Do recent NFL rules changes have less to do with player safety, and more with higher scoring?
Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison leveled Cleveland Browns wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi this past Sunday with a brutal hit that cost Harrison a whopping $75,000. But you can have this photo for as little as $15.95 from the NFL's online store. Or you could have -- before public indignation prompted its removal earlier today. The NFL is a league that reacts quickly to what they perceive as the demands of the consumer.
But did they react too quickly?
The photo in question, reveals a dichotomy in the way the NFL runs its business, and it IS a business, make no mistake. Roger Goodell, the commissioner and de facto CEO of the NFL, has been levying fines and even considering suspensions, for helmet-to-helmet and particularly vicious hits in the open field. On the other hand, part of the product that is football is that very violence. And the NFL knows full well what they're selling -- if they didn't, would that picture ever have been for sale on their website?
You may think that the league is finally showing some concern about player safety by instituting these new rules. At face value, they display goodwill and an almost paternal desire to protect players. But if you strip away the veneer of PR-constructed philanthropy, and instead look at it in the context of rules changes past, you'll see it for what it is: another move to juice up the passing game.
If you look at NFL rule changes over the last decade or so, you'll notice that most of them favor offenses and specifically, the passing game. The changes in covering wide receivers, the ever-expanding laundry list of restrictions that encompasses interference, and the broadened roughing-the-passer rules.
These rules were all designed to favor pass-heavy, higher-scoring offenses. The league has long acknowledged that downfield strikes and end-zone TD completions make for the best highlight reels. They're quick, exciting, and sexy flashes of action that TV networks from ESPN down to your local station's sportscasters, want to show before commercial breaks. They're basically commercials for the NFL.
And the easiest way to produce these commercials is to slow down defenses -- and defensive backs. This doesn't require slowing them down much, just a fraction of a second -- the amount of time it takes to consider what $75,000 can buy is time enough to squeeze a pass into the flat to a speeding wide receiver. And the cumulative effect is more passes, more yards, and more touchdowns.
And that's good for the NFL. Right?
Maybe in the short term. But football is a physical, bruising game at its heart, and I believe at its best. The ability to punish, and to withstand punishment, is what makes 60 minutes of football worth watching. Otherwise, the NFL might as well adopt Arena Football rules. Arena ball is a much faster game, with scores that routinely double or triple average NFL scores. But doing that loses a dimension of the game that many NFL patrons still hold dear.
And it's not just NFL customers, either. Predictably, defensive players are expressing outrage as their talents and roles become marginalized. Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher had some harsh words (that had to be edited before printing) on the subject. James Harrison claims he's considering retirement. And don't think it's all about the money. Many NFL franchises, along with their players, have always taken great pride in defense. And by defense, read: "big hits." These are men who have been been trained since childhood to believe that if you want to do a touchdown dance in the end zone, you have to earn it by going through them.
You can hardly accuse me of bloodlust. I'm indifferent to boxing, and Ultimate Fighting and Mixed Martial Arts leave me cold. I don't enjoy seeing people hurt each other for the sake of hurting each other. But there's something inspiring, even heroic, if you'll forgive a bit of purple prose, about a man who's willing to put himself in harm's way to achieve a goal, even if that goal is as insignificant as stopping another man cold in an athletic competition. And handcuffing defenses, in order to make your product look slicker and faster, is short-sighted and ultimately bad for the sport.