As you can tell from the headline here, I have done a few of these before. In the past, I could always count on one reader sending me a long and thoughtful response to my suggestions as to how the NFL can improve itself and its game. That reader was someone that I met in the third grade and with whom I graduated from high school. For some reason, this genre of Topical Rants resonated with him. He suggested several times that I take all of them and boil them down and offer them to a newspaper somewhere as a major piece around which that newspaper could build its football issue just before the season started. He even offered to be my editor and to help me find an outlet for the condensed tome. I will not get a response this time; my friend died just before Thanksgiving last year. Since he will not be here to read this one and comment on it, I will just dedicate it to him. RIP, Gerry…
The premise here is that the NFL is the 800-pound gorilla of professional sports enterprises in the US. It is the league that generates more revenue per contest than any other; it is the league that commands more television viewers than any other; it is the league that is run – generally – with an enlightened view regarding its position in the society and how it can maintain that position in society. In other words, it is pretty damned good just the way it is.
Having said that, there are things that the NFL could choose to do that would make it even better. Aperiodically, I offer up my list of things it could do to make itself better knowing fully that no one at NFL Hqs will break any world land speed records to make any of them happen. That realization has not stopped me in the past and will not stop me now.
I think that the NFL could make a significant improvement by changing the way that teams draw their bye weeks during the season. Teams that do not get their bye week until Week 10 will have been playing weekly football since the start of the exhibition season about three months ago. If they face a team in Week 8 or Week 9 that is coming off a bye week or is only one week removed from its bye week, the team that is still waiting for a week off is at a competitive disadvantage. There is no order to the assignment of bye weeks. In some weeks, only two teams are off; in other weeks, as many as six teams are off. I would make the following changes to the way bye weeks are assigned:
1. All of the teams would have their bye weeks in a consecutive four-week span during the season – preferably in weeks 5 through 8. On each of those weekends, 8 teams would be off.
2. The way the eight teams would be given a week off would be by division. On each of these four bye weekends, two full divisions would take a break.
3. Upon returning from the bye week, all of the eight teams who had last weekend off would face another team who also had last weekend off. No “rested” team would ever face a team “needing a rest”.
Despite the overall economic condition of the NFL – some have characterized the 32 franchises as a license to print money – there is a gulf forming in the league between “haves” and “have nots”. Such a divide is not beneficial in the long run; the league needs to find a way to assure that the now forming gulf does not become so large that teams on one side cannot ever get to the other side. The current economic climate is hardly robust; nevertheless, the Jacksonville Jaguars only sold out one game this year and the Jags were in the playoff race until Christmas; the Oakland Raiders played a home game to a crowd of 39,000 people this year and sold out only one game; the Buffalo Bills have been trying to expand their footprint – and their market demographics – for several years with exhibition games in Toronto and last year with a real game in Toronto; the St. Louis Rams played to less than 75% of capacity for the season. These are not good signs; this is not healthy for the NFL if it continues into the long term.
To an outside observer, it surely seems as if the gurus in NFL Hqs are focused on trying to establish an NFL “presence” in Great Britain given the annual game there and statements that maybe there will be more than one game per year in London in the future. I have no quarrel with a game or two played over there but there are more serious market building and promotional activities that need to be done here at home for the franchises I mentioned above and perhaps a couple of others too. Shoring up existing franchises is more important than a “UK footprint”. The NHL – - seeking a national footprint – - put teams in places where hockey just does not flourish and now faces the failure of a Phoenix franchise and serious problems with the franchise in Miami. The NHL did not stick to its knitting; the NFL should go to school on those events.
I thought this next item was something that only bothered me until I was watching a game with friends earlier this year, someone else complained about this happening, and everyone agreed with him. It has become hugely annoying when a player entreats for a penalty to be called by going through the pantomime of throwing his own imaginary flag. Tolerating such on-field behavior imports to the NFL one of the single most annoying behavioral aspects of the NBA. The league should move to marginalize such behavior by convincing coaches to get it out of the game. Here is how:
1. As soon as a player begs for a penalty or mimes throwing a flag, the referees should throw a flag for unsportsmanlike conduct.
