In recent years, the NFL has made improving the safety of its game a top priority. The next step in that process could be a reevaluation of the entire playing surface.
If the NFL chose to entertain such an idea, it could go a few different ways. Specifically, it's worth consideration to both expand the width of the playing field and universally improve the league's field surfaces.
According to former competition committee member and current ESPN analyst Bill Polian, reassessing the width of the playing field is one option that the NFL has considered in the past and should again (via Dan Pompei, National Football Post):
It’s a radical idea, but I think it’s worth thinking about. You would have more space and perhaps a safer game. I say that based on my CFL experience. There are less collisions of that type in the Canadian game.
A CFL field is 35 feet wider than an NFL field, which is 160 feet. The Canadian field is also 30 yards longer, but the NFL likely wouldn't alter the vertical dimensions, instead focusing only on widening the field.
Cincinnati Bengals receiver Andrew Hawkins, who played in the CFL before entering the NFL, agreed with Polian's general idea, arguing that a wider field would make the game safer (via Geoff Hobson, Bengals.com):
It would prevent a lot of the severe collisions. Guys are getting faster every year. We know that. But with the NFL spacing being more confined than the CFL, there are a lot more big hits. There are a lot more tight windows. It would prevent not all, but a larger portion, of big hits.
Certainly, a vast expansion of the playing surface to match CFL standards isn't being considered in the NFL, but an incremental widening of the field has its pros and cons.
Pros of Expanding the Width
- By spreading out 11 players over a larger space, the amount of violent collisions over the middle of the field would likely decrease.
- Gang tackling would be slightly reduced, which, in turn, should decrease the volume of lesser-impact collisions running backs and linebackers endure on most plays. These repetitive collisions can have damaging long-term health impacts.
- A wider field could help reduce the size of players. In a more open game, being smaller and faster would become a benefit.
- In larger spaces, tackling would become a premium asset. Instead of lunging and looking for a big hit in the NFL's confined space, players would be forced to wrap up and make form tackles in the open field.
- An incremental widening, such as 2.5 yards on both sides, would hardly be noticeable from a fan perspective. Five total yards of width isn't going to revolutionize the game, but it could make it safer.
Cons of Expanding the Width
- Offenses would benefit, without question. Passing games would have more room to operate, and running games could be more spread out. The read-option offense could really take off with more space to operate.
- Scoring would go up, without question. Some would argue this and the above statement could be a pro, but offenses are already scoring more in the modern NFL.
- The potential for bigger hits. Given more space, safeties and linebackers would have more room to achieve full speed before hits. However, Polian argued that this kind of length before hits would actually reduce the violence in hitting.
- Stadiums may not be able to accommodate such changes. Widening the playing field could be a real problem at some facilities. Plus, money-hungry or miserly owners aren't likely to alter stadiums in a way that could take away revenue.
Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk reported Tuesday that current members of the competition committee haven't proposed a widening of the field. As Florio points out, this reality likely means that such an idea happening anytime soon is unlikely:
The current members of the Competition Committee have not placed the proposal on their agenda for 2013, according to NFL spokesman Greg Aiello. Which means that possibility of a wider field as suggested by former NFL G.M. Bill Polian is far from a probability.
I certainly understand the reservations most have about widening the field, but I also see little problem with the NFL experimenting with such an idea.
While the CFL clearly doesn't have the type of athlete seen in the NFL (which may explain some of the reduction in big hits), the field certainly plays into the league's safer game. It's reasonable to assume it would yield a similar result in the American game.
At one time, the NFL field fit the players involved. That might not be the case today, as players continue getting bigger, stronger and faster. Expanding the confines of the field can help limit that evolution and likely reverse it to some extent.
However, the NFL might have right at its fingertips a less radical, easier way to make the game safer.
Instead of changing the dimensions of the field, why not ensure that every playing surface in the NFL is of the best quality, regardless of city or environment?
The NFL currently has some awful playing surfaces. Among them:
- FedExField, Washington: The playoff game between the Redskins and Seattle Seahawks gave all the evidence one would need. Robert Griffin III's knee injury could have been partly due to the horrendous playing surface.
- Soldier Field, Chicago: Constantly chewed up and rarely fixed before games. In 2011, a rod was found sticking out of the ground during a game.
- Heinz Field, Pittsburgh: Sometimes you wonder if the Steelers keep Heinz Field looking the way it does late in the season for a reason. What a mess.
- Reliant Stadium, Houston: The conditions in Houston have long been associated with injury, and one punter went as far as to sue to the company that maintains Reliant Stadium's turf.
- The Metrodome, Minnesota: While no longer just green carpet on solid cement, artificial surfaces rarely present the ideal playing condition for the game.
And the league's rulebook makes little mention of the playing surface or its requirements.
Under the "Emergencies and Unfair Acts" section, the NFL outlines its policy on playing surfaces in once sentence: "Each home club is strictly responsible for having the playing surface of its stadium well maintained and suitable for NFL play."
In the official rulebook, the NFL makes sure the playing surface is of the right "shade of green." No other rules regarding the condition of the field are mentioned. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that the league could and should do better.
How much easier can improving such an obvious part of player safety get?
While domed stadiums will make it difficult to implement a universal rule for playing surfaces, there should be a clear and definable standard that the conditions of every playing surface—natural or synthetic—must meet.
This way, players wouldn't have to trudge through conditions seen in Washington, Chicago and Pittsburgh. There's no rationale for exposing players to injury risks when the problem is so clearly avoidable. If the Green Bay Packers can keep Lambeau Field in pristine shape year-round, the other NFL locales should be able to maintain their fields, too.
Further, the NFL should continue working to develop ways to make synthetic surfaces found in domes and roofed stadiums more natural and conducive to the game. Few will argue today that playing on the turf is safer than a well-kept grass field.
The NFL is at a point in its existence where no idea for improving the safety of its players should be discarded without serious discussion. Reassessing the field design appears to be a natural next step, whether the NFL wants to widen the field or overhaul its system of policing the playing surfaces.
Widening the playing field will likely meet much resistance, and I wouldn't expect it to pass in the near future. But it's an idea backed by real-life examples of improved player safety, and that means some version of field expansion could eventually happen.
Changes like these should have happened years ago, but it's time now to send the message. The NFL can't accept what FedExField presented last month.
If player safety remains a top priority for the NFL—and there's no reason to think it won't—then fixing the field should eventually find its way into the changes.