Washington Redskins

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Improving Football

Football season is about to begin, and since my beloved Redskins are poised to win it all this year, I thought that now would be a great time to offer some suggestions for how I think the game can be improved at the professional level. These suggestions are meant to accomplish a few things:

  • Make the game more strategic, and thereby more interesting to fans.
  • Make the game safer for players.
  • Make the game more sportsmanlike and professional.

I’ve been working on this list for a long time, accumulating ideas, discussing them with friends and coworkers and modifying them or discarding them when they haven’t made sense.

So without further ado, and in no particular order, here is my list:

1. Stop using yardage for penalties in most situations.

As a rule, penalties in football result in yardage, and sometimes downs, awarded to the opposing team. I think this makes sense in a ton of circumstances, but in some it doesn’t. For example, the personal foul / unnecessary roughness / roughing the passer type play can dramatically impact sportsmanship in a negative way, and can cause extreme risk to the victimized players. There is also a bad incentive introduced whereby some players may choose to do things that are clearly wrong because the maximum penalty is 15 yards and a first down to the other team.

I propose instead that players who break certain rules, or who break the rules in certain ways, or who repeatedly break the same rules, should be ejected from the game for certain amounts of time. This would create a power play type situation, as commonly happens in hockey 1)I’m told that this also happens in soccer, though I can’t confirm it as I’ve never seen a soccer game..

Anticipated effects: encouraging cleaner play by players (and coaches); smoother and faster games; and improved player safety.

2. Limit the number of players on the roster to 30.

Currently NFL teams are allowed 53 men on their rosters, with five players on their practice squads. How could this possibly be reduced?!? After all, the positions and their players are so highly specialized in the XXI century game!

Precisely the point. Hyper-specialization has led to an unfortunate and bizarre situation in which phenomenally excellent players suddenly begin to suck if they need to play a slightly different position, or even the same position when lining up a slightly different way. If you’re a great right guard and you fail miserably at right tackle or left guard, then you are not a great football player.

I’d like to see a lot of players who can play multiple offensive or defensive positions. I’d like to see a lot of players who can play either offensive or defensive positions. I’d like to see ten times as much creativity in play-calling by coaches who suddenly realize that their players can do a lot more than they’ve been asked to do so far.

Anticipated effects: making the game more strategic and interesting to fans.

3. Restrict the amount of padding, helmets and other protective gear that players can use.

Football and its players are routinely mocked by fans of inferior sports like rugby, whose players do not wear protective gear. The criticism is false and stupid, since football is far more dangerous than rugby, due to the way that football players line up separately, then crash into each other at full speed and force, many times in a row.

But rugby fans do have a point, in a way: the protective gear that football players wear has evolved along with the style of the game to protect players more as the game gets rougher and more dangerous; if the gear that players used in 2014 was like what they used in 1944, or even in 1974, there’s no way that they’d be playing today like they do. So I propose that helmets, pads and other gear should be restricted to the kind that was in use during football’s golden age (hard to say, but I think it was the 1960s).

Anticipated effects: making the game far safer for players, because they’d be compelled to do things like blocking and tackling in a smarter way.

4. Put motion sensors in everything.

This is already starting to happen so I’m optimistic. When it’s implemented properly across the league and at a much deeper level, everyone – coaches, players, fans, announcers – is going to get a far more accurate understanding of what’s happening on the field. Data will suddenly become available in quantities and kinds that previously weren’t imaginable, in perfect precision.

Anticipated effects: reducing the relevance of the frequently inane, often irrelevant and sometimes ignorant announcers and commenters whose job it is to try to figure out what just happened and explain it to people watching on television. Coaching will also improve, and the quality of play will follow. Get ready to witness a revolution in technique for passing, kicking, blocking, &c. with the attendant excitement for fans and safety improvement for players.

