You don’t have to be a football fan to have gotten an earful lately about what’s wrong with the National Football League off the field.
This isn’t about that. This article focuses solely what happens between the sidelines. And as great as NFL football is, several rules currently in play are hurting the integrity of what happens on the field. Here’s a list of changes that would make the great sport of NFL football that much greater.
1. Mandate that only players on the field can call timeout.
In the Week 2 matchup between the Jets and the Packers, with five minutes remaining the Jets were trailing 31-24, when Jeremy Kerley made a fantastic catch of Geno Smith’s 37-yard pass for an apparent touchdown. The play was disallowed, however, when the officials ruled that a timeout had been called by Jets head coach Rex Ryan. It wasn’t Ryan, though, but Offensive Coordinator Marty Mohrninweg, who was frantically trying to get play stopped and to whom the officials responded. By rule, the only person on the sidelines allowed to call timeout is the head coach. The officials got it wrong, but as they pointed out, with their eyes on the field they can’t very well turn around and confirm whose calling timeout.
The problem is the rule that a timeout can be called from the sidelines at all. Not so long ago timeout could only be called by a player on the field—which, obviously, would be seen by the officials, since that’s where they’re looking. Just as obviously, coaches would signal to players to call a timeout—and that’s even before the aid of direct line of radio communication to one of his 11 players on the field. Allowing coaches to call timeout from the sidelines is not only superfluous, but it has mucked up the game on occasion. Recall, for example, what happened in 2007 during the Week 13 matchup between the undefeated Patriots and the Ravens. With the Ravens up 24-20 and the Pats facing a 4th-and-1, Tom Brady was stuff attempting a quarterback sneak, and all that was left was for the Ravens to run out the clock. But the officials ruled the play null and void because someone from the Ravens sidelines had called a timeout just before that snap. That someone turned out to be Defensive Coordinator Rex Ryan. The Patriots went on to win the game 27-20 and became on the second team in NFL history to go undefeated—the first in a 16-game season. It’s an ugly blemish to the NFL’s beautiful history to think a record like that exists only because a stupid rule took away the ability for the game to be decided on the field.
Maybe Rex Ryan should start driving the bandwagon to rid the league of this rule? It’s obviously not doing his teams any good.
2. Let Al Michaels handle all replay reviews.
It’s easy to recall officiating teams getting it wrong after they’ve reviewed video, but I’m not so sure even the worst announcers in the broadcast booth ever have. I’m not sure why NFL officials have proven so bad at reviews, but history has shown that they are. And while it seems that this season’s move to have all replay reviews conducted by a headquarters in New York will be an improvement, in Week 2′s Seahawks-Chargers game somehow the replay officials missed Percy Harvin clearly stepping out of bounds on his way to the endzone, even though all scores are automatically reviewed. I know the officials got it wrong because the announcers told me so, and they provided video evidence that proved it beyond all doubt.
Like any job, give this job to the people who do it best. Since the NFL clearly can’t do this one right, outsource it. You know who’s never wrong in the world of the NFL? Al Michaels. If he’s unwilling to take on all that extra work, it’s probably okay to have network broadcast teams make the calls for their particular game. No, they’re not all Al, but this is one thing the rest of them (with the help of their production crews) almost always get right.
3. Properly differentiate between an actual pass attempt and when a quarterback’s hand is simply moving forward while holding the ball.
The infamous “tuck rule” play that propelled Brady’s Patriots onto their first Super Bowl victory is one of the sport’s greatest travesties. Everyone even slightly familiar with football knew he fumbled; it took the supposed experts to muck it up with ludicrous technicalities and sin against the entire history of the sport.
Amazingly, the “tuck rule” wasn’t done away with until 2013, but there’s still something very wrong going on, as was evinced late in Week 2′s game between the Chiefs and the Broncos as the former moved down the field to close in on what would have been a game-tying score. With mere minutes to play, DeMarcus Ware knocked the ball out of Alex Smith’s hand. But because Smith’s passing arm was angling in a forward direction, even it was pinned to his side at the elbow and by no means was he trying to pass, the play was ruled an incomplete pass, with the broadcast team’s “officiating expert” (they all have them now) telling the announcers that this was absolutely the proper call. It was a proper fucking joke, and any official prior to 1990 calling that a pass might have found himself without a job before too long. You don’t need to go to officiating school to understand the concepts forward pass and fumble; you certainly shouldn’t get your stripes at the expense of knowing which is which.
