The NFL’s competition committee will announce their rule-change suggestions later this week before the 32 team owners vote on each early next week at the annual league meeting in Phoenix. Their proposals are expected to include automatic ejections or mandatory suspensions for some illegal hits, banning all leaps on field goal attempts, centralized instant replay and loosening of the illegal celebration penalty guidelines.
While streamlining replay, allowing more leeway on spontaneous celebrations and continuing to improve player safety are a step in the right direction, the NFL should consider several more comprehensive changes to the game. The NFL’s television ratings were down nearly 10-percent last season and youth football participation rates have declined more than 25-percent over the last half decade.
Five rules changes the competition committee should consider to ensure the game of football survives and thrives for future generations to enjoy:
1. Expand team rosters to at least 60 total players with 55 active on game day
The 53-player roster maximum with only 45 allowed to dress out on game day is puzzling. The only plausible explanation for this rule is that the owners do not want to be on the hook for the pension benefits of 224 additional players per year.
The owners can afford it and expanding rosters would result in more profit over the long run. Game play has decline to the point that only the most avid fans and fantasy football savants tune in to watch second tier matchups out of their home market. Giving young practice squad level players more in-game experience and allowing teams to keep aging veterans around on the roster longer can only help improve the problem of declining fundamentals.
Richard Sherman called Thursday Night Football a “poopfest” last season because the short week does not allow the player’s bodies enough time to recover from the past weekend’s action. The best players don’t have enough juice to put on a show on short rest. More fresh legs on the roster could help solve this problem. Furthermore, a bigger roster could improve player safety by allowing the players with truly questionable injuries to fully recover without undue pressure to perform. Lastly, a larger roster will assist player development, in turn providing a better product and eventually more profit for the owners.
2. Allow the most talented players to enter the NFL draft one year removed from high school
The vast majority of collegiate football players are not physically able to compete with grown men at the professional level. Nevertheless, some elite athletic freaks are ready to play with the big boys as 19 or 20 year olds. Advances in nutrition and training have made this possible. Myles Garrett, Leonard Fournette, Joey Bosa, Jalen Ramsey, Jameis Winston and Amari Cooper are examples of recent early draft entrants that were ready for the NFL as sophomores. It is completely un-American to prohibit anyone from capitalizing on their talents, everyone should have the ability to maximize their lifetime earnings based on their skills and work ethic.
These top one-percent studs would be the perfect way to fill out the larger rosters proposed above and provide more playmaking on Thursdays. Of course the collective bargaining agreement would have to be adjusted to account for the developmental involved with younger players. Adding one season to all rookie contracts in exchange for allowing players to enter the league earlier is a compromise that would be beneficial for both the owners and players union.
A couple unusual developments have become commonplace in recent years. Several prominent NFL stars including Calvin Johnson, Patrick Willis and Marshawn Lynch decided to hang up their pads and retire earlier than expected. At the collegiate level, Christian McCaffrey and a few others have elected to skip their final games in an effort to minimize wear and tear on their bodies before the draft. Talent is the name of the game, the NFL should attempt to field as many superstars as possible at the same time.
3. Make helmets designed to crumple upon impact mandatory
Violence has been one of the most appealing parts of sporting competitions going all the way back to the Roman Gladiators. NFL players are not forced to play a dangerous game. They are free to evaluate the risks and rewards of pursing a career on the gridiron, just as normal people that work in other dangerous fields have the freedom to decide what is best for themselves and their families. However, every possible step should be taken to minimize brain damage among athletes.
The helmet-to-hemet and defenseless player penalties have made the game frustrating to watch for defensive purists. Asking defenders to make split second adjustments as the offensive player ducks his head is unrealistic and at odds with the spirit of football.
How can the NFL solve this paradox? Mandate helmets that cannot be used as weapons. A startup company called Vicis has applied the same technology automobile manufactures use to minimize damage from auto accidents to football helmets. Instead of slamming the brain against the skull, the helmet itself crushes or crumbles to absorb the brunt of the impact. The threat of lawsuits will be diminished going forward since the NFL has admitted the link between concussions and brain damage. But the league can do their part to keep the players safe and available to play, while maintaining the violent essence of the sport by utilizing new helmet technology.
4. Use technology to make officiating more consistent
Centralized officiating would improve consistency across the board. With one pair of eyes evaluating all replays from the command center in New York, there is a much greater chance a play in Baltimore will judged the same as the identical play in Pittsburgh. But the NFL can use technology to further eliminate the potential for human error on some calls from the jump.
The fact that different officials have different interpretations of what constitutes a catch is ridiculous in a multi-billion dollar league. The simple solution is to insert a tiny GPS tracker into the balls themselves. Then the central replay official could monitor vibrations from the ball as it touches the ground to determine if the player controlled the catch.
GPS technology inside the pigskin will not help make holding calls, roughing the passer or pass interference from one officiating crew to another more uniform. Still, the other obvious application is to use satellites to ensure proper spots of the ball, specifically on fourth down and the goal line. The impression of unfair officiating, especially when it benefits the media darling franchises, will turn off fans quickly if it is not addressed.
5. Make all plays reviewable
This seems like common sense. Why are officials able to review if the receiver tapped both feet inbounds or if the quarterback fumbled the ball before completing the passing motion, but not review if a blocker illegally held a prospective tackler on a punt return or grabbed a receiver on a go-route?
Sometimes the pass interference and holding penalties can unjustly determine the outcome of a game, even in the playoffs. If the fans can see a jersey tugged or receiver hindered on replay, so can the officials. It is foolish to make some calls reviewable while other possibly more impactful calls are left totally at the mercy of the officials without giving the coaches any reasonable recourse.
It would be unwise to give head coaches unlimited challenges, a three hour game is long enough. Each team should have the opportunity to review a minimum of two plays, right or wrong. But the extra bonus challenge should be extended from three if the first two are correct to as many as necessary if the coach’s challenges are overturned every time. Teams should not be penalized for repeated horrendous calls. The appearance of honest competition is absolutely crucial in preserving the popularity of football.