5. Expand the season to twenty four weeks, with twenty games and four bye weeks.

Yes, I love football and I believe that it’s the superior sport, so of course I want more of it. The season is limited to seventeen weeks now, including one bye week, plus four preseason games, primarily because football is so rough that everyone involved is convinced that player injuries would get far worse if the season were any longer. But I disagree: if the league made the season longer, players would be compelled to play smarter, taking care of themselves to be able to make it to the end.

There are also some concerns that expanding the season could compel players to overheat in the hottest summer days, or freeze in the coldest winter days. I don’t give a damn about this, and suggest that the season be extended into the winter, because football in the snow is way more interesting that football in the dog days of summer.

Fans of other sports would also object, but it’s a fact that the NFL season is currently very short, and other sports aren’t fun to watch anyway.

Anticipated effects: improved player safety, more games to watch, less reliance on inferior sports’ seasons for things to watch on Sunday afternoons.

6. Eliminate domed stadiums.

Domed stadiums, along with all varieties of fake grass, are an abomination, and any team that uses one should be kicked out of the NFL. There’s an entirely different league for that, anyway.

Anticipated effects: more games played in bad weather conditions, which for football are actually good weather conditions.

7. Penalize teams for “taking a knee.”

Imagine how your boss would feel if, instead of working until the end of the day, you just decided to stop working and take things easy. Your boss might talk to you about this. He might want to know how you can justify this behavior when you’re being paid millions and millions of dollars for 16 performances every year. Surely he’d be right to be a little frustrated if you persisted in “taking a knee” because things were close to ending.

“Taking a knee” at the end of a half to run out the clock is unprofessional and reflects extremely poorly on the players who do it; on their coaches who let them do it; on their teams’ owners who tolerate it; on their fans who don’t boo and curse them for it; and on the league for not preventing it. The NFL should, on behalf of us fans at least who tune in to watch every game because we love the sport, fine teams whose players “take a knee.” The fines should be symbolic at first, but if the behavior doesn’t improve, they should increase to an extremely punishing level.

Anticipated effects: eliminating this horrid practice and causing a 60 minute football game to last the full 60 minutes.

8. Relegation.

In European soccer leagues, successful teams move up into better leagues to compete against better teams, while failing teams are moved down (relegated) to compete against other teams that aren’t as good in less challenging leagues. The point of relegation is to maintain a kind of parity, with the best teams relatively consistently finding themselves in the best leagues, playing against the rest of the best teams most of the time. It appears to work fairly well.

It also gives fans of a perennially mediocre team a lot of reasons to get excited every season: instead of going 1-24 every year and never having a shot at winning a title, that team could be better than the other mediocre teams in that league, and advance to a higher league.

In the NFL, relegation could be by team, like in European soccer, but I think it might be more interesting for relegation to work by division.

Right now the NFL is divided into two conferences, NFC and AFC, with North, Central, East and West divisions in each conference. The conferences and their divisions are roughly equivalent. I propose that one conference be made higher and one be made lower, and then entire divisions could be relegated or advanced depending on how well their teams perform as an overall group. This would maintain the excellent intra-division rivalries that make the NFL so special. It would be a softer form of relegation because, at only two levels, there would only be a binary up-down instead of the possibility of down-down-down-down-down into the basement leagues for teams that are truly awful.

Anticipated effects: huge benefits for fans, as chronically miserable teams’ performance will actually matter.

9. Don’t punish players for using marijuana.

Besides being harmless, marijuana certainly can not make anybody a better football player. Consequently, the NFL should not punish players who are caught using it.

Anticipated effects: treating professional football players like sentient adults, and also possibly some reggae vibes or very long halftime performances by jam bands.

10. Take players’ names off their jerseys.

When I played sports in the county recreation league as a child, my name wasn’t on my jersey. The game was only a little bit about me; mainly it was about the team. Wouldn’t it be great if, even at the professional level, some symbolic steps could be taken to remind everyone that this game is supposed to be about the team as well?

I urge NFL teams to remove their players names’ from their jerseys – not to tell the players that they don’t matter at all, but to remind them that what really matters is the team.

