Week 14 of the NFL season has wrapped up and the season itself is closing fast on the playoffs, yet this particular week warrants examination.
The Patriots-Browns game warrants extensive attention not only for the chaotic outcome, but also for the twin issues of player injuries and officiating. Rob Gronkowski's injury on a low hit has stirred debate about the sagacity of the NFL's rules concerning head hits. More than a few commentators have noted Brandon Meriweather's complaint earlier this season that the NFL's emphasis on stopping head hits has left defenders no alternative but to attack low, and the result being increased knee/leg injuries.
The issue of player safety has not been adequately examined because the NFL's approach has been backwards. What the league has done is make the fundamental mistake of defining the issue down instead of defining it up - it has gone the route of restriction and of treating players as weak instead of working to toughen players, toughen safety equipment, and trusting in the toughness of both. All the bluster about concussions has obscured that it never was the epidemic the League Of Denial demagogues have always pretended it to be, and there never was any need for new rules for player safety.
The league's approach toward player safety needs to change - it needs to define the issue up, not down. Players in the last 20-plus years have been stronger, more durable, and safer than ever before and they're only getting safer still. The league needs to encourage making the players stronger and more durable still; it needs to further improve safety equipment (which is already being done anyway) and also trust in the toughness and safety of both.
Because the stronger the players, the stronger the safety equipment, the safer the game. Taking away certain hits accomplishes nothing for the game.
Related to this issue is how the league has cracked down on training camp and in-season practices - here it chose the wrong route of defining the issue down instead of up. Instead of limiting the physicality of training camp and in-season practices, the league should be cracking down on off-season player training regimens - players should train less in the off-season and instead use camps, pre-season games, and in-season practices to get into football shape - train less, hit more - just as baseball pitchers who presently cannot last 200 innings because they train too much in the off-season need to eschew off-season training and instead use preseason practices to pitch more, as was the custom in 1979 when multiple pitchers reached 250 innings - noteworthy is that NFL players showed more in-season stamina in what was a more physical game back then because of resting in the off-season and using camp and the preseason to get in shape.
The issue of officiating centers on the Patriots-Browns game because of glaringly poor performance by Jerome Boger's crew. A Browns fumble in the first quarter was wiped out without any credible justification by Boger, and several other questionable calls marred the most improbable comeback win the league has seen in years. Several other games were marred by poor officiating, to the point that Leslie Frazier of the Vikings was contacted by the league to discuss the matter.
The view was expressed that the officiating job is inherently hard and another unfavorable comparison was made to 2012's replacement refs - which misses the point entirely. The replacement refs really were better than the officials used now, because they let the players play and didn't try to be the show. Ed Hochuli and company have long tried to be the show and it isn't working.
In this regard, two rule changes the league needs are presented -
1 - Take away the 5-yard chuck rule.
2 - Allow receivers a running start behind the line of scrimmage at the snap, a rule used in the Arena League and the Canadian League and which works. It opens up offense, while getting rid of the chuck rule allows defenders to make plays.
Overall, let the players play, because letting the players play is the best safety approach there is.
The league set a record for touchdowns scored in one day (95) on Sunday, and it may have been the best Sunday ever. Four of them were scored by the Titans, but the game at Denver fell away to a 51-28 Broncos win. The season thus appears a lost one for a Titans team that had showed real improvement at the start of the season and which has still shown commendable fight even with the season slipping away.
Even so rumblings have begun of major changes after the season, with Mike Munchak under fire, running back Chris Johnson ostensibly to be released, and quarterback Jake Locker a possible casualty as well, with Jay Cutler a possible free agent acquisition.
I'm not sold on firing Munchak, who clearly has his players playing hard, or releasing Locker, who even with two years of season-ruining injuries has shown real growth as a quarterback this season, or signing Jay Cutler, who has put up some impressive volume stats but hasn't shown clutch ability as a quarterback. He'd be a huge upgrade over the bitterly disappointing Ryan Fitzpatrick - whose own inability to seal the deal in games is the real reason for the collapse of the Titans' season - but compared to Locker right now, I'd take Locker.
Some analysts still pretend that there is need to establish the run. Monday Night's game is yet another example that the run is not conducive to winning - the Cowboys rushed for 199 yards and scored 28 points - while the Bears' Luke McCown threw for 348 yards and scored 45 points; the Bears did ruhs for 156 yards but it really didn't matter.
Tony Romo managed three touchdowns, but they were empty numbers yet again, further proving his irrelevance to the game and that he is just one of those guys who shouldn't even be in the league.
Finally, one should remember Tom Dempsey, who saw his NFL record longest field goal broken by the Broncos on a 64-yarder. Dempsey set the record in 1970 of 63 yards, and did so despite a malformed foot requiring a special shoe. Dempsey is one of the good guys in league history, and to see his record last as long as it did was something.