Sports Nut

How To Rewrite the Pro-Football Rulebook

I meant to watch last night’s game on fast-forward on the DVR, but when I turned on my TV in the middle of the second quarter, I realized that I also had the option of watching it in real time and never going back to see what I’d missed. So I went with that. Was I entertained? For a long stretch, the most diverting thing about the game was listening to Joe Theismann. According to Theismann, the reason Matt Ryan’s pass protection was so good was that the Atlanta quarterback is a genius with the football. His crisp, splendid passing inspired his blockers to do their jobs with more confidence. Oddly, though, this Heroic Quarterback model of explanation only seemed to work one way. Late in the game, when the Falcons’ offense was sputtering and Ryan’s passes were glancing off his receivers’ hands, the problem was that the quarterback was at the mercy of his unreliable teammates. Not that some of those balls were maybe sailing or tailing or less than perfectly timed. Was it also Theismann who declared that Deion Sanders, who was being honored by the Falcons at halftime, was “one of the top five greatest players ever to play the game”? OK, I’ll bite: Jim Brown, Johnny Unitas, Jerry Rice, Reggie White, Otto Graham—who’s getting knocked off the list for Neon Deion? That’s not to say that Deion Sanders wasn’t one of the most amazing players of my lifetime. I think Sanders’ real distinction—appropriate to our focus on player morbidity—is that he had the greatest noncontact football career of all time. He used his superhuman speed, and his even more superhuman talent for shifting speeds, to float free from the clashing violence all around him. Opposing quarterbacks threw the other way when he was haunting one side of the field; punt coverage teams lurched and flailed and tried to chase him out of bounds. His ability to move was his instrument, and he wasn’t going to wear it out by putting his head down and battling for an extra two yards. Nobody was transcending the limits of the game last night, though. Are the Falcons a good team? They did spend most of the night looking like the opposite of the sort of dysfunctional teams Nate was describing —confident and synchronized in a way that went beyond their individual merits. Is Mike Smith widely known as an inspirational leader of men? Everyone seemed to be in the right place on the field, and eager to be there, while the Ravens looked clunky and disjointed.

But in the end, there was no great difference between the teams. The Falcons scored more points than the Ravens because the refs missed a call. I guess you could call it preparation meeting opportunity; the Falcons did hold the ball longer and they ran more offensive plays, so if the officials were going to let somebody knock down a defender en route to a touchdown catch, Atlanta was in better position to take that gift.

I don’t root for the Ravens—when Art Modell is dead and the Cleveland Browns have won a Super Bowl, maybe we’ll talk—and I don’t care about the Falcons, so my disgust with the officials was strictly about the officials. Maybe Stefan is right, and arbitrariness and controversy help keep fans interested. For me, the refs and the rulebook, not necessarily in that order, are the biggest obstacle to enjoying the game. Because I opted out of the DVR, I was sitting through the replay reviews in real time, for every boring, niggling minute.

Here’s what the ref had to say after Todd Heap’s touchdown catch tied the game at 20, with 1:05 to play, pending the go-ahead extra point, after a word from Craftsman, GMC, and Sprint while the booth reviewed the play: “The receiver with the ball in his possession has two feet down, takes two steps, the ball is then dislodged by a defensive player. The receiver was in a standing position throughout the process of completing the catch. Therefore, it is a touchdown.”

In other words, he caught the ball. As everyone saw the first time around.

This is the obsessive, overdetailed nonsense that Jeffrey Standen, the law professor Stefan cited, is writing about. It’s scrupulous to the point of being passive-aggressive. There are standards and procedures to ensure the most thorough and precise review possible. The officials are fair and accurate. Except when they whiff on a penalty, for which there is no review or appeal. Sorry, boys. Human element, you know.

It doesn’t feel like progress to me. It would be great if the league would come up with a Standen-inspired cleanup of the rules, replacing the fragmented, technical definitions with common-sense ones—and liberating the refs to use common sense. Don’t ask, Has a defenseless receiver secured the ball and made a football move? If the roughness looks unnecessary, throw a flag for unnecessary roughness.

Instead, the pedantry is creeping into the game action. On the winning drive, Falcons receiver Michael Jenkins made a third-down catch at the sideline that drew another video review. In the replay, you could see Jenkins snare the ball with his fingertips and then keep gripping it that way, with his palms away from the leather, demonstrating to the referees and the cameras that he had full control. If he’d gathered it into his palms, someone might have called it a bobble.

Did you ever notice yourself playing to the review booth, Nate? How does it affect the flow of the game for the players when, with the game on the line, everything gets put on pause for a video breakdown? Is the game so involved with examining itself, it forgets about being a spectacle? And Stefan, do you see any way out of this death spiral of specificity and bureaucracy?