Pack No-Starts: An Analysis and Condemnation

This past weekend, the Philly Roller Girls swung through Colorado to take on both Denver and WFTDA champs Rocky Mountain. Philly was obliterated by Rocky Mountain by the score of 183-32 on Sunday and was well-beaten at Denver 138-89 the day before.

While I make it a point to see WFTDA games between highly-ranked teams, I was only able to catch the second half of the Philly/Denver game. However, I saw all I needed to see in the first couple of jams after halftime.  I was greeted with repeat of an infamous turn of events at the end of last year and a potentially dangerous path teams may start taking, possibly to the detriment of roller derby.

At the start of the second half of the game, Denver led by the score of 75-41. Heather Juska had the star for Denver and immediately creamed Philly for a 25-point jam, a feat made more impressive with both jammers on the track and a majority of blockers in the pack for the whole two minutes. Philly, completely befuddled, called a timeout suddenly down 59 points.  Both teams have a blocker in the penalty box during the timeout, with 28 minutes left in the game.

The thing that got me going happened immediately following the timeout. After the subsequent jam started, skaters stood around and did nothing. The jammers were not jamming. No action was taking place on the track. The crowd was not enjoying themselves. I wanted to gouge my eyes out out of sheer disbelief. This went on for half of the jam—a full minute of inaction and non-excitement. If you want to tell people how exciting and awesome roller derby can potentially be, I dare you to show them this video:

It’s the dreaded pack no-start. You’ll recall that this perfect storm of nothingness was famously first documented at the 2010 WFTDA Championships, between Gotham and these very same Philly Liberty Belles. In the three instances during that game, and the one instance in this game, you had a situation where literally nothing was happening during live game action. No one was showcasing their athleticism. No one was exerting any effort. No one was even really skating.

I hate this. I hate, hate, HATE this. This isn’t roller derby. In fact, it’d be a stretch to even classify this as a sport at all. Have you ever seen any sporting event where standing around and doing nothing is a viable tactic at this point at the game? What we have here are two teams standing around and getting (or not getting) what they want. I’ve never seen a hockey or basketball or football player do nothing and get rewarded for it.  If flat-track roller derby is a real sport as people claim it to be, then why is a situation like this a part of it?

In this post, I aim to explain why this happened, what both teams may have been thinking, and denounce the circumstances that make it possible as detrimental to the growth of roller derby. Remember, like everything else I aim to do with this blog, I’m speaking from the view of a sports fan.  Keep that in mind as you consider my perspective.

Philly, finding themselves down a lot of points at the start of the second half, all of a sudden found themselves down a lot more points one jam later thanks to Denver’s amazing 25-point swing. During the ensuing timeout, both teams presumably talked strategy.

While I’m not privy to the conversations that took place in those huddles, I’m pretty sure that Philly wanted to start scoring points as soon as possible to limit the damage done, and Denver wanted to stop Philly from scoring in order to prevent them from starting to make a run or claw their way back. Seems like the things that your coaches would talk about or outlay strategies during a timeout called in that situation.

However, judging by the (in)actions of both teams during the jam no-start, I knew right away what both teams were trying to do, or at least what they were wanting to do during that jam. The reasons for it are very bad for roller derby. To understand why, we need to put ourselves in the skates of both teams and figure out what it all means.

What Denver was thinking

Obviously, doubling your already-big halftime lead in one jam does wonders for your confidence. Still, Denver would have been well aware that Philly is one of the best teams in the country, whether or not they’re down a few key skaters. If I was Denver’s coaching staff, during the timeout I would have told the Mile-Highers to still play the same game they’ve been playing, but err on the side of caution and defense. If Philly started scoring some points or gets a big jam right back, it could swing the momentum away from Denver, and with plenty of time left on the clock for Philly to take advantage of it.

At the start of the jam, Denver wasn’t immediately trying to do anything fancy. They started rolling off of the line normally, just like they would on any other jam. However, when they saw that Philly wasn’t moving and didn’t have any intention of moving, it was in their best interest to play along.

With a big lead, Denver was more than happy to let time burn off of the clock. There was no reason for them to stretch the pack and split it, since doing so would put the jammers in action sooner, possibly giving Philly more time to score during the jam. Plus, they had a blocker in the box, so by standing pat and stalling the start of the jam, that blocker penalty would be of little consequence.  They would get the double benefit of a full pack and an easier time playing defense against a possible Philly surge, should that situation arise.

