When the competition committee meets in a few weeks to discuss changes and updates to the rules that govern football, it’s unlikely they’ll address one of the biggest issues facing competitive balance in decades: that despite the offense and ratings, the NFL is in it’s own equivalent of the Major Leagues’ Juice-ball era.
To refresh your memory, the juice-ball era initially referred to a theory that Major League Baseball had altered production of their baseballs, literally juicing them. It corresponded with an offensive outburst that saw higher scores and more home runs. That theory was bunk, it was a mixture of building tiny little stadiums as well as the fact the hitters (and pitchers) were juicing themselves.
The NFL’s problem is not steroid related, it’s more an issue of the rules, but in both cases the league associated contributed to conditions where the proverbial pendulum that represents balance swung decisively towards the offense.
Baseball’s lack of regulation with regard to field dimension and comprehensive PED testing lead to a major upturn in home runs. Long-standing records fell, home runs in a season got obliterated, home runs in a career got surpassed. You could write a whole post debating just the fallout, but ultimately baseball had to get a handle on things.
Football’s issue is vastly different, vastly, but it’s undeniable that the NFL is in its own juice-ball era. The rules of the game have changed dramatically to favor the offense, the results are clear.
Records are being shattered, touchdowns in a season, yardage. Before this year, Dan Marino’s 1984 record for passing yardage had stood for 27 seasons. Only two players in the history of the NFL had thrown for more than 5,000 yards. This year three players did it, Brees, Tom Brady and Matthew Stafford with Eli Manning coming up 67 yards short.
What some consider a Golden age of passing is a Dark age for defense.
Defensive players can’t hit a quarterback high and they can’t lunge at their knees creating almost a strike zone for sacking a moving player. Defensive backs are victimized more than anyone and can seemingly be flagged if they even look at a receiver the wrong way. And then the rules that have been implemented in the interest of safety, though noble in their intent, hinder defenders’ ability to hit and often-time cloud judgment on the fly.
Like it or not, the rules of the game have changed dramatically to favor offense in the last decade or so, and now the NFL is in its own juice-ball era where offense is supreme and defense is optional.
Case in point, before this season no team had ever made it to the Super Bowl with a total defense ranked lower than 25. This year there are two.
The Juice-ball era needs to end.
If I were on the competition committee, and I’m not, here are some changes I would suggest to try and improve the game:
1.) Eliminate illegal contact penalties in the passing game. This might be fair if the rule applied both ways, but it doesn’t. It’s hard enough to get an official to call offensive pass interference when it’s blatant, they’re definitely not going to police contact from receivers. And that’s the problem DB’s can’t touch receivers after five yards but receivers can touch DB’s. That leads to some of the top receivers also being some of the top push-off artists while DB’s get flagged if they reach out and graze a receiver’s back while they turn to make a play for the ball. It’s unbalanced to the point of absurdity.
And if you’re not going to eliminate the contact calls entirely, at least eliminate the off-ball calls. It seems like once a game an offense gets bailed out because a corner on the other side of the field got called for illegal contact. If it were bad enough to be interference then that would be the call, otherwise let them play and stop siding with the offense.
2.) Redefine pass interference. The current definition is too broad, it encompasses too much, it’s too complicated. Oftentimes the call made on the feel is correct by the definition of the rules, even if it’s incomprehensible. The defender has a right to make a play on the ball, he has a right to try and break up a pass as long as he’s not too early. Football is a contact sport except for when a receiver is trying to make a play on a ball nowadays. The rules need to be changed so that the tiniest contact isn’t an automatic flag.
3.) You have to be able to hit a quarterback. Obviously safety is key and teams invest a lot of money into these guys, but there’s a noticeable difference between continuation of a play and malice. A lot of the newer rules, specifically not being allowed to touch the QB’s helmet, destroy balance.
If it’s not the illegal contact penalty extending a drive, at least once a game you see a player get flagged because he came after a quarterback with his arm up and accidentally got him in the facemask or some other silliness. That has to stop. Either rewrite the definition or interpret more in the spirit of the rule. It’s intended to prevent you from whacking a quarterback upside the helmet if you were entangled with a blocker or from slamming him in the head if you get a kill shot. It was not intended to punish a defender who tried to bat a pass and grazed helmet on the follow-through.
4.) Ease up on the helmet to helmet rules. They are well-intentioned but very poorly executed. If a player launches or leads with his helmet that should be called, I completely agree. But if you make a form tackle and happen to bump heads, and that’s happened quite a few times, you have to look at some other factors before you eject a guy or fine him a game check. Players need to be safe but they also need to be able to play properly. A tackle involves two moving participants, one of whom is trying to evade the other. If you do everything right, make the form tackle but hit him in the head you shouldn’t be penalized for that. That’s unfortunate. That’s part of sports.
The overriding similarity in a lot of these is intent. The NFL needs to do a better job of trying to determine and rule based on intent. This isn’t a court case, there’s no alibis or stories to be concocted, it plays out entirely in front of the officials. They see it in real-time. Just because determining intent is hard doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be considered.
If a player clearly intended to launch, or he meant to interfere with a receiver or hit a quarterback in the head, you can usually tell. The rules are still in place for a reason, but that doesn’t mean they need to be enforced to the strictest letter of the law, often at the expense of competitive balance.
And let’s be honest, if the NFL didn’t favor offense it would be this strict in its interpretation of offensive pass interference as we discussed earlier…
In the south, college football is the main event and nobody does it better than the Southeast Conference. Defense is king there and that’s because they let those boys play. Safety is important, but you can still belt a guy. You can touch a receiver until the ball’s in the air and the game doesn’t revolve around the health of the quarterback. The college game is more popular than ever right now.
The NFL may need to take a cue from the college game and from baseball to some extent and reel in the offense, swing balance back to the defense and let those boys play.
Offense is fun for a while, but eventually it gets old seeing drives extended on nit-picky calls and defense marginalized in the name of the passing game.
Just like when Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire raced to obliterate Roger Maris’ home run record, two guys broke Marino’s yardage mark this year.
But like with baseball that comes with the caveat that it happened in a much different era. Marino, who had what still may be the greatest single passing year in the history of the NFL in 1984, played in an era when defenders could de-cleat a quarterback and corners could undress receivers to prevent a completion.
It doesn’t diminish what Brees and Brady have done, it’s just a different era now. A less balanced era. That’s why, even though I know it will never happen this year, I’m hoping the NFL reverses course a little and puts an end to its juice-ball era.