5 Thoughts - The Diving Punter Problem

Posted Sep 26, 2011

5 Thoughts - The incredible flopping punter and pass interference problems

CFN Analysis 

5 Thoughts, Sept. 26 

Follow Us @CFBnews | Like Us facebook.com/CollegeFootballNews
Past Thoughts  2010 5 Thoughts | Week 1 | Week 2 | Week 3

- Fiutak: The bias against Boise State
- Cirminiello: Oregon is back to being Oregon 
- Zemek: The incredible flopping punter
- Sallee: Florida is the class of the East
- Fiutak: Non-conference games are overrated    

By Matt Zemek

The spotlight in scholastic football, especially at the collegiate level, is too intense for officials to avoid considerable scrutiny from supervisors and evaluators. With this in mind, here are two friendly tips for officials and their conference superiors as the season moves to the month of October:

1) Replay review should be able to adjudicate situations in which a punter takes a dive. However, until replay is given jurisdiction over this issue, make a clean distinction between legitimate contact and flopping. The Notre Dame-Pittsburgh game was marred by twin seductions of referees from the punters on each team. The call that went against Notre Dame was particularly outlandish because of the complete absence of any contact on the play. That call led to Pittsburgh's go-ahead touchdown before the Irish overcame the sorry episode with a late-stage touchdown. Fortunately, that call didn't decide the game, but it almost did.

Irish-Panthers offered two clear illustrations of the continued inability of college football to solve The Case Of The Seductive Punters. However, the game that exposed the consequences of the sport's ineffectiveness in policing this issue was the Florida State-Clemson clash.

Seminoles-Tigers involved two intersections between FSU punt rusher Lamarcus Joyner and Clemson punter Dawson Zimmerman. In the first quarter, Joyner clearly pulled up and exhibited the restraint that should be expected of any punt returner. Any reasonable person would look at that play and conclude that the punt rusher (Joyner) displayed an appropriate degree of prudence and care. The bodies of the two men touched, but that's the extent of their contact – they didn't collide or slam together; they merely touched each other, a light brushing of jersey against jersey.

The level of force rivaled that of a feather against skin, not a moving truck slamming into a tree at 50 miles per hour. Joyner did nothing to threaten or endanger Zimmerman's safety. If anything, Joyner looked out for the Clemson punter's well being. Yet, a flag was thrown, and Clemson – bailed out on fourth down – scored a touchdown just minutes later.

Go inside the mind of Mr. Joyner. How would you feel if, in this high-testosterone game fueled by emotion, you showed the self-restraint any coach should admire in a player, only to be flagged anyway because the opposing punter dropped to the ground when you merely touched him without any appreciable velocity? Zimmerman flopped, turning an innocent episode of human touch (nothing more) into a game-altering incident. Some would say that, under the prevailing rules of college football, Zimmerman used savvy to sell – and draw – the penalty.

Zimmerman – like all seductive punters – took advantage of rules skewed in his favor and did what soccer players so often do. Soccer, for all its problems, has begun to issue yellow cards for players who take dives, particularly in the opposing team's penalty box. Now, college football – in a move I've been pushing for a number of years – needs to get serious about hammering punters with 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalties when they dive.

In the absence of 15-yard penalties for flopping, college football will witness even more incidents such as the second meeting between Mr. Joyner and Mr. Zimmerman... incidents in which a different kind of hammering takes place.

Joyner – dinged by officials even when he did all the right things a quarter earlier – decided to make a pell-mell damn-the-torpedoes rush at Zimmerman late in the second quarter. Yes, Joyner was trying to block the punt, but the memory of his unrewarded restraint likely made him less inhibited, not more. The result? Zimmerman suffered a knee injury that knocked him out of the game and will limit his punting abilities for the rest of the season. It is sincerely hoped that Zimmerman will make a complete recovery and return to form, but it also has to be said that Zimmerman bears some responsibility for his unfortunate and lamentable situation.

If you fake or exaggerate physical contact in one instance, trying to cast an honest competitor (Lamarcus Joyner) as a cruel and heartless author of injury, you shouldn't expect much sympathy when that same man comes at you hard the next time. If a light brushing of bodies – without any appreciable physical force – is going to draw a flag and convert a fourth down, there's less reason for a punt rusher to exhibit restraint. College football's rules and officials – the written laws and the human beings charged with applying them on gamedays – combined to create the injury to Dawson Zimmerman.

If flopping gets penalized with an unsportsmanlike conduct flag and insignificant physical contact is not penalized with a five-yard running-into-the-punter penalty, fewer punters will get seriously injured. Is that a fact in the same way that two plus two equals four? No, not quite. However, it is a common-sense conclusion to draw from a situation that is very erroneously adjudicated by the sport of college football.

2) If a quarterback can't perform the simple act of keeping his pass in bounds, don't throw a pass interference flag. This part of college football officiating and gameday rule enforcement doesn't demand as lengthy an explanation as The Case Of The Seductive Punters. It's really rather obvious: Quarterbacks should be expected to put their passes in the field of play. That's not too much to ask.

If a ball is gunned three, four, five, or six yards out of bounds, a reasonable person should conclude that the ball is not catchable. A perfect case in point emerged late Saturday night on Arizona State's 2-point conversion pass against USC. ASU quarterback Brock Osweiler lofted a fade pass to the left side of the end zone. His receiver caught the pass… three yards out of bounds. Let's say that again: The Arizona State receiver caught the pass THREE YARDS OUT OF BOUNDS.

He caught the ball, but he wasn't remotely close to landing in bounds with the pigskin in his possession. One cannot think of a more textbook application of the principle of an uncatchable (inbounds) pass. Yet, a pass interference flag was thrown, and Arizona State scored on its second 2-point try from a closer distance. Other games from Saturday – San Diego State-Michigan and Florida State-Clemson – also involved instances in which passes gunned several yards out of bounds were still met with flags.

It's really not that hard – if a quarterback can't keep the ball in play, he shouldn't be rewarded with a defensive pass interference penalty. If defensive backs grab receivers well before the flight of a pass acquires its wayward trajectory, officials can call holding. However, if no violations are committed by the defense before the final leap-and-contest sequence in the air, a pass that lands more than two yards out of bounds should not be rewarded with a flag.

As a postscript, there is a way to reduce dissonance and conflict on this issue: If the "uncatchable ball" provision is simply not going to be enforced, strike it from the darn rulebook... after all, the "Bush Push" rule relating to the assisting of ballcarriers is never enforced. It seems that the uncatchable ball rule is ignored just as regularly. If you're going to have a rule, apply it; if not, toss it out. It's ridiculous to have to watch game after game in which quarterbacks make errant out-of-bounds throws, only for officials to rule that those plainly wayward aerials are catchable. As is the case in the issue of flopping punters, the unwillingness of college football's officiating community to properly apply the "uncatchable ball" principle is making a mockery of the sport's rules, thereby exasperating the coaches and players who have a right to expect a lot better when they spill the tank on gamedays. 

- Fiutak: The bias against Boise State
- Cirminiello: Oregon is back to being Oregon 
- Zemek: The incredible flopping punter
- Sallee: Florida is the class of the East
- Fiutak: Non-conference games are overrated