NFL State of the Union

Last Tuesday, the President of the United States gave his annual State of the Union address to Congress. Rather than reporting on the Pro Bowl, I thought this would be a good week to review the state of the National Football League — the league itself, not the Players' Association, though we'll touch on that.

The state of the NFL is strong, of course. It's the most popular sports league in North America, and it will remain so for the foreseeable future. But even a strong league has areas for improvement.

The Wrong Kind of News

This year, the NFL has been defined by scandal. The league has been trending in this direction ever since Roger Goodell took over as Commissioner, but we've reached a peak this season. The biggest NFL stories weren't the Seahawks' quest to repeat, the brilliance of J.J. Watt, DeMarco Murray's pursuit of the single-season rushing record, or the rise of two young quarterbacks (Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson) who look like cinch Hall of Famers. Rather, the league drew most attention for a player knocking out his fiancee, another player using a switch on his child, a rookie quarterback more interested in partying than playing, and a team tampering with footballs. Instead of celebrating the game, we're busy scolding the men who play it.

DeflateGate doesn't interest me. Partially that's because the Patriots are the best team in the AFC, and they beat the Colts 45-7. Tom Brady using slightly under-inflated footballs didn't help the New England defense hold Andrew Luck to his worst day as a pro. But the controversy led off the nightly news last week. Instead of talking about the Super Bowl, we're debating the inflation level of footballs in the AFC Championship Game. This is the tone Goodell has set as Commissioner.

Under Goodell's watch, the Commissioner's office has repeatedly made news for its off-field discipline program. In theory, the system is designed to make the league look good by discouraging bad behavior among players. Around 2006, many sports fans regarded NBA players as "thugs," and with a Cincinnati Bengals player and/or Pacman Jones getting arrested every weekend, the NFL was in danger of the same reputation.

But today, it seems like the league is more interested in doling out punishments than protecting its image. The NFL has become so aggressive in targeting players and teams, it's created a culture of scandal, giving casual fans the impression that the league is full of domestic abusers and cheaters. The league appears to be so obsessed with catching people, it's detracting from the sport. It's managed to make a scandal bigger news than the Super Bowl.

The two-game suspension for Ray Rice was ridiculous — if the league was going to do anything, it needed to do much more — but the Commissioner's office has been overreacting to its mistake ever since. Now, the NFL is expected to intervene any time one of its 1,000+ players makes a mistake. It's become an avenue for moral judgment, and both its investigations and its punishments are expected to exceed those of the legal system. That is not only nuts, it's barbaric. The Western justice system represents the peak of civilization, and the notion that ideas like guilty-until-proven-innocent are too lax for the league should horrify every one of the NFL's millions of fans.

Over the past few years, we've had DeflateGate, Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, Ndamukong Suh, Bounty Gate, Mike Tomlin standing too close to the sideline, and I don't even remember what else. Let's bring the focus back to the game.

Player Safety

For all the NFL's action regarding off-field issues, there's remarkably little discipline for on-field violence. Player safety obviously is not an issue that interests this Commissioner. There's no money in it.

The league has introduced a number of rules, one or two of them pretty radical reinterpretations of tackle football, ostensibly aimed at improving player safety. But the new rules are stupid. They're ineffective, poorly considered, and unevenly enforced. The concussion protocol improved noticeably in 2014, but there are still too many players returning to the field immediately after serious head injuries. The "defenseless receiver" rules have had way too much effect on the game: it's difficult to play defense in this environment. And protections for the quarterback are out of control. It is literally illegal to touch the quarterback's head in any context, and it's a huge (15-yard) penalty. The rules should serve common sense, not the other way around.

The other issue is dirty play. Deliberately injuring an opponent is taken no more seriously than accidentally doing so, or even accidentally coming close. You can get suspended indefinitely for hitting someone in a non-football context, but punching another player probably won't earn more than a 15-yard penalty and a fine. You won't miss any game time.

That's a significant failure on the league's part, but it also falls on the union. You would expect player safety to be a point of agreement, but the union is much more interested in fighting suspensions than in facilitating safety. I blame this in part on the adversarial relationship between Commissioner Goodell and the players. They don't trust him, so the gut reaction is to oppose any form of punishment, even when it's in the interests of 99% of the players. The Commissioner, in turn, is far more interested in his off-field discipline program, so he doesn't press too hard about on-field issues. Goodell picked his issue, and it's not this.


Football is the most popular sport in the U.S.A. There's nothing really wrong with the game. But it's changing in a way I think the league can and should address. Too much offense centers around passing right now. It takes some of the fun out of sports when records aren't meaningful, and there's not a single passing record that is exciting in today's game, because none of them seem like they're going to last very long.

I'd like to see the NFL make defensive pass interference reviewable via replay, and cap the penalty at 15 yards, not spot of the foul. A non-reviewable 40-yard penalty is a game-changing play, and it creates an incentive for QBs to just lob a deep pass downfield and hope they draw a flag. As a fan, that makes me cringe. We also need to address protection for the quarterback, just by giving officials some discretion: have 5-yard and 15-yard penalties for illegal contact to the QB. The league doesn't want refs making judgment calls, but right now the system is worse: everything is 15 yards and an automatic first down. If pass rushers don't have to be quite so careful, it will shift some leverage back to the defense.

I also hope the league will become more aggressive in calling offensive pass interference, and I really liked Cris Collinsworth's suggestion to move the illegal contact zone, using 10 yards instead of 5. Put a few of those tweaks in place, and without doing anything too dramatic, you make football look more like it did 10 years ago. That's a good move, I think.

* * *

The NFL is fine. None of these steps appear urgent — yet. But there are common-sense, easy-to-implement ideas for improving the NFL: both the game and the image of the league. In 2014, the NFL returned to using "indisputable visual evidence" on replay reviews, which I feel was a great step in the right direction. The state of the union is already strong, but the league can do more.

Comments and Conversation

January 27, 2015

Brad Oremland:

The only productive thing to arise from DeflateGate is Katie Nolan’s response to the scandal:

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