Sunday, 3 February 2013

Intention Safety = Infield Fly?

One of the non-baseball plays often suggested to me in discussions of the Infield Fly Rule (and why the Rule is not necessary) is the intentional safety late in the game. Like the infield fly, the argument goes, a team is intentionally not doing what we ordinarily expect it to do--here, running sideways or backwards and intentionally surrendering points. So should this play, which helped clinch Super Bowl XLVII for the Ravens, be banned, just like the dropped infield fly?

Under my model (introduced here and being refined in a current work-in-progress), three features define a sports situation as so out-of-balance as to warrant a special limiting rule: 1) Negative incentives for a team to intentionally not do what we expect under ordinary rules and strategies; 2) total control over the play resting with one team and leaves the other helpless to counter the play; and 3) overwhelming cost-benefit disparity, with substantial benefits in favor of the controlling team and substantial costs imposed on (and absolutely no benefits received by) the opponent. Applying that standard, the intentional safety is not like the infield fly and should not be banned or limited.

One thing to keep in mind about football (distinct from baseball) is that there are several moving parts--teams not only worry about scoring and gaining maximum yardage on a play, but also about field position, sets of downs, and time. So football teams regularly make small cost-benefit trade-offs, intentionally failing to seek maximum yardage on a play in exchange for time off the clock. On the play in question, the Ravens incurred a cost--two points, meaning a field goal could tie the game, and they still have to kick the ball away--in exchange for the benefits of eight seconds off the clock and a more advantageous punting position (twenty yards upfield and no rush). The Niners, in turn, experienced both of those in reverse. The Niners also were not helpless or out of control on the play--although they could not stop the safety, they could have anticipated the play better, brought more pressure, and not allowed as much time to run off the clock (although there was a pretty blatant offensive hold on the play*). The Niners also benefited by getting the ball back (with more than four seconds if they had played it better) and an opportunity to make a counter-play--a run back on the kick, Hail Mary pass, or (as Jim Nantz discussed) the fair-catch kick, had the Ravens punter shanked the free kick. So the second and third features are clearly absent on this play. This looks like just one more example of teams exchanging small costs for small (but, it hopes, slightly greater) benefits.

This calculus would change  if the safety occurred on the final play of the game (say, where the play starts with :01 on the clock). The play now contains all three features--there is a far greater cost-benefit imbalance, and the trailing team has no control and will not get the ball back or have the chance to take advantage of the safety. But that does not undermine the intentional safety or require a limiting rule. Any problem there can be remedied by still requiring the team to free kick after the safety, even with no time on the clock, giving the trailing team an opportunity to do something on that play (including the fair-catch-and-free-kick). In other words, treat a safety at the end of the game the same as any other safety. We already some precedent on this. A game cannot end on a defensive penalty. And a team that scores a game-winning touchdown on the final play still must play the point-after, even with no time on the clock.

So another fun example of sports rules in action. Just as last fall's National League Wild Card had everyone talking about the IFR, I am glad this Super Bowl has people talking about the intentional safety. But it further illustrates how just unique the Infield Fly Rule is. and another illustration of what makes the Infield Fly Rule so unique.

   * John Hollinger pointed out how smart that hold actually was. If the hold had been called, the result would have been a safety (the typical result of a holding penalty in the end zone), precisely what the Ravens wanted there. Since it wasn't called, it just let the Ravens run more time off the clock.

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