As if the lockout weren’t enough…
Over the last few years we’ve seen a surge in player-safety-based rule changes in the NFL that are gradually alienating fans nearly as much as, if not more than, the lockout itself. It started with the rules designed to protect the QB which, while sound in theory, have changed the way that defenders attack opposing signal callers. When flying off the edge on a pass rush, defenders are now supposed to pull up and lay nary a finger on the QB once the ball has been released. Anyone who has played football knows that this is MUCH easier said than done and there have been countless “roughing the passer” calls that never should have been.
Last year, the emphasis on penalizing hits to the head, spearing, or helmet-to-helmet contact of any kind was the talk of the league. Again, while sound in theory and designed strictly to protect the players from brutal collisions that lead to concussions and other dangerous injuries, it’s a very difficult thing to police. When players are flying around a football field at breakneck speed, collisions are going to happen in which there is incidental helmet-to-helmet contact. Yes, egregious and blatant use of the helmet as a weapon (ahem…James Harrison) should be penalized but referees were far to quick on the trigger with the call last season leading to a lot of momentum-killing, drive-prolonging penalties that sapped the swagger of defensive units.
Now, the owners have voted to approve a rule change that will reduce the number of kick-returns and the ferocity of hits on the returns that do actually take place. In the 90’s, owners voted to move the kick-off spot back by five yards specifically to decrease the number of touchbacks and boost a potentially exciting part of the game, thereby giving the fans another reason to stay glued to their TV sets on Sunday afternoons. It worked like a charm. Kick return TDs nearly doubled in a decade-and-change. In the process, marginal players like Devin Hester, Josh Cribbs, and Leon Washington became stars due to their kick-return prowess and ability to thrill the fans. Let’s face it, there are few plays more exciting then a kick-return touchdown.
With the new rule change, which moves the kick-off spot forward by five yards and will lead to more touchbacks, there will be far less exciting plays on kick-offs. In an effort to keep the balance a little bit and bestow a slight advantage on the return teams, kick-off coverage units will only get a 5 yard head start, as opposed to the 10-15 yard head start previously allowed, with which to get down field and make a play. This should, in theory, reduce the severity of impacts on return plays.
This strikes me as an overall asinine rule change. Injuries will still be possible on any play. This is football. It’s a brutal contact sport and anyone who chooses to play the sport knows exactly what they are getting into. If we’re honest with ourselves, the brutality of the game is part of our attraction to it. It holds the same bent-appeal that gladiator fights at the coliseum in ancient Rome held. We crave sanctioned violence. It is entertainment at its most basic and that is one of the reasons why the NFL is the most profitable sports organization in North America. It also puts teams that have spent serious money on kick-return specialists, and teams that thrived in kick-return situations, like the Jets, Bears, and Browns, in a tough spot.
I understand the need for player safety, especially after seeing the plight of so many ex-players who have struggled mightily to cope with debilitating head injuries that get worse over time. It makes sense on a practical level. But football is a sport, an athletic competition, and anyone who engages in sport willingly puts their body at risk for the sake of the game. If the NFL continues down its current path, they might as well just go all the way and make it a flag-football league.
-by Max Joice