Player-Sustainability and Duke-Miami: Curb Injuries by Promoting the Forgotten Underhand Pass

The ‘forward pass’ – an over-the-top throw — revolutionized football in 1910, and has dominated it since. During the ensuing century — the zany Duke-Miami last-minute play reminds us, football has forgotten the other pass — the underhanded lateral.


The ACC suspended the refs for blowing several different calls during that play. Duke coach David Cutcliffe proposes the radical notion that the game outcome be changed, because of those refereeing errors. I’ll leave these issues to others, and focus on the neglected lessons from that game.

First, if the referees were confused and unprepared, I guess I don’t blame them. But, if they were, shouldn’t Duke’s Cutcliffe, one of the brighter, more open-minded college coaches, also recognize that almost any opponent is going to be confused by any repeat-lateral play? — and that his team should begin using those plays on a regular basis?

Second, that play, along with the famous Stanford band play, shows us that:

a) every fan loves the repeat lateral play;

b) those two plays were different, not just because of the laterals, but because the players had to adopt different spacing. To advance with repeat laterals, the players automatically spread out.

c) that spacing then automatically decreases the current need for beefy, blow-away blocks, and increases the need for foot-speed and catching (hand/eye coordination.)

As a ripe example, then, the nasty Ricardo Lockette NFL hit on Sunday might actually have been less likely to have occurred, if the game were tweaked to increase the frequency of lateral plays. Jeff Heath (the Dallas player who hit Lockette) might have been more focussed on positioning to defend a lateral, rather than looking to level an opponent with a block.

The wider spacing which the Miami players automatically adopted on that last play is, I might guess, a phenomenon which both college and pro leagues should encourage, because it will help decrease injuries by opening up the play, encouraging foot speed and catching ability, and decreasing the emphasis on brute-force blocking.

So the leagues need to explore methods to promote such lateral-repeating plays. One way might be to limit substitutions, so that endurance and lighter players become more valuable.

This is an argument that the ability to substitute ,should be limited and lateral-based plays should be promoted, not just because ‘speed sells’ (perhaps as much as violent hits), but, more importantly, to decrease injuries and promote safety. Bring back the forgotten underhanded pass.

About brewonsouthu

lawyer, with interest in college sports and NCAA oversight and decisions, and sports generally.
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