26. Can football be played without pads?

For the first time in this series of “daily themes”, I will revisit a topic. I suspect I will do more of that over the next ~60 days, as I’d like to go a little bit deeper on some ideas.

In my fifth daily theme, 5. Will football survive?, I wondered aloud whether increased awareness about the health implications of playing football could spell the end for the game many of us played as kids and enjoy watching as adults. One of the questions I asked in considering that prospect was if taking away football players’ helmets might change behavior enough to make the game safer.

I have thought more about this concept over the past few weeks, and I have tried to discuss it with some friends. I am now of the opinion that in the next five years, there will be a (preseason) NFL game played without pads. The players will play the same game according to the same rules, but they will be limited to the equipment allowed for in rugby. This is because I think football can still be entertaining — both to play and watch — without helmets and pads.

  1. I think people will still hit hard. This may run counter to the concept of making football safer. If you watch some old school football games, you will see big hits, despite the less sophisticated equipment. That makes it more likely that the NFL will undertake this experiment. NFL owners and management will take the chance of televising a game played without pads, because they will be able to convince themselves that it will still be a hard hitting, high quality competition and entertainment product.
  2. I think it will further highlight the speed and precision of the NFL game. If Odell Beckham has shown anything, it’s that skill, speed and precision are the most entertaining parts of football. Great catches, awesome jukes (see below), great defensive efforts… those are what make football awesome. None of that changes if helmets and pads are removed.
  3. I think it will force changes in the strategy of football… and that that will be a welcomed challenge. Football is an intricate game. Complex systems have been developed to allow teams to exploit even the slightest inefficiencies. The extent of football’s strategic intricacies is unique. Taking pads away will force the sport’s great tacticians to evolve. It will require football’s chess masters to reframe their approach. This will be awesome to watch, especially for particularly passionate fans. And football’s most passionate fans may well be the NFL’s 32 club owners, who I think will secretly enjoy engaging in this part of the process.
This is the type of play that you’ll see more of in a no-pads NFL.

Note to reader: This is day 26 of 92 in my commitment to write for 30 minutes each day from October 1 through the end of 2015.

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