My claim to fame is that I was a college basketball benchwarmer, so most people who haven’t known me for more than five years are surprised to learn that I also played football in high school. I guess since basketball was my best sport and I still kind of sucked at it, they either think that there’s no way I was self-loathing enough to subject myself to even less success at another sport, or they think I couldn’t even make the team in another sport. Well, pardon my Uncle Rico moment, but the truth is, I was actually probably better at football than basketball, and the only reason I didn’t pursue the college football career I could’ve had is because I’m a colossal wimp.
I know, I know. It’s hard to believe that a mustache aficionado race fan who listens to country and classic rock and regularly wears short shorts out of necessity (so my massive man thighs can breathe) is a bit of a softie. But it’s true. I was the quarterback and punter (otherwise known as the biggest pansy positions on the team), I wore a different color of jersey during practice so nobody would hit me, and I distinctly remember thinking “I just want to go home” during the fourth quarter of a playoff game my senior year, because it was 30 degrees and raining. I only played football because I was pretty decent at throwing the ball, so I felt obligated to play, and because it’s a well-documented fact that in high school, football players are the ones who score the babes. The harsh reality was that I was every bit a football player as K-Fed was a rapper.
My point in telling you all of that is this: I’m in the very small minority of people who support the ongoing pussification of the NFL, because I think the league as a whole is more exciting and more entertaining to watch than it’s ever been. Don’t get me wrong — like all men who watch football, I love the physicality of the sport and all the big hits that come with it. (I just like watching these big hits more than experiencing them firsthand.) It’s just that the rule changes over the last few years to protect quarterbacks and receivers have resulted in teams placing a greater emphasis on spreading the field and throwing the ball around, which is exactly what I’ve wanted out of football all along.
In a lot of ways, the NFL rule changes are mimicking the hand-checking rule change that the NBA made within the past decade. Once the NBA started cracking down on defensive perimeter physicality, the game opened up, scoring steadily increased (both team and individual), and perimeter players became the focal point of offenses after decades of running offenses through the low post. Thanks in large part to this rule change, the current star power in the NBA is arguably greater than it’s ever been, because the league is more perimeter-oriented than it’s ever been.
There have always been — and always will be — a few big guys in the NBA who are considered stars, but for the most part, the perimeter guys are the ones that fans seem to get the most excited about. (For example, if you were to ask basketball fans to name the second-best player of all time behind Michael Jordan, the first names that would come to most people’s minds would be Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Kobe Bryant, or LeBron James. Some people would think of Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but most would do so only after first thinking of those four guys who played on the perimeter.) This is because we have a tendency to think that big guys are only good because of their size and the perimeter guys are the ones with all the skill. It’s easy to watch Shaq post up a smaller defender and drop step dunk without much effort and think, “I could do that too if I was 7 feet tall and weighed 325 pounds,” despite the fact that we almost certainly wouldn’t be able to do that. But when you see Derrick Rose cross over a defender, spin off of another, change directions as he hangs in midair, and finish on the other side of the rim, you can’t help but think, “Holy balls. I’m relatively the same size as that guy, but I can’t even begin to comprehend how he just did that.” By catering its rules to the players that the fans wanted to see, the NBA became more exciting and fun to watch than ever before. (So naturally, we’re dealing with this lockout situation this year.)
Similarly, the changes to the NFL rule book that crack down on late hits against quarterbacks, limit defensive contact on receivers, and prohibit helmet-to-helmet hits are making the NFL more of a star-oriented league, because it’s now easier for the skilled players to shine. As of right now, there are six quarterbacks (Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Cam Newton, Aaron Rodgers, Philip Rivers, and Tony Romo) on pace to break Dan Marino’s record for passing yards in a season and there are two receivers (Wes Welker and Steve Smith) on pace to break Jerry Rice’s record for receiving yards in a season. I know it’s still early in the season, and I know there’s a good chance that none of them will actually end up breaking the records, but that’s not what matters to me. What matters is that the fact that these records appear to be in jeopardy is confirmation that the concept of “basketball on grass” (not to be confused with Michael Beasley’s concept of “basketball on grass”) is bringing more offense to the game and consequently is creating more NFL stars.
