As the Answer Man finished this week's column (yes, the intro, ironically, always comes last), I felt vaguely unfulfilled.
It wasn't that there were only seven questions in the queue this week; I think I made up for that with some answer that were long-winded, even for me. And it wasn't that I felt overshadowed here on Buccaneers.com by Tuesday's report of Joey Galloway's re-signing. I'll step aside for news like that any day. And it wasn't the lack of actual football games to talk about; free agency and the impending draft are easily taking care of my sizable gridiron attention span.
It isn't any of those things, but I think I know what it is, and anyone who has read a number of my past columns will probably be surprised.
You see, for weeks nobody has sent in a question that has forced me to open the NFL Rulebook. I know that in the past I've complained about that dense document a wee bit…okay, at some length…okay, practically non-stop. But, really, some of our best Answer Man discussions have sprung from the nearly impenetrable text of the Official Playing Rules of the National Football League, and I kind of miss those times.
I guess it's just a matter of timing. Without games being played, people are not witnessing weird on-field moments that pique their rulebook interest. During the NFL season, one little forward fumble near the goal line can generate a dozen questions.
So my copy of the Rulebook has sat, undisturbed, on my desk for weeks. I almost feel sorry for it. Almost, that is, until I separate the covers just a tiny bit and read a passage such as this one: A Ball Dead in Touch is one dead on or behind a goal line and it is either a touchdown, a safety, a touchback, a field goal, or the termination of a Try (11), or a loss of down at previous spot. Dead in Touch? That's a new one on me.
Still, the Answer Man thinks he needs to take his little silver Rulebook out for a spin every now and then during the offseason, just to keep the engine lubricated. So before we get to this week's questions, let's just randomly pull a few interesting notes out of the Rulebook for our own edification.
(If you dislike the Rulebook even more than the Answer Man, then by all means just skip ahead to the questions.)
- Rule 7, Section 1, Article 2 is subtitled "Forward Part of Ball Determines Gain." The complete text of the Article states that: The forward part of the ball in its position when declared dead in the field of play shall be taken as the determining point in measuring any distance gained. The ball shall not be rotated when measuring.
Now, I always italicize entries taken from the rulebook, but you should know that in the actual text, the first six words and the final sentence of that entry are italicized for emphasis. It appears that the league wants to make it clear that the ball should be left in the position in which it is found at the end of the play, rather than rotated so that the points are oriented towards the goal lines. That seems odd to the Answer Man, because I can't recall seeing a single measurement on television where the ball was not completely parallel with the sidelines. Hmmm.
- Note 5 under Rule 8, Section 3, Article 1 is a clarification of part of the Intentional Grounding rule. It states that: When the ball, either in possession or loose, leaves the area bordered by the tackles, this area no longer exists. All intentional grounding rules apply as if the passer is outside this area (as stated in Note 1 above).
This seems like an important distinction to the Answer Man in two ways. One, you couldn't try to claim an intentional grounding penalty against a team if the quarterback pitched the ball to another player outside of the pocket and that player threw it away while the quarterback, without the ball, remained in the pocket. And two, if the quarterback were to scramble out of the pocket, then scramble back into it, that pocket no longer exists. He can throw the ball away as if he was near the sideline, provided that he follows the distinctions in Note 1, namely that the ball is thrown forward and reaches the line of scrimmage.
- In Rule 14, Section 6, which is concerned with the Refusal of Penalties, we find this interesting addendum: Note: The yardage distance for any penalty may be declined, even though the penalty is accepted.
Boy, that's strange, isn't it? Can you imagine a scenario in which a team accepts a penalty but doesn't take the yards? Perhaps if the penalty was against the offense and it involved both a loss of yardage and a loss of down (such as intentional grounding), the defensive team might want the loss of down without the yardage in some scenario. But then, they could accomplish the same thing by simply declining the penalty, in which case it would be an incomplete pass.
