|Proposed changes to the rules of Football
(04 Jan 2009 at 10:24)
|Nels and I happened to catch Indianapolis–Chargers wild-card it last night after band practice and it was pretty exciting, even though I don't really care about either of those teams. And the reason is: Playoffs football is just a different kinda animal than regular-season. One of the reasons is just the same reason that the end of a close game is always fun: It's do or die time, and it's amazing how the nerves of being winning and just needing to prevent the other team from being awesome in the closing seconds balances with the sense of needing to be awesome in the closing seconds and knowing that your opponent has kind of got the nerves problem. Most NFL games do not end like this, though. Most end with the winning team having possession of the ball and having enough downs to continuously kneel (which is a safe way of intentionally tackling yourself) at the pace of the play clock (which prevents you from stalling your way to the end of the game whenever you have possession) until the game clock runs out. I hate this. It is anticlimactic (you'll notice people celebrate or weep in advance of this pro forma dance) and it also offends my sense of a well-designed game, because to me if the game is still going, there should be some way for each team to win if it plays perfectly. Otherwise, the game should literally be over.|
This quality of football is rare in popular games. The timer is a common way to bound games (hockey, basketball) except that there is no game notion of "possession" in those sports. The game goes until the buzzer and that's it. Here if you're down by 100 points and there's 3 seconds left, you're kinda in trouble, but perfect play would be scoring off the faceoff in .0299 seconds 101 times consecutively. (I don't think that's physically possible, so for those games I would advocate a rule whereby a small amount is added to the game clock after every score in the final period. Or after every score by the team that's behind. The chess folks have figured all this kind of shit out like usual. See for example Fischer time control.) In games that aren't clock-based it is great. In tennis you can be down 6-0 6-0 5-0 40-love, having never scored a single point or even made a legal serve, and Federer has still got to ace you one more time to win the game. If you suddenly become Nadal and play perfectly you can win that trophy 6-0 6-0 5-7 6-0 6-0! In baseball "You can't just sit on a lead and run a few plays into the line and just kill the clock. You've got to throw the ball over the goddamn plate and give the other man his chance." This creates exciting scenarios. It's why we know the phrase "bottom of the ninth" as a provocative crux/comeback metaphor.
So my first rule change is simple: The football game can only end on a down conceded by the team with fewer points.* Down conceded means you had possession and made an incomplete pass, were tackled, ran out of bounds, kneed it, or any turnover event like an interception, unsuccessful field goal, punt, etc. These plays can be made with zippo on the clock, like how you must allow fair catch kicks. The point is that, even if you are losing, you always get a chance to score with a Hail Mary pass or 110-yard kickoff return. The game ends when you've demonstrated your imperfect clutch performance by any tiny mess-up. Awesome right? It makes the game more exciting and removes this offensive game design wart. Who could not want this rule?
(* I mean in regulation time; NFL overtime is troubling for other reasons but does not have this clock problem because of sudden death.)
OK there are other problems. These might be more serious. In the NFL meta-game, meaning the season and playoffs, it's easy to get in a situation where the team cannot make the playoffs no matter what they do. I'm talking about even if they win all the rest of their games with scores of 1,000,000 to zero. That's an instance of this foregone conclusion problem I'm talking about, but it's even worse here. Since the NFL meta-game has more than two players, we get kingmaker scenarios where a team is unable to win (has no self-interest) but whose performance determines (perhaps solely) the outcome among teams that can still win. This is some intolerable bullshit. Let's take this hypothetical scenario (I believe this actually occurs, but I am not enough of a nerd to recall examples or look them up. You might be surprised in fact how little I know about the actual contingent facts of the football universe given that I'm writing this long apparently fanatical post about rule improvements, like for example I kept calling Indianapolis "Indiana" last night and sometimes I get mixed up which teams Peyton Manning and Tony Romo QB for. My interest is in the Steelers and the theoretical sanctity of the game only.): Okay say Cleveland Browns are out of it, meaning eliminated from the playoffs already, and Steelers and Patriots are vying for the wild card spot with even records. Browns hate all teams in their conference on account of they blow so bad relatively speaking, but they especially hate the Steelers on account of being so geographically proximal. But the Browns are not playing the Steelers, they are playing New England in this final game. Let's say the Steelers already won that day, and now if New England wins, NE gets the wild-card spot and otherwise Steelers get it. This can happen easily. So now the Browns have no incentive to win really (they can't go to playoffs) but a strong incentive to lose (if they lose then their most hated nemeses are eliminated). Not to say that NE couldn't beat Browns without help, but it is super bad news when a team has an incentive to lose. And forget about it if there are secret behind-the-scenes agreements with teams with nothing left to lose. So I think it's bad news (and also boring) to have games involving teams that have been eliminated. I propose that there be a single wild-card (call it Joker) slot that any team, I mean even Detroit, can vie for no matter their regular season record. I don't have a concrete proposal for how to schedule these games, but it is surely possible, especially if we nix the meaningless games at the end of the season. Really it should be a heavily skewed single-elimination tournament among all teams. The important thing is that perfect play would mean legendary comeback kid storybook Superbowl victory, and diehard fans would not need to give up until that last conceded down, at which very moment the team packs their bags and their season ends. No foregone conclusions, no computer-simulated contingencies whereby the weird outcome of some other games might technically get you a spot, no kingmaking. Bam.
Also, I would like to retrospectively armchair-quarterback the Colts–Chargers game last night. I think Colts blew this following play: Up by three points, they had been sacked on their own one-yard line, making fourth down at the two minute warning. They're sitting on beaucoup timeouts and the Chargers have zip. Chargers need to score a FG to go to overtime or a TD to win. The Colts do the obvious thing which is to punt it away, the Chargers return it, make a few plays, and make an easy FG. (Then they win the cointoss and win in OT.) It's not insane (like say a hail-mary pass to a guy with triple coverage on second down when all you need is a field goal) but I think this is almost a perfect situation for one of my favorite plays: the intentional safety! (Better would be up by six with less time left on the clock, at which point it has almost no downsides at all.) Letting the Chargers score a safety runs down the clock while the play is going, and then allows a kickoff, which puts them much further down the field than a punt. Since it only gives two points, they still need to make a field goal to win (now, not tie, so that is a downside). The best thing about this play while on the one yard line is that the QB can just stand there in the end zone holding the ball with his linemen protecting him from being tackled as long as possible. The only way to screw up is to fumble and have it recovered by the other team. QB's got lots of desperation options, like lateraling it out of the back of the zone (safety) or intentional grounding (safety). I do think it's the right play but I do admit bias because my favorite thing in all sports is legal but unconventional play, like when supergenius high school coaches discover a jersey numbering loophole that allows them to use a radical formation with two quarterbacks and 11 eligible receivers.
By the way, happy 1000th post to Tom 7 Radar and Happy 2009!
|I read the whole thing. I like your paragraph that includes the single wild card slot. Everyone loves an Underdog!|
|Happy 1000th post. Pity I as a European can't make any sense of it.
|I've lived my whole life in the U.S. and still have never managed to make any sense of football.|
|Yeah, I was with both of you until I lived in a city that loves the sport to death for 9 years.|
|It's not that we don't love sports here, but that's the other football.