I have been an avid fan of football for a few tears now – actually, about forty. And I have seen many changes to the game over that span of time: new rules, better equipment, finer facilities, just to mention a few.
I have no problem with most rule changes. They make the game fairer and safer for the players, and more enjoyable for the fans. But there is one rule that’s been around for quite awhile that I wish football would dump, once and for all. It is the practice of awarding a ball carrier six points for “breaking the plane” of the goal line, for shattering that imaginary sheet of glass that stands at the forward edge of the opposing team’s goal.
We are all familiar with the word, “touchdown”, an obvious amalgamation of “touch” and “down”. But we rarely give any more thought to it than that. Perhaps we should. The history of the term goes back to when football was almost unrecognizable from the game it is today. But the word suggests a deliberate act by a player to demonstrate having advanced the ball across the goal line, freeing an important game decision from the far-from-perfect judgment of game officials.
The rule we have now has lead to some highly dubious scores over the years. Who hasn’t seen this a dozen times: a runner races toward a corner of the field, hoping to beat the defense to the end-zone. But realizing he can’t make it, he dives out of bounds, well in front of the pylon, while extending his arms in such a manner that the ball “crosses the plane” before his body hits the ground. Now I’ll be the first to admit that this maneuver looks really cool. It also requires great acrobatic skill and daring. But does it really equate to fighting one’s way, over and through defenders, or skillfully out-running them so as to actually carry the ball into the end zone? Sorry, but I don’t think it does. And I think the game suffers as a result.
I’m not really sure when this breaking-the-plane business became a hard and fast rule. I first heard of it when I was a teenager in the 1970’s. I remember watching an NFL game one Sunday way back then. In it a receiver leaped for a high pass right at the goal line, holding it between his hands ever so briefly, then dropping it to the ground. It was all over long before his feet returned to Earth. Then, to everyone’s stunned amazement his team was awarded a touchdown. The thinking was that for that one instant, he had possession of the ball at the goal line, scoring the touchdown and ending the play.
Left floating in the air was that if he had done exactly the same thing elsewhere on the field, the pass would have been ruled incomplete, with no yards gained, and a valuable down expended. Thankfully, the rule defining what is and is not a catch has been changed, but football’s infatuation with “the plane” has remained as strong as ever.
I recently watched a college game in which a forward-leaning ball carrier fumbled just as his upper body began to cross the goal. The ball hit the ground visibly short of the line, rolled backward a bit, and was quickly recovered by the defending team. Neither the ball, nor any part of the runner’s body ever touched the ground within the end-zone. Nevertheless, the nearest official ruled that the ball had broken the plane prior to the fumble. Replay footage could not conclusively show otherwise, and thus the offense was awarded six of the most ridiculous, and undeserved points you can imagine.
So what is the basis for such a rule? What justifies it? I don’t know for sure, but it seems to be a not-so-logical extension of doctrine of forward progress. That rule holds that if a runner advances the ball to say, the fifty-yard line, and a gang of defenders drives him back twenty yards before tackling him, he gets credit for having reached the fifty. It is a sensible and necessary rule. Without it, we would see huge defensive linemen hoisting runners up and carrying them back great distances before flinging them to the ground.
For that part of the field lying between the goal lines, I am willing to trust the officials to judge forward progress, and to spot the ball accordingly. But there, little more than field position is at stake. At the goal line we are talking about six points, or no points – pretty high stakes in a close game. The threshold of achievement in such a critical place needs to be much higher. Why should we hang a game’s outcome on the eyes and judgment of fallible human beings, when far more reliable methods are close at hand?
Allow me to suggest a few standards for deciding when a team has truly scored a touchdown: 1) A runner crosses the goal so as to get both feet (or down himself) in the end-zone while holding the ball. 2) A runner, diving or falling toward the goal line grounds the ball inside the end-zone before he is otherwise down himself. 3) A receiver lawfully catches the ball inside the end-zone. 4) A team recovers a live ball (fumble, lateral, or interception) inside the other team’s end-zone.
And what would happen if a runner broke the plane without accomplishing one of the above? That’s easy. The ball would be spotted on the one-yard line, just as if the runner has actually downed it there himself. The team on offense would have to punch it in, as described above, in order to get the six, plus the extra point try. Now, doesn’t that make a lot more sense than watching a player, unable to get into the end-zone, holding the ball over some imaginary line for six points?
Of course, given the petty, cerebral approach that leagues take toward rules and officiating, I’m not holding my breath for such changes to be implemented. But hopefully I’ll live to see the day when a touchdown really is a touchdown, once more.