By now, everyone should be familiar with the NFL's term for purposeful rule-breaking. It's called a "palpably unfair act" and, generally speaking, teams get one chance to do it before the league cracks down.
All of which brings up a few fair questions, especially in light of the way the Baltimore Ravens clinched a 19-14 victory Sunday over the Cincinnati Bengals. Namely: Why does the NFL allow it at all? And what, if anything, can be done to fix the loophole?
As you might know, the Ravens on Sunday repurposed a strategy they used to help win Super Bowl XLVII over the 49ers. Protecting a 19-12 lead with 11 seconds remaining, they intentionally held all nine Bengals who were rushing a punt on fourth-and-8 at the 23-yard line. The Ravens' protectors grabbed, tackled and otherwise did everything in their physical power to prevent anyone with a Bengals uniform from getting near punter Sam Koch.
As a result, Koch simply caught the snap and stood his ground until the clock expired. Then he ended the play by stepping out of the end zone for a safety. The Ravens knew referee Clete Blakeman would penalize them for holding, but as they surely were aware, the game would still be over. The NFL rulebook calls for an additional untimed down only when a penalty occurs in the end zone itself, which in this case it did not.
The NFL limits but does not prevent this strategy. Had Koch been forced to step out before time expired, the Ravens would not have been able to repeat the approach. A second attempt would have been ruled a palpably unfair act. Any time drained from the clock would have been restored and the down replayed, neutralizing the advantage.
The same was true earlier this month when the San Francisco 49ers' defense intentionally held four New Orleans Saints receivers to prevent a throw into the end zone just before halftime. The strategy forced the Saints to settle for a field goal on the next play, but had they decided to go for it, the 49ers would not have been able to hold again.
So why can't the NFL simply amend its rules to prohibit all intentional fouls, rather than reverse the impact on the second attempt? I'm sure it could, but there are a few variables to keep in mind.
Most important, judging intent is not an exact science. Without a "grace period" for the initial foul, teams would have plays reversed at the moment an official assessed a series of fouls to be purposeful.
Under the current approach, the first instance allows for the possibility that multiple fouls were coincidental. Teams then know, without an immediate penalty, that any instance moving forward that resembles the same act will be invalidated.
Also, the NFL would have to specify the type of intentional foul it is outlawing. Would you want to reverse the outcome of a play if one cornerback tackled a receiver at the line of scrimmage? No. There would need to be language noting "multiple" fouls of the same kind on the same play.
It's also worth asking if an intentional foul is worth this kind of moral and ethical outrage. They are relatively rare cases where the consequence of breaking a rule is less harmful than the reward. The NFL obviously doesn't want teams routinely manipulating the rulebook to their advantage, but, well, the next basketball game I see that doesn't include at least one intentional foul to prevent points will be the first.
Yes, a fouled basketball player receives recourse in the form of free throws -- if in the act of shooting or if the team is in the bonus. And in Sunday's case, at least, the Ravens were able to solidify the outcome of a game itself.
In the end, the NFL could amend its rulebook and create a blanket statement: No multiple intentional fouls. It wouldn't be difficult, but it would address only a handful of precedents in the history of the NFL. As scandals go, this isn't one of them.