The NFL moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it. “It,” of course, being the evolution of professional football. Every year, changes are made to the game that alter its existence forever…much like the decisions made by Ferris Bueller on his day off forever changed the life of Cameron Frye in John Hughes’ 80s masterpiece. (You’re all welcome for that amazing analogy, by the way.) Rule changes, team relocations, technological advancements, and talent influxes are all part of the league’s allure.
Unfortunately, the NFL is not an expertly-scripted coming-of-age tale that’s guaranteed to work out in the end, despite what some deranged conspiracy theorists may tell you. Not every change made to the sport is going to yield positive results. Some of the changes coming to the NFL will stymie the game and frustrate fans. But don’t worry, because there should be enough positive changes over the next few years to balance out any boneheaded misfires.
Now, not all of the changes listed below are guaranteed to make their way into the league when it’s all said and done. But current trends show they’re all a real possibility, and comments made by Commissioner Goodell and other league higher-ups have reinforced their likelihood.
15. WE WANT: A FARM SYSTEM/DEVELOPMENTAL LEAGUE
The NFL desperately needs to improve the quality of backups in the league, especially at the quarterback position. You see it all the time; a QB goes down in Week 4 with a season-ending injury, and the team’s chances at a playoff berth pretty much go out the window. It’s really no surprise, considering the drastic jump in the competition level from college to the NFL. Most who get drafted aren’t truly ready to play at the professional level until two or three years in. And yet, league owners and coaches face more pressure than ever to play rookies from Day 1 and turn them into immediate stars.
It’s more than a little odd that the NFL hasn’t implemented a “farm system” or developmental league as of yet. It’s the only major American sports league not to have one. Players like Jarryd Hayne, a rugby player who converted to running back, have been very vocal about the need for a minor league system where players on the bubble could go learn the playbook and earn much-needed reps. Just imagine how improved the quarterback play would be if backups were getting playing time outside of training camps. Suddenly, a season-ending to injury to Ben Roethlisberger might not look like a complete nightmare.
14. WE DON’T WANT: ROBOTIC PLAYER INTERVIEWS
This change is already here — and has been for years — but it seems that every new season brings a fresh batch of PR-focused players who refuse to say anything that might be considered “offensive” or “politically incorrect” because they don’t want to risk the fallout caused by a blunt, colorful statement. And that’s a damn shame. What’s the point of interviewing players if they all give the same canned, boring responses? What’s the point of hearing what they have to say if they’re not really saying anything at all?
The media has to shoulder some of the blame here, as many of the league’s bigger on-the-field personalities have become weary and distrusting of journalistic vultures who seem waiting to pounce on every verbal slip-up. Our culture’s shift toward an uber-PC mentality is only getting worse, and that’s why candid guys like Martellus Bennett and Richard Sherman are a national treasure. But eventually, we may not have any players as forthright and vibrant as them to go in front of the cameras.
13. WE WANT: AUTOMATED OFFICIATING
No, there probably won’t be drones flying around the field attempting to judge whether or not Dez Bryant actually made that catch or not, but it stands to reason that the human element of officiating will soon be phased out.
Reliable sensor technology is already available to determine whether or not a player crossed the goal line, and it stands to reason that the majority of ball placement questions — whether a player reached for a first down or came up shy, whether the side of their cleat stepped out of bounds or not –will be decided by computer chips, not eyeballs. We don’t need a zebra shirt making those types of judgment calls anymore.
12. WE DON’T WANT: EXPANDED PLAYOFFS
Goodell believes the NFL will eventually expand its playoffs to feature more teams. But why? The system as it stands produces a perfectly good postseason field that weeds out the less deserving teams. Why should we include more 9-7 (or, for that matter, 8-8) teams into the fold?
A jump to 14 teams would present a number of roadblocks, including potential scheduling conflicts with that could force a game into a Monday night slot, which gives the winning team a disadvantage going into their next game on a short week. That doesn’t help the notion of postseason parity. But more importantly, an increase in the number of playoff teams would undoubtedly make more regular season games less meaningful.