Anticipated effects: more professionalism.

By the way, the Yankees are the only team in professional baseball not to put their players’ names on their jerseys, and it does not appear to have had any negative impact on player recognition or anything else.

11. Require teams to put their stadiums in the cities for which they claim to play.

Professional sports teams prefer to locate themselves in distant exurban waste areas for a lot of reasons: it’s cheaper for them; it’s easier to coordinate parking and transportation; it’s more isolated, which means they can be in more control of the surrounding area; they don’t have to comply with as many pesky rent-seeking politicians.

But putting a football stadium in Landover, East Rutherford or Santa Clara just isn’t anywhere near as good for fans as putting it in Washington DC, New York or San Francisco: public transportation is miserable; the surrounding infrastructure is uniformly oriented toward the team; there’s nothing to do before or after games; it’s impossible to go to a game easily from work or church or any other activity.

The NFL should force every team to play in a stadium that’s located in its own city – or to change the name of the team to the city where the stadium is located.

Anticipated effects: teams will identify with their cities more; city residents will identify with their teams more; attending games will be something that far more people can do with much shorter notice.

12. Aggressively penalize any gloating, celebrating, dancing or other shenanigans.

When I’m extremely successful at my job 2)Extreme success for me may mean millions of extra dollars in revenue or savings for my employer., I may occasionally be congratulated with a companywide email, though I discourage it. The email would always stress that it was the team and the company that was successful, due to hard work and coordination, rather than an individual. More likely, someone might say “Congratulations,” to which I’d say in response, “Thank you.” Perhaps there would be handshakes and somebody might buy me a beer. This is plenty.

The fact that professional football players are on television, their successes watched by millions of people, does not mean that they need to be millions of times more flamboyant in celebrating when they do something right. In fact, life would go on and everybody would be perfectly happy if football players would just help each other up and shake each other’s hands while hurrying to return to the huddle or to the bench after an excellent play.

Currently there are some penalties for some types of celebration, and the NFL has made moves to increase these penalties, but I think they aren’t going anywhere near far enough. I believe that players who can’t control themselves and who can’t behave in a sportsmanlike manner should get fined for a first offense, suspended for a second offense, and banned from the league for a third offense.

Anticipated effects: more professionalism; fans will identify with players more.

13. Goalposts should have a top bar.

Nearly every extra point attempt is successful, which is boring. Field goals are slightly more risky because the distance for them is variable, but they are still overwhelmingly successful, and considered a “safe” option from a certain distance for a team whose drive can’t reach the end zone. Safe options are lame and don’t belong in professional sports.

The ease of kicking extra points and field goals has gotten so extreme that the NFL has had to make the goalposts taller for the 2014 season because so many kickers were kicking the ball so powerfully. 3)Note: that article also has some interesting points about new rules, as well as policies for enforcing existing rules, such as not allowing players to call each other “nigger.” I support enforcement of this rule, but I also think that players who use racial epithets towards other players during a game should be banned from the league without any warning. This is a sign that extra points and field goals are currently too easy, but the league is going in the wrong direction by just making detection clearer. They should instead make extra points and field goals more difficult.

Putting a top bar across the goalposts, and requiring kickers to aim both vertically and horizontally, will make that seventh point after a touchdown, as well as those three points that a team picks up instead of a touchdown, well earned.

Anticipated effects: tougher strategic decisions about when to go for a two point conversion or an extra point, and about when to go for a field goal on fourth down.

14. Don’t let announcers refer to players by their first names.

It’s a pet peeve of mine that announcers commonly refer to players by their first names and all kinds of nicknames, some of which are far too ridiculous ever to be uttered on national television. I believe that professional football players, as grown men, deserve and ought to be referred to by the word Mister, followed by their last names, and that any of them who’s earned a Phd or an MD ought to be called Doctor, and so forth.

Think about how great it will be. Instead of “RGIII” or “Robert,” he’ll be “Mister Griffin”; instead of “Ocho Cinco” he’ll be “Mister Johnson.”

