NFL Could Regain Its Compete Level Using Arena Rules

The thunderstorms passing through Philadelphia last Thursday night created a soft start to the NFL season for me. By the scheduled start of the Eagles-Falcons game at 8:20, only isolated pockets of fans were gathered across the wilderness of Lincoln Financial Field’s open seating area, and the thin crowd conjured memories of a summer filled with arena football. For a moment, I forgot that it was opening night for the world’s preeminent sports league. Then the rains stopped, tens of thousands of fans returned to their seats, and my wakeup call was served.

We’re not in arena football any more.

Even still, the arena experience was one of those profound dreams I couldn’t shake, the kind that keeps pulling you back in the next day. And so it went for me at the outset of this new season, a weekend spent scheming ways the arena game might make the NFL better.

Yes, better. Let’s face it, not many of us like the way the game is trending. Each year, the NFL’s Competition Committee introduces rules changes that accomplish the opposite: they strip away competition. It’s a movement dating back to 2004 when Bill Polian lobbied the Committee to rewrite rules on how his Colts receivers were treated by defensive backs, and we just hit a new low this preseason when Minnesota Vikings linebacker Antwione Williams was penalized and fined for “forcing the quarterback to the ground.”

No one is in favor of concussions or season-ending injuries, but with all the new rules I no longer know what a legal tackle looks like. Blocking has become a cloudy issue, especially on kickoffs. Soon, they’ll be no kickoffs, and punts are destined to follow them out the door. Continued efforts to legislate right from wrong only serve to FUBAR the distinction while making the game more bland in the process.

The NFL can use a little spice, or at least a supplement to its compete level to replace what the Competition Committee is draining. As it happens, arena football offers some ideas ranging from silly to sublime that merit consideration. Let’s examine a few and determine who benefits more from their implementation: the Competition Committee or the fan.

Declared punts

This is a freakish rule cultivated on the slabs of developmental football labs, where games are played in facilities without goalposts and field goals are not an option. To fill that void, a team may “declare” a punt, thereby giving their opponent possession at a comparable spot. If you declare on your own ten yard-line, they take the ball on their ten.  It’s like Strat-O-Matic football: you play it on paper.

Winner: Competition Committee. Imagine the injuries that can be prevented simply by giving the ball equal-opportunity placement, not to mention the fun and excitement that can be further siphoned from the game. Forget about the conflicting incentive of going backward rather than forward to benefit from a more effective paper punt. Safety is the North Star guiding this new NFL.

The Ironman

Reintroduced by Gregg Fornario in his newly formed Professional Arena Football, this rule requires one player to play at least 16 snaps on both sides of the ball.

Winner: actually, neither. I got my fill of players out of position in last year’s Super Bowl. In a high-skill league where every position has its nuances, there’s marginal interest in seeing less-capable players try to execute what regulars can. And, of course, the risk of injury exponentially increases. If you think Tom Brady is a lousy receiver, wait until you see him at free safety.

Rouge

An arena return team must advance a kickoff as long as it remains in the field of play. If they fail to get out of their own end zone, the kicking team succeeds in forcing a start on the return team’s five-yard line. As collateral benefit, they pick up a point for their effort, also known as a single, an uno, or a rouge.

Winner: the fan. Nothing is more boring than watching a return team take a knee and be awarded 25 yards of unearned field position. Making them come out is a value-adding experience. And it’s not just an extra play; it’s a frenzied extra play executed in desperation, much like a Hail Mary. The return team can wager on letting the ball bounce through the end zone, but watching a live ball carom in whatever direction it chooses is like gridiron Russian Roulette.

Deuce

Drop one of these on your opponent by sending the kickoff through their goal post. Your reward is two points and you force your opponent to start on their five-yard line.

Winner: Competition Committee. A successful deuce means one less kickoff return and accomplishes their goal of putting up more points because scoring sells. Besides, it’s just a 75-yard version of the free kick, which is already in the rule book. For a fan like me, another manner of scoring is just not needed. This isn’t pinball, nor is it fantasy football. And make or miss, a touchback is the end result.

Running clock

The indoor clock keeps moving, except for penalties, timeouts, the last minute of each half, and briefly for possession changes – which, as an aside, adds to the mystery of why arena games still take three hours to play.

Winner: the fan. Less clock stoppage shortens the game, taking advertising opportunities away from owners while sparing fans of commercial breaks. More to the point, it has always been a competitive contradiction that a running clock should penalize an offense for successfully completing passes while a stopped clock rewards it for being unsuccessful. We’ve been groomed to accept the spike as a clever strategy to stop the clock when in reality it’s a task that even Uncle Rico can execute with perfection. Rid the game of spikes and force offenses to fight for the sidelines.

Positive yardage

Depending on the league, a team with the lead and the ball must gain positive yardage for some or all of the fourth quarter in order to keep the clock moving.

Winner: the fan. Anything that eliminates the victory formation is fine by me. If you like your Sundays replete with kneeling, church is your better alternative. For any team really needing to kill clock, let’s make their running back have to get past a determined Ndamukong Suh hell-bent on getting that ball one way or another. Hallelujah.

‘Every team gets a home playoff game’

Yes, that brainchild of the AFL, which paved the way for a two-win team to get into a postseason and win a championship. Not only is everyone invited; you can split your home-and-home series and still take the cup.

Winner: Competition Committee. Owners want an 18-game schedule, and fans have been brainwashed into thinking more is better. We just can’t get enough wildcard teams and Wildcard Weekends, so why not add a couple of games to everyone’s schedule in the guise of the playoffs? Cleveland at the Jets, followed by the Jets at Cleveland. That’s why not.

On-field coaches

Arena teams are allowed to have one coach on the field with their team at all times, but they must be ten yards behind the line of scrimmage.

Winner: no one. Put an NFL coach anywhere near the field and he’s bound to trip an opposing player, which offends the sensibilities of owners and fans alike. Imagine letting them get right in the middle of things.

Motion receivers

Some indoor leagues allow two receivers to be in forward motion at the snap of the ball. Most allow one.

Winner: both. If this was considered back in 2004, the Competition Committee could have appeased Bill Polian by giving Marvin Harrison a good running start to avoid those pesky corners, and we would have never started down this dark road we’re on. And maybe today, we’d be celebrating Antwione Williams’ sack instead of bemoaning it while waiting for the next cleat to drop.


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