Future of the NFL: How To Save Football
I love the game of American football, and I do not want to see the end of the NFL. Despite the doomsayers, I think there is hope that football can be saved. In light of ongoing issues with the economy and societal polarization, one might say that football needs to be saved.
I recently discussed how some commentators believe that American football is doomed. Whereas there are some commentators and football players that may suggest that football is doomed and will not be around in the 20 to 30 years, I haven't read too many articles recently on precise ways in which football could change in order to become a more viable sport. John Kass recently wrote that "football doesn't have the will to change", but I think football can change -- the game has evolved a great deal since Rutgers vs. Princeton in 1869. As such, in contrast to previous articles where I have brought to light possible issues with the sport, I wanted to offer a few possible ideas that could save the game of football.
Before I begin, I want to note that I am a football purist at heart. I enjoy studying the game and reading up on its history. That being said, I have never played collegiate or professional football, so I am a bit limited in analyzing the sport in terms of actual on-the-field gameplay. Some of the proposed changes below may be welcomed by some fans and football players and disdained by others; not everyone will like or agree with the theoretical suggestions I list below, and that is fine. Some of these suggestions carry with them implications that could not be completely explored in a single article. I am not arguing that the proposed changes would definitively save the game of American football, but perhaps they would be a good start. Some of the suggestions below may seem controversial, but I think pondering on such modifications may be worthwhile in terms of saving the game and ensuring that American football will be around for generations to come.
I think it is important to note that there is an important financial dimension to American football. Given the societal malaise in American society today, could you imagine how much worse things would get were football banned? For some football fans, such a prospect would truly be a nightmare. Dare I say it, I think it is in the nation's societal and economic interests to preserve the game of American football -- even if that means modifying current rules. Here are my mild suggestions:
1. Bring back the bigger football. Believe it or not, the actual ball used to play American football used to be bigger and harder to throw -- akin to a rugby ball. I think a return to the rugby ball size would be refreshing. In this way, I think modifying the rules to the advantage of the running game would be good. The running game is football. In recent years, the passing game has dominated the sport, but I think the emergence of the Wildcat formation helped to re-establish the importance of the running game. A rugby-sized ball would help to lessen the dominance of passing and reinforce the running game.
In my humble opinion, making sure the running game remains viable in football is crucial for the sport. The ability for quarterbacks to simply bomb the ball down the field every play may be exciting at times, but in some ways, it takes away some of the strategy and the athleticism from the sport. I think it's good to have positions in the sport where one may be only 5'7" and can still be an all-star. Decreasing the importance of the quarterback and shifting advantages to running backs may be good for the game going forward.
2. Make the field wider. Without comparing an American football field to a Canadian football field, a Gaelic football field, or an Australian rules football field, a fan may not be able to appreciate how narrow an American football field is. I can understand that some may disagree with this idea, but making the field wider could lead to more innovative plays with more room for play development. A wider field could really open up the game, but it could create problems with current NFL rules in terms of downs and yardage. In Canadian football, a team has 12 players on the field with three downs per possession instead of four. As such, a wider field in the NFL could affect teams' scoring. A wider field would probably encourage passing, but this passing advantage would be offset by having a rugby-size ball.
3. Field goal posts in front of the endzone on the goal line. Yes, you read that correctly. Again, I am a football purist, and I'm not exactly sure how I feel about moving the field goal posts to the front of the endzone on the goal line, but this may be something to consider. Whereas there is probably a higher risk for injury (and play interference) if the uprights are in front of the endzone on the goal line, I think it's important to recognize that this practice works for other sports like Canadian football and rugby. In American football, the posts used to be on the goal line, but were permanently moved by the NFL in 1974 owing to injuries and play interference. Again, I'm not absolutely sure about this one, but in light of Canadian football and rugby rules, maybe a return to tradition would be beneficial. Going along with special teams' injury risks, a change to rugby-style extra-point conversions where the kicker is alone on the field (where the conversion-attempt is relative to the location in the endzone where the touchdown was scored) may also be better to deter injuries in what are minor-yet-routine football plays.
4. Rugby-style tackles. Per the BBC's discussion on rugby, "When you tackle an opponent, you cannot make contact above the shoulders. This is for safety reasons. The referee will instantly give a penalty if he sees a high tackle, and a few stronger words may follow if the challenge is deemed dangerous." Rugby rules for tackling effectively demand an orderly tackle whereby the tackled player is brought to the ground. This sort of rule retains tackling as a function of the game; the point of the tackle is to tackle the player, not to kill or maim the player. Were such changes made in the NFL, tackles that involve spearing another player, helmet-to-helmet collisions, pushes, shoving, shoulder tackles could be punished with 15-yard penalties. In the alternative, going along with football's rugby roots, it would be interesting if "red card" ejections were permitted whereby a team could not replace the carded player and would be left outnumbered on the field. If concussions are the genuine concern (as per the unfortunate incident involving Colt McCoy), then a transition to rugby-style tackles may be something to think about.
