Here's What Has to Happen for the NFL to Get Back on Track in 2018

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistFebruary 8, 2018

Here's What Has to Happen for the NFL to Get Back on Track in 2018

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    Rick Osentoski/Associated Press

    While it ended on a high note, this was a season the NFL would rather forget. 

    Far too many ACLs were torn and far too many brains were concussed, and far too many of those ACLs and brains belonged to professional football's biggest names.

    Television ratings sank again, partly because there were too many dud games in big spots, partly because the league had the audacity to let its players exercise their rights by peacefully protesting during the national anthem, and partly because the rulebook became more confusing than the finale of Lost.

    If this wasn't the season of the protest or the season of the injury, it was the season of "What is a catch?"

    How can the world's most lucrative sports league put all of that in the past and get back on track in 2018? Some thoughts...

Rules Regarding What Is or Isn't a Catch Must Be Rewritten

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    The NFL can't wave a magic wand and eliminate head injuries, decrease the recovery time after ACL surgery or prevent officials from making errors in judgement. While the league can certainly take measures to address those problems, there's only so much anybody can do about naturally occurring football events.

    But there are problems that Roger Goodell and Co. can fix entirely on their own, starting with the embarrassingly complicated rules regarding what is or isn't a reception.

    Rule 8, Article 3, has undoubtedly become the most controversial section of the NFL rulebook. That's where you'll find the criteria for a completed or intercepted pass. The section itself is 652 words long, which is about 600 too many.

    Where things have become particularly and most famously complicated are when players make catches while going to the ground or out of bounds. In both cases, receivers (or interceptors) must survive the ground, meaning they can't lose control of the ball while hitting the ground. Here's the pertinent part:

    "A player is considered to be going to the ground if he does not remain upright long enough to demonstrate that he is clearly a runner. If a player goes to the ground in the act of catching a pass (with or without contact by an opponent), he must maintain control of the ball until after his initial contact with the ground, whether in the field of play or the end zone. If he loses control of the ball, and the ball touches the ground before he regains control, the pass is incomplete. If he regains control prior to the ball touching the ground, the pass is complete."

    In recent years, the league has tried to slap Band-Aids on this rule by changing language on more than one occasion, but it's clear the issue isn't semantics. The rule was a disaster when it cost Calvin Johnson this touchdown back in 2010, it was still a mess when it quite possibly cost the Dallas Cowboys a game in the 2014 playoffs, and it tarnished multiple outcomes in 2017 (including a crucial matchup between the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers).

    Our exasperated national reaction to two touchdown catch reviews in Super Bowl LII (both were upheld, thankfully) at least indicates that fans no longer have any confidence that the NFL will get it right.

    Because here's the thing: The rule above is essentially a judgment call. It's written with the assumption that we can all agree on what control is. Can the ball move at all? If so, how much? There has to be some leeway, but it's too easy to micro-analyze each frame of a high-definition replay in order to spot what appears to be a loss of control.

    That's not good, nor is the fact that too many non-catches would be catches on the playground. It doesn't feel right. If it looks, feels, sounds and smells like a reception, it should be a reception. The NFL has to get us there without just slapping more words onto the rule. It has to get us there by simplifying the entire process, especially after one of the league's owners has—per Ryan Mink of—declared the "whole thing" to be "stupid," and after Goodell himself suggested the rule should be rewritten from scratch.

    "From our standpoint, I would like to start back, instead of adding to the rule, subtracting the rule," the commissioner said at his annual Super Bowl week press conference. "Start over again and look at the rule fundamentally from the start. Because I think when you add or subtract things you can still lead to confusion. These rules are very complexyou have to look at what the unintended consequences are of making a change, which is what the Competition Committee, in my view, does so well and with so much thought."

    It's time. After years of half-measures, the league has to rewrite the rule to remove all ambiguity regarding control and to cut down on instances in which playground catches are NFL incompletions.

    Maybe that means a catch should be a catch the moment a player has first gained control of it with two feet (or one foot and another body part) down inbounds, regardless of where he is on the field or whether he is going to the ground. That would also mean more fumbles, but it would be a lot simpler and a lot more entertaining. Oh, and it would probably result in more points, which I'm sure the league wouldn't complain about.