When the penalized Denver blocker came in to rejoin the pack, she went right for the remaining Philly blocker behind the pivot line and took her out of bounds (and out of play), causing the pack to be beyond the pivot line and ultimately, the start of the jam. Personally, I think she knocked down the Philly blocker because she just wanted to participate in the action after sitting for several minutes (including the timeout) and the hit was there to take. It just so happened to be a hit that caused the jam to finally start.

As the penalized blocker wouldn’t have been in the huddle during the timeout, she wouldn’t have known if there was a specific plan for the jam. You can’t say she acted on instruction of the team, which can therefore only lead me to conclude she did it on her own initiative. Thank goodness she did, because otherwise Denver may have still been standing there, still having little reason to want to start the jam.

Once the jam started, though, Denver thwarted Philly’s plans (see below) with superior blocking and a better jammer, taking an easy 2-0 jam win and a few minutes off of the clock. All in all, I think Denver was being pretty smart given the circumstances of what Philly was allowing them to get away with. That doesn’t mean I think don’t think what they did was a good thing, looking at the bigger picture.

What Philly was thinking

Coming out of halftime, being down 34 points isn’t the end of the world. As one of the more veteran and experienced teams on the WFTDA circuit, Philly knew it was completely possible to nickel and dime their way back to a more reasonable deficit and get into a better position for a big or decisive jam to swing the momentum or scoreline in their favor. Even though Philly was down some key skaters, the Philly coaching staff still has enough game experience to help guide their team through it.

However, they probably didn’t plan on giving up a  25-point jam right out of the gate, especially while at full strength. In similar situations in other sports, panic and doubt would start settling in, making the task of recovering seem impossible. Very correctly, the Philly bench called a timeout so they could talk things over and settle everyone down. The DNN commentary crew noted how smart Philly was for doing that, and I agree. That’s a timeout you’ve just got to take.

Again, I don’t know exactly what was said in the huddle. I would assume the Philly coaches wanted to figure out a plan for at least the very next jam in order to get lead jammer however possible, to ensure that they’ll get some points back or at the very least stop Denver from scoring again.  Despite the uncertainty of what may have been planned or said, though, Philly’s actions at the start of the jam made it crystal clear to me what they were trying to do.

Look at the video again and concentrate on the three Philly blockers. They were clearly planning to not move at all. Two Philly blockers only felt it necessary to inch past the pivot line after a Denver blocker decided to get behind them some 30 seconds into the jam. The third Philly blocker only crossed the pivot line because she stumbled out of bounds after getting hit by the Denver blocker coming out of the penalty box halfway through the jam, ultimately starting the jammers off of the line. That probably wasn’t a part of the plan, given the team’s insistence of wanting to stand where they were.

Despite that, Philly got what they wanted. Even though it took a minute off the jam clock, and even though wasn’t ideal (for reasons described below), Philly felt that the minute of clock lost was not as important as getting the pack positioning that they wanted. You can clearly see how Philly was positioned when the jammers finally approached the pack:

During the jam, Philly got the pack positioning they wanted with a wall of blockers at the rear of the pack. But was the way they did it a good thing for roller derby? (Screengrab credit: DRD/DNN)

You’ll see a wall of three Philly blockers positioned all along the rear of the pack, with all of the Denver blockers in front of them. Philly’s reluctance to leave the line was to ensure that they would have control of the rear of the pack, under the assumption (or hope) that Denver would get out in front and force a split-pack start.

When this didn’t happen, for reasons explained previously, you could tell by Philly’s attitude that they were relying on Denver to take action for their plan best work. When a Denver blocker got behind the two Philly blockers on the line, the third Philly blocker—looking directly at the rearmost Denver blocker—started to skate forward towards the pivot line as if to say, “okay, we’re starting to move now…you can start moving too,” as if to fake out the Denver blocker.

Even if you disagree with me on that one, it’s still a bit curious to see that the Philly blocker didn’t cross the pivot line.  She could have just as easily crossed the pivot line and then skated backwards to regain rear positioning. Of all the places to stop, why did she choose to stop short of the line?  And why did it ultimately take a hit from the incoming Denver blocker (a hit she may have not seen coming) to remove her from that spot?  Perhaps because she wanted to stay behind the pivot line at all costs?  As with everything happening during this jam no-start, there’s a reason for that, too.

