Commentary

Late 'icing' timeouts are legal, but are they ethical?

The trend of coaches calling late timeouts from the sidelines to ice kickers has stirred up plenty of debate.

Originally Published: October 10, 2007
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

Icing the kicker just milliseconds before he attempts a late-game field goal -- the newest fad in a league where mimicry runs rampant -- has had such a chilling effect in this season's first five weeks that it is now one of the NFL's hot-button topics.

Last-second 'icings' in '07

Week 2: Just before Raiders kicker Sebastian Janikowski nails a 52-yard FG in overtime, Broncos coach Mike Shanahan calls timeout. On the retry, Janikowski's kick hits the left upright. Denver later kicks a field goal to win 23-20. Game recap

Week 3: Just before Browns kicker Phil Dawson nails a 40-yard FG in the final seconds, Raiders coach Lane Kiffin -- obviously learning a lesson the previous week -- calls timeout. On the retry, the Raiders block Dawson's attempt to preserve the 26-24 win. Game recap

Week 5: Just before Cowboys kicker Nick Folk nails a 53-yard FG in the final seconds, Bills coach Dick Jauron calls timeout. On the retry, Folk again nails the kick to give the Cowboys a dramatic 25-24 win. Game recap

And while there isn't yet a discernable groundswell of support for changing the rule (adopted before the 2006 season) that permits NFL coaches to call timeouts from the sideline, the league's influential competition committee likely will revisit the matter next spring.

The competition committee -- and, by extension, commissioner Roger Goodell and the entire league -- tends to be sensitive to public perception. Monday's game in Buffalo, where Dallas kicker Nick Folk was forced to twice convert the winning 53-yard field goal because Bills coach Dick Jauron called a timeout just as the ball was snapped on the initial attempt, prompted debate and questions about the ethics of the maneuver.

"I don't feel strongly one way or another about the rule," said Atlanta Falcons president and general manager Rich McKay, who is co-chairman of the competition committee. "But I don't like the looks of it, in this sense: The guy makes the kick, you've got the entire Dallas bench coming off the sideline to celebrate, and everyone thinks the game is over. And then you basically say, 'Wait a minute. Timeout. Let's do it again.'

"For me, that's the problem."

Freezing a place-kicker just prior to a critical field goal attempt is hardly new, of course, but prior to the rules change, a team simply would have its middle linebacker or some other special teams defender stand next to the umpire as the kicking team lined up, and then call a late timeout. "It was right out there, in the middle of the field, and everyone in the stadium knew it was coming," said Titans coach Jeff Fisher, also a co-chairman of the competition committee. "Everybody saw it. That's not the case now."

Phil Dawson
Greg Trott/Getty ImagesFollowing the timeout, Phil Dawson's second attempt was blocked by the Raiders.

Indeed, with Broncos coach Mike Shanahan (Week 2), Raiders coach Lane Kiffin (Week 3) and Jauron (Week 5) making it a trend this season, there is increased scrutiny of the strategy. The timeouts are called away from the focus of most fans and sometimes even the TV cameras. By the time the linesman's signal for the timeout is heard, the ball typically has been snapped and the kick is already in the air.

One of the kickers victimized by a late timeout, Phil Dawson of Cleveland, feels the rule puts more pressure on game officials than anyone else. In a Sept. 23 contest at Oakland, Dawson converted what appeared to be a game-winning 40-yard field goal with three seconds left in the game. But the officiating crew ruled that Kiffin had called a timeout just before the kick. The ensuing attempt was blocked by the Raiders to secure a 26-24 victory.

The previous week, Kiffin's team was defeated because officials ruled that Shanahan had called timeout before Sebastian Janikowski's apparent game-winning field goal in overtime. Janikowski then clanged his follow-up attempt off the left upright, and Denver eventually won, 23-20.

"Because the coaches are waiting until just before [the snap], it makes it a difficult call for the referees," Dawson said. "I mean, you've got a [linesman] standing on the sideline next to the coach, 25 yards or so away from the ball, and he's got to make a determination as to just when the timeout was called.

"Just from a logistics standpoint, timing and positioning, there is a problem. It's like, 'Was the ball snapped yet? Did he get the timeout called in time? Do I give him [the timeout]?' It's a tough deal."

Potential 'icing' solutions

Here are three possible remedies to the NFL "icing" timeout problem:

1. Revoke the rule that allows coaches to call timeouts from the sideline. Given that coaches fought hard to incorporate the rule into the NFL game, and prefer to have the ability to make the timeout calls themselves in end-game situations, this isn't likely. Any review of the rule by the competition committee will include significant input from coaches.

2. Amend the rule to exclude field-goal situations. More than 25 percent of NFL games, on an annual basis, are determined by three points or less. And many of those contests are won on last-second field goals, which have become a part of the fabric of the game. Since field goals are so critical, it would be unfair to exclude them from the timeout rule.

3. Rewrite the rule with a provision that stipulates the coach cannot call a timeout with less than five seconds remaining on the play-clock. Probably a better alternative than the other two, but hardly perfect. It would add another layer of responsibility for game officials, and would eliminate some of the gamesmanship inherent to the current rule.

-- Len Pasquarelli

Some kickers, especially veterans, contend the late timeout does not bother them and that it actually gives them a free practice shot, more time to manicure the area of the field where the ball will be placed, and an additional 30 seconds to refocus.

Following his winning kick, the rookie Folk said he wasn't fazed by Jauron's maneuver. In fact, Dallas coach Wade Phillips -- who reportedly phoned the league offices on Tuesday to question the move -- and some Cowboys players seemed more nonplussed by the timeout maneuver.

"To me," Folk said, "it was a non-factor. In fact, it was kind of fun. No problem."

But anything that draws this kind of attention characteristically is a problem for the league. It's not one that will be addressed immediately since rules cannot be altered during the season. But the focus on the icing calls, McKay acknowledged, will prompt discussion in the spring.

McKay and Fisher, along with other members of the competition committee, have noted that the sideline timeout rule was enacted in part to coincide with a similar rule in the college game. And coaches seemed to favor it -- and even lobby for it -- in big numbers. Seattle coach Mike Holmgren, for instance, argues that coaches should have the ability to control late-game situations, like timeouts, rather than delegate to players on the field.

What some members of the competition committee concede is that they did not foresee the rules change becoming such an increasing component of game strategy. Given the three high-profile "icing" calls, are coaches now going to begin consciously saving timeouts for such situations? Shanahan certainly didn't the week after he froze Janikowski, as the Broncos used all three second-half timeouts in the third quarter of their eventual loss to Jacksonville.

The league isn't likely to take the timeout option away from coaches. Nor will the coaches permit them to do so. Any re-evaluation of the rule -- which was adopted unanimously by the owners -- will include major input from the coaches.

Some coaches, like Tony Dungy of Indianapolis, don't like the application of the rule as it pertains to field goals, because they feel it essentially gives the kicker a practice try. What if the kicker misses his initial attempt but gets a second attempt due to the timeout, and then converts the second kick? Would that make coaches less hesitant to call the late timeout?

If there is is an alteration to the rule, it will be a tweak rather than a significant change.

"I think we knew, when we endorsed the rule change as a committee, that there might be some unintended consequences to it," McKay said. "It isn't a foolproof system."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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