    There are a lot of other potential options, but whatever they do, the key will be to get back to using common sense.

The Replay Review Process Must Be Revamped

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    Far too often this season, the air was removed from an entertaining football game as a result of a painfully, unnecessarily long replay review. The forthcoming ruling was often obvious to everyone watching on television after a replay or two was shown, but for whatever reason, the whole process often took three or four minutes to be completed.

    That's a good way to cause on-the-fence fans with short attention spans to reconsider their entertainment options by hitting the Guide button on their remotes.

    The NFL simply needs to implement a system in which replay officials can immediately review any plays that are challenged or flagged by the replay assistant on site, without the referee having to jog off the field in order to stare at a tablet.

    This is another case in which the process has become too complicated. The referee isn't responsible for making the final call anyway, so why involve him? Connect the referee directly to the league's replay center in New York, limit the replay center to 60 seconds (enough time to watch three or four replays) and then have the replay center relay the final ruling directly to the referee. If 60 seconds isn't enough, the call on the field stands.

    The rulebook states that calls should only be reversed if there's "clear and obvious visual evidence available that warrants the change." If you can't find visual evidence to support a change in 60 seconds, it isn't clear or obvious. Time to move on.

Bold New Rule Changes Should Be Adopted

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    Does anyone watch kickoffs anymore? Like 109 percent of them result in touchbacks, mainly because the league wanted to avoid injuries on a play that rarely made a major impact on games to begin with. So the rules were changed in order to reduce return rates. Totally understandable, but then why have teams kick off at all? Remove the play entirely, have teams start on the 30-yard line (the average starting position this season was the 29-yard line) and you'll have even fewer potential injuries while shortening games by several minutes.

    Punts also stink, and punting should be a privilege rather than a right. Limit teams to four punts per game and they might reconsider sending the punter out on a 4th-and-2 at their opponent's 39-yard line.

    And sure, extra points have become a little more dramatic since the league moved them back 13 yards. But again, that's not a play most of us go out of our way to watch. Usually, we're walking to the kitchen for a salsa refill when we hear Ian Eagle shout that Kai Forbath's PAT (it's usually Kai Forbath) bounced off the left upright. It rarely matters anyway, and the salsa still takes precedence. Forget extra points, award teams seven points for a touchdown and give them the option to risk the seventh point in order to try for an eighth point from the 2-yard line.

    There are plenty of other options, including the adoption of a shootout-style overtime like they have in college football or allowing more pre-snap motion like they have in the CFL. All of it would be intended to make the game more punchy and exciting.

    Oh, and while it's at it, the league should listen to Bill Belichick and make every play challengeable. As long as the replay standard remains high, coaches are still limited to two unsuccessful challenges and the review process can be streamlined (see last slide), there's no reason to think that change would have a negative impact on games. Instead, it would provide more of a safety net for already-overwhelmed officials who can't be expected to get everything right live.

    "When you have two challenges, I don't see anything wrong with the concept of 'you can challenge any two plays that you want,'" Belichick said in 2013, per NESN's Luke Hughes. "I understand that judgment calls are judgment calls, but to say that an important play can't be reviewed, I don't think that's really in the spirit of trying to get everything right and making sure the most important plays are officiated properly."

Enforcement of Several Rules Should Be Reconsidered

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    Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    The league deserves credit for loosening touchdown celebration rules in 2017. This year, the competition committee should consider changing how three particular rules are enforced.


    Pass interference

    It's simply too punitive as an automatic spot foul stemming from a judgment call that can't be challenged, especially when we're only talking about a little bit of contact on a 60-yard throw that may or may not have been caught anyway.

    Practically every time I see a cornerback and a receiver in a footrace for a deep pass, I assume a flag is coming. Sure, it leads to more offense, but in cheap, anticlimactic fashion.

    Why should an offense get credit for a completion just because a foul was committed on a play that did not result in a catch? That's not the case in college football, where defensive pass interference is only a spot foul within 15 yards of the line of scrimmage and is a 15-yard penalty for infractions beyond that point.

    In addition to making pass interference reviewable, the NFL should adopt the NCAA's system.

