I don't know about any of you, but I don't think I've enjoyed a football season less than the one that just wrapped up. At the end of the day, it was still a blast and I wouldn't trade it for anything, but the 2015 NFL season was a lot like really bad pizza - still better than pretty much anything else, but nowhere near what it could have been. For someone who is way too emotionally invested in this sport and who puts the NFL right up there with friends and family in terms of importance in my life, it isn't easy for me to admit how lousy I think the 2015 league year was. From start to finish, the stark reality is that we all just finished watching a boring, poorly officiated, injury-riddled bunch of contests with little to no parity and very few moments of pure excitement. I'd even go so far to say that a fair number of games this past season were flat out unwatchable, and because of that, this was the first year since I don't even know when when I didn't pay attention to all that much football beyond Patriots games - not as some sort of protest or expression of disgust in the league, but because the games just weren't that fun to watch. It was a straight-up terrible product. If this past season was the first episode in a new Netflix show all of my friends recommended, I would be saying to myself, "if this doesn't get good by episode three, I'm out of here." And as someone who has loved nothing more than to spend as much of his Sunday on the couch as possible for 25 years now, it breaks my heart to say that.
And I'm a Patriots fan. My team is good. I mean we made it to the AFC Championship this past season. I can't imagine what this year must have been like for folks over in Cleveland.
Or pretty much everywhere else.
I don't want to stop watching football. I don't want to spend my Sundays wondering what the hell I'm doing wasting my time on this garbage. What I'd like to do instead is maybe try to offer some solutions and suggestions as to how the NFL can improve. Nothing is more annoying than someone who points out problems but brings absolutely nothing to the table regarding how to fix those problems, so I figured I'd give it a shot and take a stab at a few ways the NFL can stop churning out crap and make the game watchable again. You won't see me asking to bring back big hits or pining for the days when guys practiced in full pads for 10 straight hours in 100 degree heat; those days are gone for good, and for the most part that's a positive. You also won't see me suggesting that Roger Goodell goes away and never, ever comes back; as sweet as that would be, it just isn't happening, so no point even pretending. Rather, I have what I think are some easy to implement, fairly tangible ideas that will at least right the ship and get this league back to a place where we want to watch games again. I'm not going to pretend that none of these ideas have holes or that they are all viable, but I do think it's a start. Any or all of these proposed changes could all be on the books for the start of 2016 if the powers that be so choose.
I won't even take credit, either. Roger can have this one, all in the name of integrity.
Abolish Thursday Night Football. I put this one first because I'm well aware that there is absolutely zero chance of it happening. Ratings are sky high and the NFL just recently reached a $450 million deal with CBS and NBC that will allow them to broadcast the games. So I hold no delusion that TNF isn't here to stay. But that said, there should be one Thursday a year when the NFL has games, and that's Thanksgiving. Thursday Night Football is one of the worst ideas the league has ever had - a fact more obvious this past year than any other. In a season filled with crappy games, almost every Thursday night matchup in 2015 was a complete mess. The players don't have enough time to rest. The coaches don't have enough time to implement a gameplan. Sometimes the groundskeepers don't even have enough time to ensure safe, playable field conditions. What the league has done for the sake of increased exposure, ratings, and profitability is force players to put their bodies at risk well before they have had time to heal and force coaches to scramble to get themselves ready for a game that is almost guaranteed to be inferior to one that, had it been scheduled four days later, would likely be more indicative of how football was supposed to be played. Games played on Thursday are all but guaranteed to be three hours of complete garbage, through absolutely no fault of the men playing them, and if quality of product even cracked the Top 100 list of front office priorities, Thursday Night Football would take it's rightful place as a historical footnote of the time when the league lost sight of ensuring an enjoyable contest in favor of a ratings grab. Just get rid of this turd altogether and get back to making football a weekend activity.
