Sports Nut

The Arizona Cardinals got jobbed by an old rugby rule.

The Arizona Cardinals Got Jobbed by an Old Rugby Rule

Victor Cruz of the New York Giants

Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images.

Victor Cruz’s crypto-fumble yesterday against the Cardinals sent people scurrying to their NFL rulebooks, where they could find the following clause:

An official shall declare dead ball and the down ended: (a) when a runner is out of bounds or declares himself down by falling to the ground and makes no effort to advance.

There’s been a lot of talk already about the weirdness of the rule, which leaves to an official’s instinct the matter of what, exactly, constitutes “no effort.” I don’t remember having seen it invoked before yesterday. No less a personage than football’s freelance moral compass, Tony Dungy, called it “a fabrication by the league office,” by which I think he meant that the league had unearthed a rule ex post facto to cover for a blown call. But what’s interesting—to me, at least—is how the rule wound up in the books in the first place: As far as I can tell, it’s a rugby rule that has survived in only slightly altered form after a century of frequent and frantic attempts by football to distance itself from its roots.

Some history: In 1876, representatives from Columbia, Harvard, Princeton, and Yale met in Springfield, Mass., to adopt a uniform code of rules based on the brand of rugby that had recently been introduced at Harvard. This group would become known as the Intercollegiate Football Association, and the code they adopted established the American strain of football as a rushing game more along the lines of rugby than as a kicking game like soccer. You can read the whole set of rules here, if you care. Here’s the relevant one:

In the event of any player holding or running with the ball being tackled, and the ball fairly held, he must at once cry down, and there put it down.

According to David M. Nelson’s Anatomy of a Game, this rule persisted into the next century and wasn’t formally stricken from NCAA and high school federation rules until recently (Nelson’s book came out in 1994). It stuck around the NFL, though, and while Nelson doesn’t provide the precise language, my guess is that it had transmogrified into the “no effort” rule above, which is one of only three instances on the books—the others are the quarterback kneel and the feet-first slide—in which a runner can essentially declare himself down.

The “cry down” rule makes sense in rugby, if only to signal the transition into that phase of play wherein everyone dry-humps everyone else. The rule’s bastard American son, the “no effort” rule, has no business in modern pro football. A tackle is explicitly defined as it is, and the safety issue is already accounted for (defenders need only touch ball-carriers already on the ground to tackle them). All of football exists in the tension between the game’s rugby origins and its wish to be something else. It’s fascinating to see a stray bit of the old mother sport reappear in 2011 to euchre a professional football team out of a victory.