The future of football

Former NHL goalie Ken Dryden has a piece on grantland about the need to do more to prevent head injuries in sports. The leagues tweak the rules, he says, but it clearly isn’t enough. But what else are they going to do? Football and hockey in anything like their current forms will always be dangerous, but people see the results and demand that the leagues do something, so they tweak.

Dryden suggests some tweaks of his own, but “[m]ost important…it’s time to think about our sports in a different way….What would we have to do differently? When do hits to the head happen? In what circumstances?…What would need to change? How would this game feel different to play? To watch? What would be lost?” He suggests getting together a committee of intellectuals to ask and answer these questions.

Football as we know it is about tactics and strategy, hitting and tackling, and skill. Why not have a game of pure strategy and skill, turning it into something like touch football? The passing game is about receivers getting open before defenders get to the QB, plus the QB’s skill in delivering the ball and the receiver’s skill in catching it. In the current game, it’s also about trying to tackle the QB and hurt him, and defensive backs jarring the ball loose from the receiver. If the QB is automatically down when you touch him with two hands, that takes care of that. If the receiver automatically has a catch once the DB makes non-incidental contact and he has the ball in his hands, there’s no incentive to try to jar it loose.

You could make it touch football after the catch. The only thing that takes away is the defender’s ability to make tackles. To a certain extent, it takes away the receiver’s ability to break tackles, but trying to avoid contact altogether actually seems like the more impressive skill. Once the defender has made contact, it’s mostly his fault if he can’t bring the player down. This would also discourage receivers from barreling into defenders.

As for the running game, a running back or QB in the open field is similar to a receiver after the catch. Tackling rather than two-hand touching doesn’t really add anything to the game here, apart from violence for its own sake. If you banned tackling altogether, you probably wouldn’t see many runs up the middle, as teams seek to find open space. This would create entertainment, and some fans hate runs up the middle, but it might also take something important away from the game and its strategy. However, most of the concern about violence in football relates to superstrong, superfast players colliding hard, which is a problem in the open field more than in the trenches. So if you defined open field as opposed to trenches, you could have different rules for different runs, or different parts of the same run.

To protect running backs, since they would still be vulnerable to tackles and grinding yourself into the line wears your knee down after a few years, perhaps we could limit their carries per game. Teams would develop running-back rotations, and having multiple good running backs would enable them to run more often. Right now, a team’s third best running back is an insurance policy, and is around for peace of mind. Here he would actually be useful, like a baseball team’s third best starting pitcher. Meanwhile, star backs play less each year but last longer this way.
All this seems to me to be the way the game is headed. Running back rotations are big in football right now, but coaches incentives are to win today, and are not aligned with the long-term interest of their running back’s career or even their teams. Hits are becoming more and more restricted, particularly against the QB, which results in defensive players often getting penalized when they are really just trying to make a tackle, and still doesn’t protect the QB from every dangerous hit. DBs already aren’t permitted to lead with their helmet in trying to prevent a catch.
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What are the barriers to this happening? If the NFL implemented these policies, the result would be an alternative league, probably calling itself the Xtreme Football League. Unlike the previous incarnation of the XFL, however, it would actually get traction. Regardless of whether fans watch football for the hard hits, some players probably play for the hard hits, and would not enjoy the game without them. Football is an excellent outlet for people who want to commit limited, non-criminal violence. Moreover, big hits are enjoyable to watch, and at least some fans would not enjoy the game without them.

Over time, society seems to root out violence more and more ruthlessly, and this is the long-term trend even in football and boxing. Fans will come to feel guilty about enjoying watching big hits after constant exposure to suffering retired football players. Some players themselves may come to change their thinking. Yet I’m convinced that there will be players who know fully what to expect from their last fifty years in life, and prefer the more violent game. Most players only act tough, but they do this to survive the few who genuinely are crazy. I think that by fifty years from now high schools and colleges will adopt a finesse game, and there will be a mainstream NFL that does something similar, with an alternative XFL, if the government allows it, for people who are emotionally or physically suited to play today’s brand of football but not tomorrow’s.
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Football is plagued by penalty flags. If finesse football ended up being simpler than the other sort, it would end up with a comparative advantage in that regard.

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