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Tuesday, September 18, 2012
Creative rule changes, injuries, and the nature of football

A few weeks ago, Chuck Klosterman at Grantland proposed three rule changes for the NFL. I want to discuss one of the ideas: Legalize both holding on the offensive line and downfield contact on receivers until the ball is in the air. Klosterman's theory goes as follows:
  1. It's incessantly (and accurately) argued that referees could feasibly call holding on every single pass play; it's really just a matter of whether or not the ref sees the infraction clearly enough (or whether it happens to be especially egregious). This would end that arbitrary judgment call. Phantom holds and missed holds would no longer matter. Moreover, there would be fewer penalties in general (and as a consequence, fewer stoppages of play).  

  2. If holding were legal, quarterbacks would be able to stand in the pocket much, much longer. But this advantage would be mitigated by the way cornerbacks could now cover wide receivers. The Mel Blount Rule was implemented in 1978 to open up the passing game; essentially, it limits the contact on WRs to one chuck within five yards of the line of scrimmage. But if a defensive back could essentially hand-check a receiver as he runs his route, the ability of that receiver to get separation would drastically decrease. In other words, it would be easier for the quarterback to accurately throw the ball downfield, but much more difficult for any receiver to break open. I suspect the impact on passing statistics would be negligible; the numbers might decrease a little, but that's OK. It's become too easy to throw for 4,000 yards in a season.

  3. Obviously, concussions can happen at any time. But when do they happen most dramatically? It's usually when a wideout is sprinting unencumbered on a crossing route and a strong safety blows him apart when the ball arrives late. If cornerbacks could keep their hands on a receiver for most of the play, this kind of hyper-violent collision would happen more rarely (because WRs simply could not run free over the middle of the field). Meanwhile, letting offensive linemen hold would also decrease the likelihood of quarterbacks absorbing death blows from unblocked edge blitzers (because linemen could at least reach out and get a hand on the guy as he flies into the backfield). Changing these two rules might be the easiest way to decrease the number (and the severity) of concussions without totally changing the nature of the sport; in fact, it might make the game simultaneously safer and more physical. Football would still look like football.
One more thing as to # 3: It might also change the nature of line play, possibly reducing injuries to linemen. By allowing offensive linemen to use their hands, they can play more upright, perhaps reducing drive-blocking and the constant collisions at the line, which likely account for a lot of the injuries to linemen (one proposal I have seen is to eliminate the three-point stance and have all lineman start upright). Obviously, this change does not eliminate concussions or injuries; just as obviously, lots of pre-1978 players are suffering from brain trauma, so players were getting hit really hard and really often even when corners could grab and hold.

Still, it strikes me as an interesting idea and not one that contradicts our understanding of what "really" constitutes football or the way football should be played. Of course, even if the game is still football, would it be an enjoyable game to watch if everyone is able to hold or hand-check off the ball.



"Mel Blount Rule was implemented in 1978 to open up the passing game; essentially, it limits the contact on WRs to one chuck within five yards of the line of scrimmage."

I have always heard of that referred to as the Isaac Curtis Rule, after the treatment he received in a Bengals-Dolphins first round playoff game.

On the question itself, seems like a lot of changes just to stop cornerbacks from attempting to kill WRs. If that's really your issue, make contact in the air a penalty (the equivalent of hockey, where jumping into a player makes any infraction at least a five-minute major; why should CBs be different than defensemen?).

Blogger Ken Houghton -- 9/18/2012 8:11 PM  

So to decrease the amount of concussions, to me its clear that you have to just increase passing within the game. One step that I think we can take is establishing the one-foot in the end zone rule. Maybe that might reduce the amount of goal line plays.

Anonymous Reggie -- 9/19/2012 11:49 AM  

I'm not an avid fan of NFL although I understand a bit of their guidelines. I was just being curious about this game when I read the article that they are donating $30 Million for Brain Injury research. I was just thinking how they took care of their players when danger occurs.

OpenID ashleycasas -- 9/19/2012 4:29 PM  

If lineman could hold, this would cause the running game to increase drastically. Think about it... if the O-line can grab onto the D-line, this gives the running back too much of an advantage with the holes this who create. Although you have some valid points, these will never come to fruition.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 12/03/2012 7:52 PM  

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