By now, everyone should be familiar with the NFL’s term for purposeful rule-breaking. It’s called a “palpably unfair act” and, generally speaking, teams get one chance to do it before the league cracks down.
All of which brings up a few fair questions, especially in light of the way the Baltimore Ravens clinched a 19-14 victory Sunday over the Cincinnati Bengals. Namely: Why does the NFL allow it at all? And what, if anything, can be done to fix the loophole?
As you might know, the Ravens on Sunday repurposed a strategy they used to help win Super Bowl XLVII over the 49ers. Protecting a 19-12 lead with 11 seconds remaining, they intentionally held all nine Bengals who were rushing a punt on fourth-and-8 at the 23-yard line. The Ravens’ protectors grabbed, tackled and otherwise did everything in their physical power to prevent anyone with a Bengals uniform from getting near punter Sam Koch.
As a result, Koch simply caught the snap and stood his ground until the clock expired. Then he ended the play by stepping out of the end zone for a safety. The Ravens knew referee Clete Blakeman would penalize them for holding, but as they surely were aware, the game would still be over. The NFL rulebook calls for an additional untimed down only when a penalty occurs in the end zone itself, which in this case it did not.
The NFL limits but does not prevent this strategy. Had Koch been forced to step out before time expired, the Ravens would not have been able to repeat the approach. A second attempt would have been ruled a palpably unfair act. Any time drained from the clock would have been restored and the down replayed, neutralizing the advantage.
The same was true earlier this month when the San Francisco 49ers’ defense intentionally held four New Orleans Saints receivers to prevent a throw into the end zone just before halftime. The strategy forced the Saints to settle for a field goal on the next play, but had they decided to go for it, the 49ers would not have been able to hold again.
So why can’t the NFL simply amend its rules to prohibit all intentional fouls, rather than reverse the impact on the second attempt? I’m sure it could, but there are a few variables to keep in mind.