Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Why NFL Play Has Declined - And How To Fix it

The NFL's 2015 season has had good moments, but the quality of play is widely seen as poor this season, even as TV ratings and attendances continue to surge. It shows not just in penalties, drops, and missed tackles, it's shown in scoring. 2012 and 2013 had a slew of wildly competitive games - in 2012 we saw thrillers such as the Bucs at the NY Giants, a slew of wild games in Week Three, New England and Buffalo's two shootouts, Thanksgiving's three epics - one of them admittedly an epic of comedy - to go with the Niners vs. Patriots Superbowl preview that wasn't, and the epic Ravens-Broncos playoff shootout and the Lights Out Superbowl at New Orleans; 2013 then followed with its own litany of amazing games. But since then the quality of play has declined, shown in a curious dearth of high-scoring back-and-forth shootouts as listed above.  Not that there haven't been good games this season - the Rams' win over the Seahawks, the Chargers' comeback win over the Lions, the Ravens' bitter losses to the Raiders, Bengals, and Browns, the back-and-forth fight between the Colts and Titans in Week Three stand out so far - but the concern over quality of play is warranted.

The Wall Street Journal piece examines reasons for the decline of quality of play; they are worth looking at.

The league has been unlucky with quarterback injuries, notably Ben Roethlisberger and Titans rookie sensation Marcus Mariota.   Quarterback play has been spotty, but the piece's assertion that it is because teams are passing more while throwing shorter distances is dubious.   Throwing shorter is throwing smarter, and the piece cites Joe Flacco as an example of a quarterback throwing shorter passes - an assertion at odds with his history and his game that emphasizes deeper throws off his back foot - the real source of his wild inconsistency, the fact he's forcing throws instead of playing smart.  A similar issue is now being seen with Andrew Luck; some important eyes with the Colts were opened when Matt Hasselback started two games and showed greater accuracy with his short passing game; the Colts have tried to dial back Luck's recklessness with the ball, but he regressed after a promising start against the Patriots that ended in a dismal second half of that game for him.

The piece nails it when it notes limits on practice time and physicality of practice due to the 2011 CBA,  a point made by Mike Florio after Roethlisberger's injury. The reality is limitation on practice has not allowed players to toughen up enough for better play.  Some also cite the litany of rule changes of recent to protect players, though it's worth asking if the better way to protect players is to instead toughen them up with more, not less, physicality.   Off-season training, which seems to be year-round for players, is also an issue - players need to train less in the offseason and hit more during training camp and preseason as well as in practices during the season.  

The issue certainly can be fixed - open up practices more, let teams hit more. Some rule changes are also needed, notably elimination of the offensive pass interference penalty - the dumbest oxymoron in sports - and loosening the standard to judge a catch - when in doubt the benefit of the doubt ought to go to the receiver.  Other changes the league ought to consider - adopt the CFL and Arena Football rule allowing pass catchers a running start behind the line of scrimmage at the snap, balanced by elimination of the five-yard rule.

People still watch the game because of its fundamentally compelling nature.   And it can be made better.

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