Saving Football from Itself

In the mid-forties some college coaches discovered that if their football teams employed one group of players on offense and another on defense, they could use bigger, faster, and stronger players in areas where size, speed, and strength mattered. The coaches didn’t need burly quarterbacks, but they needed burly linemen to tackle the lumbering fullback. Platooning was born.

Football is pretty much alone in its system of two separate groups on the same team (and don’t forget kickoff, punt, and field goal squads) and maybe it’s time to rethink that. There is no other way to end the hopeless disconnect that has developed within the teams themselves, one which the rules permit and promote. In basketball, for instance, if you throw an elbow at an opponent’s jaw, you can’t then leave the court while someone takes your place and gets the retribution. In baseball—at least in the National League—if a pitcher decides to throw at a player’s head, that pitcher then faces the unenviable task of picking up a bat and facing an opposing team’s pitcher who may have the same goal in mind. In non-American football, substitutions themselves are rare; in hockey they’re continual, but among the skaters trying to score goals are two defensemen. They’re not platooned: they’re highly skilled at their position, but they must be complete players nonetheless.

Only in football can you administer a cheap shot that leaves your victim with a concussion, then leave the field as the crowd roars its approval…and some “teammate” pays the price later.

Granted, the debacle between the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers last night remains fresh in my mind, and one game that lowered football to the level of professional wrestling should not result in wholesale changes. But the NFL (and college football also) has become increasingly dangerous, and part of it is the result of the aforementioned disconnect. Another more obvious reason is the size of the players. In 1970 the average NFL tight end weighed 227 pounds—now it’s closer to 260. There’s more. Look at these average weights by position:

Position               1970          Today
Offensive Tackle       260           320
Defensive Tackle       256           310
Nose Tackle*           249           300                        
*a newer designation akin to a linebacker—but bigger.

The weight of an NFL guard has risen twenty percent to over 300 pounds. The so-called skill positions have grown by lesser amounts, although the fullback—generally a blocker in modern schemes—is a full 20 pounds heavier.

Now take all this weight and hurtle it down the field at speeds that even one generation ago were unheard of…and you have the Bengals and Steelers, and you have NFL executives falling all over themselves to explain their efforts to make the league safer.

I have always maintained that, as much as I love to watch football, there will come a time when Americans look back on the heyday of this sport in the same manner we look back today on the games held in the Roman Coliseum millennia ago. They’ll wince at the inhumanity and barbarism. And they’ll be stunned at what their grandparents called entertainment.

Of course money will prevent football from vanishing any time soon. But it can be simplified: a twenty-man roster (smaller than baseball where you can enter the game only once) and one coach would suffice. Eleven to play, a few subs, a trainer, that’s it. Fatigue a problem? Shorten the game. And the assistant coaches on the field and in the press box? Fire them.

In the Bengals-Steelers game last night, I cannot imagine a player like quarterback AJ McCarron undoing his every accomplishment by an ignorant and astonishingly stupid play. Not Russell Wilson. Not Eli Manning. The quarterback is often the team leader, but he’s only out there half the time.

The NFL can run all those “Football Family” promos it wants to, but several plays occur in every game that make that whole contention ludicrous. And admitting that football is a violent sport and throwing one’s hands in the air doesn’t cut it anymore, not when violence has been replaced by brutality and only the most myopic of observers would raise it to the level of sport.

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