The last blocker across the pivot line effectively gets to control when the jammers start. In this situation, had all of the Philly blockers been forward of the pivot line, the Denver blocker could have crossed the pivot line anytime she wanted to start the jam, spoiling what Philly had been planning. Already standing around for 20 seconds at this point, Philly was clearly focused on being the team that started the jammers off, because they wanted to be positioned across the rear of the pack.  That is, they wanted all of the Denver blockers in front of them.  You can’t do that if a Denver blocker is the last one across the line behind you.

There’s a very good and strategic reason why you would want your blockers positioned this way at the start of the jam, as this handy diagram will demonstrate:

(1) The blue team elects to stall on the line. To force the jam start, the red team presses forward to create a no-pack jammer start. (2) The pack reforms and the jammers engage the pack. The blue jammer passes through her blockers and approaches the wall of red blockers at speed. (3) As the blue jammer presses forward, the red jammers are forced to match speed to block, pushing the red blockers outside of the pack definition area and creating a no-pack. All blockers are not allowed to engage, so the blue jammer passes the red blockers and picks up lead jammer. (4) Meanwhile, the blue blockers can skate forward to reform the pack while keeping the red jammer behind them, effectively springing their jammer out of the pack without making any contact with the red blockers.

I see this happen all of the time during games, and not just during jam starts. When the pack is split between two teams and both jammers are on the track, the team holding the rear of the pack is at a huge advantage.  If the teams stay split within the pack, the two halves of the pack will inevitably drift away from each other, creating a no-pack situation. This means the blockers are no longer able to engage the jammers.

However, this situation always favors the team holding the rear of the pack.  The jammer up front gets a free pass by the out-of-play blockers in front of her, but the jammer at the rear still has to pass through the blockers at the rear of the pack, which only need to skate forward to reform the pack and put themselves back into play. What easier way is there for a team to get lead jammer and effectively screw the other team?

This is one of the things in the WFTDA rulebook that makes me go mad.  In general, teams would have more of a reason to want to stay behind at the start of the pack, knowing what an advantage it is to have  a wall of blockers at the back.  Because teams are allowed to stop or skate backwards, you can get scenarios where both teams don’t want to leave the line, because one team wants to not move for one reason, and the other team doesn’t want to move for the same or a different reason.  Either way, nothing happens on the track.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand this is exactly what Philly was trying to do, especially considering the situation where they were in.  Although, as I previously alluded to, the situation wasn’t exactly ideal for Philly. The common counters to the stalling start tactic is to force a pack start, by way of taking a knee before the whistle or stretching the pack to cause a no-pack split. Philly didn’t want to pre-position their blockers and give away their plan, denying Denver the chance to counter that by taking a knee before the pivot whistle. Philly was therefore hoping for the split pack, as that would allow them to have 10 feet of uncontested space in front of their blockers and an ideal situation to quickly cause a split no-pack and get lead jammer.

Denver decided to not play along, for their own reasons. When the jam did start, the Philly blockers were positioned where they wanted, but Denver managed to stay close enough to plug up the pack and the Philly jammer. Thanks also to superior jamming by Denver, Philly’s plan failed and Denver scored two points before the Philly jammer could get into scoring position.

However, the way that the teams went about doing this screams of immaturity.  Sure, there was a strategy stare-down going down at the start of the jam, and I guess some people like that.  However, there sure as hell wasn’t any athleticism, action, or excitement during that minute.  Much like the crowd at the Philly/Gotham game at 2010 Championships, you could hear people were getting upset over this one.  Did they appreciate what was going on?

When will roller derby start acting like a real sport?

Regardless of strategies involved, Denver was the better team for the entire game and the outcome was pretty much determined after that 25-point jam. Whether or not Philly’s tactics are good or not isn’t the issue, either. The problem here is that the tactics that both teams were employing to try to get the result that they wanted.

Let’s talk about strategy for a moment, specifically and how strategy is applied in sports. Generally, a coach or individual comes up with a game plan and strategies to execute that game plan. Coaches tell their players the game plan, and it’s up to the players to execute it. The other team or the opponent, of course, is trying to do the same thing on their side.  The one that gets the outcome they want is the team that executes better than their opponent.

Chess is a highly strategic game. 100% effort put into high-level chess is trying to out-think and outfox the player across the board from you. If you can do that every step of the way, you will win. However, chess is classified as a game, and not a sport, because chess requires no athleticism whatsoever.  A full-blown sport requires athleticism required by the participants, as well as strategy. In a real sport, not only do you need to out out-think your opponent, you need to outrun, overpower, and physically outmatch your opponent every step of the way.