11. WE WANT: A REDUCED PRESEASON
Ever since Packers wideout Jordy Nelson went down in a 2015 preseason game with a non-contact injury, Aaron Rodgers has been a vocal proponent of shortening the preseason. This isn’t a new topic of discussion around the league, but it’s picked up steam the last couple of years thanks to high-profile injuries like Nelson’s.
Players, coaches, pundits, and fans have mostly been onboard with eliminating a couple of preseason games — possibly in favor of adding two regular season games, though that would come with its own difficulties — but Commissioner Goodell has increasingly mentioned it as a real possibility. With so many outspoken (and influential) members of the football community getting behind this reduction, it shouldn’t be long until it stops being “just talk.”
10. WE DON’T WANT: MASS QUARTERBACK RETIREMENTS
“Next man up” is a phrase you hear bandied about quite a lot in the NFL, but it doesn’t really hold water when it comes to quarterbacks. If you don’t have “the man” in this league, there’s not a whole lot your team will be able to accomplish. That’s why it’s so concerning to think about the eventual exodus of the most competitive group of QBs we’ve seen in years.
Tony Romo’s gone. Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Phillip Rivers, and Drew Brees are all on the cusp of retirement. Tom Brady has to go sometime. And while it’s normally a good thing to shove aside aging players in favor of fresh faces,the lackluster crop of quarterbacks in the last couple drafts makes the future of the NFL look like a wasteland where gunslingers have been outlawed.
9. WE WANT: RUNNING BACKS TO BECOME SUPERSTARS AGAIN
Just when it seemed like the increased focus on the passing game had all but nullified the need for stud running backs — Marshawn Lynch retiring, Adrian Peterson sustaining another major injury, and Eddie Lacy looking more like a lineman every day certainly didn’t help — the position suddenly looks more valuable and star-studded than ever.
David Johnson, Ezekiel Elliott, Jordan Howard, Jay Ajayi, Melvin Gordon, and Todd Gurley have come into the fold like a collective sledgehammer, each one with the ability to carry the team on their back. And now Beast Mode has returned, AD is looking to prove he has another 1,000-yard season in him, and Cheeseburger Eddie is starting to look more like Grilled Chicken Breast Eddie. Newbies like Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook, and Joe Mixon look promising as well. In a few years time, expect there to be very few running back by committee situations in the NFL.
8. WE DON’T WANT: SHRINKING PLAYER DEMOGRAPHICS
Without football players, there can be no more football games. That might sound like a bizarrely obvious statement, but it’s one the league will eventually be forced to reconcile with. As public awareness of CTE and its sometimes fatal effects grows (see: NFL Hall of Famers Junior Seau and Mike Webster, etc.), more parents will reconsider putting their children into youth football programs. Even setting aside concussion concerns, reports have shown kids are moving away from the Big 3 — football, baseball, and basketball — in droves.
Although the NFL probably won’t face an outright talent drought anytime soon, and professional football certainly isn’t “endangered” by any means, professional football scouts will have their work cut out for them in finding enough quality players to keep 53-man rosters from looking like collegiate teams.
7. WE WANT: IMPROVED HELMET TECHNOLOGY
So how do you make football safer and thus ensure its bright future without watering down the product to the point that grown men are getting paid millions of dollars to play nationally-televised flag football? Professional football is, after all, a naturally violent sport, primarily because these are big, strong, hyper-athletic men running at and bashing into each other with everything they’ve got. To ask them to “take it down a notch” goes against all athletic and competitive instincts.
The easiest way to decrease the long-term effects of the on-the-field brutality without decreasing its watchability is by utilizing safer helmet technology. Helmets may never be “concussion-proof,” but new technology has been in development for almost four years, and is now being tested in the NFL on a voluntary basis. These innovations could significantly mitigate the impact that happens during those classic battles between an unstoppable force and an immovable object.
6. WE DON’T WANT: ELIMINATION OF KICKOFF RETURNS
The NFL took its first step toward eliminating kickoff returns back in 2011, when the spot of the kickoff was moved up to the 35-yard line from the 30, and doubled-down on that process last season by incentivizing kneel-downs in the end zone, moving the resulting spot of the ball up to the 25-yard line instead of the 20. The idea behind these changes is once again an emphasis on player safety, with the goal being to eliminate the higher-impact hits that occur somewhat frequently during kickoff returns.