Anticipated effects: more professionalism.

15. Reduce the number of players involved in kickoffs.

During kickoff plays, the players run downfield towards each other at full speed, and slam into each other with full force. Because someone is typically returning the kickoff, the opposing team’s players will all be charging at him from every direction. He may have nobody blocking for him. If he intends to signal a fair catch but forgets, he’ll get pummeled. Kickoff returns, while exciting, are pretty dangerous.

I propose that kickoffs should consist of just one kicker and one tackler on the kicking team, and one receiver and one defender on the receiving team. This should practically eliminate the confusion during a kickoff that is the main cause of its danger, but I also hope there will still be a ton of excitement during 2-on-2 kickoffs, as the receiver will have a better chance at returning the ball further.

Anticipated effects: safety.

16. Limit the number of times per half that a team can punt.

The most boring kind of football game and the worst kind to watch is a three hour long puntfest. Punting surely has its place in the game, but too many coaches are too quick to punt on fourth and two at midfield. The league should limit punting in exactly the same way that it limits timeouts: by putting a numerical cap on them. In fact, I wouldn’t mind at all if punts and timeouts were part of the same cap: let’s say, eight punts and timeouts per half, to be used at the coach’s discretion.

Anticipated effects: more exciting games, more risks, more strategy.

17. Get rid of the stupid chains.

During a normal set of downs, referees use their eyeballs after the first few downs to estimate where the play ended, and then to walk over and roughly place the ball in that approximate spot. This is perfectly good enough for players, coaches, fans and the league in 99.9% of cases, and it’s exceedingly rare for a coach to challenge a spot.

Somehow this all changes when the ball is placed within a yard or so of making a first down. In this case, with great and elaborate ceremony, a team of referees takes a set of ten-yard chains that mark the previous first down spot and use it to measure the distance to see if the ball has made it another ten yards. This is foolishly and utterly dumb, since the ball has just been placed in a totally imprecise way. We need to accept that referees are only human and just get over this insanity and throw away chain system.

As an added benefit, once there are sensors in the ball, the ground and all along the sidelines, spotting where a play ended and whether a team made the first down will no longer be necessary: it will already be on everybody’s screens before the referees get a chance to run over there.

Anticipated effects: more accuracy; faster and smoother games.

18. Ban players from giving any media interviews during the season.

It’s a fact that football players usually have nothing interesting or intelligent to say about the way they play the game of football, how they performed in the past games or their teams’ prospects for winning the upcoming games. In the rare event that a player does have truly useful or unique insights, he’d never be allowed to share them with the general public.

The NFL should acknowledge this and restrict its players from giving any interviews to media during the season. This will drastically reduce the amount of football “news” on television but it will drastically increase the amount of times that players can connect with fans after games.

Anticipated effects: more professionalism.

Bonus: end the salary cap and free agency.

Salary cap and free agency go together and they’re one way that the NFL enforces parity among its teams. I think that parity is a noble goal (which is why I’ve suggested a form of relegation above), but I think the negative effects caused by the salary cap and free agency outweigh the positive.

In short, these policies result in teams regularly releasing players whom they might otherwise have kept, due to salary cap hits caused by backloaded deals; and in players leaving teams to go elsewhere for more money. While the teams and the players have reached a kind of compromise, limiting the amount that coaches may spend (and are expected to spend) while allowing players to sell themselves to other teams with few restrictions, the fans are the ones who lose the most from this arrangement.

Anticipated effects: more fan loyalty.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. I’m told that this also happens in soccer, though I can’t confirm it as I’ve never seen a soccer game.
2. Extreme success for me may mean millions of extra dollars in revenue or savings for my employer.
3. Note: that article also has some interesting points about new rules, as well as policies for enforcing existing rules, such as not allowing players to call each other “nigger.” I support enforcement of this rule, but I also think that players who use racial epithets towards other players during a game should be banned from the league without any warning.