Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Scoreboard On Its Back

The National Football League has unparalleled wealth, popularity and influence. It's also in increasing danger of becoming our society's latest celebrity drug overdose story. The NFL's use of touchdowns has gone past social or casual. The league has a points addiction, the worst case outside the Big 12 conference.

Counselors say that if a substance causes problems in a user's life, it IS the problem. By that measure, the NFL in August 2014 is ripe for an intervention. The league's desire for more and more offense is is inflicting havoc on two of the league's other priorities, one of them a primal element of its appeal.

Wes Welker, wbo'd be well advised to find something else to do with his life, is the latest casualty of the conflict between the NFL's lust for points and its commendable effort to mitigate the risks of an inherently unsafe sport. Welker's latest and doubtless not last concussion was the last and doubtless not last example of the law of unintended consequences doing its worst.

Welker was the victim of a violent collision that's an inescapable part of his specialty, catching short passes in the middle of the field. He's a master of getting open as a slot receiver, that is, he's really good at avoiding the one collision allowed defenders in the first yards of a pass route.

This means Welker is particularly vulnerable to the only tactic those defenders have left to them, hitting the receiver after he touches the ball. Short passes are best thrown low. A crouching receiver plus a hurtling defensive back seeking to avoid a head shot equals more head shots, legal and otherwise.

I have suggested this before, but if defenders were allowed to jostle, thump and bump receivers for more than just five yards, both receiver and defender might be less likely to encounter each other at top speed when one or both was not upright. The NFL must think otherwise, as it has instructed officials to have a zero tolerance policy towards such contact. Or rather, the league isn't thinking. It's just reacting to its jones for 38-34 games.

The conflict between the safety and offense-first imperative of pro football's rules is reasonably obvious. This summer, I have sensed a more subtle but more self-destructive side effect of the NFL's craving for scores. Offense above all is threatening one of the league's pillars of existence -- the hallowed concept of parity.

Since I was a child, one of the NFL's proudest boasts was On Any Given Sunday (now any given Thursday, Sunday or Monday). The league sold itself as the sport offering the highest level of regular season competition. Every fan's team, no matter its record, was said to have an excellent chance of winning its next game due to football's very nature.

Not trusting to nature, the league also has tampered with it to foster competition throughout its history, starting with the draft in 1936. The draft, free agency plus a salary cap, strength of schedule adjustment, etc., all instituted to bolster the fortunes of weak teams and hinder those of strong ones.

The NFL also believes that its customers want to see scoring over any other element of the game. Maybe so. But what happens when scoring and parity become mutually exclusive? We're finding out.

It's been a slippery slope since the league decriminalized offensive holding in 1978. First Bill Walsh discovered this made passing a far more efficient means of moving the ball than running it. Since incompletions have a limited spectator appeal, rules were tweaked so there'd be fewer of them. Quarterbacks thus became more and more important, and thus rules were tweaked again to minimize (can't be eliminated) their exposure to the risks of football's violence.

It's QBs Uber Alles in the NFL in 2014. To be fair, that's been true to some extent since Sammy Baugh was playing. Teams with superior quarterbacks have always had a competitive advantage. But the offense addiction has led to that becoming an uncompetitive advantage -- at least in the regular season.

Is there anyone, anyone at all, who hasn't forecast the Broncos and Patriots to meet in the AFC championship game? I haven't run across one, and I have had my own addiction to NFL preview media since about 1958.. It is assumed, and I believe correctly assumed, that Peyton Manning and Tom Brady give those teams an edge their rivals cannot match.

The Packers are a team with some spectacular liabilities on defense. No matter. They also have Aaron Rodgers, and so remain among the squads discussed as possible NFC champions.

That's macro competition. Let's take it down to the micro level. Patriots fans, do you believe your team is in any danger of losing any of its first three games to the Dolphins, Vikings and Raiders? If so, you are a true worrywart. The rest of the world sees Brady vs. Ryan Tannehill, Matt Cassel and Who Knows and places the likelihood of New England losing at about the same percentage as the chance of its last home game taking on a warm, sunny day.

Chris Gasper of the Globe opined that the NFL's focus on eliminating downfield contact between receivers and defenders was to cater to the popularity of fantasy football. Actually, fantasy football's rules demonstrate how real pro football's fetish for making passing easier and easier is damaging parity.

Fantasy football is really parody football, bearing no resemblance to 21st century offense at all. At a time when running backs, even historically great ones like Adrian Peterson, have never been less important to the outcome of games, in fantasy football, they remain the most valuable players for their teams due to the game's stupid scoring rules, which jiggle statistics to distort what actually happens on the field.

Fantasy does this to maintain its own competitive balance. If quarterbacks were as important in the game as they are in the NFL, Manning, Brady, Rodgers and Drew Brees would be the first four players picked (in no particular order) in each league in the world, and one of those four teams would win each and every league depending on seasonal variations in Hall of Fame performance levels. Who'd play a game where the results are evident before it starts?

 We pause here to consider your defending NFL champion Seattle Seahawks, who won the title with a dominant defense, a primo runner in Marshawn Lynch and for whom quarterback Russell Wilson was more frosting than cake. First, we note the league reacted to Seattle's title by the immediate installation of more limits on pass defense. Second, we note Wilson is a pretty damn good QB, not a Dilfersque placeholder.

Last and most importantly, we note that playoff football retains more parity than the regular season brand.  Brady and Manning's teams aren't perennial champs because in the postseason, the ability disparity between quarterbacks is less, making the other elements of a game more important to its results.  In the four Super Bowls lost by those two superstars, the rival quarterbacks were Eli Manning, Brees and Wilson, not E. J. Manuel or Geno Smith.

I wouldn't begin to guess how the 2014 NFL playoffs will turn out. I would readily guess which 12 teams will qualify for 'em, and of course the Broncos, Pats, Packers and Saints are on the list. Bet they're on your list, too.

Every fan of the NBA and NHL knows that their sports' playoffs are a different and superior brand of entertainment than their regular seasons. Is that really the path the NFL wishes to trod? More relevantly, is it the path CBS, Fox and NBC wish to trod?

The Seahawks were the best break parity has received in the NFL for over a decade, a model on how those teams not blessed with super QBs can compete with those that are. The NFL reacted to its good fortune by taking steps to make sure the model can never be used again.

Addicts live in their own reality. Wonder which network will be first to propose the intervention? 


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