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The fix is in

The NFL can use tinkering, starting with OT format

Posted: Friday May 6, 2005 1:23PM; Updated: Saturday May 7, 2005 10:25AM
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Should the NFL ditch its overtime format in favor of a model that's more "collegiate"? This writer thinks so.
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So there I was, watching the second leg of the Champions League semifinal between Liverpool and Chelsea last Tuesday, when the darndest thing happened. (Not to worry: The NFL portion of the program is coming.) The teams' captains met at midfield, the referee did his usual can't-use-the-hands/none-of-that-diving-#&*#$ chatter ... and then he flipped a coin. Liverpool "won," and, well, chose to run in that direction for the first 45-plus minutes.

And I couldn't help but chuckle. I mean, a coin flip? I suppose they needed some exercise to decide which way was which, and I guess a coin toss is just the sort of public display that primes fans the world over for coming action. But that's all it was: a largely ceremonial act, affecting almost nothing.

And that's when it hit me. I like the NFL as much as the next person, but as that coin was tossed o'er the pond a few days ago, I realized that our game could use some tinkering. Herewith, an octet of tweaks, meant solely to improve:

1. Sudden-death overtime, begun with a coin flip, is no more.

That a coin toss plays even an iota of a role in determining the winner of a tied NFL game is criminal (and inarguable: 58 percent of overtime games end after the toss-winner's initial possession). The toss should be what it was for Liverpool-Chelsea: a pomp-and-circumstance starter, and nothing more. Bottom line: If the game ends in a tie, I say both teams have earned the opportunity to win; after all, neither was quantitatively better than the other for 60 minutes.

The fix: Teams alternate possessions, just as their D-I kid brothers do. But instead of starting at the collegians' chosen spot, the opponent's 25-yard line -- absurdly close, since a team can fail to move the ball an inch and still have a 43-yard field goal try -- each starts at its own 35-yard line. Make an offense mount a drive to score; 40 yards of success (or roughly four first downs) means a team has earned that 43-yarder. And never again will "Tails!" mean a damn thing.

2. No more cut-blocking.

Anybody wonder why it seems that anyone from Pope Benedict XVI to Paula Abdul (or even Maurice Clarett) could rush for 1,000 yards in Denver? The Broncos just happen to be the most proficient -- and yes, most every team's offensive line does it -- at the insidious, shockingly legal move known as the cut-block. However legal, it's a hideous and unsportsmanlike tactic that has left scores of pass rushers maimed, their knees sacrificed to a rule that somehow evades elimination year after year.

The fix: A 15-yard penalty for every cut-block. Goodbye, shameless and potentially career-ending move ... and, however sadly, Paula's Pro Bowl year.

3. The ground can cause a fumble.

This one is courtesy my editor, Jimmy Traina. His point (and mine, after thinking about it): If everything else involved with a tackle can cause a fumble, why not the end of the play, when ball hits ground and squirts loose? After all, the hit itself is just Chapter I of the tackle; how that tackle ends, and what happens when that end is reached, is just as important.

The fix: Reward tackles so powerful that they leave ballcarriers unable to protect the pigskin, even when hitting the turf. Replay would still disallow the punching of the ball from one's grasp after the fact. But if that little piggie squirts out on contact with terra firma, it's a live ball. As an added bonus, each collision would be that much more exciting, and isn't that the point?

4. Pass interference is a 15-yard penalty, max.

This falls under the aegis of the previous tweak -- another bone to throw to increasingly put-upon defenses, who've watched rules changes tip heavily in favor of offenses in recent years, particularly passing offenses. Get within shouting distance of a quarterback? Flag. So much as breathe on a receiver more than five yards off the line of scrimmage? Flag. Even consider hitting a receiver who willingly decided to leave his feet to make a catch over the middle? Flag.

I say the offenses don't need any more help. So why aid them with a penalty that's often a judgment call, particularly in the most pressing situations: on deep throws, during which back judges are desperately trying to keep up with the action, let alone adjudicate it?

The fix: Pass interference within 15 yards goes to the spot of the foul. Pass interference beyond is 15 yards and an automatic first down -- penalizing the defense, without deciding its fate.

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