Sunday, November 14, 2010

Football Reform

We are roughly at the halfway point in the NFL season, and it certainly has been a bit...different. Sure, there are always stories every season--usually involving Brett Favre or Al Davis--but this year, there's the crackdown on defensive hits and the impending lockout. Basically everything is viewed through the lens of the strike; complaints by players can be seen as obvious positioning, while owners and Roger Goodell craft their reactions as talking points for negotiations.

Against this backdrop, I've actually seen a lot of proposals that will more or less change the fundamentals of football. I've already advocated a massive expansion in teams, but many sports writers have also advocated sweeping changes, from Paul Daugherty on Sports Illustrated to the folks over at Slate.

I'm not convinced that football really needs changing, but I'm always a tinkerer with rules, and if it makes the game better, why not at least let the proposals float and kind of slosh around until we see where it lands? Here are some of the more popular reforms--most pulled from other forms of football--plus some of my own:

1. Ban Punting. This is Daugherty's position in that link above, and I'm sympathetic. Statistically, many, many more fourth downs could be made if teams just went for it; but for some reason coaches are reluctant to take the chance except under remarkably strict conditions. To me, the trade-off of giving the other team advantageous field position is worth the extra try. By banning punting you force teams to manage their strategy much better and make for a much more exciting game.

2. Discard the extra point. C'mon. PATs are so easy and so very rarely make any sort of difference at all, why bother? The handful of times a season that an extra point is missed just makes it kind of worthless. the Daugherty column advocates moving the kicker back about ten yards to make it not so much of a sure thing; I'm happy with that. Personally, I would force two-point conversions after each touchdown, which would probably lead to a lot more 6 point touchdowns than 8, which I don't necessarily see as a bad thing. Or--the best of both worlds--just let the team choose as it does now. Either move back 10 or 15 yards for one point or go for two.

3. Ironman rules: taken from the old Arena Football rules, a player, once on the field, can't be substituted back in for a specified time, usually the quarter. This would force players to be good at both offense and defense. I'm afraid in today's specialized professional NFL this would be too devastating, but I think having more rigid substitution rules would force players to be more creative.

4. Four points for long field goals. Adopted by NFL Europa, a field goal longer than a certain length---50 yards, usually--is worth one extra point. I don't know if I care for this, since I sort of like the weight the current scoring reflects (two FG do not quite equal a touchdown + extra point). But it would encourage a little extra effort and make field goals more interesting.

5. Overtime. It still seems clunky. There are several proposals out there, and I'm not sure which one I like. Probably the cleanest is that both teams get one possession, and field goals less than 50 yards don't count. Or play the full 15 minutes.

6. A general reform of the rules. I understand that the evolution of gridiron football as a game has more or less necessitated a rulebook full of minutia. I think it's time to take a machete to it, arbitrage the rules down, and kind of let things mellow out. There just seems to be too many rules where it would be easier to simply have one rule to cover everything. You may miss some otherwise obvious calls, but the uncertainty of fans and players makes everyone argumentative and cautious. Why have the tuck rule? Why have this checklist of fragile conditions to determine whether a quarterback fumbled or had an incomplete pass? Why have all of these "zones" of targets of when, where, and at what angle players can make contact? I understand the reasoning for each of these rules, but there is a certain point where they actually make things worse, as refs and coaches have more points of order to argue about. Stripping down the rules may make certain plays unfair or exploitable, but in today's NFL, there are six or seven points for each rule that are debatable, and I can't imagine that being a better situation.

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