That was the Answer Man's feeble attempt at coming up with a scenario. Fortunately, the Bucs have a number of sharp minds in the public relations department, and they quickly came up with two that seem more plausible. One would be on a punt by the opposition inside your own territory, where the punting team sometimes tries to purposely incur a foul in order to get a little extra kicking room for the punter. If the punting team were to commit a false start, that penalty cannot be declined. However, the yardage could and probably would be.
A more unlikely but still plausible scenario involves the opposing team inside your 10-yard line. Say it's third-and-goal at the four-yard line. The offense throws a touchdown pass but is also flagged for illegal motion. Now, you definitely want to accept the penalty in order to negate the touchdown. However, some coaches might feel that giving the opposing team a little extra room to work with would help them complete another pass, since they're unlikely to risk a run on third-and-four. The Answer Man has never actually seen something like that, but I admit it's possible.
Okay, some of you probably already knew these things, and some of you didn't. Whatever. It was just good to get our noses back into the Rulebook for a little bit. Now on to the questions.
- Eli Joyce of Fort Myers, Florida asks:
Hey ANSWER MAN, I was hoping you could help me out with this question. In NFL history, has there ever been an instance where a team kicked an onside kick and the other team got it and ran it back for a touchdown?
Answer Man: I wonder, Eli, if your question was prompted by that very scenario unfolding in the Pro Bowl this year. Hines Ward grabbed an onside kick by the NFC and returned it 39 yards for a touchdown late in the second quarter, making it 21-7 in that annual defensive struggle.
Perhaps you wonder if this was a first, or if it has also happened in a non-all-star game. I'm here to tell you that not only has it happened, but it was perpetrated not long ago by a young man who would later become a Buccaneer employee.
In 1999, Lloyd Lee was in camp trying to make it for the second year in a row with the San Diego Chargers. As a rookie in 1998, he had been a pleasant surprise as an undrafted safety out of Dartmouth, appearing in eight games and excelling on special teams.
Midway through the 1999 preseason, the Chargers were in San Diego, playing the Miami Dolphins. Lee was on the kickoff return team as one of the five men on the first line of blockers. The Dolphins tried a surprise onside kick, with kicker Olindo Mare hitting a short bouncer and the Miami cover men racing 10 yards upfield.
Unfortunately for the Dolphins, Mare mis-hit the kick, and it only went about three yards, which meant the Miami cover men had already passed it. Fortunately for the Chargers, Lee saw the play developing and ran through the wave of cover men to catch it at the 34, six yards short of where the Dolphins needed it to get to.
Now, had the Dolphins recovered the ball at that point, it would have been a penalty, because the ball hadn't gone 10 yards. San Diego's blockers were welcome to recover it at any point, however, and Lee made a heads-up play to get to the ball before the Dolphins knew what was happening. Furthermore, he found himself in the clear, and he easily ran 34 yards for the touchdown.
The Chargers didn't make a spot for Lee on the 53-man roster that year but his NFL career was just getting started. In 2001, he joined the Buccaneers' staff as a Pro Scout, a position he held for three seasons. Last year, he made the move into coaching, joining the Chicago Bears' staff as a defensive quality control coach.
Okay, the Answer Man knows what you're thinking, Eli. That was a preseason game. Ward's return was in the Pro Bowl? Got any onside-kickoff-return-touchdowns (or OKRTs, for short) from the games that count?
Well, yes. As a matter of fact, it's not quite as uncommon as you think. In fact, Lee probably didn't impress his more seasoned teammates all that much because they had seen safety Rodney Harrison do the same thing a few years back. Harrison's return of an onside kick covered 40 yards against the Indianapolis Colts on Oct. 26, 1997.
One of the more publicized OKRTs happened just two seasons ago. In a typically emotional affair between Dallas and Philadelphia, the Eagles tried an onside kick to start the game, which was played at Texas Stadium on Oct. 12, 1993. The Cowboys were likely ready for the gambit, as such tactics were not unusual in the 'Boys-Iggles series.
Wide receiver Randal Williams was certainly ready. He reacted quickly to the short kick, leaped and caught it in the air and ran 37 yards through the defense for the touchdown. When he crossed the goal line, the game clock said 14:57; only three seconds had elapsed, making it the fastest score to start a game in NFL history (or at least since 1970, when the scoreboard clock was first used to determine the game's official time).
