Lame content promise

>> 3.25.2011

Hey, all, I’m busting my tail on two pieces right now, including the cornerback OMH and the latest lockout stuffs. PLUS, make it three I guess, the “every other rule change analysis” article. So.

I can’t promise it’ll be up tonight, because my eldest has a figure skating competition tomorrow and I’ll be on the road, but this weekend should see a flurry of stuff go up. Don’t forget to watch the USMNT’s best take on the Argentina Reigning World’s Greatest Player, Lionel Messi: Saturday night, 7:00, ESPN2.


The NFL Changes Kickoff Rules, but Not Enough

>> 3.23.2011

No sooner did I blog about the league changing the rules to the detriment of the game, than the NFL changed some rules. Competition Committee chairman Rich McKay, on moving the kickoff position to the 35-yard-line:

This proposal is not one that if you were asking the committee to vote on it from a tactical standpoint and for the betterment of the game. I believe the committee would be 0-7 against.

So, when considering the betterment of the game, this change is an overwhelming failure; it makes the game demonstrably worse. What on Earth could they be thinking?

From a safety issue, 7-0 in favor, because I think this gives us an opportunity to shorten the field and to lessen the impacts, if you will, that are happening on a play that is a popular play, historical play, been a part of our game forever and a play that we want to keep in the game. And so, this was our attempt at that.

This I understand very well. Even back in Tecmo Super Bowl, injuries occurred at a higher rate on kickoff returns than on plays from scrimmage. I remember the manual explicitly pointed this out! Of course, a more recent example would be our own Zack Follett, who suffered a very scary season- (possibly career-) ending neck injury on a kickoff return. What did Follett have to say about rule change?

Change to the kickoff rules! HOW BORING! This is coming from the one who got hurt!

So, everyone thinks the rule change will be bad. Everyone thinks kickoff returns will be steeply reduced by this rule change. The Competition Committee, though, hopes it will reduce injuries—and of course, I support that. The cynic in me chirps that the league is doing this to “prove” their commitment to player safety during negotiations—but any real step towards reducing head and neck trauma has to be lauded. So, I’ll laud it.

But what will the effect on the game be? Let’s look at all of the originally proposed changes:

  • Move kickoffs from the 30-yard line back to the 35, where it was prior to 1994.
  • Keep the coverage team within five yards of the ball (no more 15-yard running starts).
  • Change touchbacks to place the ball on the 25-yard line.
  • Eliminate the two-man wedge, just one year after eliminating three-man wedges.

It’s undeniable that the move back to the 35 will result in more touchbacks. Per Pro Football Focus, only one kicker averaged kickoffs past the goal line, but 19 would have under the new rules. However, touchbacks shouldn’t return to pre-1994 levels. For starters, the ‘94 changes also lowered the kicking tees to one inch—meaning kickers could no longer get underneath a three-inch tee and pop the ball up for five-second-plus hang times. Further, the NFL has since introduced the “K” ball, which prevents kickers from doing any of the extensive modifications they used to do for balls reserved for kicks.

I’m not a special teams coach, so I can’t tell you how much different it will be for coverage teams, with just a five-yard runup. It certainly seems like they’ll be hitting the 35-yard-line after just a couple steps instead of at full stride, but how much of a reprieve will that grant the returner?  Will it be enough to return a kick out of the end zone? To me, though, the most intriguing possibilities are the ones created by the rules they didn’t adopt.

With touchbacks on the 20, coaches have every incentive to try and boot it into the endzone. If you have a Billy Cundiff, you can eliminate the other team’s return game. Functionally, you’ll be placing the ball on the 20, every single time. But moving the touchbacks up to the 25 would have given more coaches pause. A well-executed sideline kickoff is likely to prevent a return beyond the 25, so coaches would be disincentivized to order their kicker to boot it as far as possible. Meanwhile, anytime a gifted returner touches the ball, big things can happen . . .

Last season, there was a lot—well, not a lot, but a little—of hue and cry over the elimination of the three- and four-man wedge; the kick return technique with origins in the leather-helmet days. So, what happened? Special Teams coordinators innovated. They stacked two-man wedges, and they drew up return plays that drew blockers from one side of the field to the other. What was the result? Long kick returns actually went up. Again, Rich McKay:

The story I would tell you, and I’m not speaking out of school because I’m not going to tell you who it was, but I did have a special teams coach that I know pretty well call me when the elimination of the three-man wedge came in and he called me to tell me that he did not think there would be another kickoff return for a touchdown in the league. Ever. I think this year there were 23, I think it’s the second most ever. So one thing I know about those guys, they’re bright guys, they’ll find ways to return, they’ll continue to innovate as they have and I think the play will still remain an exciting and integral part of our game. It’s just simply in our opinion a play that we need to try to find a way make safer. That’s the intent.”

