An Open Letter to the NFL Rules Committee
Dear NFL Rules Committee,
This letter is a longtime coming in the sense that I have never written to you but have been following football since the days of 14-game seasons. You could say I’m a qualified expert, having written thousands of trading-card backs and having authored a children’s book about NFL players. But that doesn’t matter so much. The real takeaway is I’m a longtime fan.
I appreciate the work you do. The game is a forever-changing organism and your committee responds to that. Sometimes you change the game in a way that leads to entertainment value, but more often you address growing problems in the game.
Things that concern me is how clock management has gotten to a point where a player may give up a touchdown in favor of controlling the clock, even when it would be a lead-changing score. And conversely the defense may give up a score on purpose for the same reason. I can’t imagine this happening in earlier eras. Another thing that gets me is punting with less than four minutes to play and trailing in the game. Isn’t that a paradox? Teams have total faith in a defensive stop when they’re behind, but not when they’re ahead.
So that gives you an idea of where I’m coming from. Here are my rule-change suggestions:
- Make the Doink the American Rouge: There have been a lot of field-goal attempts bouncing off the uprights in recent years. There have been lots of try-for-point doing the same thing since the ball spot for extra points moved back to the 15-yard line, essentially a 30-plus-yard field goal. It can be entertaining to see which way the ball will go — through the uprights, wide to the side, or drop short. But I propose a one-point award to the kicking team whether the ball bounces true or not. It’s a compromise from a three-point goal, but it’s better than a missed kick. In tied-score games you might even have kickers aim near the upright with the chance of a doink if they don’t have an otherwise successful kick. This is not unlike the Canadian Rouge where a team is awarded one point on a missed field goal if the returning team can’t advance the ball out of the end zone. The difference is that in the Canadian Football League the goal post is on the goal line and the end zone goes 20 yards deep. Still, with a tied score the field-goal unit doesn’t have to have a successful kick to win the game. And even though extra points are only with one point, they still get it on a doink.
2) Drop the Distance of Penalties in Favor of Down Loss/Replay: It occurs to me that loss of down would be a bigger hardship than the yardage incurred on an offensive penalty. You’re just giving the offense an extra chance. I suggest dropping all offense penalties to five yards, with the exception of intentional grounding — which already comes with loss of down — and add loss of down to the penalty. That wouldn’t necessarily speed the game along in terms of total plays but would be less of a setback to the viewer than having to watch a down over. Consequently all defensive fouls, with the exception of pass interference, would also be five yards but with the down over — that’s the real penalty. And, of course, all personal fouls and targeting penalties would remain as the currently are.
3) Make Up Your Mind, Running Time of Stopped Time: Despite a lifetime of watching football it took me watching a soccer match to realize football has it both ways. You have a running clock, like in soccer, where the clock is moving when nothing much is happening. And you have stopped time, like in basketball, where the clock stops during free throws and when the ball goes out of play. I like the idea of running time, the way soccer has added time after the clock runs out to make up for time spent dealing with the injured. Imagine what that would do to the two-minute offense: knowing that a) it doesn’t help the offense to either run out of bounds or spike the ball, and b) they’ll be added time. If they get down the the 10-yard line with no time left, they still might have all their downs to knock it in. It could get rid of this sort of fire-drill mentality but still leave a sense of urgency to get into the red zone.
4) Lose the Two-Minute Warning: The tide turner for professional football to eventually passing baseball and college football in fan interest came in the 1958 Championship Game, won the Baltimore Colts over the New York Giants, in overtime. Among the reasons why this game was a game-changer was the Johnny Unitas-led comeback. At a time that preceded the liberalization of the passing rules by two decades, the Colts rallied from a 14–3 halftime deficit, which was a lot more significant at the time than it would be today. Decades later comebacks are too common to be breaking news. The two-minute warning is the type of thing that makes this easier than it otherwise would be. The two-minute warning is more of a nod to the game’s past than a necessity today. It harkens back a time when a game official kept the official time. The American Football League, which began in 1960 made the stadium clock the officinal time. Other AFL contributions from its time before the 1970 merger include the two-point conversion, the 14 game season — the NFL have played 12 games prior to 1961 — and placing surnames on the back of jerseys. The red-and-white striped uniforms of the AFL officials remain a thing of the past. College football does not have a two-minute warning. Although I enjoy comebacks I think they’re more interesting when they’re the exception rather than the norm.
5) Keep the 10-Minute Overtime but Forget the Scoring Criteria: Sometimes a good rule should inspire the committee to do some editing. I like it that you trimmed the regular-season overtime period to 10 minutes. But it was a lost opportunity to get rid of the scoring rules requiring the kick-receive team to score a touchdown on the first possession to end the game in sudden death. I’m suggesting a death of both sudden death and the scoring criteria. Give us a full 10 minutes and add clock management as a tool to win an overtime game. If you score and get the ball back you need to run out the clock. A good overtime drive can take the better half of 10 minutes.
6) Get Rid of the No-Huddle Offense: This actually addresses the head-trauma issue rather than how to run an offense. The committee has addressed collisions with target and helmet-to-helmet penalties, but just because you charge someone with a penalty doesn’t take away the damage to the victim. That player is still vulnerable to early dementia and everything else that comes with head injuries. What you need to do is limit the number of collisions. You can do that in part with shorter seasons and shorter games. You might go back to the 12-game schedule of the 1950s and play 48-minute games like high-school football. And I suggest losing the no-huddle offense. The no-huddle offense leads to more plays — it’s like putting out a fire with gasoline. Now the requirements that constitute a huddle might be hard to agree on: what’s the formation; how far away form the line do you have to be; and for how long do you have to huddle? Instead I’m suggesting that you can’t have a snap until there are 10 seconds or less on the play clock. Of course you can suspend that rule during the final two minutes of each half. But if you go for my running time idea you don’t have to suspend the rule at all.
p.s. If you kind find a way to encourage more drop kicks, I’m all for it.