I’m a big fan of (American) football, but a lot of people are surprised to learn that I never played organized football. It was largely a matter of timing– the coaches when I was in junior high were not people I’d've been interested in playing for, and when they hired a good guy to run the program when I was in high school, I was already playing soccer. And in college, I played rugby
One of the lingering consequences of not having played organized football is that I really haven’t internalized all the rules. Which means that, when I watch the game, the one major weakness I see is that it seems overly fussy and technocratic. There are a whole host of non-obvious rules that seem to serve no obvious purpose other than bogging the game down from time to time.
For example, there are a whole slew of “illegal procedure” penalties. Some of these are obvious– you don’t want a back getting a running start before the ball is snapped– but many of them are kind of obscure. There’s a penalty for having too many men at the line of scrimmage, and another one for “leaving the tackle uncovered” or some such. Either of those can generally be fixed by having one guy take a step or two forward or backwards. I’m always baffled by those calls, mostly because I’m not at all clear what Bad Thing they’re intended to prevent.
Another good example is the myriad of rules regarding what counts as a catch, and what counts as a fumble. The Detroit Lions (in)famously lost a game earlier this season when their star knucklehead Calvin Johnson caught a ball in the end zone, then set it on the ground as part of his celebration. Because he did this too smoothly, though, they ruled it an incomplete pass, and lots of the commentary about the play seemed to see no problem at all with having something that would’ve been a catch out of the field be an incompletion in the end zone. Or there’s the Eli Manning play last week against Philadelphia, where the fact that he dove forward onto the ground meant that when the ball was jarred loose on impact, it was a fumble, but had he bumped a Philly player on the way down, or done a baseball slide, the play would’ve ended. Of course Philly tried to rules-lawyer a similar play yesterday, claiming that the Chicago player who recovered their onside kick attempt hadn’t been touched, and thus had given up the ball when he dropped it to celebrate. The officials neatly undercut that one by declaring that the player had “given himself up,” which they won’t review (I was betting on “the whistle blew,” which is the other great official’s cop-out).
It’s hard to avoid feeling like the game just has too many rules. There are a bunch of rules that are clearly essential for fairness and safety– some version of the false start and offsides rules, prohibitions on dangerous blocking and tackling– but a lot of what’s on the books just seems excessive to me. If you want to line up with fewer blockers on the line, go nuts– it’s your job as an offensive coach to balance the increased chance of having an open receiver against the increased chance of having your quarterback flattened. If you have a guy on your team who can both snap the ball as the center, and catch a pass, go ahead and throw to him.
(I’m particularly fond of the last one, as a charter member of the international fraternity of Big Slow Guys… One of the best things about rugby is that, while second-row play is almost all drudgery, you do get the occasional shot at glory in the line-out. You couldn’t pay me to play tight-head prop, though.)
I’d also like to see a little more flexibility in the rules that are essential. While you clearly want some variant of the false start rule in place, it really shouldn’t be called unless it affects the play. If the left tackle hiccups and nobody else moves, or Cal’s kicker takes a half-step forward, there’s no reason for that to be a penalty. Call it if the movement fools somebody on the defense into thinking the play started, otherwise, let it go, and keep the game moving. I’m not tuning in to watch the officials confer, I want to see some football.
The best criticism soccer and rugby fans have of (American) football is that the players spend too much time standing around between plays. A lot of that is unavoidable, but you could cut it down some by getting rid of some superfluous rules, and make it a more fluid and entertaining game in the process.