That sparked a mild debate, as world-class sprinters would have a tough time covering 37 yards in three seconds. On replay, one can see Williams take several steps before the first second ticks off the clock. The ruling stood, however, and Williams got the record.
- Justin Reed of St. Petersburg, Florida asks:
Hey Answer Man, love reading your answers, but being a know-it-all... with football at least I never thought I'd be asking you a question, but here I am asking away, because I know if I don't know the answer, then only you do. I was wondering which team gets credit for time of possession on punts and turnovers? Because both teams have the ball in their possession while the clock is running. Is it calculated so accurately that those godly stat-keepers determine how long each team has the ball during those plays?
Answer Man: Was that a sarcastic reference to "godly" stat-keepers, Justin? As an avowed stat-lover, the Answer Man won't allow such anti-stat-geek sentiment in this column.
I like your question, however, so I'll answer it anyway. Starting with your last question, no, the plays are not split down the middle to determine how many seconds each team had the ball. Similarly, time-of-possession is not split on a play that includes a turnover.
The basic rule of thumb is that the team that had possession when the play started gets all of the clock time until the play is over. For that rule to work, however, we must assume that the receiving team has possession at the beginning of a kickoff – kind of a liberal interpretation, I know, but necessary to make this work.
So, on punts, the kicking team has all the T.O.P., including any time the returner uses to run the ball back. On kickoffs, the receiving team gets all the digits, including the time the ball is in the air (and here's what makes that rule easier to digest – the clock does not start on a kickoff until it is in the possession of the return man).
We can verify this by looking at any play-by-play, since they now include the times at which plays started, and they've always included drive charts showing when drives began and ended. Let's just pick any game at random…oh, here's one, the Bucs' 27-0 demolition of the Atlanta Falcons last Dec. 5. Here's a link to the play-by-play of that game, which, did I mention, I chose completely at random, on NFL.com.
Okay, check out the first possession. Jay Taylor kicks off and Allen Rossum catches the kick at his three and runs out to the 24. The whole play takes six seconds, because the first play from scrimmage starts at 14:54. Four plays later, the Falcons have to punt, with Chris Mohr hitting his kick 32 yards to the Bucs' 37, where it is fair caught by Joey Galloway. The Bucs' first play from scrimmage (actually Atlanta's Brady Smith jumping offside before first down) begins with 12:38 on the clock.
Okay, now let's look at the drive chart. Atlanta's drive is said to have begun at the 15:00 mark; in other words, at the beginning of the kickoff play. The drive is said to have ended at 12:38; thus, the punt play belonged on the Falcons' side of the time-of-possession ledger. Overall, they got credit for a 2:22 drive.
Yet another stat geek bringing illumination to your life, Justin.
- Graysen Marker of Ft. Myers, Florida asks:
O.K., here it is: I know that this isn't necessarily about the Bucs, but I was wondering how the teams of the NFL were separated into conferences, and if it's random, then how were the original teams' conference placement decided?
Answer Man: That's two questions out of the first three originating in Ft. Myers, and that got the Answer Man to thinking. Notice that Eli sent it in as Fort Myers while Graysen chose Ft. Myers. I'm gathering that either usage is acceptable, but I'm wondering if there is one that is preferred. I usually see it written as Ft. Myers (along with Ft. Lauderdale and Ft. Pierce). However, the official Fort Myers web page spells it out. Is this even a debate anywhere, or just in the Answer Man's head?
If you're from Ft. Myers and you're planning to send in a question this week, please add in your thoughts on this critical issue.
On to your question, Graysen. The basic layout of the National Football Conference and American Football Conference in the NFL dates back to the NFL-AFL merger in 1970. However, the NFL had been using the term "conference" for 20 years by that point.
From the league's beginning in 1920 through the 1932 season, there were no divisions among the teams, nor any playoffs. Anywhere from a high of 22 teams in 1926 to eight teams in 1932 competed for roughly 14-16 weeks and the team with the best record at the end was the champion. (By the way, there was a team called the Los Angeles Buccaneers during that bloated 1926 season).
