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Is A Lacrosse Shot Clock Inevitable?

Is a lacrosse shot clock inevitable? The current rule is not that great, and the push for a constant shot clock continues to come from many in the game.

Is a lacrosse shot clock inevitable? The current stall-warning-to-shot-clock rule is not that great, and the push for a constant shot clock continues to come from many in the game. We are already headed that way for the women’s game. I have not always been a fan of the lacrosse shot clock proposal, but the more I watch college lacrosse, the more I open up to the idea.

Frankly, my above reaction is a weird one, because I have actually enjoyed many of this season’s games immensely. There have been upsets, parity is real(er), and we see a good amount of transition, passing, and up and down lacrosse. Goals are pretty, scored in many different ways, and we even see some takeaway checks from long sticks again! It’s been great!

If I like it so much, then why the heck is 2016 pushing me towards a shot clock more than other recent seasons?

There is ONE reason I would potentially want to see a shot clock… CONSISTENCY.

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But it’s not about consistency of pace of play, as the pace of games has been great this year. There are up tempo and down tempo teams. We see a diversity of approaches, and while the spread of talent leads to upsets, so does a diverse style of play across the board. It impacts match ups, and forces teams to do multiple things well. It creates an atmosphere of real competition, and I love it.

So, AGAIN, why am I now FOR a lacrosse shot clock?

Simply put, I’ve watched way too many games this year where the current stalling shot clock call is not applied uniformly, and it’s driving me crazy.

When a stall has not been called all game, and then one is called within 45 seconds of a possession beginning in the 4th quarter, it makes me furious. If it wasn’t a stall all game, why is it now? Putting on a stall warning with 33 seconds left in the quarter is another call I can’t stand. It’s like the official just had to put one stall warning in for show, so they cut 3 seconds off a possession and check the box. It’s maddening. OR when I see a team that is winning hit with the stall, but when the losing team has possession, they don’t get hit with a warning, and they don’t attack the cage for 2 minutes… it goes on and on.

There are simply so many examples of this call being made without clear uniformity that it has to be changed.

michigan lacrosse 2016
Photo Credit: Rien Zabor

I always thought the “keep it in” stall warning was called too arbitrarily, and while it limited the space players could use, it didn’t truly change the game all that much. Teams could still hold the ball and possess, they just had to have great skill, teamwork, and toughness. But the new stall penalty of a 30-second shot clock changes things immensely, and with the stalling call STILL being so subjective, I’m not a big fan. It feels like a halfway but extremely harsh solution, and it took some of the worst parts of both rules and combined it into one.

How many times have you seen a team possess the ball, and create no good chances, for 4-5 minutes, during the first quarter of a game? I’ve seen it a number of times. And yet I’ve seen maybe one stall warning put on early in a game. Now think of that same play in the fourth quarter… a stall is MUCH more likely to be called. Personally, I HATE it when rules change during a game. Call it one way, and let me know what to expect. This holds true as a player OR coach, and I think 99% of the people out there would agree with me.

Photo Credit: Dusty Gunn

The newer rule leaves subjectivity in, AND make it a more important call. This is never good. From watching games this year, I can say it’s not doing much to speed up the game, and the inconsistency is almost baffling, even to someone who has watched lacrosse for 30 years. Imagine just starting to watch lacrosse now! The rule makes almost no sense. Different crews call it differently, tight games are called differently from blow outs, and if we want this sport to move forward, it’s all going to have to change… AGAIN.

Now I want to make it abundantly clear that I harbor NO ILL WILL towards any of the officials, and I’m not angry with the Rules Committee either. The refs are trying to do their best with an impossible rule, and the Rules Committee did the best they could given the info they had available, while following the traditions of the game as well as current desires of coaches, players, and fans. But now that we’ve seen the arbitrary shot clock in action, it’s pretty obvious that it is highly flawed, due to its inherently subjective nature.

While I wasn’t always a fan of the lacrosse shot clock, the old stall warning was outdated, and we needed to see something new. I initially liked the idea of a shot clock as a stalling penalty, but it turns out that subjectivity is still too much of a burden here. I was wrong, I can deal with that.

Since a half measure didn’t work, now the logical step seems to be to make the shot clock a full-time component of the game… but is that the only possible step?

Sure, you could say a 60 or 75 second shot clock is the best answer, and it actually might be. It certainly helped out basketball (along with the 3 point line of course), and it keeps that game fast and high scoring, for the most part. Teams play different styles still, but being a “possession” team doesn’t mean what it used to. Overall, it’s been good for the sport.

So Is A Lacrosse Shot Clock Inevitable, Or What?

I’m not sure it’s the only answer.

Let’s go back to the old stall warning, and see if there is anything there… I have a feeling there is!