5. Kickoffs from the 50-yard line. From my understanding of NFL football rules, if the kicker on the kickoff boots the ball out of bounds with the ball's not being touched by a player, the referee can throw an illegal procedure flag and the ball is set to the receiving team's 40-yard line. An interesting twist to the game would be to allow kickoffs from the 50-yard line. This is the procedure used in rugby where the ball is kicked off from the center of the field. Whereas the NFL may already be taking steps to avoid dangerous kickoff plays, perhaps allowing kickoffs from the 50-yard line would add new dimensions to the game. Such a change could be seen as encouraging dangerous onside kicks, but I think gameplay would establish equilibrium in that onside kicks are for the most part expected procedures.
6. Limited blocking rules. Along the lines of possible changes to tackling rules, modified blocking rules could lessen risk of injury. Given that aggressive blocking is such a fundamental part of American football, I am not sure exactly how such changes could be successfully implemented. Nevertheless, perhaps (1) limiting offensive blocking from being pushes to more or less screen-style blocking as in basketball or (2) limiting blocking to only offensive linemen could hypothetically be options. Football-style blocking is actually not permitted in rugby union and rugby league -- though in practice a scrummage and ruck in rugby in some ways mirror football's line of scrimmage and dogpile.
7. Expand the kicking game with drop-kicks and "quick kicks". (A drop-kick is where the kicker drops the ball and kicks it once the ball has touched the ground; the drop-kick was historically used for field goals and still technically remains legal. A "quick kick" would be like if on 3rd down with 15 yards to go the quarterback in shotgun formation simply boots the ball downfield as an unexpected punt.) I may not find too many others supporting such ideas aside from maybe former Bears quarterback Jim McMahon and former head coach John Madden, but it would be nice to see the drop-kick and quick kick come back to the NFL. Were a rugby-style ball brought back, perhaps drop-kicks would return. Of course, the fact that drop-kicks and quick kicks have become rare is part of American football's natural evolution, but it would be nice to see them make a return.
Of course, even with the above ideas, we're probably not going to find a cure-all for football's problems. It should be clear from the aforementioned suggestions that I am somewhat of a football purist. I could also address issues with equipment and helmets, but in light of the suggestions above, I think eventual changes in equipment and helmets (in becoming lighter, a bit similar to rugby helmets and pads) would evolve over time by themselves. In light of possible changes in the rules of the game, football equipment (like helmets and pads) could become smaller and lighter in the future, but radical changes in the sport's equipment made too hastily in a brief period of time could make the game unrecognizable -- potentially alienating players and fans.
Given the recent discussion of football being doomed, perhaps taking another look at football's rich history and tradition would be beneficial. The proposed changes above are by no means definitive and conclusive, but thinking about such ideas could help in making sure that football remains a viable sport in the coming decades. There could be some unintended consequences with respect to the aforementioned suggestions, but hopefully, the game would transition to a sense of equilibrium.
In case the above ideas do not sound impractical or unrealistic enough, one radical suggestion that I didn't put on the list that would substantially change NFL football in a short period of time would be to limit teams' rosters to allow "single-platoon" games where players would play both offense and defense. Today, we have "two-platoon" games where one set of players plays offense and another plays defense. The NFL recently increased the offseason roster limit to 90 players. A final NFL team's roster must be 53 players; this effectively supports the "two-platoon" system. If we compare this to a rugby squad that may have only 30 players, a move toward one-platoon football could possibly reduce the number and severity of injuries. By imposing roster limits of 30 players, the NFL would effectively be spurring the return of one-platoon football; could you imagine Eli Manning playing free safety?
As with the aforementioned changes, one might argue that such modifications would radically change the nature of the sport, and not necessarily for the better. One might argue that I am arguing less for the viability of American football and more for another sport's replacing football. That may be a worthy argument, but the goal I seek is that of football's being a viable sport far into the future. I think that making sure that football remains a viable sport far into the future means looking back to football's origins and past. I think analyzing and comparing quasi-national collision football sports like rugby, Gaelic football, and Australian rules football can help as well to make the game safer and more entertaining. Given recent events and rhetoric, it appears that the game of American football is going to have to change in order to remain viable. The Pigskin Report's Eric Schmidt recently asked, "Can football survive the concussion crisis?" I believe it can, but change will probably have to come sooner than later. This may involve changing some basic aspects of the current game. Even so, simple football rules changes may not be enough to deal with ongoing health concerns and lawsuits.
As a final note, I think it's important that we figure out ways to make American football safer. I cannot overemphasize the importance of making sure that the sport (in one form or another) remains a part of American culture. Even with a sour economy and political polarization, football binds the nation; in the darkest of times, football gives Americans something to be excited and happy about. In terms of economic depression and societal malaise, football is one of the last remaining cultural anchors that can bring the country together. Whereas an editorial from the New York Daily News on Monday noted that "[f]ootball's soul-searching has just begun", in terms of the overall well-being of American society and the health of the US economy, football needs to be saved.
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