College Football Rule Changes and PDSA

Posted on September 4, 2012 | in Change Management, Football, Safety, Sports | by

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Recently I wrote about the lack of PDCA – the continuous improvement framework of Plan-Do-Check-Act – and how it affects college football teams because they don’t have the luxury of preseason games to test out new players and offensive or defensive schemes before games start to count.

As a result of not getting a chance to “kick the tires” on a team against live competition without it mattering to the entire season, big schools schedule “cupcake” games against smaller schools early in the season that all but guarantee a victory for football powerhouses. (See Oklahoma State versus Savannah State this past weekend.)

Ideally, college football teams will amass a slate of games against other teams in their own division (Football Bowl Subdivision, Football Championship Subdivision, Division II, Division III) instead of playing teams in levels above or below divisions. I would say that playing games against teams in other divisions is an unintended consequence of how the NCAA operates its football season.

But in addition to college football teams having issues with the inability to run inter-team trials without games that count (and thusly finding loopholes in the process), college football rules committees are also hamstrung by the lack of PDSA.

(I need to distinguish between PDCA and PDSA – Plan-Do-Study-Act. A simple word change, yes, but here’s the difference. As ASQ Influential Voices blogger Nicole Radziwill helps explain it, “Check” indicates identifying how an implemented change affects the system relative to what you were expecting. On the other hand, “Study” indicates not only how the change affects the system as a whole but also what can be learned from those results and how those learnings can be applied to improve results. PDSA is more relevant to this discussion because in scheduling cupcakes teams learn what works and doesn’t work on their teams and make applicable changes as necessary. That is a learning process and a studying process, not merely a checking process. In my original article about the lack of preseason games, PDSA would have been more applicable.)

One of the problems the NCAA is looking to address and alleviate is the observed growth in frequency of helmets coming off players’ heads in the middle of game play. We’re seeing more players lose their helmets during plays when they get hit, which poses major safety risks if those players continue playing. I have not heard about football organizers running any sort of root cause analyses but it’s believed that the main cause of helmets coming off more frequently is that players aren’t wearing helmets as tightly and securely as they have in the past. (No word if that’s because of player adjustments or equipment changes – again, I don’t know anything about their use of root cause analysis.)

The NCAA wants to modify player behavior to keeping helmets on at all times – keeping helmets on tightly, being properly fitted. So they’ve decided to institute a rule that mandates any player that loses his helmet during play be forced to the sidelines for the next play, with a few exceptions (such as being ripped off by an opposing player). In addition, as soon as a player involved in a play’s progress (such as a runner with the ball) loses his helmet the play is stopped and a defender losing his helmet while pursuing a ball carrier is required to end his pursuit immediately.

Because this rule was instituted without using PDSA in trial versions and because not every entity’s opinion was sought on finding ways to prevent this from happening in the first place, there is a large degree of opposition to the new rule. There are lots of scenarios where this new rule can hamper game play or loopholes that have degrees of ambiguity that must be addressed. From Texas head coach Mack Brown:

If you lose your helmet, you have to come out of the game for a play, regardless. So, your quarterback could lose his helmet on the next to the last play of the game and he’s out for the last play. And also if you lose your helmet within  in the last minutes of the half at the end of the game, you can have the 10-second runoff rule.

(Coach Brown was not accurate about the “regardless” part of his quote, as there are scenarios when this doesn’t apply, but his concerns about game play being affected by loopholes is very valid.)

The intent of the rule – protect the safety and health of players – is valid and should be addressed. However, the balance between the effect the rule might have on game play (from loopholes) and how often those loopholes would be exploited needs to be addressed as well. Some coaches (like Alabama’s Nick Saban) like the rule for its intent – player safety being maximized. Others obviously question it.

The discussion here is not about the rule itself and its validity. What I’m pointing out is that there are many other rules that are essentially fully implemented where not all potential failure modes or loopholes are addressed before the first game of the season kicks off. By not having a way to apply PDSA, college football brings a lot of ambiguity upon itself. Here’s a quote from a Northwestern football message board:

I fear that the new helmet rule is going to be exploited. There will be some playmakers…who will be a recipient of having their helmet pulled off. One result is he will have to sit out the next play. I hope nobody suffers an injury do [sic] to this. I beleive [sic] they have to modify this rule. If they keep it under replay if it appears taken off intentionally a penalty should be called. At bare minimum the player who had his helmet taken off should not sit out the next play.

There are lots of things the NCAA did not consider or address when implementing this rule. More trial-and-error or feedback requests from coaches and players should have been collected to identify all failure modes. Instead, the NCAA collects a limited amount of data and feedback, creates a rule, and opens itself up to ambiguous interpretation during the season where it can’t simply remove the rule until the season is over.

The lack of PDSA hurts college football in lots of ways. The NCAA should look at ways to apply this and other continuous improvement tools (like force field analysis or failure mode effects analysis – FMEA) to such decisions to identify entities and how they could be affected by these changes.

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6 Responses to “College Football Rule Changes and PDSA”

  1. Mark Graban says:

    Great post. Could the NCAA use Division III as a testing ground for some of these rules for a season before moving them to FBS? Of course, then there would be the argument (and potential lawsuits?) that the NCAA wasn’t doing enough to protect the FBS players.

    Are there unintended consequences from the changed kickoff rules after the first weekend?

    • Chad Walters says:

      Mark -

      I think there could be lots and lots of arguments that would try to support the naysayers and the very vocal extreme minorities (Well what about this scenario? What about this one?) that could easily derail any sort of safety improvement effort. If someone was to sue the NCAA for not doing enough to protect the players (with the use of DIII as a proving ground) then couldn’t they also sue for failures in previous seasons when the proving ground wasn’t being used? So my answer is that they could use DIII as a proving ground, but ideally there could be some flexibility with rule changes to be modified in-season if some unintended consequences haven’t been caught by FMEA or proper feedback from all entities.

      Sports is a tough realm to implement change because each season should stand on its own and changes in the middle of a season could affect competition results, which is the essence of sports. However, this rule is about safety and safety needs to supercede anything relating to results. The flexibility with rule changes should be closely monitored and decisions made swiftly (but not hastily). For example, by the NCAA college football rules committee monitoring all possible unintended effects from the first weekend of this rule being implemented, they could convene and tighten or loosen parts of the rule to address those effects. Maybe after the first weekend 90% of unintended consequences are accounted for and addressed, then after the second weekend 90% of unintended consequences are again addressed (so Pareto-ing from 90% to 99% to 99.9% or something like that).

      This can be done but probably won’t because sports is so beholden to the consistency of rules from beginning of the season being the exact same rules at the end, so as to not contaminate records. Also, sports organizations don’t fully implement quality tools and metrics in the same way traditional industries do, simply because they don’t feature that knowledge base yet. It’s like they don’t know what they don’t know. They’re getting better, though.

      I am unaware of any unintended consequences from the kickoff rule changes – I like the intent of maximizing player safety by limiting the full-speed collisions on kickoff coverage and allowing return teams to receive extra benefit by taking touchbacks – but if I hear of anything I’ll be sure to share it. I don’t like the inconsistent touchback rules (it’s still start-at-the-20 on interception touchbacks and punt return touchbacks) but it’s a minor nit.

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