The original stall warning meant the offensive team had to keep it in the box. It was simple, and when sticks were wider, it led to turnovers and takeaways checks. Once the heads got narrower, takeaways left the game to a large extent, and the keep it in meant one or two attackmen could carry the ball at X and kill minutes off the clock at a time.

It was so broke! Or was it…

What if offenses ALWAYS had to keep the ball in the box? Under this rule, there is no more “touching it in” then subbing D-mids off. Consider those days DONE. Now, when you touch it in the box, you have to keep it in the box immediately, and if the ball goes out of the box, you lose possession!

pat spencer loyola

This might be the smartest thing I’ve ever come up with, so bear with me, and open your mind a little bit to a different idea.

If teams always had to keep it in the box once they stepped it in the box, the days of three middies just moving the ball around up top are OVER. Thank the Creator for that. Nothing in lacrosse is more boring than 3 middies playing catch uncontested near the middle of the field. The D has no reason to press out there, and the refs let them sub freely even though no on is pressing the cage.

The days of D-middies now touching a toe in the box, pulling it out and then slowly subbing off are ALSO OVER. Again, thank the Creator. We want two-way middies, right? Well, now you have to POSSESS the ball in the box, and keep it in the box, before you can sub off. It forces all ball handling D-mids to be able to do more than just run fast. That’s good, right? The shot clock doesn’t force them to do anything except run off the field faster after a successful clear. I guess that’s exciting? Under the Always Keep It In Rule, it benefits everyone to be a two-way player.

If teams had to keep the ball in the offensive box it would also give defenses a better chance at creating turnovers. First off, O guys can’t just run away from pressure anymore to the open field. That’s simple because they have less space to run in. But it would also mean that when an O was subbing, the D could double without the O just throwing the ball up to the box to the oncoming O-Mid. Again, this would force two-way players onto the field more. There would be more takeaways, more picked off passes, and more possession changes due to players leaving the box. With fast restarts, this should lead to the transition play we all seem to be seeking.

Of course this proposal is not without its problems. One issue is that up top isolation dodge from midfielders starts to disappear a bit. Paul Rabil style guys who get a running start at their defender from well outside the restraining box, and then decimate them with size, speed, and strength will suffer a bit. The current box would restrict this type of one-on-one set up dodging, and would require guys to dodge from tighter angles, under tighter coverage, and immediately upon receiving the ball.

Bryant men's lacrosse knocks off Harvard lacrosse shot clock inevitable
Photo courtesy Bryant Athletics

Maybe the box could be extended a little higher (along with the restraining line) towards midfield? Or maybe the goal could be moved further back on the field, closer to the endline, more akin to the women’s set up? All are possible options to keep midfield dodging in the game if we really want to keep it there. It doesn’t nullify the overall, it just requires some tinkering. Has anyone ever tried this?

By forcing teams to get it in the box and keep it in the box for the entire game, a marriage of skill, athleticism, and smarts is pushed on every player. Shots that go wide and out of bounds can still be awarded to the offensive team, even if they leave the box, similar to how the endline/sideline rule works now for shots. Shots that go off the goalie or a pipe can reset the “keep it in” call. Solutions are out there if we want to find them, and they aren’t that complicated.

By restricting the field of play for offenses, it means there are less moments of down time in every game. There are less “safe” times to substitute players, and skill and ball handling ability would become even more important. Defenders would have more opportunities to throw takeaway style checks, and pressure defense would take on a new level of importance. Teams wouldn’t be able to move the ball around the outside as easily, and while this could lead to less-skilled teams having one elite player hold the ball, that would result in teams valuing takeaway defenseman and double team schemes more, so they could generate turnovers.

Would certain teams still aim to slow down the game?

Absolutely, and that is the one place where a shot clock has a very clear edge. It removes a 3 minute shot-less possession from the game altogether. If you want that, the shot clock is your answer. Personally, I like a 3 minute rapid passing possession from Denver, and if they had to keep it in the box, I still think they could pull it off. With a shot clock, the Pioneers’ magic will have to change a lot. Do we really want to legislate that out of the game fully?

Let’s look at some boiled down talking points for the “Always Keep It In Rule“:

  • Simple to call, and easy to enforce
  • Speeds up the game, removing slower periods where nothing happens
  • Removes subjectivity altogether
  • There are no additional costs, e.g. physical clocks or someone to operate them
  • Scalable to ALL ages
  • Promotes skill and teamwork (so does a shot clock to be fair)
  • Traditional and unique to lacrosse, but easy to understand
  • Keeps longer possessions in the game
  • Gives defenses OPPORTUNITY, but NOT clear advantage
  • Promotes defensive skill as well

Other than the loss of an isolation dodge from up top (which can be a slow to develop play and often leads to a boring alley dodge), I don’t see what harm the Always Keep It In Rule could do. Do you? I REALLY want to hear why this rule couldn’t work? I obviously think it could work, but I need help tearing it apart, to find more holes in the theory. Have at it!

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