From that perspective, this might be a good thing. But for sheer entertainment, there’s nothing quite like watching a guy like Devin Hester or Tyreek Hill take one all the way for a touchdown. Kickoffs — like the pre-game coin flip — are largely a matter of ceremony. Some may consider the process archaic, but no one’s changing the channel when Hill is getting ready to field one.
5. WE WANT: A NEW MODEL FOR BROADCASTING GAMES
It’s no secret that NFL ratings have gone way down over the last couple years, especially using “traditional” models. More viewers are tuning in online, whether it be through the NFL mobile app, Twitter, or a different streaming service. The NFL has to figure out a way to monetize that portion of viewership, or they’ll have some extremely tough financial decisions to make in the coming years.
Of course, there are plenty of options to choose from in terms of digital broadcast models. The NFL could take a page out of WWE’s playbook and, using a monthly membership or even individual pay-per-view model, expand the number of games available to viewers while bypassing hefty cable contracts. The league’s current crop of contracts expire in 2022, so expect a shift toward digital avenues around that time.
4. WE DON’T WANT: ELIMINATION OF OVERTIME
It may seem like a baby step, but the league’s decision to trim overtime from 15 minutes down to 10 this season is part of a much bigger picture: To eventually eliminate the “5th quarter” altogether. Once again, the decision was based on player safety — more minutes on the field equals more player fatigue and more chances for a botched play — but the greater factor in the argument to get rid of overtime is much simpler: Fans hate ties.
But fans blaming overtime for an increase in tie games is statistically unfounded. There have only been five ties since the NFL introduced its modified sudden death system in 2012. And two of those ties can be blamed squarely on botched field goals. If you get rid of overtime, you miss out on moments like the 2015 Divisional Game between the Packers and Cardinals, which featured perhaps the greatest emotional swing of the decade (until the Patriots’ epic Super Bowl comeback, that is). We shouldn’t risk losing great moments like those.
3. WE WANT: NFL TEAMS OUTSIDE OF THE US
By all indications, the NFL will eventually find a home in Europe. The league has spent 10 years and millions of dollars cultivating a substantial fanbase by sending teams to play in London. This year, the number of London games has increased to four, all of which are expected to sell out. This bodes well for UK fans, who could finally have a “home” team to get behind in the next decade or so.
The same goes for Mexico, which could host an NFL game annually for the foreseeable future. One of the many California-based teams could make Azteca Stadium their home base in the near future. There’s a substantial market outside the U.S. for the league to tap, and as long as they can figure out the logistical issues — travel incongruities, getting newly-traded players a VISA, etc. — this expansion would be a tremendous boost for the sport.
2. WE DON’T WANT: BAN ON LEAPING BLOCKS ON FIELD GOALS
Unless the game is tied with 6 seconds left in the game, field goals are one of the least exciting parts of the game. Sorry, kicking enthusiasts, but the only action in the sport that suits the term “football” doesn’t create much spectacle. You know what does? A defender leaping over a lineman to block the kick and maybe even return it for a touchdown.
Unfortunately, teams unanimously voted to remove this high-flying action, and the ban will be implemented for the 2017 season. Rich McKay, Chairman of the Competition Committee, said the rule change will improve player safety, which is wonderful, but it’s hard not to side with King of Leaps Kam Chancellor, who tweeted “No Fun League… How can you entertain if you are governed by people who never broke a bone before?”
1. WE WANT: ROGER GOODELL LOSING POWER
If there’s one resounding criticism of Commissioner Roger Goodell, it’s that he too often mishandles disciplinary situations. So don’t expect Goodell to hold onto his role as judge, jury, and executioner for too much longer.
Though Deflategate seemed to reinforce his apparent infallibility — amidst the cacophony about the Commissioner overstepping his boundaries, Tom Brady’s suspension went through and Goodell skipped right along to the next controversy — playing the long odds suggests his future isn’t quite so rosy. Reports from an owners-only meeting back in April suggest many higher-ups in the NFL believe Goodell’s contract is too rich and his reach too long. As long as he keeps making the owners money, his job isn’t at risk. But when his contract expires in March of 2019, expect to see his job duties shrink and his reach retracted.
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