Would an NFL team cut its grass high in order to slow down a fast runner like Warrick Dunn?
Two weeks ago, Buccaneers.com set off on the trail of a few little mysteries inside the great, big NFL.
How does an MRI really work? Can you trade a draft pick from 20 years down the road? What does the helmet radio sound like?
Perhaps what mystified us was painfully obvious to you…who knows? So we asked for your questions, the little details that had always made you wonder as you watched a game or read a recap of the news. Hundreds of little mysteries were sent our way, so it's time to get some answers.
For instance, Dave Angsten of Dade City, Florida was apparently nagged by this issue:
Q. If severe weather conditions somehow prevented a team's charter plane from getting to the site of an away game on time, just what would happen?
A. Two words, Dave: You lose.
"Under the (NFL) constitution by-laws, you are required as the visiting team to get to your destination," said General Manager Rich McKay. "If you don't, then there is a provision that calls for forfeiture."
Ominous. Fortunately, it just doesn't happen, because the National Football League and each team take great pains to not get caught in that situation. The league has a rule requiring visiting teams to be in the city where they will play 24 hours before the game (though it's not necessarily enforced strictly to the hour), and any hint that meeting the requirement might be a problem can put a team on the road early.
"What happens in the league is, if very, very bad weather is anticipated, they begin to make contact with you early on in the week, just as what happened to us with the Philadelphia game (last December)," said McKay. "We then made provision to leave a day early. The league office pays attention to it all week, but the onus is on you to be there."
There's also the issue of a stadium full of paying fans wondering why the action on the field seems a little slow. Sometimes, teams travel on the day of the game during the preseason if it's a nearby destination, but that only increases the financial roll of the dice.
"It's the same with a pre-season game," said McKay. "If you decide to leave the day of the game, you run the risk that you're not going to make it. If you don't make it, you have all the financial implications of not making it. You'll have to reimburse the other team for reimbursing the fans, you'll have to pay all their costs and the like."
Then there's Lee Yarbrough up the road in Tallahassee, Florida, who notices a difference in the beginning of Seminoles games and those of the NFL. He asks:
Q. Why is it that, in the NCAA, the team that wins the coin toss often chooses to defer their decision to the second half, but you never see this strategy used in the NFL? The pro teams always want the ball.
A. That's a strategy not available to Tony Dungy and his peers.
"We don't have that rule in the NFL," said Dungy, the Bucs' head coach. "You have to make a decision. If you win the toss, you can either defend a certain end of the field, take the ball or kick off. Those are your only three choices. Everybody generally takes the ball. Sometimes in windy or bad weather, they'll defend an end, but rarely will they decide just to kick off."
There wouldn't be much point to that third strategy without the advantage of getting to choose to have the ball in the second half. If you choose to take an end of the field to take advantage of a strong wind, your opponent gets to decide whether to have the ball first or not.
John Esfeller of Dauphin Island, Alabama takes the discussion back off the field with this question about the salary cap:
Q. Do the salaries paid to coaches and the coaches' staff, executives and team officials figure into the salary cap in any way?
A. McKay: "Absolutely not."
Well, not much explanation needed there, so let's put Coach Dungy back on the spot with a query from Homero Gonzalez of Greensboro North Carolina:
Q. How did the hash marks on the field originate and how are they used during a game?
A. The hash marks as you see them now slowly evolved towards the middle of the field in order to avoid awkward situations for the offense.
The set of hash marks, each a yard long and set perpendicular to the yard lines every five yards, line up with the right and left goal posts, meaning the majority of the field's area is outside of the hashes.
"At first, they didn't have hash marks on the field, way back when the NFL started," said Dungy, who has a very good grasp on league history. "If the ball went out of bounds, it was put in play for the next down on the sideline. Wherever the runner was tackled, that's where it was put into play. That led to some odd formations and some problematic situations. They decided that, to be fair, they would bring it in – I forget what (the distance from the sideline) was at first, but it was a certain distance. As time went on, they moved that in and kept moving it closer to the middle to help the offenses, so they wouldn't get stuck in a position where they had to run a certain way."
So the hash marks are now used before every play by the officials to spot the ball for the next snap. There will still be a little more room on one side or the other for each play, but not enough to force a team to go in that direction.
"If the ball ends up being dead outside the hash mark, it comes in to the hash mark," said Dungy. "The rare times the tackle occurs right in the middle of the field, between the hash marks, it's spotted right where the guy is tackled."
What doesn't seem to be nearly as prevalent in the pros as it is in the college ranks is an offense attempting to position itself on the field horizontally in order to help its kicker make a field goal. However, Dungy says that strategy is employed in the NFL.
