I had a thought pop into my head the other day while listening to two blow-hards on the radio blither about how to improve the game of football. In my opinion, I think the game is just fine, save for two important facts.
First, there aren’t enough good quarterbacks to go around. Don’t mistake that statement as my belief that the position itself hasn’t evolved in the past couple decades, because it has. In fact, the second tier of quarterbacks is as deep as it ever has been in the league.
No, what I mean by “not enough good quarterbacks to go around” is that there aren’t enough “elites” who change the game with their mere presence. Every year, teams with one of the few elite quarterbacks begin the season with a competitive advantage and typically wind up in the Super Bowl — or are amongst the final four, at the very least.
Just look at that ridiculous stat about AFC quarterbacks in the Super Bowl. Since 2002, Rich Gannon and Joe Flacco are the only quarterbacks from the AFC to represent the conference in the Super Bowl besides Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Ben Roethlisberger.
Sixteen years. Five AFC quarterbacks. Two of whom appeared just once.
The second thing I find wrong with the NFL is the amount of injuries piling up that dramatically change a team’s outlook from Week 1 to Week 17. Maybe that’s a problem that’s been more prevalent in Chicago than in other cities around the league, but I’m not so sure. Either way, it kills the mood of a season, crushes hope for fans, and sucks all the fun out of tuning in on a Sunday afternoon.
Now that I’ve digressed from the thesis of this column for five paragraphs, let me get back to it.
Yes, the game of football is mostly fine, but let me propose food for fodder.
What would the NFL, or the game of football in general, look like without kickoffs or punts?
Take 30 seconds out of your day right now to think about that and try to imagine what such a scenario would look like. Would it be different? Of course. Outlandishly unrecognizable? Not necessarily.
As a former kicker myself and somewhat of a football purist, the idea initially struck me as a football sin. How could we so drastically alter this game? Isn’t field position such an integral role to the strategy and outcome of a football game? Wouldn’t this make the product difficult to watch?
On the contrary, I think it might improve the appeal of the game.
Let’s start with this little nugget: fans love offense.
I love defense, too, believe me. I could watch a 9-6 defensive battle exhibiting sacks, tackles for loss, interceptions, batted-down passes and split-second deflections in the secondary every Sunday of the football season.
But the fact remains that polling would demonstrate that the majority of the NFL fan base wants to see high scores and up-tempo action.
One way to increase offense is to shorten the playing field and limit long drives. By “shorten”, I’m not talking about the actual length of the field. I’m talking about the average starting position for an offense.
Currently, NFL kickers are booting the ball through the end zone and giving offenses a starting position at the 25-yard-line. There are two negative consequences from this one play alone. First, it removes the excitement of a kickoff return. Anyone who watched the Bears in the 2000s knows that the kickoff return could have been one of the most exciting plays in football, but the NFL tinkered with it beyond recognition due to safety concerns. So, get rid of it. The other negative consequence of a touchback is that it puts the offense 75 yards away from scoring a touchdown. And if we want more offense, why pin teams back that far?
Why not get rid of the kickoff altogether and put the ball at midfield to start each half and immediately after scoring plays?
Suddenly, offenses have less distance to go to get into field goal range but still need at least 50 yards for a touchdown.
But don’t just stop at kickoffs. In this potentially far-out rule proposal, get rid of punts, too. Instead, just give offenses four downs to move the chains. If a team’s offense can’t move the ball out of its own end of the field, tough luck. They’re going to give the other team great field position from which to start.
Tell me you wouldn’t find a fourth down play inside the red zone that much more appealing.
I think this approach would actually incentivize coaches to be more bold in passing up field goal attempts and instead try to go for the touchdown. Think about it: if they don’t convert on fourth down in the opponent’s end of the field, they could always send their defense out there to force the opponent to make a long drive to flip field position.
Speaking of field goals, some might ask, “Why stop at kickoffs and punts; why not remove all forms of kicking?”
My answer to this is that removing field goals might actually backfire and cause there to be less scoring as teams trade turnovers on downs. That could get stagnant and boring. But by keeping field goals alive and by shortening the length of the field for offenses, you’re creating much more drama and high-intensity game situations.
Will the NFL actually remove kickoffs and punts? I can see the former happening, but the latter would be harder to fathom. I think the football purists who make up the rules committee value the punt too much as a means of flipping field position. But the kickoffs are almost virtually irrelevant at this point and there’s no reason to keep them as currently regulated.
Try to imagine what watching a football game would look like without the slow, change-of-possession kicks that interrupt the flow of the game.
I think it’d be pretty emotionally charged and a helluva lot of fun, personally.