The solution: A number of things must be done to return the NFL game to a contest of who scores the most touchdowns—and we'll deal with most of them in a moment. But first, bring on the two-point conversion. Imagine the suspense it would add to a 28-20 cliffhanger at the two-minute warning. "It's the most exciting play in football," says Young, who used it in the United States Football League a decade ago. On June 30, 1984, Young's Los Angeles Express trailed the Michigan Panthers 21-13 with a minute to play. The Express scored a rushing touchdown, making it 21-19, and Young scrambled in for the tying conversion. The Express won in overtime.
6 The problem: Unlimited substitution is killing offenses. These days defenses are filled with specialists who stay fresh by playing only 20 or 25 plays a game. In their Super Bowl run last year the Cowboys often fielded 19 players a game on defense, some for only a handful of downs.
You can hardly blame teams for indulging in this sort of musical chairs; free substitution encourages specialization and role-playing on both sides of the ball, but the problem is most glaring on defense. Situation substitution, however, is clearly bad for the game. Whatever happened to the great all-around linebacker who blanketed pass receivers as efficiently as he stuffed the run? Or to the defensive end who stopped the run on first down and rushed the passer on second and third? If the Steelers of the '70s were playing today, Jack Ham or Jack Lambert might not be every-down players. The result is that a fan has no idea whom his team is putting on the field much of the time. Players simply become interchangeable pawns in a chess match between coaches.
But defensive specialization is creating something even more ominous than the gradual disappearance of marquee defensive players. Specialization is stripping the game of touchdowns. Defenses are laying back in soft zones near the goal line and saying: We'll let you get close, but we won't let you in. Five years ago 52.5% of drives that penetrated the red zone—the area inside the opposition 20-yard line—ended in a touchdown. This year that figure is down to 46%. Football was never meant to be an 18-on-15 game. It was meant to pit the 11 best offensive players against the 11 best on defense.
The solution: Each unit, offensive and defensive, must be allowed only one substitution per play. You want to play in this league? Fine. You have to be able to do more than one thing well. Side benefits could be a reduction in the size of rosters, which would allow payrolls to stay within the bounds of reason, and even a reduction in the size of players, who would have to be more mobile and more durable.
7 The problem: Big plays are becoming extinct. The safe, deep defensive zones are squeezing the life out of offenses. Four years ago Sterling Sharpe led the NFL with 90 catches for an average of 15.8 yards per catch. Today Sharpe is leading the NFL with 76 catches, but this time for a meager 11 yards per catch. The coverages on the great receivers have become stifling. "There are not as many risk-taking defensive coaches throwing blitzes at the offenses," says Phoenix Cardinal defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur. "So there's not as much exposure to the big play."
And there haven't been this few big plays since the Carter presidency. In 1989 there was one 20-yards-plus play per 18 downs. Now it's one per 23 downs.
The solution: See No. 6. With unlimited substitution, defenses can keep shuttling fresh nickelbacks in to help out with coverage on deep-threat receivers like Michael Irvin of the Cowboys and Jerry Rice of the 49ers. Let's even things out so that cornerbacks and safeties are as winded as the wideouts, and so that great secondary receivers like Dallas's Alvin Harper and the Niners' John Taylor might find themselves in single coverage.
8 The problem: artificial turf. Nobody likes the stuff. The players are convinced that it is a factor in injuries, and it has become a burr in the relationship between players and owners. "If AstroTurf is so good," Aikman says, "then why do all the artificial-turf teams practice on grass during the week?"
Players of the '90s are bigger, faster and stronger than they were in past generations, and artificial turf makes the game even faster. As a result, the damage done to the body during high-speed collisions—whether body on body or body on turf—is greater.