Sunday, July 19, 2009

Wedge Rule: Unintended Consequences

A topic near and dear to us Oblong Spherbois is balancing injury risk with playability, which of course any casual review of our articles would quickly reveal. So in a fit of pique and in the interests of player safety the NFL concocted the new wedge rule. The rule (roughly described) prevents wedges of more than two players from advancing up the field, other players must be separated by at least two yards.

I am completely in favor of rules that actually increase player safety and health. Helmets and facemasks? Good! Illegal blows to the head? Good! Defenders not defying momentum laws and bumping quarterbacks fractions of a second after they release the ball for 15 yard penalties? Goo ... well, not so much. But the point here though, is that there is scant evidence that the wedge actually causes injuries at higher rates than any other full speed collisions. The actual need for this rule is somewhat questionable.

Enforcement of this rule will be interesting to follow during preseason, due to how the referees are instructed to interpret the rule. For example, there will be some kind of fictitious 'wedge zone' where wedges are illegal, but that zone (oddly) will not include the point of impact. Mike Pereira (NFL head of officiating) told the NYT

Pereira said intent would be the most important factor in determining if a flag is thrown. If three or four players come together at the last moment to throw a block, that is not intentionally forming a wedge and would not be penalized, Pereira said.
In other words, you can still have wedges at the point of attack, they just have to be carefully choreographed to come together at the last moment, rather than advancing up the field in unison.


Ken Murray of the Baltimore Sun wrote a good article today discussing the changes, including extensive conversation with Brendan Ayanbadejo and ST coordinator Jerry Rosberg. Rosberg in particular is skeptical of the rule change.
"I can only speak for us," Rosburg said, "but I think it's safe to say special teams coaches are not throwing guys in there with the idea we can sacrifice them. That's not the way the game is coached. These are human beings we're coaching.

"You're not necessarily launching yourself [into another player], you're trying to get into creases and use up blockers and make the ball go one way or the other."
And John Harbaugh with an odd assertion
Ravens coach John Harbaugh, who coached special teams nine seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles, said he thinks the change will lead to more long returns.
an argument that I fail to see, since whatever alternative strategy that Harbaugh envisions this will create was certainly available in prior years.
Bill Huber of the Packers Insider on the Scout network discusses an alternative strategy that Green Bay (and new coordinator Shawn Slocum) is taking.

That focus on technique was evident during the offseason practices. Only rarely did the return unit run through a drill at full speed, and rarer still were live reps against a coverage unit. Most of the time was spent with Slocum demonstrating the nuances of man-on-man blocking, done at a snail’s pace rather than a jackrabbit’s pace. Blackmon said Slocum’s teaching simplifies the nuances of the return.


And if those techniques are done correctly, the Packers could use the new rules to their advantage. With wedge blocking, it was apparent which way the kickoff returner was going to run — behind the wedge. With man-on-man blocking, the plan of attack isn’t so obvious. That should keep the kicking unit spread out and mean more open spaces for Blackmon to use the start-and-stop skills that have made him a terror on punt returns. That’s the theory, at least, but it all boils down to the blockers doing their job.

and this at least points to Harbaugh's argument, but once again, I don't think it holds water. If these techniques are more effective than what had gone before than at some point they would have been adopted.

So after all of that, on to the point of this article. I don't see how this rule change can do anything but decrease the net starting position of NFL offenses. Harbaugh may be correct that there are more long returns, due to more misdirection strategies, but overall kickoff returns will likely be several yards shorter on average. The risk of getting called for an illegal wedge is simply too great for teams to ignore, at 15 yards from the spot the resulting penalty will frequently put the offensive team within their own ten yard line, a field position penalty that is probably worth 2-4 points to the kicking team.

Furthermore, if strictly enforced the number of incidental penalties will be quite high. Once again, without careful choreography every time three members of the return team wander within two yards of each other a potentially punishable offense occurs. Pereira tells us that intent will be the guiding interpretation, but asking NFL officials to judge intent gives us around as many different viewpoints as there are officials, and gamesmanship of the rule will ensue.

The kicker to all of this is that it isn't clear that the wedge is any more dangerous of a formation than simple one-on-one blocking is. The Kevin Everett injury seems to be the impetus for this rule change, but his injury did not take place against the wedge.

1 comment:

  1. Good article.

    I wonder how much the rule is being adopted as much for the overall (long term) health of the players as much as reducing on-field injuries. The NFL is in a big fight now with the older players who's bodies are breaking down. While the wedge doesn't often seem to lead to injuries, it does definitely lead to some pretty violent collisions. It could be that they're trying to break some of that up for players' long term health.

    Also worth questioning is how much this will actually reduce the chance of injury / long term health risks by theoretically reducing the number of hits being taken on the field. Just because you break up the wedge, does that reduce the hits? Given the wedge has been implemented for a while, I don't know how one would try to find evidence of this. But the NFL should examine this closely this season and look at the number of hits with and without the wedge. If all things are equal, they should probably go back to allowing it again.


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