By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Smart, creative NFL coaches know how to use the rulebook to their advantage. Bill Belichick is as good as anyone at it. His shenanigans with exploiting loopholes in the NFL rulebook have led to many headaches with the league offices.
But there comes a time where such subterfuge ceases to be football. At some point, a line needs to be drawn with the stunts that coaches deploy in an effort to subvert the rules. Former San Francisco 49ers head coach Chip Kelly and Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh may have just found the line.
According to Pro Football Talk, discussions at next week’s NFL owners meeting is expected to include a proposal to crack down on teams that commit intentional penalties in order to run the clock down. Kelly and Harbaugh both pulled it off during the 2016 season.
In Week 9 against the New Orleans Saints, Kelly called a play with eight seconds left in the first half where at least three 49ers defenders intentionally committed holding penalties in an effort to grind the clock down. They drew flags for three separate holding calls and took four seconds off the clock in the process, forcing the Saints to kick a field goal instead of going for a touchdown. The 49ers were down 28-20 at the time and ended up losing 41-23.
Harbaugh, who is known to co-opt clever things his opponents did to outsmart him, must have seen what Kelly did and liked it. The Ravens did essentially the same thing as the 49ers to run out the clock in a 19-14 win over the Bengals. Only this time, the Ravens had the ball – so they had punter Sam Koch prance around with the ball while the clock ran down to triple-zero.
The plays were undoubtedly smart decisions under the current rules, called by coaches who had figured out how to exploit the rules and manipulate the clock to their advantage. But not all gamesmanship is created equal. This just isn’t football. It’s one of the cheapest things I’ve ever seen.
The proposed rule change would reportedly make it an unsportsmanlike conduct flag to commit multiple intentional penalties on the same play, as well as reset the clock. This is a change you should be on board with; no one should prefer watching intentional holding over forcing the defense to make an actual football play.
With the Patriots’ unorthodox formations, there was at least a football angle attached to it. It involved things like throwing the football, catching the football, and knowing who was eligible to touch the football. Intentionally bear-hugging your opponents is a low-rent form of skullduggery that shouldn’t be a thing. And yes, the same thing would be said if it were Belichick who did it.
Credit to Kelly and Harbaugh for studying the rulebook and exploiting it to their advantage, but it appears that the jig is up with this one. Sometimes, rule changes can be a good thing. This would be one of them.
Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Have a news tip or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.