    Would a defender occasionally tackle a receiver when he's been beaten deep? Maybe, but that hasn't been a big problem in the college game. A free 15 yards is almost always a good thing for an offense, even in a Hail Mary situation because a game can't end on a defensive penalty.

    It's rather amazing the enforcement of pass interference hasn't changed, but it's never too late.


    Fumble touchback rule

    On at least a handful of occasions this season, near-touchdowns turned into touchbacks when players fumbled the ball into the end zone and it went out of bounds. But why in the world should that be a touchback? The team on offense shouldn't automatically lose possession for a fumble that isn't recovered by the team on defense.

    A fumble that isn't recovered and goes out of bounds in the field of play stays with the offense at the spot it went out of bounds. That, of course, isn't an option in the end zone. So instead, the offense should maintain possession with a penalty for being careless enough to fumble on the goal line.

    Give it to them at the 20-yard line and move on with life.


    An automatic first down for illegal contact on defense

    The theme here is that rules that feel unfair or overly punitive against the defense have to be reconsidered, at least in terms of the penalty that is incurred; otherwise, you're going to continue to turn fans off.

    Illegal use of hands, for instance, is a relatively minor football crime, which is why it results in only a five-yard penalty. But the real killer is that an illegal contact penalty on defense also gives the offense an automatic first down.

    Illegal contact on defense should be enforced the same way offsides and neutral zone infractions are. Walk off five yards and replay the down.

Officials Should Be Held More Accountable

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    Orlin Wagner/Associated Press

    Officials will continue to make mistakes, but check out Twitter on an NFL Sunday and you'll find that a lot of fan frustration stems from the fact there's an impression the league does little to acknowledge said mistakes.

    Officials are graded every week, and those who fare the best are rewarded with playoff games. They can be fired but rarely are, and none of the data accumulated by the NFL on individual officials is made public.

    Additionally, the officials themselves are rarely exposed to public scrutiny. Once in a while, a referee will speak with a pool reporter in order to explain a controversial call, but that's about it.

    In stark contrast, the NBA issues daily "Last Two Minute Reports," which point out any potential officiating mistakes in the final two minutes of close games.

    With the NFL seemingly unwilling to share officiating information with fans and the media, it's easy to wonder how well that information is communicated to the officials themselves. Does the system need an overhaul? We have no idea because it's all under wraps.

    That isn't healthy, and if it changes, the league will be better off.

Technology Should Be Embraced

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    We want robot umps!

    Wait, wrong sport.

    We want something other than chain gangs and index-card-generated first-down rulings!

    That's better.

    Sure, the NFL has added RFID tracking chips to game balls as well as players' shoulder pads, but they haven't gotten much use out of that technology just yet. The league has to prioritize figuring out how to use a combination of lasers and microchips in order to determine spots without having to rely on the comically unscientific chains that have been in place for about 400 years.

    As Bleacher Report's Natalie Weiner noted, the league's own operations website states, "Theoretically, the NFL also could use technology to get rid of the first-down markers and chains used to measure for first downs." But experts told Weiner it's not a priority, for the following reasons:

    "1. teams (and advertisers) appreciate having the break in the game to measure the ball's distance from a first down; 2. the technology required is not yet reliable or precise enough for officiating purposes; and 3. the number of debatable calls is not statistically significant enough to force the league to act. In other words, it's not worth the trouble or the cost."

    At some point, enough fans will lose confidence in the human element associated with the current system that the NFL might realize it is worth the trouble and cost. Maybe it'd be better if the league was proactive in this case.

    Beyond that, I think fans would love to see more tech in game broadcasts, beyond the surface-level Next Gen Stats that have been offered in recent years.

    How about a tiny camera on the quarterback's helmet that can show us basically what his point of view is? The technology exists, and yours truly wrote about it four years ago. I'll take that, plus a drone or two and as many lasers and chips as you've got. Thanks.

Games Should Be Shorter (or at Least Faster, Which Isn't Necessarily the Same)

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    I mentioned earlier that folks nowadays have short attention spans, but in case you weren't paying attention: Fans nowadays have short attention spans. Ratings aren't where they were two years ago, and in 2016 Goodell suggested that trend had a lot to do with the fact people were watching games for less time.