The first playoff game came in 1933. The 10 teams were split into two "divisions," Eastern and Western, and the winners of each division played a single championship game. That year, the Chicago Bears beat the New York Giants, 23-21; fittingly, it was Chicago's George Halas who had helped push through the idea of divisions and a championship game.
The game remained split into those two divisions for decades, though for quite some time "Western" meant places like Chicago, Green Bay and Cleveland. Los Angeles made it a truly Western Division in 1946 and San Francisco joined in 1950 (but so did the N.Y. Yanks, so even then, geographical divisions were often shaky).
Actually, the Yanks are part of the story, which I thought was going to brief and is suddenly getting very lengthy on me. Anyway, a rival league, the All-American Football Conference, began playing with eight teams in 1946, among them Paul Brown's Cleveland Browns. In 1950, the NFL made a partial merger with the AAFC, taking in Cleveland, San Francisco and Baltimore. Also, an existing team named the N.Y. Bulldogs changed its name to the Yanks and divided players from the former AAFC Yankees between its own roster and the N.Y. Giants.
The league was now 13 teams strong, and it remained basically divided on geographical terms, though the two groups were now renamed the American and National Conferences. Cleveland went into the American Conference, which included such former Eastern Division teams as Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and the Giants. San Fran and Baltimore went into the National Conference, along with such Western Division holdovers as the Bears, Lions and Packers.
A few teams came and went, but this setup held together into the '60s, though the NFL went back to calling them Eastern and Western Conferences in 1953. While the NFL played with 14-16 teams in two conferences for most of the '60s, the AFL debuted in 1960 and played the decade with 8-10 teams in two "divisions."
Things started to get really interesting in the middle of the decade, as the NFL fell into a bidding war for top players with the AFL, which played a looser, faster brand of the game. However, a series of secret meetings in 1966 laid the groundwork for a merger between the two leagues, which was eventually approved by Congress and put into effect in 1970.
Before that, in 1967, the two teams began playing an overall championship game against each other, a little contest you might have heard of called the Super Bowl (though it wasn't immediately known as the Super Bowl, of course). Also in 1967, the NFL did a bit of realignment, splitting its two conferences into two divisions each, called the Capitol and Century Divisions in the East and the Coastal and Central Divisions in the West. Fortunately, those goofy names lasted only until the merger.
So, prior to 1970 you had 16 NFL teams in two conferences, arranged mostly by geography, and you had 10 AFL teams in two divisions, also arranged mostly by geography. When the two leagues merged into the NFL as you know it, the league maintained its two conferences but changed the names again, to American and National, or AFC and NFC.
Those two conferences were basically mirrors of the two existing leagues. However, because there were 16 teams in one league and 10 in the other, three original NFL teams had to shift to the AFC. Those three were Baltimore, Cleveland and Pittsburgh.
For the most part, that's how the conferences stand today, with expansion teams generally going into one league or another to keep it balanced. The only real movement from one conference to the other came with the 2002 realignment, when the Houston Texans were added to balance the league again at 32 teams. Seattle agreed to switch from the AFC to the NFC, with Houston taking the 16th AFC spot, and the whole league was juggled a bit to get the geography of the geographical divisions back in line. Atlanta moved from the NFC West to the NFC South, for instance, and Arizona jumped from the NFC East to the NFC West.
So, to get back to my original point, the American and Football Conferences in the NFL are basically products of the AFL-NFL merger of the 1970s. Maybe I should have just left it at that, huh?
- Brenda Robinson of Fort Worth, Texas asks:
We had to be under the salary cap as of the beginning of March. This would suggest that there is some period of time when teams are allowed to be over the cap. If that's true, when would that be?
Answer Man: It is becoming clear to the Answer Man that, try as we might, we will never erase the confusion brought on by the salary cap.
That's no knock on Brenda; the NFL's cap system is difficult to understand in many ways, and her question is a logical one. Check back through my archives and you'll see how many of my previous columns included some question about the cap.
I guess all we can do is keep tilting at that windmill.
