Rules taking the fun out of NFL game

Published 11:34 am Friday, October 29, 2010

Sometimes it seems like the National Football League’s rules committee and owners must be Congressional wannabes. They have the same tendency to make up new rules, the kind that look good on paper but which tend to be less than useful in the real world.

Used to be that football was, in essence, a simple game that involved a lot of gratifying smashing about and a pretty simple objective: Cause the ball to cross the goal line.

Back in the day, vendors at the stadium used to tell people, “You can’t tell the players without a program.” Soon they will be making as much money selling copies of the rule book as they do programs. Maybe more, because some of the rules are so difficult to interpret that mere words are not sufficient for understanding — it requires a companion DVD.

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The tuck rule, for instance, defies description. Designed to take the guesswork out of deciding whether a quarterback meant to throw a pass or tuck the ball away before fumbling, it instead has left just about everybody completely confused. No matter which side of a tuck rule ruling you’re on, as a fan, it’s not exactly the kind of football you tuned in or bought a ticket to see.

Same goes for the NFL’s decision to get tough on toughness by enforcing so many tackling-related rules that defensive players may want to actually stop in mid-play, consult their DVD-based guide, and then proceed to attempt a tackle.

And as far as catching the ball goes, good luck. As Vikings and Lions fans found out this year it might look like a catch, it might feel like a catch, it might be a catch — but under the NFL’s incredibly complex rules, it’s still not a catch.

What fun for fans. Not.

But the NFL’s deadening emphasis on arcane rules is just part for the course in our country, where the rule of law has made anyone who has anything to lose so cautious that doing almost anything seems unnecessarily risky.

The trouble, of course, is that rules often seem like a good idea in the abstract. The tuck rule might fit that description, because it was designed to address a special sort of confusion about whether a quarterback has fumbled. In practice, because the rule is an exception to how fumbles are determined in almost every other instance, it’s just plan befuddling.

While the tuck rule might give television commentators something to talk about during extended breaks in the action, its overall result is deadening to the game.

Baseball does a better job of rule-making because it mostly sticks to the same old rules that it has always had. They might not be perfect, but they have stood the test of many decades and, best of all, even casual fans know what those rules are.

The NFL, to the contrary, is creating a sport that is so rule-bound that fans have less fun than ever watching games. Indeed, minutiae now rule — and that is not why we watch football.

It hasn’t reached the point, yet, where we simply shrug when the Vikings play the Packers. But we’re getting there.


On a completely unrelated note … Wednesday’s brief spurt of snow reminded me of 1991’s Halloween blizzard. I spent the evening sleeping on the floor at the Minneapolis airport, my introduction to the perils of business travel.

What I remember most about that storm is that the next spring, when the snow finally melted it revealed a trio of long-forgotten and long-buried Halloween pumpkins, which had somehow decomposed despite the freezing temps. It was a mess.

None of that’s a big deal. What made me sad was that as I mentioned the blizzard to people on Wednesday, youngish adults, they didn’t remember it. And now I feel like my grandfather, who was always telling me about the big storms of his youth, to my utter boredom.

Lesson of the week, and I share it here freely: If you remember the 1991 Halloween blizzard, don’t bother to tell anyone about it.