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Proposed Change to the Ineligible Downfield Rule is Unnecessary

As we all learned in our Political Science courses, the best reaction to rule-breaking is stricter rules. /s

Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

Last February, Bret Bielema and Nick Saban were surprise attendees when the NCAA Football Rules Committee met. Under the unassailable veil of "safety", they proposed that offenses be forced to wait 10 seconds between the start of the play clock and the start of the next play. As it turns out, they had no evidence, except their own biased feelings, that pace of play decreases safety or that their proposed rule would have any effect. Also, it was dumb. And so it died.

The Rules Committee only considers general rule changes every other year. Changes for safety's sake can be considered annually. Last year was such a year. This year, however, the Rules Committee has proposed several changes (12 to be exact). Now they go before the NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel, which will meet on March 5th and decide which changes to make official.

Some of the proposed changes won't make much difference. They're just procedural things. "Officials will return to giving teams an initial sideline warning..." "Teams must be provided at least 22 minutes prior to kickoff for pregame warm-ups..." Others, however, will do more to affect how the game is played and how we as fans will watch. Some of them sound good to me. Others don't really do anything for me. And one in particular just doesn't seem necessary.

The ineligible downfield rule adjusted from three yards to one yard past the line of scrimmage. To be legal, a lineman who is more than one yard past the line of scrimmage must be engaged with a defensive player when a pass is released.

Is this the end of the pop pass?

First, let me say this would not spell the doom of pop passesRPO playspackaged plays, or whatever you want to call those plays that are runs until the ball is thrown at the last moment. The NFL already uses the one yard version of the rule and the Seahawks and Eagles (and probably others) used packaged plays throughout last season. You may remember one in particular.

You're right, "Official Twitter of your Auburn Tigers". It did look familiar. And that means Auburn's offense includes pop passes and would be at least somewhat affected by this rule change. However, it's not as ubiquitous as some would have you believe.

Auburn isn't the problem here.

You may have noticed the talking heads and sports media hand-wringers saying how much teams like K-State, Baylor, Arizona State, and Auburn will hate this rule. Even our dearest SB Nation is making Gus Malzahn the poster child of the pop pass.

One problem. Just because Auburn pulled off the most memorable example to date doesn't mean Auburn uses those plays all the time or even on a regular basis. I can count on one hand the number of games that included a packaged play in 2013, they only actually worked in the UGA and Bama games, and I seriously doubt it happened more often in 2014.

However, when it does happen, Auburn is its usual rule-abiding, card-carrying NCAA member and keeps its linemen to three yards or less. On Nick Marshall's 2013 Iron Bowl-tying touchdown pass to Sammie Coates, Jay Prosch was downfield, but he was an eligible receiver, so there's no problem. (Could have been pass interference, maybe, but judge not lest you be judged.)

One game earlier, against Georgia, Auburn successfully used packaged plays for the first time all season, but they were more like a delayed bubble screen or an extended pitch and therefore all behind the line of scrimmage, so no problems there. And Jeremy Johnson got in on the act when he threw a touchdown pass to Melvin Ray in the first half against Arkansas last year. Again, no linemen past three yards. So our Tigers aren't part of the problem. But that's not to say there isn't a problem.

The existing rule is being abused.

Ask any defensive coach about their feelings on the current state of the rule and they'll complain about offensive linemen being five or ten yards down field. Five to ten yards. That's the problem. I didn't see many games that didn't involve Auburn last year, but apparently the Big 12 has some of the biggest offenders. Though I will point out that one fan base that seems very eager for this change may find the change come back to bite.

Any video or images shown in support of the rule change show one or more lineman way down field. Then hands are thrown in the air as folks exclaim, "THAT'S NOT FAIR. WHAT'S A DEFENSE S'POSED TO DO." To which we should all loudly but simply reply, "THROW A FLAG!"

No one will show a pass with a lineman three yards down field and cry foul. It's just not that big of an advantage. But for some reason, the cushion has to be restricted further?

One yard is too strict.

This is more personal preference, but why one yard? Because that's what the NFL does? Why not require two feet down to complete a catch? (That would be awkward, OFD.) Why not go to sudden death for overtime? (After all, it would help the game-shortening agenda a bit.) Why not narrow the hash marks? (Hmm, maybe Gus' sweeps to the boundary wouldn't be so bad then.)

To me, changing it to one yard restricts the range of offenses we get to watch in college football. The diversity of styles in college football is a big selling point and I just don't want to see anything that forces those styles to homogenize.

The pop passes won't disappear, but the creativity with which they can currently be deployed would. If the rule goes through I might explain it a bit further, but simply put, passes could no longer be packaged with "down hill" running plays. Instead, they would be limited to draws (deceptive in and of itself *clutches pearls*), and lateral runs, like Outside Zone.

I've said all of that to say this...

Just enforce the rule you already have.

If I had VIP access to the Rules Committee like BERT and Saban did last year, I might have proposed that they give special emphasis on enforcing the existing rule. As previously explained, these packaged plays can be used within the rules. The Rules Committee has recently used "Points of Emphasis" (page 10) to refocus lax officiating. But instead of watching out fore those unsportsmanlike touchdown salutes, officials could keep a closer eye on those sneaky ineligible receivers. Hey, maybe that eighth official would come in handy.