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Eisenberg: Four Suggestions To Improve The NFL Game


Full disclosure: Along with writing columns here, I'm working on a book about the early decades of the National Football League, focusing on the founding fathers who shepherded it through some lean years when few fans cared.

It's an exciting project that has led me to interview descendants of historic figures such as the Bears' George Halas, the Steelers' Art Rooney and the Giants' Tim Mara, whose families still run the teams they founded.

After I spoke to Virginia Halas McCaskey, George's daughter, who is 94 and owns the Bears, someone said to me, "Wow, that's like talking to George Washington's daughter." Our interview was mostly about her father, but I also asked what lessons from the old days are useful today.

"The game comes first. Never stop working to make the game as good as possible," she said.

It's great advice and I'm sure people in the league are especially heeding it now that their TV ratings have experienced a drop, sending a shiver down some spines.

At the Super Bowl, Commissioner Roger Goodell said the league was discussing ways to speed up games to keep fans engaged. The possibilities include speeding up instant replay, a play clock between an extra point and the ensuing kickoff, and reducing the number of TV commercials from five to four per quarter.

Those all sound good, and with Virginia McCaskey's comment echoing in my head, I have other suggestions for improving the game:

1) Give defensive backs relief.

After every pass, players, coaches and fans swirl their heads around like the little girl in "The Exorcist," looking to see if a flag has fallen.

I don't think I'm exaggerating. After. Every. Pass.

Recent rule changes have benefitted offenses because the league believes fans want to see scoring. I get that, I guess. (Am I in the minority? I like old-fashioned, dominant defenses.) But defending the pass has become all but impossible. It's the hardest job in football – too hard, I think.

I admit, I'm not sure how to go about this, but rather than have every pass walk the fine line of possibly being a penalty, or maybe not, let's give cornerbacks and safeties the freedom to defend themselves. Let them play, in other words.

I like it when players decide games, not the rulebook and officials.

2) Continue to focus on player safety.

Injuries are up. Many result in long clock stoppages, which slow games down, and the combined effect turns people off. It's depressing to see so many guys go down.

I laugh when I hear complaints that the league is sissified now because defenders can barely touch quarterbacks. Anyone who feels that way should get to spend one Sunday on a sideline, viewing a game up close. They would see that players are bigger and faster than ever, their collisions frightening, their sport violent.

Pro football is anything but sissified.

The league should continue to do all it can to protect its players – for their sake most importantly, but also for the good of the sport.

3) Fix the "catch" rule so it makes sense.

Have you seen it? It's a veritable short story encompassing four paragraphs and two accompanying notes on page 31 of the 2016 rule book. You can settle in with a tall glass of iced tea while reading it. Takes awhile.

All to define if a player catches a pass. Or not.

It's tricky. I get it. But I've seen too many great catches disallowed by the letter or the law.

There HAS to be a better way. Remember "judgment" calls, those creatures from the pre-replay era? Let's give that a try. Let the refs decide. I know, this will never happen, but if it passes the eye test of what a catch is, it's a catch. Makes sense to me.

4) Shrink the number of TV windows.

This isn't an on-field fix, but I believe in the "less is more" theory when giving fans their football fix. Right now, they can get it on Thursday night, all day Sunday and Monday night. Pro Football Talk recently reported that a TV executive told Goodell it's too much exposure, intimating that might be why ratings are down. I think there's something to that. It's better to have fans yearning to watch.

The obvious window to eliminate is Thursday night, but that isn't happening because the contract is lucrative. So again, I don't know how to do this. But the league should consider it.

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