Honestly, I’m not mourning the death of the kick return—I’m mourning the return game that would have been if the NFL had adopted the full proposal. Kickers with a short field, but trying not to get a touchback, and the return team can’t make a wedge the coverage team can’t get a running start. It would have been like the cat-and-mouse game offensive and defensive coordinators play. Instead of everyone returning behind a wedge, and everyone trying to bust the wedge, you’d have coordinators drawing up whole new 10-man return formations, whole new plays designed to create seams, to create paths, to misdirect.

Further, it would all play out a little more slowly—instead of maniacs all flying around as fast as possible, there’d be a craft and technique involved. The difference in value between a linebacker who’s forced to play special teams, and a special teamer would be much greater. From what I can tell, if all four proposals had been adopted, it would have reemphasized the return game, and special teams in general, as the “third phase of the game.” Kick returns would have been both safer, and more fun to watch. Instead, we’re just going to get more touchbacks.


The NFL, Calvin Johnson, and Trust

>> 3.21.2011 said the “Trust is gone” in NFL labor negotiations.

The National Football Post said it’s an “Issue of Trust. thought the lack of trust between league and players didn't bode well.

The players didn’t trust the owners when they said revenue structuring was required for the health of the league. The owners didn’t trust the players enough to open the books and prove it to them. Now the fans don’t trust either the owners or the players. The owners don’t even trust each other . . . now, Commissioner Goodell has sent a letter to every NFL player, trying to erode their trust in each other.

But that’s not what I want to talk about. Even though I’m late to the party on this, it’s worth bringing up again: the NFL’s competition committee ruled that there will be no Calvin Johnson rule; they will not review the language that describes what is and isn’t a catch in the end zone. Though the way the Going-to-Ground rule was applied and interpreted flatly contradicts the text and intention of the rule, and Calvin’s game-winning catch clearly passed Brad Childress’s “50 drunks in a bar” standard, the NFL  is just fine with the rule as-is—though they might scribble in some of Mike Pereira’s made-up language to make it look good.

The CBA, the lockout, the union, the owners . . . we can forgive all that. $40 parking, $8 beer, $4 bottles of water you can’t have the cap of, so your kid immediately spills it everywhere . . . we can forgive that, too. Paying hundreds of dollars a year for NFL Sunday Ticket, two minutes of ads before and after every kick and punt? We can probably even forgive that, too . . . just don’t mess with the game.

The NFL is a professional football league. We pay to watch football be played at its highest level. The best players, the best coaches, the best officials, the best stadiums, that’s what we want to see, week in and week out. Unfortunately, the NFL no longer thinks of itself as a sport, but as a television product. What did Roger Goodell have to say about this year’s Super Bowl? He called it “the most-watched show in television history.” Not event, “show.” Meanwhile, hundreds of fans paid astronomical prices for legitimate tickets that didn’t correspond to actual seats.

It’s undeniable: the league now considers itself a television product first, a spectator sport second—and who can blame them? The NFL’s ratings, time slot, and demographics bring in unprecedented truckloads of carrier and advertiser revenue. It doesn’t matter whether the outcome is fair, as long as you keep watching.


The NFL is a long way from MTV Celebrity Deathmatch, or even the WWE. I’ve never believed the NFL is “rigged,” or that predetermined outcomes would even be possible in an NFL game with 90 active players, 30+ coaches and assistants, and seven on-field officials. However, rulings like this pull the game closer and closer to “Sports Entertainment:”

Sports entertainment is a type of spectacle which presents an ostensibly competitive event using a high level of theatrical flourish and extravagant presentation, with the purpose of entertaining an audience.

Throughout my lifetime, every time the NFL has changed a rule, it’s made the game better. Instant replay is a great example: the NFL was first to adopt it, and first to decide that unlimited replay dragged too much on the game. They abolished it, then brought it back in limited form when the technology allowed it to be fast. They’ve continued to fine-tune it throughout the years, constantly balancing the need to get calls right with the cost of interrupting the flow of the game. Even when I’ve disagreed with the NFL’s individual decisions on replay, I’ve always understood their thinking, and applauded their efforts.

I have no idea what they’re thinking now. You won’t find any observer of football that believes Calvin Johnson didn’t really catch that ball, or didn’t really score a touchdown—just those who’ll point at the NFL’s rules, and nonsensical interpretation of them. Clearly, defining a catch five different ways (in bounds, at a boundary, non-scoring/scoring, going to ground) has dumped muddy gray paint all over the rulebook; that the Competition Committee looks at it and sees a “bright line” makes me wonder what their motivation could possibly be.

When you combine it all with the CBA, the lockout, the $40 parking, the $8 beer, the $4 bottles of water you can’t have the cap of, so your kid immediately spills it everywhere, the hundreds of dollars a year for NFL Sunday Ticket, and the two minutes of ads before and after every kick and punt, it makes me not trust the NFL.


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