"You do see it to a certain extent," he said. "Most of the kickers like the ball in the middle, so that's where you're trying to position it. Sometimes, (Bucs kicker) Martin (Gramatica), depending on the wind, will want the ball on the right hash. Every now and then, he'll say, 'I'd rather have it on this hash.'"
Ryan, a home town Buc fan in Tampa, may have been prompted to ask his question after seeing players interviewed in front of lockers piled high with footwear. Asks Ryan:
Q. How many different pairs of shoes do the players have?
A. Well, if you're asking how many types of shoes the average player has, the answer is about four.
"For cleats, everybody has a pair of molded bottoms and a pair of screw-ins," said Buccaneers Equipment Manager Darin Kerns. "They need both because the screw-ins allow you to change the length of the cleat, and we sometimes need that in the conditions in Green Bay and Chicago. The molded ones are generally more comfortable on your feet, which is why the linemen usually wear them. But they don't hold up very well in bad field conditions. You start slipping.
"They also have turf shoes, and there are different kinds of bottoms for those. For Detroit and Minnesota each year, we give them basketball-bottom shoes, because the turf is so 'grippy' that we really don't want them sticking any more than that. We certainly don't want their feet to stick, and if you give them those knobby-bottomed shoes, they'll over-stick and the torque can cause injury."
However, if you've seen a football player's locker and marveled at the stacks of cleats and turf shoes, you may be wondering how many pairs are in there, rather than how many types.
"It depends on the position; that has a lot to do with it," said Kerns. "The linemen don't like to change their shoes. They're very set in their ways and sometimes you have to force them to change when you can tell they're breaking down. But the skill guys (backs and receivers) go through a pair every game, usually. They'll wear them in the game and then all week in practice, then get a new pair for the next game."
And, speaking of the field conditions, Bill Kirchner of Scranton, Pennsylvania has a head-scratcher that we had never thought to wonder. Perhaps Bill has seen Major League Baseball Teams cut their infield grass high or low to compensate for differences in team speed or infielder ranges, because he asks:
Q. Is there a regulation height to which the grass on the playing field must be cut, and if not, do teams modify the height based on the opponent?
A. That would be no and maybe.
"No, there's not a regulation height," said McKay. "The league does have approval rights over the field and the field conditions. If they come to town and determine that it is, for some reason, too long, then they can require you to cut it. They have the final control over your fields."
Okay, but have you actually seen that practice, so commonplace in baseball, used on the gridiron?
"Absolutely," said McKay. "When I was growing up, Notre Dame lived by it. Everybody always thought the Packers lived by it in the '60s, but I don't think it's done very much any more."
Of course, as we seek out these answers, there are some things we're not meant to be privy to, such as what words or symbols the Bucs use for audibles at the line. However, as Paul Steinbrueck of Safety Harbor, Florida points out, we could know more about how a team audibles without giving away its intent. Specifically, Paul asks:
Q. How complicated is the audible system teams use for the quarterback to call a new play at the line of scrimmage, and do teams try to figure out their opponent's audibles?
A. It depends, it would seem, on the coach.
"Some of them are complicated and some aren't," said Dungy. "There are different ways of doing it. Some teams do it with live colors, meaning they're going to change the play if they say a certain color. Some teams do it with numbers. Sam Wyche used to do it with names of different things that would trigger information."
There is a concern that the defense will figure out the audible system by comparing what they heard to what happened, but quarterbacks can fight that by having indicator words or numbers.
"It can be as complicated as you want, but you want to keep it simple enough so that you understand it but the defense doesn't," said Dungy.
Well, that concludes our fact-finding mission for the day, but we are hardly finished searching out the little mysteries hidden in every day NFL activity. We have many more fan-submitted questions covering a broad spectrum of topics, and we've got willing experts ready to provide the answers.
So keep your eyes peeled for another Q&A session in the coming days. Specifically, we're targeting the following mysteries:
- Why is Brian Kelly considered a 'big' corner when he may be only an inch taller than 'small' corners like Ronde Barber? * How long do footballs last in practice and what's the 'end of the road' for them? * What happens if a quarterback pulls a 'Chris Webber' and calls a timeout when he doesn't have one? * Have any 'Mr. Irrelevants' ever made it big in the NFL? * Who chooses what jerseys the team will where, when do they do so and why are the Bucs always wearing their 'road' jerseys at home? * When a team tries to trade up in the draft, do they tell the team they're trading with who they want to move up to get? * What's the difference between a strongside linebacker and a weakside linebacker?