The NFL is Nearing Unwatchability

The National Football League (NFL) is still watchable and enjoyable, thanks to an invention called the DVR, but it’s tottering, and the core, NFL fan will tell you this without going into all the other stories that now dominate its headlines.  For the core, NFL fan, the game will survive those other stories, but what has it tottering for them are the other headlines.  The headlines –that dominate the masthead of sports pages— that read: “Record Number of Flags Thrown!”  “The Illegal Contact and Hands to the Face League!” and “The Art of Defense is Over!”  The other stories are part of the story now, but it’s the other headlines that have many core, NFL fans wondering how much more they can take, before the league’s game becomes totally unwatchable.  penalty_flag

The NFL’s competition committee has been all about finding ways to free up offenses for some time now.  They’ve found creative and inventive ways to make the NFL a pass-friendly league to the point that quarterbacks (QB) and wide receivers (WR) are breaking every record on the books.  The creative and inventive methods that they once used to tweak the game are now becoming so blatant that it’s obvious to every core, NFL fan that they don’t just want a more pass-friendly league, they want what the cornerback for the Seattle Seahawks, Richard Sherman called “A more fantasy-friendly league.”

Those that defend the competition committee’s new “fantasy-friendly”  league would say that the penalties being called by today’s referees are not new, but that there is a greater concentration, based on certain points of emphasis, than there were in any of the previous years.  Some of them, usually the game’s announcers, defend these new penalties in ways we core, NFL fans find incomprehensible.  Most NFL coaches will not verbally comment on these new points of emphasis, but it doesn’t take a mind reader to know what they think of them based on their reactions to replays.

Certain Points of Emphasis

While it may be true that these are not new penalties, no one can argue that these new points of emphasis on some rules have led to more penalties being called, more confusion regarding the consistency of those calls, and more delays in the game.  The resultant complaint, as evidenced by Richard Sherman’s, is that the league has turned its officials against the once beloved art of defense.

Most defenses do not have a Richard Sherman, or an Aquib Talib, that can play hands-off and still cover a top receiver, so most defenses have little-to-no hope of stopping the league’s high powered offenses.  To rectify this perception, the competition committee put in other points of emphasis to ostensibly level the playing field.  Rather than narrow the definition of illegal contact, beyond five yards, they instituted a point of emphasis on offensive pass interference, and pick plays, which has led to led to more penalties being called, more confusion on the inconsistency of those calls, and more delays in the game.

This has all led to the perception that a penalty is called on just about every series of downs, which it statistically is not, but perception beats reality in most cases.  It has also led to what seems like a penalty on just about every passing play, which again is not statistically true, but perception beats reality.  It has led the game’s greatest fans from the dramatic anticipation of: “Is he, or isn’t he, going to catch that pass?” to “Is he, or isn’t he, going to throw a flag?”

All your life you grow up saying I’m only going to call a foul if it creates an advantage,” said former official, and former Senior Director of officials, Mike Pereira.  “You can’t look at it that way anymore.  Any contact, it’s a foul.”

The old saying that the best referees in the game are the ones that you don’t remember when the game is over, is now out the window.  Referees now affect drives with their new “When in doubt, throw the flag” modus operandi, and the way the game is played, and ultimately the outcomes of some games.  Anyone that doubts this change, need only look to the broadcasting booth where just about every major broadcasting now has a go-to-guy, former referee to help analyze and explain the calls that are being made on the field.

The officials may take the heat (for this),” Mike Pereira said in an interview with UT San Diego, “But the heat should go to the (NFL’s) Competition Committee.  Why do they keep doing this?  There already was a league record for most point scored.

“The players will have to adjust, not the officials.”{1}

One of the many enjoyable aspects of watching sports is the historical comparison between athletes of another era.  Is Drew Brees as good, or better, than Joe Montana; is Ben Roethlisberger as good as John Elway; Is Peyton Manning as good, or better, than Dan Marino or Johnny Unitas?  NFL game announcers now speak of current QBs and WRs breaking those old records held by Hall of Fame players.  No one cares anymore, in much the same way no one cared about the Major League Baseball (MLB) records that were broken at the turn of the millennium.  Most of those MLB records —the home run records in particular— mean nothing now, and the NFL’s passing yardage, touchdowns, and receptions may soon carry the same asterisks in the minds of the core NFL fans of the future.  The game is different now, old NFL fans now tell new ones that claim that current players are just better now.  You just cannot compare them line by line anymore.

The NFL does not have the rich, century old history of the MLB, but even its relatively newer, and less pertinent, traditions are being eviscerated through the points of emphasis that now foster a pass-friendly, fantasy-friendly game that breaks records on an almost weekly basis.  We all saw what happened to the MLB, when they began desperately tinkering with their game (post-strike) to attract a broader audience, but the powers that be in the NFL seem oblivious to the aftermath that resulted from all that tinkering.

The idea that the NFL may ever follow the MLB down the path to total unwatchability seems improbable, as the game has never been more popular, and those of us that pine for a day when the art of defense ruled –and a running game was deemed an indispensable asset— are seemingly deemed dispensable purists that the NFL will never lose.  The NFL, like all facets of life, nowadays, seems to direct its points of concentration at the new age, short attention span minds of the key demographic that plays fantasy football, and thus far they’ve been proven correct, as it’s as popular as it’s ever been.


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