Here's your answer, Brenda: Teams are never allowed to be over the cap. It is in effect 365 days of the year, 24 hours a day.
As you say, however, the notion that the Bucs had to be under the cap by the beginning of March does suggest that they were not in compliance in February. The problem is in how this information has been presented to you.
To be accurate, it should be reported that the Buccaneers had to be under the 2005 salary cap by the beginning of March. See, until March the Bucs were complying with the 2004 cap (league seasons go from March to March). All of their 2004 salaries had to add up to less than last year's cap. On March 2, the 2005 cap went into effect. At that point, all of the team's 2005 contracts had to add up to less than $85.5 million, the new cap number.
Had the Bucs made no moves before 2005, all of their 2005 salaries already on the books would have added up to about $102 million. So, before those 2005 contract years went into effect, something had to be done.
Think of the cap as a year-to-year thing. All of a team's 2004 salaries have to be in compliance with the 2004 cap during the 2004 league season. All of the team's 2005 salaries have to be in compliance with the 2005 cap as soon as the 2005 league season begins. That extra $17 million of 2005 salaries wouldn't count against the team until the 2005 season began.
So there you have it, the salary cap explained. Until next week.
- David B. Neider of Yuma, Arizona asks:
Oh Swami of the gridiron, master of all knowledge of the greatest team ever, please look upon this most unworthy one and bless him with an answer to this query. We have heard and read much about the salary cap, but I have a slightly different question. Does the NFL place a cap on coaching and personnel? If not, what keeps a team for hiring away high profile coaches, managers and other key personnel from other teams?
Answer Man: No, David, there are no caps on other team expenses, aside from player compensation. (As a side note, that includes ALL player compensation, so a team can't sneak around the cap by giving the player a $1 million house or paying him for community appearances.)
What keeps teams from signing away other team's coaches, etc.? One word: Contracts.
Coaches all work under contract. If they are under contract and want to work for another team, they must get permission. The exception to this is head coaching positions. A defensive coordinator, for instance, can be hired away from another team if that team is making him its head coach. League rules also used to allow for unfettered movement in other cases of promotion – say, a defensive backs coach going to another team to be a coordinator – but has now reduced the rule to only apply to head coaching jobs. Thus, a coach under contract must get permission from his current team in order to take any other job with another team.
Head trainers, scouts, pro personnel men – most of them work under contracts, too.
You have been blessed. Go forth and spread the word.
- Josh of Tampa, Florida asks:
When is the FanFest going to be this year and where?
Answer Man: Although the team has not done a formal release yet, I can tell you that FanFest is scheduled for Saturday, June 4, this year. As always, it will be held at Raymond James Stadium.
Many of the details are still to be worked out, but you can mark that date on your calendar in pen. Maybe even a Sharpie, the same one you plan to bring to the stadium to get bushels of autographs.
Yes, as always, FanFest will feature virtually the entire roster of Buccaneers players and coaches, available for autographs and spread out in location and time to make them all as accessible as possible.
There will also be many other activities to entertain fans who attend the free event, but as I said, those details have not yet been announced, nor have the times for the event. Generally, FanFest starts around 9:00 a.m. and concludes in the early afternoon.
Josh, I'd advise you to check Buccaneers.com periodically for more details on this enormously popular annual event.
- Dave C. of Tallahassee, Florida asks:
Lots of fans park in the Tampa Bay Center parking lot for home games. Will there be parking there while the new practice facility is under construction?
Answer Man: That's a very good question, Dave, and I've got a very good answer for you.
Yes, there will still be parking in the old mall lot during home games, even as the mall itself is coming down. Fortunately, the practice facility is going to be constructed at the far end of the mall lot from the stadium, so all of that parking just across Himes Avenue on the west side of the lot will still exist, and won't be in danger of falling Gap walls.
And on that very practical note, the Answer Man is going to wrap up column number two-nine. As I mentioned, this one was a little shorter on questions than usual, but a little long on wind, so it all works out. I've finally succeeded in getting the e-mailbag down to a manageable level, so send in your fresh questions and I'll try to get to as many of them as I can in the coming days.