    "We don't think we've lost viewers, and I think when you look at ratings you have to go a little deeper than that," Goodell said, per Pro Football Talk's Michael David Smith. "There's viewers, but also how long they're engaging for. A lot of times, people will leave a game for whatever reason, whether they're going to go to other programming, or whether the game is less competitive. Those are all factors. As an example, on the competitive, while we've had very close games overall, league-wide, we haven't had the closest games in prime time. Last year we did, and in 2014 we did, and ratings reflected that the first five weeks at record levels."

    The average cable package offers subscribers about 3.7 million channels, and then you've got whatever's on your DVR, Netflix and its competitors, this newfangled thing called the World Wide Web, video games and even an option to go outside and talk to real people. None of those activities contain as many commercials as NFL football, and most don't have any stoppages at all.

    The league did take steps to address in-game lulls in 2017. Like all of us, Goodell dislikes "double-ups"—back-to-back commercial breaks following a scoring play—and the league has been cutting down on those. Believe it or not, there were also fewer (but longer) commercial breaks this season, and they tinkered with split-screen ads as well as six-second advertisements.

    It wasn't enough.

    As I mentioned (were you paying attention?) replay reviews were still a drag this season. And the numbers I crunched from Pro Football Reference data suggested the average game time remained longer than 3:07 (after coming in just above that mark in 2016).

    In addition to reducing replay review times and cutting out worthless special teams plays, the NFL should consider chopping down on commercial breaks and making up for that lost revenue with advertisements on player jerseys as well as visual and verbal ads between plays.

More Star Players Have to Stay Healthy

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    Seth Wenig/Associated Press

    The NFL has practically no control over this, but 2017 was one of the worst years in league history when it came to injuries suffered by star players. Deshaun Watson, Carson Wentz, Andrew Luck, Aaron Rodgers, Ryan Tannehill, Carson Palmer, Sam Bradford, David Johnson, Dalvin Cook, Odell Beckham Jr., Julian Edelman, Joe Thomas, Jason Peters, Marshal Yanda, J.J. Watt, Dont'a Hightower, Richard Sherman, Eric Berry, Kam Chancellor, to name a few.

    It felt like big-time players were going down on a weekly basis. And while that's anecdotal, the ACL Recovery Club notes that there were slightly more ACL tears in pro football this year than there have been since 2013, while data released by the league showed that players suffered more concussions in 2017 than in each of the previous five seasons, per Lindsay H. Jones and Lorenzo Reyes of USA Today.

    In order to recover from a challenging season, the NFL will need a lot of its highest-profile players to recover from injuries and stay healthier than they did in 2017.

The Schedule Should Become Even More Flexible

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    Since 2006, the NFL has utilized "flexible scheduling," which enables networks to move games in and out of prime time or featured time slots, with some limitations. Games between Weeks 5 and 17 are eligible to be flexed into Sunday Night Football, for example, but Fox and CBS can protect some Sunday afternoon games. Thursday, Saturday and Monday games can't be touched, and no more than two games can be flexed to Sunday night between Weeks 5 and 10.

    But if the NFL wants to bounce back in a big way next season, it should explore the possibility of loosening those restrictions.

    The goal should be to make it as easy as possible to highlight the good games and hide the bad ones, and with so many teams going from good to bad and bad to good on a yearly basis, it's almost impossible to accurately predict which games are worth featuring when the schedule is made in the spring.

Someone Has to Sign Colin Kaepernick

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    Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    A Colin Kaepernick signing would be good for everybody, whether you support him or not, because Kaepernick is as much of a distraction while absent as he would be while present. Players were kneeling for the anthem when he was in the NFL, and they continued to do so when he was out of the NFL. But if he signs with an NFL team, at least we'll stop talking about collusion.

    The less collusion talk, the better.

    Besides, Kaepernick is an entertaining football player. Football fans like entertaining football players. Kaepernick merchandise makes a killing, and most polls have suggested that the protests he initiated have more support than opposition. He can help the NFL in a big way, as both a player and a lightning rod, because many of his supporters will tune in to cheer for him and many of his critics will tune in to cheer against him.

    The key? They'll all be tuning in.