Sports Nut

I Am Optimistic About the Future of Tackle Football

My first strong NFL memory is watching Super Bowl IV in January 1970. Indulge me the scene. I’m in the first grade. The rabbit-eared black-and-white television is in the “living room,” where we never sat; the bright orange wall-to-wall is being installed in the “TV room.” The Chiefs are playing the Vikings, whom I’ve adopted as my second team after the hometown Giants. I love their purple uniforms and the sleekly menacing horn on their helmets, a design I draw over and over until it’s just right. Oh, and my favorite Giant, Fran Tarkenton, used to be a Viking.

I array my football cards on the carpet and soak in the excitement. Joe Kapp and the Purple People Eaters! They’re definitely better than the Chiefs’ pretty good quarterback, Len Dawson, and their redwood of a wide receiver, Otis Taylor, and their menacing middle linebacker Willie Lanier. I don’t have a sense of the players’ actual size, but they’re certainly giants of the lowercase variety. I love the sunshine and the ceremony and the grandeur. The big pregame show goes awry when a hot-air balloon crashes into the stands.

I was reminded of the game—Chiefs, 23-7, * by the way; the first of many Vikings heartbreaks that decade—when Josh mentioned the NFL of the past and the NFL of the future. We often hear how much bigger and faster today’s players are. Those Super Bowl IV giants, plopped onto an NFL field today, would have been … well, they wouldn’t have been playing the positions they were assigned that day, if they would be on the field at all. Tipping the scales at an average of 250 pounds, the Purple People Eaters were more than a few Happy Meals shy of their modern defensive-line contemporaries, who go 305 or so. Otis Taylor was less a redwood than a boxwood: 6-foot-3, 215 pounds, smaller than a modern punter.

Comparing eras is fun but ultimately pointless. If Carl Eller had been born in 1982 instead of 1942, he might be as big as Haloti Ngata. So the players 40 years ago were smaller. They were part-time athletes and therefore in worse condition. A lot of them smoked. They didn’t know how to train. A few might have heard about or tried steroids. They protected their hands, forearms, elbows, shoulders, necks, hips, thighs, and knees with padding. A few probably wore cups, which no one does today. They kicked off from the 40-yard line. The goalposts were on the goal line.

The record for the longest field goal stood at 56 yards. The highest career field-goal percentage was 61 percent. Thanks to Jim Brown, rushing records weren’t far behind today’s marks. But passing? Only one quarterback—Joe Namath in 1967—had thrown for 4,000 yards in a season. Johnny Unitas held the career mark for touchdown passes with 266. Don Hutson’s 99 career receiving touchdowns had stood since 1945, and would until 1989.

Josh, you mentioned Malcolm Gladwell. The wild-haired Canadian envisions (and I’m simplifying) a future in which a sentient, sophisticated, upper class eschews the foolish, suicidal brutality of the game. Today’s football is yesterday’s boxing, that sort of thinking goes, a sport once beloved by the masses whose core barbarism eventually renders it undesirable. Yes, I’ve just built a straw man, but boxing has fallen out of style not because of its nature but because of its business and politics and the proliferation of other, just-as-violent substitute pastimes. I love the sport the rest of the world calls football, and I believe that in 30 years it will be one of the United States’ three most popular spectator sports. If that’s the case, something’s gotta give. But I’ll bet on baseball’s decline before football’s.

So let’s imagine the game in 2050. Will players be bigger? Well, offensive linemen averaged 250 pounds in 1970 and weigh in at about 310 pounds today. At that growth rate, they’ll be 384 pounds in 2050. While it’s impossible to know how science will allow human physiology to be manipulated, that doesn’t sound beyond reason to me. Will players be faster? Marginally, why not? Will they be stronger? Sure, possible. Will those changes affect how the game is played on the field and force adjustments in strategy and rules? Absolutely. I can envision a bigger field, a ban on the three-point stance, the elimination of the kickoff, better protections for receivers, and radically different protective equipment containing not an ounce of plastic. (Josh, it’s the quarterbacks, not the kickers, who will be fitted with jetpacks. Just push a button, soar above those pesky blitzers, and hurl the prolate spheroid without mussing your Brady-like locks!)

Tom, for all of our criticism of the NFL’s tax code rulebook, the referees who interpret it with bogus specificity, and the gouge-your-eyes-out replay process, it’s worth remembering that the league still generates $8 billion or so a year and is pretty good at marketing. We’re not the only observers who dislike a bunch of stuff about the NFL. The wiser players and coaches and team executives do, too. The NFL’s Competition Committee might not act with all due deliberate speed, but eventually it acts. Yes, change might come due to a player dying on the field or a Super Bowl being decided by some moronic letter-of-the-law call, but the current rulebook and the current replay system won’t be around in 40 years time. Football, like baseball, will need to guard against not only alienating its customers but boring them, too.

So color me optimistic, Nate. I think the NFL and its labor union are smart enough to figure out how to extend the golden era of tackle football. Public pressure has forced the league’s hand on concussions, so there’s no reason to think it won’t for other issues ranging from equipment to long-term health care to that stupid rule that denied that touchdown for Detroit’s Calvin Johnson. Personally, I wouldn’t let my kid play football—unless she wants to be a kicker—but plenty of sentient, sophisticated, upper-class Americans will. Nate, would you?

Correction, Nov. 13, 2010: This article originally stated that the Chiefs won Super Bowl IV 16-7. The score was 23-7. (Return to the corrected sentence.)