A Modest Proposal
On Saturday night, the St. Louis Rams lost their starting quarterback and implicit hero of the future, Sam Bradford, to a season-ending injury in a preseason game against, of all teams, the Cleveland Browns. Because of a 2012 trade involving draft picks which allowed Washington to select Robert Griffin III (himself no stranger to the infirmary), the Rams are essentially left without a Plan B outside of 34-year-old former Amsterdam Admiral Shaun Hill. For what it’s worth, St. Louis has expressed interest in acquiring Mark Sanchez from the Philadelphia Eagles, but you won’t see any positive letters of recommendation from this writer.
With another major injury to a franchise cornerstone comes the question of exactly what purpose the NFL preseason has. In theory, it allows for players to get reps in game competition, which can be particularly useful in the cases of starters and backups. For the players, the preseason can be the most important time of the year. Positional battles can play out on the field, and players can earn roster spots when their coaches had them slotted for the practice squad.
Side note: College football doesn’t have a preseason, outside of the occasional scrimmage, yet some people seem to enjoy it anyway, I guess.
Most of all, however, what preseason football does is throw early bones at a football-starved public, jaded by baseball highlights and award shows. The preseason doesn’t matter, you think, but whatever, it’s football, and you’re going to watch it. For American football fans, the period between the Super Bowl and the Hall of Fame game is a sports desert, and any hint of cool autumn air becomes a welcome sensory experience which alludes to hard hits and Chris Berman.
Sitting in a bar last Saturday night watching the array of preseason games with my friends, it occurred to me that the entertainment value of the preseason far outweighs any of its other objectives. Because the NFL seems so inclined toward maximizing its exposure, and understandably so, it ought to take into account the infinite opportunities presented by the preseason. How many people actually continue watching preseason games by the time the fourth quarter is in full swing, and the starters have long since retired to sweatsuits and team shirts? The preseason should be a time to tone down the seriousness of the league and amp up the wacky hijinks which could attract fringe and college fans to the NFL.
For the purposes of this piece, I’m going to anoint myself as the Commissioner of the NFL and tinker freely with the preseason format, without regard for almighty revenue or other external factors. Additionally, some of these are stylistic decisions which I would make as a head coach in the league. Sure, let the starters get a few serious reps, a series or two, before sitting, hopefully without incurring any medical maladies. Then allow for positional battles among backups and practice squad candidates. All of this should not take more than one quarter to get out of the way, but for the purists I’ll allow the entire first half to remain as a traditional NFL game, with all the rules as they would be during the season. When the second half begins, so does the fun.
1. Reduce the play clock to twenty seconds: This move blatantly takes a page from college football, admittedly. The pace of the NFL is such that, on average, only eleven minutes out of a possible sixty include actual play time, according to the Wall Street Journal. Stopping the clock in-between plays is unfeasible and would really make people hate the preseason. Cutting the play clock in half creates the opportunity for many more plays on offense, which can actually benefit a coach that wants to see which players are the most effective. The two-minute drill becomes the standard.
2. Adopt “laissez-faire” refereeing: Take the referees out of the game as much as possible, so as to reduce the “ref-ball” aspect of criticism. Fans will go into the second half of preseason games knowing that it is purely up to their players to win and that complaining is essentially futile. Not that complaining about refereeing during the preseason is a particularly noble pursuit anyway, but this renders that mindset void. The exceptions to this include plays which create an undue possibility for injury, or pure recklessness. There’s no room for that in this game.
3. Disallow punting until the 4th quarter: This one comes courtesy of Blog Serf James Vasiliou, and it seems pretty brilliant. Because most teams only carry one punter anyway, it serves little purpose to send them out during preseason games with the possibility that they could get hurt. Force teams to try on fourth down, which is a statistically impactful act that more teams should attempt more often anyway. James brought up a good point on returning punting for the fourth quarter: “Do you really need to test your punter for game atmospheres in preseason? And if so, why not do it in the most high-pressure situation possible?”
4. Only run trick plays: This is a no-brainer. If I’m a coach in the second half of a preseason game, I want everyone but the quarterback throwing the ball more than he is, with the sole exceptions coming in the form of flea-flickers, Hail Marys and fakes (spikes, punts, field goals, etc.). The best job in football, unless you’re Shaun Hill right now, is to be a backup quarterback, so why let him even throw the ball in game situations? I might line up two quarterbacks on the field at the same time and have neither of them throw the ball. Defensive coordinators would REALLY lose their cool over that.
I would devote an entire series or two to Hail Mary attempts, perhaps having a different player throw the ball each time. Fans LOVE the jump ball in the end zone. End-arounds, draws, direct snaps, laterals – these are the types of plays that make fans hold their breath and clutch their hearts. Plays with that kind of excitement are few and far between in the NFL, so let’s encourage their implementation as swiftly as possible, with one exception:
4a. Disallow play-action passes: Technically, play-action passes are trick plays, but they are also the bread-and-butter of many NFL offenses. Play-action passes are a dime a dozen during the regular season, so let’s ditch them in games that don’t matter so that we can focus on riskier, more creative plays.
5. Fans who are still around in the fourth quarter get to call the plays: Another from a bag of suggestions which are not solely mine, this could happen in a few different ways. For instance, there could be an aggregate fan voting-system installed in every stadium, or even a team-centric app. Both of those create issues with regard to trolling and rival fans, but then wouldn’t that just enhance the fun factor? Perhaps, like Phish used to do when the band played chess against its audience, the fans could elect a sole representative per game, per quarter or per series to draw up plays on behalf of everyone else. It’s a little tricky, but, as with everything else on this list, we can work out the logistics later.
6. Restore the legality of the fumblerooski: A given, something which was among the first things I considered, but which deserves singling out from other trick plays. Its inclusion in the 1994 cinematic masterpiece Little Giants as “The Annexation of Puerto Rico,” as well as a side-by-side comparison with the Carolina Panthers on YouTube, completely merit its inclusion in this list.
7. Reduce national corporate sponsorship, increase local commercials: How many of us are sick of the rote attempts at subtlety coming from the marketing departments of Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Hyundai and Subway (“Eat Fresh”)? All. The answer is all of us. Leave the onus of commercial selection exclusively to teams. Quirky, low-budget local ads will keep teams on their toes to pick the right ones. Give me more dated used-car lots. Give me more cable access ads. Give me more regionalism. All of this would theoretically serve to unite a team’s fanbase, even if it comes at the expense of their team and/or local businesses.
With these alterations, fans are sure to tune in to as many preseason games as possible. Ticket sales would parallel the regular season, and local commerce would receive immense exposure. The increasingly uptight nature of Roger Goodell’s NFL can wait four weeks. This is the preseason, and we want it now.
 Thanks, Ty.