Sports Nut

Getting Rid of Helmets Could Make Football Better

William “The Refrigerator” Perry of the Chicago Bears battles Don Mosebar of the Los Angeles Raiders

It’s true, Favre looked cruddy last night. I couldn’t tell if it was his gimpy ankle or what, but he kept seeming as if he wasn’t quite sure which way to turn his feet when he took the snap and started his drop. And then there was the way the announcers dwelled on his problem with the receivers—saying, gosh darn it, Favre was still trying to figure out which guys he could really count on out there. I was left with an image of Favre in a fancy restaurant, sniffing cork after cork, waving off every suggestion the sommelier came up with. So picky!

As Stefan and Nate said, that seems like something that could have maybe been solved if Favre had practiced with the team a little. Hard to conjure that boyish, improvising sandlot spirit if you don’t have your receivers’ habits, tendencies, and fallback routes memorized. But the crew in the booth treated this as if it had been the receivers’ fault.

I wrote “last night” above, but I watched most of the game on DVR over my morning coffee, with my thumb on the “skip” button. That’s a big, recent change in the way a fan can experience the NFL—if you don’t feel like a particular game is worth three and a half hours of your life (and you don’t care whether you’re experiencing the drama as it happens), the bloat and tedium that the league has packed into the broadcasts can be pared away. Without DVR, I wanted to stab someone whenever the NFL force-fed me its mandatory post-touchdown sandwich of commercial break-kickoff-commercial break.

Watching the game on fast-forward is the complement to the experience of seeing a game live. When you’re in the stadium, the revelation is just how ungodly much of the time between kickoff and final gun is wasted—while the home TV audience is getting the noise and distraction of beer commercials, the stadium audience is seeing the players stand around, and stand around, and stand around some more, waiting for the network staff to give them permission to play a little more football.

With the DVR, what becomes clear is how short that real football-playing time is. A nine-plus-minute drive, like the one the Vikings pulled off in the first half, keeping the Saints’ dangerous offense pinned to the bench—that must have been an agonizing eternity in New Orleans (or “New Awr-lee-uhnz,” as Al Michaels kept saying), in stadium time. But with the DVR, it was nine minutes. That’s speedy!

In some ways, fast-forward makes the game look better. A 14-9 game, in a matchup featuring the league’s top offense, seems pretty sluggish and disappointing if you spread it out over—let’s see, hmm, ESPN’s football box scores don’t include length of game–so call it three hours. Long enough to put Stefan to sleep. Cut the viewing time in half, so all the quick three-and-outs are genuinely quick, and, hey, those offenses did fine, considering how little time they had. A missed field goal or two no longer seems so momentous.

What the fast-forward option shows, ultimately, is how much of what we think of as the NFL experience is a contingent superstructure, not the game itself. Football went on for many, many years, for instance—and it did very well—without the stupefying, fake-precise, game-strangling bureaucratic rituals of instant replay. I skipped through most of last night’s big replay challenge, but it was fairly clear that the refs blew the call on the field, taking a first down away from the Vikings, and that the replay couldn’t fix it because the video wasn’t good enough.

Under the replay system, nobody can really watch a football game as it happens, anyway. The viewing experience is subject to appeal. Josh told me the documentary about the Saints’ championship march treated Reggie Bush’s touchdown in the conference final as if the fans had seen a touchdown in real time, rather than seeing a no-touchdown call, then being notified afterward that the replay had changed the refs’ minds.

All of which is to say, there’s nothing sacrosanct about the way the NFL is put together in 2010. And as the league confronts the truth about brain damage, it would do well to keep that in mind. Down in the comments, Josh noted that if the league did away with helmets, as a radical step to change the brain-battering way football is currently played, “the game would cease to be football.” Maybe. Maybe it would be something better.

The last time football faced an existential crisis about the horrible damage it was inflicting on players’ bodies, the solution was to end the neck-breaking gang-wrestling approach by legalizing the forward pass. It might be a good idea for helmets to go away, or get softer. It might be a good idea for linemen to be required to stand upright, rather than crouching down and lunging into each other.

The game can absorb change on that scale. I am younger than Brett Favre, and football has already changed that much in my lifetime. In 1987, the blocking rules were changed—for safety’s sake!—to allow offensive linemen to extend their arms. Gradually at first, and then very quickly, the game and the players were completely transformed. Linemen could use their arms and sheer bulk to do things that had formerly required agility and footwork.

The result was that offensive linemen, and the defensive linemen who had to overpower them, became more and more immense. In the 1980s, William “The Refrigerator” Perry had been a pop-culture phenomenon because he came into the league weighing a bit more than 300 pounds. Now, a player the size of the young Perry is lightweight.

Here’s how much things changed, and how fast. When Brett Favre was a rookie with Atlanta, the six offensive linemen who started games for the Falcons were listed at 273, 295, 285, 280, 279, and 300 pounds. Last year, his linemen for the Vikings weighed 335, 313, 300, 315, and 343—the last figure belonging to the newest member of the unit, then-rookie Phil Loadholt. If the league rewarded safety and agility the way it rewards clashing mass, it could slim down as fast as it bulked up.

Let’s do this next year, when the season opens with a Jets-49ers Super Bowl rematch.


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