Basic Beauty of Football Is Being Lost

As long as we have happened upon this D-Day of the football season, this moment of truth, at a time in our lives when football dialogue and arguments dominate much of the conversation, I can think of no better time to discuss everything that is right and wrong today with the game of football, wondering who agrees or disagrees.

We hear all too often about issues such as instant replay, the quality of officiating in general, crowd noise, violence, steroids, artificial turf, even weather; e.g., how much fog is too much fog? A dispute even arose last week over how much time the Cleveland Browns were obligated to spend in Denver before the kickoff of today's AFC Championship game against the Broncos. Truly ludicrous.

None of these subjects make my list.

I want to talk about the sport itself, about the way it is played, about its standards and measurements and how they could be improved. Because football is a lovely game, when you get right down to it. It is a lovely game with violent tendencies, in which otherwise normal human beings are taught to win through sheer animal ferocity. Separate him from the ball. Oooh, did he give him a shot! He really knows how to take a hit. Such is the life they lead.

What we occasionally neglect is the precision with which football is played, its lines and split-second timing and geometric equations, the shortest distance between any two points being a straight line, that sort of thing. If such thoughts bore you, give them another minute. Think about them as you watch the next game.

Think about:

THE PUNT

We have here one of the most preposterous situations in the great game of football. Consider how football is played. As players attempt to advance a ball from Point A to Point B, their progress is measured to the millimeter, by men with 10-yard chains, by officials who work feverishly to make sure that a football is spotted at precisely the spot where a person's forward progress was stopped.

So what happens when that team falls short of its mark and is forced to punt the ball to the other side?

The kicker aims the football out of bounds, toward a corner of the enemy's end of the field, and lofts it high and far until it lands 10, 20, sometimes 50 or 100 feet wide of the boundary stripe, thereby burying the opponent somewhere deep in its own territory.

And what sight do we see? The hilarious sight of a man in a striped shirt and cap, looking skyward as though at a pigeon, watching the ball fly overhead, then dashing a few steps forward and hopping to a stop, proclaiming that here , here is exactly where the ball went out of bounds as it passed by, 50 feet in the air.

Dear Commissioner Tagliabue, NFL owners and rules-makers: A punt should absolutely have to land in bounds. It is positively absurd to measure a sport by inches and centimeters, then permit some punter to kick a ball into the cheerleaders and have an official place it down at the opponent's four- or six- or eight-yard line.

Please discuss this, soon. Furthermore, please also discuss:

THE FUMBLE

An esteemed colleague of mine has been shouting about this for years. He is right. One of the goofiest things about the game of football is that the fumble--as important a part of a football game as any play you'll see all day--has become the most arbitrary, ambiguous, gray area of the day's play.

Listen, and listen good: A fumble is a fumble is a fumble.

If a player doesn't hold onto the ball, it should be a fumble. Period. End of discussion. He drops it, it's a fumble. He holds onto it, it's not a fumble. How much more basic could anything be?

Instead, what do we have? It's not a fumble because he was "already down." It's not a fumble because "the ground caused it." It's not a fumble because he "broke the plane" of the end zone. It's not a fumble because he was "in the grasp."

Enough, already!

When the tackle is made, does the player still have the ball? This is the only question anyone need ask. It would end all arguments, thousands of them, from here to eternity.

As would further consideration of:

THE EXTRA POINT

Why should a football team, behind by seven points, not be permitted to go for two points instead of one, as our college teams do, to try to win a football game? Why should a football team be left with absolutely no option of what to do after a touchdown, after having hundreds of options trying to get that touchdown?

Why should men who slave as long and courageously and viciously as football players do be forced to endure overtime periods for our amusement, risking further fatigue and injury, when one simple rule would permit them to choose whether they wanted to take the safe route and continue playing or gamble on winning or losing the game? What is so important about the extra point being one extra point?

Am I wrong? I don't think I'm wrong. Do players and fans think I'm wrong?

Come back next week, and I'll tell you why we can do without the two-minute warning.

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