Some people call it “Patient Offense.” Others call it “Passive Offense.” Still others call it bull$#it. And, certainly most casual fans hate it. Most teams I’ve heard from don’t like patient offense, but feel compelled to use it for a multitude of reasons.
The hottest debate going on all over the derby community right now is not about whether or not to use it, so much as how to get rid of it. I think I have a solution that won’t change the fundamental principles of the game. If you want to be rid of patient offense, then you have to get rid of the reasons to use it.
Why Is This Happening?
Patient offense is a great “equalizer.” Your team doesn’t necessarily need to be able to block the other team’s blockers if your team can simply have the “patience” to line out and stand there while the pack disintegrates to set your jammer free. Some teams are going to be better at holding back the jammer than others, but as soon as the jammer gets free, she’s going to be back again in about eight seconds.
Patient offense usually gets the other team into penalty trouble, as well. The longer your jammer gets held up, the better the chance an opposing blocker is going to block clockwise or get out of play. You start with a power jam; you end up with a four-on-two blocker advantage when the power jam is over. Power jam extended.
Finally, in the new world of mathematically-based WFTDA rankings, where point spread is so important, your team is likely going to use whatever strategy it can to rack up point totals. If you want to move up the rankings ladder, you have to run up the score even after the game is well out of hand, which in most sports is considered poor sportsmanship. With the advent of the new rule set, we’ve seen the average combined scores for sanctioned games going through the roof. It’s not at all unusual to see games with over 500 points scored, while all those 145-85 games seem to be rare and curious throwbacks.
Rule Changes & Big Big Scores
Rules changes over the years have made it increasingly easy to score mad points, and it is a trend that has been building for years.
Back in 2008, a 25-point jam was a jaw-dropping, athletic feat. If you’re an old-timer like me, I bet you can still remember when Kelley Young (Snot Rocket) from Kansas City, Kamikaze Kim from Duke City (now Rat City), Kola Loka from Windy City, and of course Bonnie (The Michael Jordan of Roller Derby) Thunders crossed the 20-point barrier in a single jam. Those were memorable jams that fostered the legends of those all-time great jammers. But, that was back when packs were flying, and old speed-skaters ruled the flat-track.
Stricter pack definition and track-cutting rules, coupled with innovations in pack speed control, made the 25-point jam old hat, and 20-point jams the standard. Prior to 2012, the highest scoring single jam in WFTDA-sanctioned play was 39 points. Since 2012, and the advent of patient offense, there have been more than fourteen 40+ point jams. That’s because packs are not moving and jammers get more passes per minute. The new WFTDA rule set seems to be hardest on jammers, so we are definitely seeing more and more power jams per game. More power jams plus more points per power jam means higher and higher point totals for BOTH teams.
Power Jamming: To Skate or Not to Skate
Even acknowledging that power jams are likely to even out a bit as jammers learn to adjust their style to better suit the new rules, you can’t deny that as long as you have power jams, you are going to have patient offense. Since patient offense is so unbelievably difficult to defend, teams are going to continue to use it to score heaps of points fast. A team can be down by 80, late in the first half, but with patient offense, the game isn’t over by a long shot.
If you are of the mind that patient offense is just the latest strategy and people will eventually get used to it, then there’s no problem. If nothing changes, then that’s just what you’re going to see during a power jam. Fans will eventually get used to it, too. (We hope.) Maybe you just think it’s up to teams to get better at defending against patient offense, rendering it ineffective, which is an excellent point, except that it doesn’t address the “watchability” or marketability of the game.
The majority of discussion that I’ve seen, though, wants to be rid of patient offense now. Some teams are seeing their ticket sales dwindle as a result of spectator complaints, because fans liked derby when it was “fast” and don’t like watching teams just standing there while the other team–the team that’s actually doing what the fans want to see–is getting thrown off the track for doing it. Some people argue that inflated scores are skewing rankings and making blowouts more and more common, even among relatively well-matched teams. Others say, you shouldn’t be able to win derby by actively not playing derby.
Whatever side you’re on, you have to admit that patient offense helps win games. It may not be fun to play or to watch, but your chances of scoring big points are drastically increased by using it. Not to mention, that it’s a perfectly “legal” strategy (although one could argue that just because something isn’t illegal, doesn’t mean that it is fair or acceptable). Like it or not, though, it actually does take a certain amount of discipline and savvy to get it right. Forty-point jams might be a consequence of patient offense, but it’s not something to dismiss out of hand. It still takes skill and prowess to pull off a lunker like that under any circumstances.
What frightens me most is that some of the solutions I’ve seen offered to rid derby of patient offense would have severe and unintended repercussions for parts of the game that are still exciting, athletic and fun. It’s like swatting a fly with a shotgun.
Mandating forward motion, for instance, seems like it would create a lot of unnecessary problems. What if I’m at the front of the pack, and my teammates are walling up in back? Mandating forward motion means I can’t hustle back to them. It means I have to slowly roll forward hoping they eventually catch me. It means I can’t reverse the jammer at the last possible second, nineteen feet from the front of the pack, and save the day with an unbelievably athletic and perfectly-time block while the crowd goes crazy. I don’t think that would mark the death of patient offense anyway. I think teams would still line out and skate very slowly forward on power jams.