Full-time refs. That I even have to suggest this is nuts; the NFL isn't hurting for money and I'm sure there are plenty of folks who would love to give up their day job to just study football all the time. Referees are human and are going to make mistakes; human error is a part of every sport, and until we have robot refs, we're going to have to deal with it. But professional football is the biggest sport in America by far, and thus the NFL should employ referees full time to ensure that those mistakes are kept to a minimum and that the game gets the best possible officiating at all times. Accountability is key, and it's tough to argue that full time isn't more important and more effective than part time. Full-time refs will have one job: to know the rules inside and out at the drop of a hat. To be able to make a decision without a 10 minute huddle. To get calls right the first time. Of course it won't be perfect, but it will certainly be better than what it was in 2015 and maybe we won't have games literally won and lost on a blatantly incorrect call or ball spot. And speaking of ball spots...
Goal line technology on the ball. To be honest, I don't know if this would fully work - but hockey has it, professional soccer has it, and it has been a boon for both of those sports. Why not put a chip on the tips of the ball and have a surefire way to know not only when the ball crosses the goal line, but also when a player records a first down? How many times have players been given a crappy spot or denied a touchdown when they were clearly in? This might help address that. The obvious problem here is that refs still need to figure out when exactly the knee was down and exactly where the ball is at the moment a play is whistled dead, and I don't know if goal line technology will really help there. But there has to be a way to help record down and distance with more accuracy that a couple of pudgy guys jogging out to midfield in a kind of straight line with a length of chain.
Every play reviewable. Bill Belichick has been asking for this change for years now, and nobody will listen. Coaches get the same number of challenges, but they can challenge anything they want, from a catch to a holding penalty and everything in between. With the number of games this season that have been decided on bad officiating, it makes all the sense in the world that coaches should be able to challenge what they think is unfair. I mean think about that; the landscape of the National Football League in 2015 was significantly altered by calls that could have been corrected with a simple rule change. The Ravens wouldn't have lost to the Jaguars. The Patriots might not have lost to the Broncos. Who knows how things might have shaken out if this rule was in place. Again, the refs are human; they are going to make bad calls from time to time. That's part of sports. But the league should be taking all measures necessary to minimize those bad calls, and this is an easy way to do it and it won't slow down the game any. Especially if...
Live replay reviews. The NHL does this, and it works great. You basically have officials in a booth with a live stream of all games and replays, and they are making decisions and calls as the game goes on. What this does is drastically reduce the amount of time required to review a replay and huddle up at midfield and try and pretend you actually saw what just occurred. The replay review will only be utilized during a challenge or when necessary, and referees who find themselves relying on the replay too much will be demoted, thus increasing accountability and ensuring officials have more significant motivation to pay attention and get it right the first time. Doing this will also serve a dual purpose, as it will get that moron Mike Carey out of there.
Illegal hands to the face is just a 5 yard penalty. We've all seen it: 3rd and 50, the offense runs a draw play for three yards, and gets ready to punt. But wait! A DB accidentally brushed the facemask of his assigned receiver while he was trying to shed a block. Illegal Use of Hands, five yards, automatic first down. It's insane. They call illegal use of hands all the time in the NFL now and it shouldn't represent an automatic new set of downs. Just make it a five yard penalty, like they do for offsides, and redo the down. If it's blatant, we're in Facemask territory. It's hard enough to be a DB in this league as it is; trying to make sure your arm comes nowhere near a bobbing, weaving, juking receiver lest you keep your unit on the field even though you made a successful stop shouldn't be a concern for a defensive player.
Defensive holding is a 10 yard penalty. Offensive holding is 10 yards, defensive holding should be the same thing. No new set of downs, just 10 yards - which more often than not will result in a first down anyway. The argument against it is that it will allow beaten defenders to hold receivers to prevent a big gain, but then we're into pass interference territory anyway, which is a whole different penalty. Successful defensive stops shouldn't get short-circuited by such silly penalties that carry way more weight than they deserve and are getting called with more frequency than ever. And speaking of DPI...
