The NFL is dying. No, its demise is not eminent. Baseball, for instance, has been dying for 50 years. It’s way past its peak but it has managed to linger on. Football is going the same way: a slow erosion into irrelevance. I am concerned about that because I think it is the ultimate team sport in that it requires self-less, often unnoticed contributions, from unheralded teammates in order for the team to achieve its goal. I also believe it is one of the last remaining outlets for competitive, physical, alpha males. I am convinced that the reasons for the relentless, asymmetrical attacks on football’s safety originate partly in a broad cultural assault being waged on traditional masculinity in general…but that’s a topic for another discussion. It’s a violent sport. Nobody is forced to play it. It’s not for everyone.
No, this is a post about how the XFL might end-run the NFL’s grip on America.
Modern professional football is almost unwatchable. Every team essentially alternates between the same sequence of predictable, boring plays: short timing route pass, quick hitting inside run, short timing route pass, off tackle run, occasionally a long pass to keep the defense honest, and always, always a running back screen on third and long. Every team runs the exact sames plays and formations. Don’t quibble with me about West Coast this and Erhardt-Perkins that. It’s all the same B.S.: 2 wide, 1 slot, 1 back, 1 TE. Every team has the same identity…they are utterly indistinguishable with their utterly interchangeable, utterly unimaginative, utterly risk-averse coaches.
To make things worse, the sport is now dominated, in much the same fashion as the NBA, by a handful of super stars who are afforded the benefit of the doubt on all officiating calls by complicit refs. Like the NBA, if your team lacks one of these stars, your team has 0.00 chance of winning a championship. The star’s team will be bailed out by a suspiciously-timed illegal contact, holding or no-call. It’s almost as absurd as pro wrestling.
To make things even worse-er, the sport has been co-opted by our lamentable political zeitgeist and military industrial complex. The hyper-zealous flag-worship, the obnoxious jet flyovers, and the otherwise McDonaldsified patriotism has become a distraction and even an annoyance. I can’t tell if I’m watching a sporting contest or being recruited for military service or being jingo-ed up for war against the Nazis. Whatever it is, it’s way, way over the top.
If you want to make the pro game compelling again it must be changed on multiple fronts. Here are my proposals…are you listening #VinceMcMahon?
- Roll back the rules that enable offensive dullness. Rules like special pocket-passing QB protections and restrictions on coverage defenders have actually forced the game into its current, one-dimensional, predictable design. Take the security blanket away from the offensive coordinators. Force them to find ways to innovate and attack defensive weaknesses rather than just finding a guy who can throw a ten yard out on time. This would force coordinators to consider more misdirection, option, and exotic formations. It would foment an era of creativity. This would eventually challenge defensive coordinators who presently only have to diagram to stop about 5 plays.
- Widen the hash marks…dramatically. The wide-side of the field aspect of non-NFL football is a strategic advantage to offenses. It has to be honored by the defense. Without it, the NFL fans rarely witness the excitement of the outside run game. The defense can only be stretched laterally by the eye-roll-inducing bubble screens and hitch passes.
- Relax the jersey-number-pass-eligibility restriction. A player can legally receive a pass in the NFL so long as he starts the play in the backfield or as the end man on the line…AND has a number not between 50 and 79 (unless he “reports” to an official as an eligible end). This rule is for the benefit of dumb refs who can’t keep track of who the eligible players are on passing plays. I say dump the numbering rule. Make the refs spend more time tracking eligible players and less time calling holding penalties or illegal contact. It would dramatically open up the possibilities for new strategic innovations. Anyone hear of “A-11“? It would also de-specialize players. General athleticism would become more desired. Hyper-specialization is dehumanizing the sport and risking the health of its freak players.
- Radically change instant replay. Instant replay is anti flow. It’s a distraction. It represents an appeal to a pencil-necked, authoritarian bureaucrat, in a secret chamber, to lord over OUR populist, gladitorial game. Frankly, instant replay is totally un-American in spirit. It’s emblematic of the sovietization of the NFL. Here’s what I would replace it with: You can challenge any call. If the call on the field is over-ruled by a panel of three jurists agreed to by both coaches, the ref is given a red card. Three red cards in a season and the ref is terminated…or fed to the lions. If the call is not over-ruled by the jury, then the team who challenged the play is charged with a fifteen yard delay of game penalty to be applied whenever the opposing team would like to apply it. I doubt anything but the most egregious of blown calls would be challenged. But when it happens, the drama will be palpable!
- Limit the pre-game. Stretch. Walk-throughs. Anthem. Coin toss. No 400 foot long flags. No ear-piercing bomber flyovers. No smarmy politicians. Make the game front and center. There is a time and place for reflection on sacrifice and duty…it’s not during a game watched for amusement and escape. The NFL’s manipulation of militarism is obnoxious, demeaning and crass.
- If you are CONVICTED of a felony, you are fired, forever. End of story.
- Dial down all the annoying ancillary stuff. It’s just a distraction. Laser beams, fireworks, dance troops, scoreboard animations, smoke, 1980s heavy metal music between plays… get rid of it. Make the game the spectacle. Halftime is for getting a beer and taking a leak.
- Shorten the play clock. Force coaches to become economical in their play calling. The game is way, way too coach-centric. I don’t care that some washed-up player turned power drunk coordinator can sniff a laminated sheet that has scripted every player’s movement against twenty possible defensive alignments for 120 offensive plays. These control freaks think the game is all about them. I don’t want to see these sideline clowns overthink everything. If it’s third and a foot, run QB wedge. These idiots must think there are style points being awarded or something. I find myself loathing the very sight of them. Marginalize them! I’d make huddling difficult. Delay of game would always be a 15 yard penalty. Put the play calling back on the QB and back on the field. Make the game dynamic and real-time rather than the incremental chess match between middle-aged, managerial nerds that it has become.
- Limit coaching staffs to 6-8 coaches and a trainer. Limit rosters to 40 players. The over-specialization is stifling the spontaneity of the sport. It’s become like watching task-masters preside over children working in an Indonesian sweat shop. Let the players control the action, not the washed up, self-important egomaniacs on the sideline.
- Deepen the end zone to make passing easier inside the ten yard line.
- Narrow the goal posts to make place kicks much more difficult AND add another set of wider goal posts for drop kicks. If you’ve ever seen a drop kick, it is an exciting, fluid play that should be resurrected!
- And finally, go back to soft helmets. The sport changed with the advancement of hard shell helmets. The hard shell helmet became a tool to use for hitting. It changed tactics and the way offenses and defenses were designed. It also created a false sense of security for players. The prospect of imminent, immediate skull fracture is a much better deterrent to stupidly using one’s head as a battering ram than gradual, incremental brain damage by thousands of tiny traumas accumulated over years. I’m sure that safe technology is presently available.
So there you have it. What do you think?