4. Get rid of this “defenseless receiver” bullshit.
Football is a rough sport. It’s designed that way. If a receiver goes to catch a pass, one option a defender has is to separate him from the ball. But lately the NFL has made going over the middle to catch a pass more aligned with flag football than tackle. The idea that a receiver has to be allowed to come down with a pass and take a couple of steps without being concerned with taking a hit is ludicrous. Imagine a receiver who goes high for a pass at the goal line. The defender should let him come down in the endzone unmolested?! That is the ultimate repercussion of consistently adhering to the “defenseless receiver” rule, and it has already come close to affecting the outcome of a game in 2014. During Week 3′s Bears-Jets matchup, Kerley caught ball at 2-yard-line, but was separated from the ball by a beautiful hit delivered to Kerley’s body with the shoulder of a Bear defender. Nonetheless, officials flagged the defender for a hit on a defenseless receiver.
Once upon a time a receiver’s willingness to go over the middle to get a ball—knowing he was going to take a hit—was an invaluable attribute. Not all receivers are tough enough, physically and/or mentally. But in today’s NFL the distinction between those who will and those who won’t is fading fast, because the NFL has made it a far less risky proposition.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t like seeing players get hurt. I’m generally okay with rule changes related to blows to or using the head. But the “defenseless receiver” concept goes far beyond this, as can be seen from the NFL rulebook, which prohibits a defender from “leav[ing] both feet prior to contact to spring forward and upward into his opponent,” as well as from in any way contacting “[a] receiver attempting to catch a pass; or who has completed a catch and has not had time to protect himself or has not clearly become a runner.”
That is not football: that is bullshit.
5. Do away with all recent rule changes designed solely to boost the offensive production.
Part of the beauty of football is the balance of elements. Offense, defense, special teams. Specialists on both sides of the ball. A salary cap so that major markets can’t simply spend other teams into oblivion. Which wins championships: offense or defense? Are you a passing or running team, hard-nosed or elegant?
In a shift that surely has Vince Lombardi spinning in his grave, the league he helped refine to its modern beauty has been bastardized by a fantasy-football culture populated by dilettante fans who care more about statistics than good football. Not so long ago passing for 4,000 yards in a season was a pantheonic achievement. But thanks to an increasing number of rule changes (some of which we visited above), the 4,000-yard passing season has gone the way of the 50 homeruns during the Steroid Era.
Some of this can be attributed to genuine innovation on the part of players and coaches. Teams of earlier eras could have run out of shotgun more often, offenses could have come to the line with multiple plays and audibled to the seemingly best one based on the defensive alignment in front of them, quarterbacks could have thrown more jump balls and back-shoulder fades; they just didn’t think of it.
But rule changes have given the offense multiple legs up. Why move the kickoff up to the 35-yard-line, even though on the whole kickers have gotten stronger and not weaker? It’s to reduce the impact of the return game, leaving more yards on the field for the offense. Why make it so that a field goal on the first drive of overtime doesn’t end the game? It’s so you can squeeze in a few more drops of offense.
Every rule change that has been made solely to disfavor the defense should be repealed, including allowing radio communication between the sideline and the QB. Let’s keep the game on the field.
Speaking of QBs, perhaps no series of rule changes have been made solely for the purpose of favoring the offense than the progress towards what may end up as putting flags on the QB in lieu of allowing him to be tackled.
To be fair, the idea that quarterbacks are overly protected is nothing new. In 1978, Steelers linebacking legend Jack Lambert famously opined, “Quarterbacks should wear dresses.” But 1978 was a free-for-all on the QB compared to today, as many former NFL players have observed. On Week 4′s first play from scrimmage, for example, Redskins defensive end Jason Hatcher received a 15-yard roughing-the-passer penalty for what announcer Phil Simms—himself a former Giants QB—called “grazing the helmet of Eli Manning as he went by.” “A tough call,” Simms said, by which he clearly meant: Not a fair deal for the defense.
The NFL rulebook is now so biased toward giving the offense free reign (sic) that “[i]t is a foul if a player initiates unnecessary contact against a player who is […] in the act of or just after throwing a pass.” In other words, by the letter of the law you could actually get flagged for touching a QB while he’s throwing a pass, let alone if your momentum carries you into him after he’s let it fly. Yes, “unnecessary” allows officials to exercise some discretion. But you tell me: what is “unnecessary contact” while a QB is in the act of throwing a pass? The logical inconsistency of such a notion highlights that this rule is all about pumping up the passing game.
NFL football is a fantastic. But that doesn’t mean it should rest on its laurels. In some ways it’s been better. Therefore, there’s obvious room for improvement, even if parts of blueprint can be read in the rear-view mirror.
Love and formic acid,