For the longest time, I decided whether I’d watch a particular NFL game based on the teams, because the teams themselves were the big draw for me (especially teams like the Steelers, Packers, Cowboys, Eagles, Patriots, etc.). But now, much like how I see Thunder vs. Clippers on the NBA schedule and immediately think Durant vs. Griffin, I determine which NFL games I’ll watch based solely on the players. Five years ago, I wouldn’t have had any interest in Sunday’s Saints-Panthers game, even if both teams were 4-0, because neither is a blue-blood NFL franchise. But now I’m genuinely excited to see a Drew Brees-Cam Newton showdown (even though I can’t even name five other guys who will be on the field) because there’s a realistic chance that I’ll see 1,000 yards of offense. Basically, the rule changes in the NFL have made people like me interested in games I would’ve otherwise never cared about. This seems like a good thing to me.
Critics of the new rules claim they are removing defense from the game, but I’d actually argue the opposite. Rules that benefit quarterbacks and receivers mean more passing, which means more instances of quarterbacks taking five- or seven-step drops, which means more chances for big plays to happen for both the offense and the defense. Each time a quarterback takes a deep drop back, only a handful of things can happen: a sack that doesn’t cause a fumble, a sack that does cause a fumble, the quarterback getting flushed out of the pocket and having to make a play with his feet (or make a throw on the run), an incomplete pass, a completion resulting in a big gain (since a deep drop back insinuates receivers are running deep routes), or an interception. That’s really it. Four of those six options benefit the defense, and of those four, three would be considered big or exciting plays. (Hell, even some incompletions are exciting.)
Defense is still very much an important part of the game, only now instead of linebackers trying to stuff a fullback trap that was at most ever only going to gain five yards anyway, they’re either trying to bust through the line to rip the quarterback’s head off or they are dropping back in coverage to pick off passes. Anyone who watched Sunday’s game between the Ravens and Jets (in which the two teams combined for four defensive touchdowns) could tell you that it’s entirely possible to play good defense in this new era of football, so I’m not buying that the rule changes are eliminating defense from the game. If anything, all the rule changes have done is further expose defenses that weren’t very good to begin with.
The other big criticism concerning the increasing trend of finesse football is that these rules strip away the essence of the sport. Football has always been a game of inches predicated on big, strong men forcefully running into each other as they fight over field position, and now it’s turned into a game of yards with seemingly minimal contact. Old-school football fans miss the days of not too long ago when the Buccaneers would just hand the ball to Mike Alstott and let him try to bowl over guys like Zach Thomas, and to them this new brand of football is essentially just an adaptation of arena league football. My response to this is that today’s game still has plenty of big hits and still features intense collisions (not to mention running backs like Peyton Hillis and Adrian Peterson, who would rather run over defenders than run around defenders), only now they don’t happen by the line of scrimmage. Instead, these hits happen either in the backfield when the quarterback gets blindsided, or down the field when a timid receiver comes across the middle or a quarterback hangs a pass up in the air too long. Sure, the helmet-to-helmet restriction has limited big hits in the secondary a little bit, but they still happen frequently enough (and are still much more exciting than the hits that come from running the ball up the middle) for fans to get their big-hit fix.
The bottom line is that where old-school football fans see the rule changes as the league going soft, I point to the first four weeks of the NFL season as proof that the rule changes are making the game much more exciting. It could be argued that this most likely stems from the fact that I was the world’s biggest wuss when I played football. But be that as it may, I fail to see how placing an emphasis on speed and skill versus strength and power is a bad thing. Much like the Shaq and Rose example in the NBA, I can’t watch Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson make seemingly impossible catches or watch Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers pick apart defenses and think “I could totally do that too if I was their size,” like I used to do when I watched Alstott and Jerome Bettis. In other words, there’s a wow factor in the NFL today that, with the exception of a few players like Barry Sanders and Randy Moss, simply has never been there in my lifetime. With today’s football, points are put up in bunches, records are broken, and the potential for big plays to happen is present with every snap of the ball. Call me crazy, but this makes the game much more exciting than that old-school, smashmouth football that featured big guys running into each other. After all, if I wanted to watch people twice my size push each other around and try to knock each other over, I could just go to Walmart and throw a bunch of Waffle House coupons in the air.
Read more of The Triangle, Grantland’s sports blog.
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