Pigskin Perplexity


Explaining sports to my children is one of the joys of parenthood. The process takes me back to my own discovery of various elements — from a sacrifice fly in baseball to icing in hockey – that enhance my understanding and appreciation for the way a game is played.

But I’m giving up on football. I’d like to believe my sweet daughters will attend a few games with me in the years ahead, but as for keeping up with the action, they’re on their own. Football’s a funny game, with rules about as rigid as lemon meringue pie. Just when I think I’ve got it ... well, read on.

(To keep this as simple as possible, I’m going with NFL rules and regulations. We can discuss subtle differences in the college game when my head stops spinning.)

• The play clock exists to keep the game moving, 40 seconds from one play to the next. Watching a team huddle or send signals from sideline to quarterback is about as exciting as watching the line move at the DMV. But what happens when the 40 seconds expire, you on the edge of your seat to finally see a play? A whistle is blown and the referee crosses his arms (best signal in football): “Delay of game.” And the game is delayed ... further. Seems like punishing a talkative student by asking him to recite the alphabet.

• Every man playing tackle football is required to wear a helmet. But if you happen to drop that helmet a fraction in making a tackle — using it as a “weapon” — it’s an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. What gives? Why not remove the helmets from the equation? Now that would deter head-to-head tackles rather quickly. And now, with the new horse-collar penalty, a player cannot be tackled by the back of his shoulder pads. The message is clear: tackle if you must, but do it gently.

• Football is a game of contact like few others. When the ball is snapped, men collide. But only until the quarterback throws the ball! At that point, it becomes competitive dance: which man downfield can contort himself mid-stride and grab the airborne pigskin without making contact with another player. There is no more subjective ruling in the land than “pass interference.” (Well, unless it’s “holding.”) With the possible exception of a batter hitting a baseball, no greater sense of timing is required by an athlete than a defensive back tackling a receiver. And the fact is, those safeties and corners who do this best are called for interference a lot more than the dancing d-backs (i.e. the great Deion Sanders) who prefer downfield ballet. Next time you run into a cornerback in a restaurant, give him a hug. (Just don’t lower your helmet.)

• Speaking of Sanders, the future Hall of Famer once said that when he’s returning a punt, he wished his teammates would simply lie down and let him run. Because as often as not, a blocker for a lengthy punt return is going to deliver an illegal block, bringing the most exciting play in football back as though it never happened. What’s worse, the offending penalty is likely to be 20 or 30 yards away from the returning ball-carrier, meaning whether or not the coverage player got planted on his face from behind had nothing to do with an athlete dodging seven or eight other would-be tacklers on his way to pay-dirt.

• The most egregious antidote to action in this hallowed game, of course, is the replay appeal. Whether initiated by a coach who disputes a call that his tailback fumbled before his knee touched the ground or a “booth review” that comes late in a game (or half), this is where millions of football fans get to do the same thing accountants (and too often, journalists) do 40 hours a week: sit and wonder. The NFL may have the right intent: getting the call correct, beyond human error. But what happens if a disputed play occurs after an official — a human — has blown his whistle? The play is beyond review. Human error, meet vicious cycle.

• Finally, we have the NFL’s “blackout rule.” Mandated for television broadcasts, this stipulates that a game that does not sell out will not be televised locally. Consider the logic here. If the Detroit Lions or Jacksonville Jaguars can’t market themselves enough (or win enough) to sell every last ticket to a home game, those fans not willing or able to buy a ticket aren’t allowed to see what they’re missing. It would be like a magazine refusing shoppers to buy its product on newsstands if they don’t subscribe. Pro football and television are the perfect marriage. But every bit as dysfunctional as the game itself.

Can’t wait 'til next Sunday.

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