2. All such penalty enforcements will come with the loss of a down in addition to the 15-yard penalty if on the offensive team.
3. All such penalty enforcements will be an automatic first down in addition to the 15-yard penalty if on the defensive team.
I suspect that such a new rule by the league would motivate coaches to focus on taking that kind of behavior out of players on game day. The penalties would not be easy to accommodate…
I understand the need for the NFL to protect QBs from being ravaged by defensive players. There are not enough quality QBs in the league to begin with so the NFL’s product is diminished when too many starting QBs go on the shelf for long spans of time. Having said that, the interpretation of the rules seems now to reward teams with marginal offensive lines; they leave the “protection” of their QB in the hands of the referee and his yellow flag. Take a look at teams with bad offensive lines and ask yourself why they set up in formations that have an empty backfield. Unless that QB gets rid of the ball in under 1.5 seconds, he is likely to become a turf pizza; part of his continued ability to get up from such hits relies on the referee throwing a few flags to cut down on the vigor with which the defensive players go after the QB. That seems to me to be a kind of abdication of responsibility on the part of coaches and offensive coordinators and referees should not aid and abet such abdication.
If parity is so important to the NFL, I wonder why the rules governing the injured reserve list are the way they are. Once a player goes on IR, he is out for the season. Why?
In the past, some teams “stashed” players on injured reserve – - some with only minor injuries – - as an insurance policy against a future severe injury to another player on the roster. That did not make the “stashed” players available league-wide and generally favored “haves” over “have nots”. Therefore, the rule changed such that as soon as a team put Joe Flabeetz on IR, he was ineligible to play in the league again that season. However, the season is a long one and some injuries do heal in 6 or 8 or even 10 weeks. A team would be at a disadvantage if they had to “carry” a player on the active roster for that long with no hope of production from him.
So why not allow a team a maximum of 3 players per season on a “Returnable Injured Reserve List”. These players would count against the salary cap and would have to be on this new list for a minimum of 8 games – - to include playoff games, but once they passed that point and were deemed physically fit to return to football, they could do so. Obviously, that rule would be ripe for abuse without a strict limit on the number of players who could go on that list in any given season; that is why I would limit it to no more than 3 players per team – - and I could be talked into reducing that number to 2 players per team as a way to see how the rule worked out.
I suggest that the rules governing pass coverage have tilted too far in favor of the receivers. I believe that defenders should be able to jam receivers and try to knock them off their routes within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage instead of the current 5-yard rule – - so long as the contact ends when the ball is in the air. In addition, the league needs to make it a point of emphasis for officials to call offensive pass interference in those cases where contact or “hand checking” is initiated by the receiver and not the defender.
The final area I want to discuss here is one that seemingly has drawn the attention of Commissioner Roger Goodell. As this last season drew to a close and teams pretty much knew where they would be in the playoff seedings a couple of weeks before the season ended, playoff teams ceased to try hard. Top ranked teams pulled their starting players and other playoff bound teams gave less than full effort in late season games. Pull a tape of the Cincinnati Bengals effort in their last game against the NY Jets. In the second half, I thought someone had slipped some Quaaludes into the Bengals’ Gatorade on the sidelines. They were somnambulating…
The Commish has a task force looking into ways that the league might incentivize top teams from resting their starters in late season games. One idea that floated around for a moment was that top teams would get extra draft picks if they kept their stars on the field. Say what? You are going to take top teams and give them extra draft picks? I thought the purpose of the draft was to help the bad teams get better so that parity would prevail. That is one bad idea.
I think that the NFL should view that “problem” as an assault on the NFL brand. Teams are charging top dollar for a watered down product even though the games do count; these are not exhibition season games; these are for real – - even if the outcome of the season has already been decided mathematically. The league should look at that kind of team behavior as an infringement on the value of the NFL as a brand and beat up on the teams that behave that way with the same vigor that the NFL might go after an enterprise that sought to sell “counterfeit” hats or shirts with NFL logos on them. I think this is an economic issue and not an “integrity of the game” issue as many has tried to portray it.
But don’t get me wrong, I love sports…