By Michael Spinner
Enough with the shot-clock talk
If there is a theme for the 2011 Division I Men’s Championship Tournament, it would be, “The year of the stall warning.” During decades in the sport of lacrosse, I don’t think I have ever heard so much talk regarding the pace of the games as we heard during the 2011 post-season. The coaches talked about it, the announcers talked about it, and the daily journalists wrote about it. The stall warning chatter evolved to the point where ESPN created an on-screen graphic to notify the viewing audience when a stall warning was in effect, and the announcers kept track of how many stall warnings the teams were receiving during the games.
If you were to ask Quint Kessenich or Syracuse Head Coach John Desko (based on comments to the Syracuse Post Standard during the week after Syracuse fell to Maryland in the Quarterfinals), a shot-clock is the ultimate savior to the sport. It will cure all of the sport’s ills, lead to a higher-scoring, transition-based sport, and recreate lacrosse as the ‘fastest game on two feet.’ Basically, shot-clock pundits are claiming that what would constitute one of the biggest rule changes in the history of the sport will pretty much do everything short of improving the economy. We’ll all go to sleep at night feeling all kinds of warm and fuzzy because lacrosse added a shot-clock.
I could not disagree more with the sentiment that a shot-clock is the cure for the ills facing the sport of lacrosse. In fact, I am convinced that the shot-clock has the potential to slow the sport down every bit as much as the present rules do. How did Virginia win the 2011 national championship? A shift in offensive philosophy, a commitment to better teamwork, and, more than anything else, Dom Starsia’s decision to implement a 3-3 zone. The zone defense didn’t do a whole lot of good for Virginia during their win over Bucknell, but from that point on, it gave opponents fits, particularly against Maryland in the championship game.
The reason to bring up the 3-3 zone is that if a shot-clock is implemented, lacrosse fans should expect to see a heck of a lot more of it. If I am a defensive coach with a solid goalie - and most top teams at every level have at least a solid goalie, if not better – and I know the opposing team has limited outside shooting ability but only 30 or 45 seconds to get a shot on-goal – I am sitting back in a 3-3 zone, and giving the opposing team very little room to get a shot off inside of 12-15 yards. At a minimum, I am implementing a call with 10 seconds left on the shot clock to shift into some sort of zone, thereby forcing the opponent to heave an outside shot, or risk a shot-clock violation. As a result, there will be more transition lacrosse based on bad shots or fast re-starts after violations, but for teams deep enough that can stop transition, the six-on-six game will not speed up one bit, in fact it will slow down.
The zone strategy worked for Virginia without a shot-clock, I would submit that it will only appear more often if a shot-clock is implemented. After all, how many ‘zone busters’ are out there, who can rip a shot from more than 12 yards and beat a solid college goalie regularly. We all have seen the Paul Rabil ‘111 miles per hour’ commercials, but there are few who can do that regularly, and accurately. If the shot-clock comes, more zone defenses are coming with it.
For John Desko and others who are pushing for a shot-clock, the most logical response is that if a team is so concerned that a slow-down approach is negatively impacting the game, why not pressure the ball, particularly once a stall warning is called? The advantage of having every Division I tournament game televised on the ESPN family of networks was that lacrosse fans had the opportunity to see how teams strategized, and changed from week to week. Maryland slowed the game down to a near-crawl for most of the NCAA Tournament, and likely led the tournament field in stall warnings per game. However, how many times did we see teams change their defensive strategy based on Maryland’s game plan? Very few … even when a stall warning was called. Pressure defense? Almost non-existent, even from Syracuse. Virginia actually spent most of the championship game in a 3-3 zone, and Maryland did very little to counter defensively.
In other words, the slow-down of lacrosse has as much to do with the reluctance of defensive coaches to pressure the ball as it has to do with offensive coaches choosing to slow down the game.
Does this mean the rules should not be changed? Of course not. There is room for changes to the game to encourage more attacking, but a shot-clock is not the ultimate answer, and will likely create as many issues as it solves. But, there are some tweaks to the rules that could help speed things up enough to make the games faster paced:
1 – Eliminate subbing on the fly: Part of the slow-down of lacrosse takes place immediately after a team clears the ball, as offensive personnel rush to the midfield lines to make changes, sometimes with a defensive player scrambling to get to the midfield line just as fast. On occasion, this dynamic leads to interesting games of cat and mouse, but oftentimes, it’s about 20+ seconds of wasted time as both teams get their ideal people on the field, create the right match-ups, and put everybody where they need to be. This is the first line of slow-down in lacrosse.
We do not live in an ideal world, so creating the ideal match-up with ideal personnel on a lacrosse field only makes the game boring. The game has evolved (or devolved, depending on how you see it) to the point where there is a specialist for the face-off, short-stick defensive specialists, long-stick midfielders, and all kinds of other specialists. When a team transitions from offense to defense, it takes time to get everybody on and off the field. If we eliminate substitutions ‘on the fly’ we will see some natural progression in the speed of the game. First, all of the changes after the clear will end. Secondly, natural mismatches will appear.
Somebody with limited defensive skill will end up on the defensive end, and the offense will go right after him. On the other side of the field, somebody with limited offensive talent will end up on offense, and the defense will go right after him when he gets the ball. Or, somebody will simply be tired from running the length of the field, and become a natural target. We will also see the return of the two-way midfielder, something the sport is sorely missing.
Either way, if we eliminate ‘on the fly’ substitutions, we will see some strategic creativity that will naturally speed up the game. Change the rule to become that personnel changes can only take place on a dead-ball whistle, and the game will become naturally faster, and much more creative.
2 – Get it in, and keep it in … all the time: Why do we have to wait a full minute for a stall warning? If a team has to keep the ball inside the offensive restraining box once it is brought in, it gives defenses more motive and opportunity to pressure the ball, creating more flow to the game. Granted, turnovers will rise whenever a ball is thrown away, but the quick whistle after a violation will create more transition opportunities, and speed up the game.
You add this rule to an elimination of subbing ‘on the fly,’ and lacrosse speeds itself up, just enough to make things a little bit more interesting. This particular rule change would have a similar impact to the shot clock in that there will be more turnovers, but it doesn’t lead to a dramatic change in philosophy the way a shot-clock would.
At the end of the day, there is no legislation that is going to speed up the sport of lacrosse as if a coach really wants to slow the game down, they will attempt to do so. But to jump straight to a shot-clock only gives slow-down coaches another avenue to slow down the sport in another way (i.e. the zone defense). The goal of those who do not like the way the game is being played should not be to increase scoring, but to increase the flow of the game. The two ideas above will do just that.
By the way, it’s worth noting that the Division II and III coaches have not been vocal about a shot-clock. Why? Because Division II and III coaches do not slow the game down as much as they do at the Division I levels. Watch Salisbury play Roanoke or Stevenson. See Cortland play RIT. Check out video from the Division II Championship Game. Then tell me if we really need a shot-clock.