Given equal athleticism, the clashing of opposing actions is what makes sports entertaining and individual plays exciting. Hence, the playoffs and championship games of sports being the most exciting of them all, as the teams that face off are generally very equally matched.  However, a true sporting contest should be entertaining on its own, be it a pre-season, regular season, or championship game. People wouldn’t bother showing up if there wasn’t something worth watching, after all.

With that in mind, let’s get back to roller derby. It’s a common strategy to want to try and stall the pack at the start of a jam. This could be to try and burn penalty time for their boxed skaters (such as what Denver may have been thinking), or to attempt to gain control of the rear of the pack (such as what Philly was definitely wanting).

Contrary to what you may be thinking while reading this, I have no problem whatsoever with these strategies. A strategy is merely a plan or concept, and a team is free to come up with any plan they think will help them win. I also have no problem with teams trying devise counter-strategies to this strategies. Part of the fun in sports is seeing coaches try to out-coach each other.  However, coaches don’t play the game—players do.

No, the problem I have is not the strategy in roller derby.  My gripe is the execution of those strategies. If Philly wanted one thing and Denver wanted another, in a normal sports situation they would be fighting each other tooth and nail to outwork each other and find out which team wanted it more, regardless of the game situation. Instead, you had them standing around for a minute. Not very entertaining or exciting, if the crowd reaction was any indication.

Just think of what happens during a no-pack knee start. If one team wanted to use a strategy of stalling to burn time on a jammer penalty, and the other team wanted to try and counter that, what could they do to outwork each other and execute the strategies they wanted to use? How could they demonstrate their superior athleticism? Here’s a common one: Take a knee and do nothing. Here’s another very common one: Stand around and do nothing.

That’s not how sports are supposed to work. That’s not how roller derby has ever worked. If you’re playing a sport and decide to stand around and do nothing, the other team is going to beat you very badly. That it’s even possible to get something from literally doing nothing is one of the problems WFTDA roller derby is going to have to get rid of if it really wants to consider itself a true sport. I’ve seen far too many instances where team can literally do nothing for an advantage, all without needing to outwork the other team. This goes against the very definition what a sporting contest is.

Let’s pretend roller derby had slightly different rules, rules that would make much more sense from a sporting perspective.  Again consider the strategy of wanting to stall at the line to try to burn off penalty time, but this happens instead:  The pivot and other blockers on a team desperately tries to hold back as many opponents as possible from crossing the pivot line, which would start the jam. If the other team doesn’t want the penalty time to come off the clock as easily, they should be doing their best to get around the other team and force the jam start by a pack split or a faster pack crossing the line.

In that situation, the team that can perform better in outworking the other team is the one that gets what they want. In modern derby as we know it, the team that stands around and does nothing at the right time in that situation is the one that gets what they want. But the strategy (stalling at the line) is the same either way, isn’t it? Which one of those two options would you rather see on a regular basis?  The execution of that strategy is what people cheer or boo for, and ultimately, crowd appreciation is how popular a sport is in the long run. If people don’t like what they see, they won’t bother showing up.

That’s my fear, anyway.  I had hoped last year’s Philly/Gotham pack no-starts were an a one-time anomaly, a perfect storm in an imperfect set of rules.  However, when I saw the exact same scenario play out in this past weekend’s Philly/Denver game, red flags went up. Once is chance.  Twice is a coincidence.  Three times is a pattern.  If something like this happens again—and I have the sad feeling in my gut that this will happen again—the WFTDA had better step in and do something about  it, either with a rules re-clarification or rewrite.

As a sports fan, I only really want to see the best teams play in the best games.  Outside of my local or favorite sports teams, I’m not likely to want to see two bad teams low in the standings or rankings play each other.  I’d rather see top teams play.  Most sports fans and all TV networks feel the same way.  In the roller derby world, I circle my calendar for any game featuring two DNN-ranked top ten teams, because that’s the WFTDA’s best showcase of what roller derby ought to be about.

Instead, the second thing I see between two top teams is a minute of standing around and doing nothing.  If that was the first thing someone saw about roller derby, it’s going to be really hard to convince them to change their minds, isn’t it?  So why have that situation be possible in derby at all?

As always, I welcome comments, in the negative or positive, about what you think about my perspective. I’m not going to be offering a “solution” to this “problem,” as I’ve done that and more in The Pack Problem post (specifically, Chapter 9).  I recommend you read it from top to bottom, if you haven’t already.