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Do Sideline Timeouts Improve the Game?

By Stephen L. Carter

So now everybody in Washington thinks the rule that allows the sideline to call a timeout just before the ball is snapped on a field goal is a stupid rule. Let's go over some history: the first NFL coach to try stopping play at the last millisecond before the kick was none other than Mike Shanahan, then coaching in Denver. The game was against the Raiders, in September of 2007, and Sebastian Janikowski was preparing to attempt the game-winning field goal. Shanahan told the official that he wanted to wait and call timeout just as the kicker lifted his head to watch for the snap. And, like Graham Gano in Sunday's game, Janikowski made the first attempt, which was waved off, and missed the second. Like the Redskins in Sunday's game, Janikowski's Raiders went on to lose.

But enough about poetic justice.

The more interesting question is why the National Football League decided to allow coaches to call timeouts in the first place. When the change was made a few years back, the theory -- as I recall -- was that a degree of confusion would thereby be avoided. The head coach, after all, is the one who directs the team to call time out. When the players miss the signal, havoc ensues.

To which I say - so what?

In the first place, confusion can be fun. It can make the game exciting. On Sunday afternoon, the Patriots scored a beautiful passing touchdown against the Jets when Tom Brady called a quick snap before the defense was set. Evidently, the Jets were still waiting to hear the formation from the sideline. Nobody knew who was covering whom, and Randy Moss made the one-handed grab in the endzone that was replayed all night on the highlight reels. Surely we do not need to undo such confusion by adding a rule that says the offense must give the defense a chance to complete its adjustments before snapping the ball.

In the second place, the league has made more than enough concessions to the "reality" that the coaches run the game: the microphones, for instance, in the helmets of quarterbacks, and, now, defensive captains. The league gave head coaches control of the red flags that demand a review of the previous down. But the players can change the play call, and the red flag is more of an emergency interruption -- a demand that an injustice be righted. Meanwhile, the game on the field is still played by 11 players a side. The preservation of that model, even if it is mostly an illusion, adds a purity to the game that is lost when the coaches spend too much time interacting directly with the officials.

The problem, then, is not timeouts to ice the kicker; the problem is timeouts called by the sideline. I am not blaming the rule for Sunday's loss. Far from it. The blame should rest, entirely, with the inability of the Redskins offense to run the ball, and the inability of the Redskins defense to stop the pass. Nevertheless, if, during the off-season, the league were to return the responsibility for calling of timeouts to the players on the field, we would see football as it should be: a game where the coaches do the training and the play-calling, but the players play the game.

By Box Seats blogger  | September 20, 2010; 4:00 PM ET
Categories:  Redskins, Stephen L. Carter  | Tags:  Redskins, Stephen L. Carter  
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