The new U.S. eternity: NFL games

As we get ready for another Seahawks game, I’m thinking back to last week’s game and my reaction to it after watching 13 international rugby matches in eight weeks. Here’s what I wrote:

Peter Green, head master at Rugby School, recently told a group of visiting journalists that England historically was not a particularly religious nation and had no concept of eternity. So cricket was invented.

You might expect such a joke from the leader of the school where the fast-paced game of rugby started. What’s startling is that a descendant of that game is becoming America’ version of eternity.

Don’t think so? Then you must not have sat down in front of your TV at 5:30 Sunday night to watch the Seattle Seahawks lose to the Arizona Cardinals. It took two hours to get to half time, more than two hours after that to reach the end of time.

More than four hours to play 60 minutes of football.

The National Football League has long presented football made for TV commercials to a patient American audience willing to watch more sales pitches than forward passes. Ads could be seen as the first step into the everlasting.

Except that American football in its evolution from the game that started at Rugby School in 1823 has devolved into a series of set pieces alternating with the players gathering to decide what to do next. That’s hardly a good starting point for continuous athletic entertainment.

Add ads to a flawed game and we’re well on the way to a sport more boring than baseball. The NFL seems determined to take the game into endless extra innings with the addition of:

Reviews: This seems headed for the ultimate in interrupted action: The referees huddling to review the last play while the players meet to plan the next play.

One review in the Seahawks-Cardinal game was over whether a player had caught the ball. This version of football has been played for more than 100 years and it has to review what constitutes a catch? In the interest of the game, it might be wise to leave some things up to the observation of the referees on the field and just live with it.

That hardly seems where the NFL is going. At one point in the Seahawks game, the reviewing referees got word that New York wanted to review the play. Is there some Supreme Being in New York who can see more than we can in Seattle? If the league keeps going in this direction, games will take longer than the appeals in death-penalty cases. Wait, that’s it! Let’s have the Supreme Court do the reviews.

Challenges: Right now it’s just another way to add more reviews and lengthy interruptions to the game. But it could be a way to limit the number of reviews. Give each coach two of them per game on any call they want and they (and players, fans and the league) have to abide with the referee forever on everything else.

Non-plays: When is the NFL going to get rid of these? A team scores. Go to commercial. Extra point kicked. Go to commercial. Back to the game to watch the kickoff sail through the end zone or be downed there. Go to commercial.

Change the rules so that the kickoff must stay in the field of play and must be run out of the end zone or it’s a safety. Limit the fair catch on punts to within the 20-yard line. Or make punts a “live ball” – kick it, recover it and you’re still on offense. Make throwing the ball 40 rows into the stands intentional grounding. Make “taking a knee” a five-yard penalty – or add time on the clock for each time a quarterback stalls the game. In other words, make teams play the full game.

A spectator sport should be worth watching, and that means showing athletes playing the game. The NFL needs to do more to make the players play the game. Cut the “shot clock” to 15 seconds between plays.

If you watched or played in the recent Rugby World Cup (and five players from Washington state did), you’d know that it was possible to go to the stadium or watch the game on your TV and be done with it – out of the stadium or out of your lucky TV viewing chair — in a little more than two hours. And you would have watched 80 minutes of football filled with passing, tackling, kicking, scrummaging and lots of running with the ball.

It’s not all action for all 80 minutes, but most of the non-playing time comes from players getting into position for set scrums and lineouts, the way the game of rugby restarts the action. It’s not from “managing the clock” by not playing as in the NFL.

Three NFL games were played in London this season, and there has been talk in the British press about a possible franchise in that city. If the United Kingdom turns away from their own games, they’ll wonder why they didn’t just stick with the eternity they already had.

One thought on “The new U.S. eternity: NFL games

  1. I agree with the need to speed up the “Gridiron” football game. The decisions have migrated from the field of play to the box upstairs, computer printouts, even officials remotely reviewing the plays from far away. It’s as bad as it’s ever been for viewing, and I wonder if playing is less fun now too. When I returned from Australia, playing under the national coach, (way under), I could not watch a football game in America. The players with the caps were in fantastic shape and filled a doorway without an extra pound of body fat. The American game was derided in Australia, and I came to feel the same. But now, it has gone beyond what we could have imagined. One would think that if the money was not in American football, more of these athletes would be playing the best team contact sport there is.

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