PB View: NFL has a problem with rules... and more

December 27, 2017 GMT

The TV ratings for the Pittsburgh-New England game were the highest for any game this season.

Given the NFL’s sharply down TV ratings for 2017, that was good news.

The bad news is that it reminded a large audience of one reason why maybe they haven’t been sitting in front of pro football games as much this year.

The NFL’s rules have in some areas become impossible to understand.

Look at how the crucial call in that game — where Steelers tight end Jesse James apparently caught a touchdown pass — had even former quarterback Tony Romo and broadcaster-for-decades Jim Nantz puzzled while it was under review.

As the replay delay dragged on, Romo finally figured out that it was being reviewed for “control” or “surviving the ground.”


When the TD was overturned, it failed the smell test. As Tony Dungy said later on NBC:

“In flag football, high school football, college football, any place you play football other than the NFL, that’s a touchdown,” Dungy said.

Had the Steelers scored a touchdown on one of their next two plays, it would have been a quirky footnote, but when Ben Roethlisberger tried to jam a last-second pass into traffic and was picked off, it became the game-deciding play.

I get that you can’t have momentarily control catching the ball at the goal line, break the plane and get a touchdown. But this looked like a catch in real time, and even the super-slow-motion showed the ball was clutched securely by James the whole time. Until he contacted the ground.

How is that different from when a rusher loses the ball as he hits the ground when being tackled? For many years, “down by contact” with the ground means no fumble.


Entire columns have been written about Sunday’s play.

But my larger point here is that so many of the NFL’s rules are complicated.

And they keep changing the rules. Yes, sometimes because rule changes are necessary because players are continually getting bigger, faster and stronger. But sometimes only to encourage scoring, which boosts… TV ratings.

And other rules are vague. Like pass interference, which is defined as when a player “significantly hinders an eligible player’s opportunity to catch the ball.”

I get it, you can’t have a list of allowed and disallowed types of contact. In the end, it’s a judgement call.

But watch any two NFL games and you’ll likely find similar plays called differently.

It has to drive hard-core fans crazy.

Replays were supposed to enable officiating crews to “get it right” on a few key calls during a game. Many times, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

Action stops for what seems like an interminable time, while the replay official counts milliseconds of control, or nanometers of distance a knee is from the ground. Or how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

It all makes me wonder if the whole system wouldn’t be better served by scrapping the whole replay system and letting the best, most-experienced football officials in the world to just give it their best shot and play on. They know the rules, and within that context did it look like a catch? If so, it’s a catch.

Right now many replays aren’t conclusive anyway, and the default is — as it should be — to keep the call made on the field when the replay isn’t definitive.


If this were the NFL’s only problem, they’d be just fine.

But here are a few others off the top of my head:

• Players who behave badly. From getting pulled over with weapons in the car, to domestic violence. Then there are the occasional on-the-field issues.

• The kneeling thing. No matter which side you’re on, it’s been a mess for the league.

• It’s all about the quarterback. Great teams without at least an above average quarterback aren’t going far. Great QBs with an average team around them might go all the way with the right breaks. Any team whose great quarterback gets injured pretty much has to start planning for next year.

Rules that maximize the passing game (and render any statistical comparison from players of one era to the next hopeless) and give talented QBs a free hand make for a watchable game. But it also puts most of the league’s appeal in the hands of 15 or 20 individuals.

• Concussions. Veteran players from bygone eras are showing higher frequency of CTE. What will it be like for today’s players after they have finished their careers?

With all of this going on, owners decided to give commissioner Roger Goodell a five-year extension (through 2024) that could net him $200 million for five years. But 90 percent of that is based on achieving financial targets.

As a new labor contract and new TV deals are coming up, these are crucial times ahead for the NFL.