be a receiver? Or a flex tight end like Jimmy Graham?
“I consider myself a ballplayer,” Funchess said.
A video posted by Devin Funchess (@dfunch) on
10. Funchess wasn’t the only one showing off his athleticism on Instagram. You’ve probably seen plenty of people do push-ups with a clap at the top. Now watch former Alabama receiver Amari Cooper do pull-ups with a clap at the top.
What’s eating Andy?
Giving Birdman the Oscar for Best Picture offers some validation of Michael Keaton's greatness, but it still doesn't ease the sting of Night Shift's snub at the 55th Academy Awards. There is no way that Gandhi was a more compelling character than Bill Blazejowski. You can call him Billy Blaze.
What's Andy eating?
You've probably gotten the speech at some point from that neighbor who attended the big wastewater transport convention in Indianapolis. "If you ever go, you have to get the shrimp cocktail at St. Elmo. It. Will. Change. Your. Life."
The life-changing capabilities of larger-than-average shrimp buried beneath a blazing sea of horseradish-infused cocktail sauce seem a bit dubious at first glance. This is especially true when thousands of conventioneers fork over $17.95 for the thing every week. If the Midwest's most famous appetizer truly had life-changing qualities, wouldn't every scout at the NFL combine evaluate bubbles on an entirely different mental plane?
But not all life-changing events are monumental. Sometimes, the tiny victories are enough. And that's why your poop-moving neighbor has a point.
I ate my first St. Elmo shrimp cocktail in 2006. I was in Indianapolis to cover the Final Four, and I couldn't breathe through my nose. I came down with a nasty virus at some point during the earlier rounds of the NCAA tournament. When I wasn't at the RCA Dome for work, I burrowed beneath the covers in my hotel room as more than a decade's worth of “One Shining Moment” montages ran in a loop on a special closed circuit channel on my TV. Even Luther Vandross couldn't soothe me.
The only relief on that trip came when some friends coaxed me out of my room to St. Elmo Steakhouse. ("The company is paying" remains one of the planet's most convincing pitches.) At that point, my taste buds barely functioned. Crustaceans were not high on my list of priorities. Still, my coworkers insisted I get a shrimp cocktail. "Watch out," they warned. "It's pretty hot."
Hot doesn't begin to describe the sauce in which these plump shrimp swim. My dad would say the sauce puts hair on the chest, but the truth is it would strip paint from the wall. Each drop brings more chunks of horseradish. What begins as a light sting on the tip of the tongue turns into a stab wound as the sauce slides down the throat. This probably sounds awful. In fact, it’s exhilarating.
On that night in 2006, the shrimp cocktail opened my nostrils, which in turn opened my mind. I could breathe. I could taste the glorious filet mignon that came after. I felt human again. My life had been drastically improved, if only for a few hours.
I've learned a few tricks since then. First, there is no need to secure a difficult reservation at St. Elmo. Sister restaurant Harry and Izzy's is next door and serves the same shrimp cocktail and steaks. That's where I consumed a cocktail and a bone-in filet (cooked perfectly rare) on my first night in Indy last week. The temperature outside hovered around zero, but that cocktail sauce warmed me to my core.