Mandating a set standard for “pack speed” is going to create MORE penalties based on subjective interpretations of pack speed. And, let’s face it, if your pack is doing its job, then you SHOULD be drastically speeding up and slowing down the pack to your team’s advantage. Why punish good blocking?
Maybe you’re going to be rid of patient offense, but you’re also going to eradicate parts of the game that are fun to watch and fun to play and a good part of what makes our sport so elegant and complex. You can’t fight lawyer derby by making legal things illegal. Patient offense is a loophole. Creating whole new sets of rules simply creates more loopholes.
A Modest Proposal
I have a modest proposal that would eliminate the usefulness of patient offense (at least it would greatly diminish the number of times during a typical game where it would be beneficial) without drastically changing the basic precepts of the game.
If you want to eliminate patient offense, then you need to eliminate power jams.
WAIT! Keep reading! I’m not a complete lunatic. This could work.
Here’s how we can do away with power jams without giving jammers a free pass to cheat. (Let’s take a happy moment of fond remembrance for the ancient and glorious days of WFTDA Rules 1.1. Ah, that’s better.)
First of all, jammers would obviously still get penalties. Those penalties would be tracked just like normal. Jammers still foul out if they are (caught being) very naughty seven times.
However, jammers would not leave the track. There would be no seat for the jammer in the penalty box. (I bet I’ve got the jammers’ attention now, don’t I.) Here’s the thing, though. When a jammer commits a penalty–or rather when a jammer gets caught committing a penalty–her entire pass is rendered an “Illegal Pass.”
The Illegal Pass
There were days not long ago before the “any pass” rules, when a jammer would not get lead or score a point if she committed a minor penalty (remember minor penalties… what were we thinking?). This would be a similar concept, but now that major penalty would have a major consequence. If the jammer does something illegal to gain an advantage on a pass, then that whole pass is forfeit.
When a jammer is on an Illegal Pass, nothing counts. She can’t get lead. She can’t score points. In order to get lead or score points, the jammer needs to finish her Illegal Pass and restart that same pass her next time around. (Sorry, Jammers. Try to behave next time around.) A jammer is only eligible to score points or get lead jammer on a Legal Pass.
As soon as the jammer commits a penalty, her jam ref would signal the penalty and report it to the tracker. The jam ref would then wave the Illegal Pass signal for the remainder of the Illegal Pass (maybe pat his head while rubbing his belly, or something less fun like the signal we now use for Not Lead Jammer). The jammer, her team, the officials, and the crowd know that she is currently unable to score or get lead jammer, and she’s going to have to get out and restart that pass. Do over! (Really exhausting, time-consuming, do-over.)
The Illegal Pass would be a serious consequence and would take away any advantage a jammer might get from “cheating” during a pass. Even if she were to cut the track in order to escape the pack on her already Illegal Pass, she’d still be racking up penalties towards fouling out.
If she does foul out during a jam, then she would not be able to score points or get lead during that entire jam. Every pass would be illegal. When the jam is over, she is removed from the game.
That pretty much does it. The Illegal Pass would eliminate the power jam. The elimination of the power jam would make patient offense far less useful and far less frequently utilized.
Bye Bye, Power Jams. Hello, F#@k You, Get Past Me Roller Derby.
Power jams can ruin good, back-and-forth game, and skew the point spread. How many times have you said that the score wasn’t a good reflection of the how good the game was? I bet a dime to a dollar that’s because that game ended with a big power jam. If the score wasn’t a good reflection of the competition, then the power jam that generated that score is probably not the best reflection of the skill of the two teams involved.
Not to mention that power jams are often much harsher punishments than whatever advantage was gained by the crime. I’ve seen a game turn on a big power jam in the last two minutes, because a jammer’s mouthguard barely slipped out over her lips. (An inch is a mile!) I mean, come on. Sixty minutes of all out war, sweat and blood, and a mouthguard completely ruins the whole deal? Heartbreaking and misleading.
I realize that power jams are exciting. However, do you honestly feel that power jams are the best measure of competition? I think four blockers versus four blockers playing offense and defense at the same time, with two jammers fighting for two minutes to score points is the best measure of derby prowess. That’s the trenches. That’s where the excuses end and you either put up or shut up. That’s the very measure of May the Better Team Win.
We’d miss power jams for a while, but I think we’d miss them like we miss any contrivance, like penalty wheels or alligators in the infield. I think it would make the game more honest, frankly, and more fair.
So, if you’re serious about getting rid of patient offense–and, if you want to be careful that your solution doesn’t mutilate the game in a dozen unintended ways–then you should really consider how much we really need power jams.
Think about it, and please keep in mind that Quad Loves You and wants you to be happy. Thanks for reading.
Featured image by LeVar Hurtin’ (source).