King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Michelle Kwan cheers as NFL votes 49ers into NFC title game. Plus: How to define a catch.


Salon Staff
January 18, 2006 10:00PM (UTC)

The San Francisco 49ers came within a two-point conversion of beating the Seattle Seahawks in November, losing 27-25. Now they'll get another chance in the NFC Championship Game thanks to the NFL Selection Committee, which voted them into the game ahead of the Carolina Panthers.

"It's true the 49ers didn't win a lot this season," said committee chairman Bob Horen of the team that went 4-12 and finished last in the NFC West. "But the committee took into account their storied history, their divisional rivalry with and near-win over Seattle and their season-ending two-game win streak. And after a healthy discussion, we made the determination that the 49ers would be a better title game entry than Carolina.

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"The Panthers played the Seahawks last year and lost to them, too," Horen noted.

The 49ers, who also got smoked by the Seahawks 41-3 in December, aren't a lock yet to play in Sunday's game. They'll have to convince a five-member subcommittee on Friday night that they are breathing and able to smile for the cameras and that they haven't had any of their advertising contracts canceled, or they'll be unceremoniously dumped.

"I feel bad for the Panthers, of course," said 49ers coach Mike Nolan. "But this is the way our sport works, and I'm sure if they stick around long enough they'll benefit from the 'make it up as you go along' spirit that's hurt them this time, but that makes football so darn unpredictable and exciting."

"We're disappointed, but we understand," said Panthers star Julius Peppers through a plastered-on smile.

"You won't hear any of us badmouthing the deal," Peppers said, "because we're all taught from the time we're 4 years old that we have to be graceful and gracious and to smile all the time and never say a harsh word, because if we do the judges will remember that and our touchdowns will only count for four points instead of six. Now if you'll excuse me I have to go rip the stuffing from a Teddy bear with my teeth."

Nolan made a similar point. "It probably sounds strange to people who don't follow the NFL that winning on the field doesn't guarantee you a chance to advance to the next round of competition for the championship," he said, "but those people are ignorant fools who aren't smart enough to 'get' the beauty of our sport."

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Figure skater Michelle Kwan cheered the decision, for some reason. "I'm just so happy for the 49ers," she said. "It's great that the NFL has begun to understand that the only fair way to run a sport is to have winners decided by highly skilled backroom dealers, not leave results up to the whims of competition."

A definition of possession for the NFL [PERMALINK]

In Tuesday's column about the NFL's complicated, counterintuitive hodgepodge of rules governing what constitutes possession of the pigskin, I punted.

"I don't know how exactly it can be codified," I wrote, "but it's about time the league gets back to a set of rules under which, if it looks like a catch, or an incompletion, or a fumble, or an interception, then doggone it, it is."

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The column sparked a healthy conversation in the letters section. The discussion was mostly about the hapless overall performance of the officials in the weekend's playoff games, with unsupported -- if understandable -- allegations of pro-Colts bias on the part of the zebras.

But letter writer Jeff Smith didn't want to let me off the hook.

"The problem is that each rule is written to plug a hole that the previous rules left open or opened accidentally," he wrote. "That's how they get to be byzantine and counter-intuitive. So, I hope when King gets time, he'll tell us what actual text he would suggest inserting in the rule book."

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Ooh, punt blocked. OK, I'll give it a shot, but first, here's how letter writer DavidWilliam answered: "A catch is possession of the ball with two feet on the ground. If you make the catch while in the air, you have to come down with it and maintain possession. The same rules apply everywhere on the field. Why does it need to be harder than that?"

Good question. A capital-letter-eschewing oedipus has an answer, pointing out that "soccer is governed by only 17 laws, the first six of which are essentially administrative ... However, it's this byzantine codification that gives Americans something they pride themselves on doing: creating unnecessary government."

Case in point: The various American soccer bodies, which govern youth soccer, high school, college, etc., have added complicated rules on top of the FIFA set that works for the rest of the world.

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"It's an American concept to complicate something as simple as sport so that you create a field of 'knowledge experts' who have something to be experts on," oedipus writes.

I don't know if it's native to the Colonies to complicate things up, but it's certainly the prime directive of the NFL, the most bureaucratic, technocratic operation in North American team sports.

"Every year I purchase the rule book that the NFL makes available to the public," William Krasker of the excellent Football Commentary Web site wrote me in an e-mail. "But I have learned that it is heavily abridged. For example, it contains nothing about a receiver having to maintain control as he hits the ground, or to 'performing an act common to the game.' Editions prior to 2004 didn't even have the tuck rule.

"Every other professional sport has its full rule book online, but the NFL won't even sell the full rule book. So your adjective 'Kafkaesque' is doubly applicable. Not only are the rules complicated, but the NFL won't even tell the fans what the rules are."

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It's no wonder, then, that fans, the commentariat, network announcers and, as Krasker points out in referring to Pete Morelli's overturn of Troy Polamalu's interception, the league's own officials are often confused.

"The biggest scandal is that a divisional-round playoff game could be refereed by someone who doesn't know the rules," Krasker wrote.

The NFL doesn't just need perestroika, a restructuring of the rules, it needs glasnost. Openness!

All right, my solution is almost as simple as DavidWilliam's. Sure, a receiver in the air has to come down with both feet inbounds, and by the way that means an end to the "force-out" rule.

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If a receiver leaps, catches the ball and is pushed out of bounds by a defender before landing inbounds, it should be an incomplete pass. That would be simple, and it wouldn't punish the defender for making a good play.

But I digress.

As the NFL's fans have learned, it doesn't work to try to codify every possible variation, as in, "It's a catch if the receiver does X, unless he's being touched by a defender, in which case it's incomplete, unless he's in the end zone, in which case it's a catch, unless he's out of bounds ..." and so on.

It gets too complicated and you end up with referees who don't know which rule to apply. It isn't difficult to create a single standard. One way to do that would be to base it on time. If the receiver or ballcarrier has the ball with both feet inbounds for a full second, or whatever period of time is deemed appropriate, then that constitutes possession.

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That would keep the officials from having to use their judgment. All they'd have to be able to do would be to count to one, or two, or 1.5, or whatever. If they went to instant replay, a digital clock could tell them how long the ball was in the player's possession.

The NFL has been on a 20-year drive to remove judgment from the hands of the officials, so I'm guessing it would favor a time-based solution if it were to ever agree that its current set of rules is detrimental to the game.

I think the effort to minimize the judgment of officials has led directly to the poor officiating we saw this weekend, and the hesitant, indecisive officiating that's become the norm. So I'd be in favor of letting the referee decide: Did it look like a catch to you?

The definition of possession would come down to the old definition of obscenity as famously laid out in 1964 by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart: I know it when I see it.

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Judgment-clouding rooting interest aside, most observers can look at most plays and agree that there was or was not possession. But there will always be a gray area. The NFL's hatred of gray areas and its attempts to do away with them are what's behind the mess that is the rule book and its interpretation today.

If the NFL ever wants to do anything about a situation so bad it leads to rational fans suggesting the fix is in in a playoff game, the answer is right there on the field wearing stripes. Let the officials officiate.

Previous column: The NFL's nonsensical maze of rules

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