Much has already been stated and hypothesized about how the NFL’s most recent rules changes will affect football moving forward, but the most important thing to come out of this week’s owners meetings is continuing proof that the NFL is willing to evolve, if not for the better, at least to make the sport more interesting.
This week the owners, hoping to protect their on-field assets, elected to move the incentive for accepting a touchback from the 20-yard-line up to the 25, which experts suggest nearly doubles the potential points expected per possession (from 0.29 points to 0.55 points, nerds). Of course, the NFL also admitted teams might devise simple strategies — like high kicks that land short of the goal line rather than booming shots through the end zone — that could increase the number of returns.
"We put it in for one year so we can look at if there are any unintended consequences, and we won't get stuck with a rule," Dean Blandino, the league’s VP of officiating, told NFL Network. "It'll be interesting to see how it plays out."
Which is what we appreciate as fans. The NFL is willing to try new rules in real-time game situations, and willing to admit when they’re wrong. In 2011, in a similar shift to incentivize touchbacks, the NFL moved the kicking team’s starting point to the 35, which increased the safer outcome by about 350 percent over five years. It was nearly perfect. But it also made the game's most exciting and dangerous play, i.e. watching 22 semi-truck sized humans collide at full speed as one shifty little guy navigates his way through the rubble, its most predictable. So it had to change.
Last season it moved the extra point line back to the 15, which inflated the number of missed kicks from two in 2014 to 71 in 2015. It also directly affected the AFC Championship Game as Patriots All-Pro kicker Stephen Gostkowski shanked an early shot and forced a change in strategy. That rule was similarly installed on a one-year trial basis, but was made permanent in this week’s meetings.
Every sport seems willing to change their game a little, especially as technology grows exponentially, but few leagues are willing to consider such fundamental shifts as the NFL. Beyond safety, which is paramount, how you start a game and from what point on the field creates the foundation that helps propel everything else forward, and those “unintended consequences” bear fruit in every decision coaches make.
It’s not always for the best, of course. We still don’t know what a catch really is 100 years after the sport debuted, though they keep trying to redefine it. But at least we’re beyond the failed force-out rule, we’ve loved how the two-point conversion is still a looming factor of every game more than 20 years after it was added, and the NFL (for better or worse) created and continues to evolve replay challenges.
The NBA tried a new microfiber basketball once in 2006, and after it failed before Christmas, seemed determined never to change anything ever again (save for adding sleeves and corporate sponsors to the jerseys). They’ve toyed with 40-minute games in preseason, and considered lengthening the three-point line thanks to Stephen Curry, but they also understand how defensive rule changes in the late-'90s tanked scoring, and they’re not likely to legislate against offensive totals again.
Baseball is only really interested in making their game safer and quicker, which is to say more tolerable, but recently added replay to at least quell any controversies.
But the NFL’s new, seemingly simple touchback rule, like last year’s extra-point rule, and like a controversial new red card system that kicks players out after two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, is an experiment. Many will love it, some will hate it, but NFL commissioner Roger Goodell admitted this week that they really just want to “see if it changes the numbers and how it impacts the game.”
For the many, many missteps he and his team have made in recent years, from ignoring concussions to sitting on their hands as the domestic abuse issues grew, most days the NFL just wants to make the product on the field better, and make every cold Sunday more enjoyable. Mostly they want you to sit still as the ball hangs in the air and a shifty little guy watches those semi-trucks crash as he has to decide in seconds if he risks life and limb to return the ball. They want the potential of a fundamental play to be better than a bathroom break or beer run.
That’s why it’s still America’s favorite game.