A number of folks have said that football should remain the same and that new rules are endangering the sport.
Football as we know it was born from rule changes that occurred in 1905 and 1906. The rules that came into existence included the forward pass and reducing the number of plays to achieve a first down. So began the ability of defenses to hold the offense to “three and out”. The reason for these and other rule changes in 1905-1906 was that the game was almost banned due to it being too dangerous. Reports vary but over 150 players were seriously injured and somewhere between 18-20 players had been killed during the 1905 season. President Teddy Roosevelt was even involved and called for changes to make the game safer.
The National Football League would not be formed until 1920 but there were already several football leagues in existence since the first professional game was played in 1892. The rules of the college game would form the basis for the rule used by the NFL. College football would be the bigger game until the 1960’s when the introduction of television contracts made it possible for the NFL and other start-up leagues to pay large enough salaries to attract and retain better athletes. Television contracts also gave wide access to the public to see games – very soon television contracts would be bigger than gate receipts as a source of revenue for the teams.
Since the major rules reforms in 1905-1906, the game of football has experienced constant changes in rules, equipment and the teams that make up the league. Only two of the original 14 teams to form the league still exist – the Chicago Bears who were originally the Decatur Staleys and the Arizona Cardinals who were originally the Racine Cardinals.
The addition, deletion and movement of teams have primarily been motivated by money. Equipment changes to improve safety and rules changes a combination of safety and making the game more appealing – and thus lucrative.
Tackling has always been a basic aspect of the game. The very nature of the tackle has changed over the years. Two Hall of Fame players, “Night Train” Lane and Chris Hanburger were considered great open field tacklers – their weapon of choice was the clothesline tackle which was made illegal sometime in the 1960’s. The horse collar tackle was not banned until 2005. Sometimes an equipment change leads to a rule change. Polymer helmets began replaced leather in the 1950’s. In 1955, the NFL recommended, but did not, require players to use facemasks. Very soon after, defenders found a convenient handhold with which to bring runners to the ground. Dick “Night Train” Lane considered one of the best defensive backs ever was not the only one to use the face mask to tackle runners but he is attributed as the impetus for the practice to be declared illegal. Spear tackles are controversial. Tackling where a defender wraps his arms around a runner as he drives forward with a shoulder – also known as a “form tackle” seem to be the exception rather than the rule in the modern game. Hitting rather than tackling is the norm and has been glorified on NFL films and other venues.
The polymer helmet which was introduced to protect players is now used as a weapon. The NFL has acknowledged this by banning helmet to helmet hits and has began enforcing this rule with more vigor. As concussions and other injuries increase the issue of player’s well being is becoming an issue of public debate. This was a significant point of discussion during the recent lockout talks.
The debate is what involves eliminating dangerous play while keeping good “clean” hard hitting. The difficulty is that while some practices are easy to identify such as grabbing a face mask others are sometimes hard to distinguish. For example, a defender goes to tackle a player with the ball and initiates contact by leading with their shoulder. The front of the defender’s helmet hits the receiver in the chest but the crown of the defender’s helmet makes contact with the bottom of the receiver’s helmet. Pretty clear there was no intent to lead with the helmet but the end result was a penalty and a hefty fine issued by the league on top of it. Where shall this lead?
Right now the NFL rules are very complicated. An offensive lineman may block into a defenders knees while he is double teamed if he not lined up next to the other blocker. A running back that crosses the goal line scores a touchdown the moment the ball crosses the plane of the goal line even if he subsequently fumbles the ball. Yet, a receiver with that extends the ball beyond the goal line with it secured in his hand will not score a touchdown if he hits the ground and the ball touches the ground.
The league will constantly change as it seeks to improve and also protect players. However, I believe that a major review of the NFL rulebook needs to be accomplished to simplify the rules. Blocking at the knees or below should be eliminated regardless of the circumstances. Tackling should require making an attempt to wrap the arms around the player. Probably the single biggest act that would lead to a reduction in injuries is reducing the regular season the 14 games. NFL could show real commitment to this issue by sacrificing those revenues. Since player salaries are pegged to revenues, they would have a reduction in what they make but there would be less injuries.