Two kinds of DPI calls. For a long time, there were two kinds of facemask penalties: the five yard variety, and the 15 yard variety. The league eventually shifted to just 15 yard penalties in the interest of player safety, but the bottom line is that it's not unprecedented to have one penalty draw two different kinds of flags. Every team in the league has benefitted from, and been screwed by, a PI call that is questionable at best; both players are jockeying for the ball, there is some contact, the ball falls incomplete...sometimes a flag is thrown and sometimes it isn't, meaning that DPI is one of the most subjective calls currently on the books. I honestly don't think anybody can tell you what constitutes that penalty anymore, and that shouldn't be the case at all, let alone regarding one of the most significant penalties that could occur; few things change the complexion of a game like a 50 yard pass interference call that really could have gone either way. So bring the level concept back - DPI is 10 yards and an automatic first down if it was a questionable play, and a spot foul if it's blatant. Blatant DPI is never hard to spot, and it will also prevent plays where QBs simply huck it up there and hope to draw the flag - there's no skill involved in that whatsoever. You want to win - and lose - cleanly, and having a game handed to/taken away from you on some kind of nonsense that nobody can concretely define isn't good for anybody. Two different types of Pass Interference fixes all of that.
Two bye weeks. This past season was even more proof that early bye weeks are useless and a total waste. Teams are beat up down the stretch, and the entire league suffered as a result of all the injuries accumulated in 2015. And while you can never eliminate injuries altogether, it's tough to argue with the fact that everyone could benefit from later bye weeks to ensure guys are as healthy as they can be as the playoffs approach. So what you do is you make the bye schedule two weeks long: Week 9 and Week 10. The entire AFC gets Week 9 off, and the NFC gets Week 10 off, with each conference alternating every other year. During those bye weeks, you schedule key divisional matchups all across the board so every game matters and has some appeal even if your team is off that week. Any ad revenue that might be lost by having less games for two weeks a year is made up on having more games during the rest of the season. If the NFL cares as much about player safety as much as it says it does and doesn't concern itself with the bottom line, this is a no-brainer and an easy change.
No single play commercial sandwiches. I don't know what the contractual obligations are between the NFL and its advertising affiliates, but I can't imagine there are any clauses in said contract that says "League must break for commercial before and immediately after all touchbacks." You figure as long as everyone who paid for ad space gets their ad played throughout the course of a game at some point, you're good to go. I could be wrong here, but to me it seems like there is absolutely zero reason as to why the league sandwiches single plays, replay reviews, last snaps of a quarter, and any other seconds of football in between lengthy commercial breaks. If length and consistency of the game is an area you're looking to address, just use some common sense and play commercials when a sane person would play them. I'll gladly sit through fewer, longer commercial breaks than have to wait 45 minutes between an official touchdown confirmation and the first snap of the next drive. The game has zero flow anymore, in a large part due to an insane number of commercial breaks, so you lengthen the break itself and reduce the number of them. I wouldn't even mind a longer halftime if it would help get rid of six seconds of football stuck between 15 minutes of commercials. Again, this seems like a common sense thing, but we all know that the league is lacking there.
Figure out what the hell a catch is. This one is kind of important; catching footballs is kind of a major part of this game. And to a man, absolutely nobody in the National Football League can say with any kind of certainty what constitutes a catch and what doesn't. That is completely unacceptable and needs to be addressed. A good rule of thumb is to simplify at all costs, so I suggest that possession and two feet down equals catch. That's it. No "completing the process" language, no "football move..." Just catch it and put your feet down, ball caught. This rule would have given ODB a touchdown against Malcolm Butler this past season and might even have given it to Lee Evans a few seasons ago in the AFC Championship game. I'm not married to this idea by any means, so I'm all for suggestions, but it isn't a stretch to say that what we got ain't workin.'
Another option is to have a child watching all the games, and if the refs are unsure, they just ask him. If he says it's a catch, then it's a catch.