By Dan Bernstein
Unintended consequences can be damaging because they are just that, and a league that prides itself, above all, on control still always seems to find an ironic way to cede so much of it by its own design.
So it is with the latest discussion of potential changes to the rules, as the NFL tinkers ahead to improve its on-field product and satisfy grumbling from within. They want to finally better define what it means to catch a football, and how teams will be allowed to prevent that from happening.
This is the latest news from the ongoing discussions of the competition committee. It gathers annually to complicate matters under the guise of simplifying them, often putting fingers to the wind to gauge public and private opinion, before eventually letting all the ensuing slowed-down replays show them all the things they never considered. This is the discussion period for them, ahead of votes next month that require 75 percent of owners to ratify changes.
First is the idea of deciding when or if a ball is caught, with the debate still fueled by old controversy. Just saying the names Dez Bryant and Calvin Johnson is now enough to elicit nods and shrugs. The I-know-it-when-I-see-it faction is now tasked to describe in gory detail exactly what they know when they see what they see, and how anybody making a call should be expected to know and see similarly. Reports indicate that there might be agreement on eliminating the aspect of finishing the process of the catch all the way to the ground, which will merely retroactively validate some famous highlights while spurring inquisitive fans to dig up any number of others that cut the other way upon forensic inspection.
That just changes the specific point of uncertainty rather than minimize or obviate it. As long as we are still going frame by frame after the fact, this will result in people being irrationally angry about something elsewhere in the kinetic chain.
And the same kind of results await from the proposal to change defensive pass interference to a collegiate-style 15-yard penalty from the current spot foul. Proponents of the move decry the game-changing nature of purposeful underthrows that victimize unwitting defenders and flip the field at key times. Those arguing the status quo envision deliberate penalties taken strategically now that the downside risk has lessened, allowing a less punishing bailout option upon getting burned. A compromise may be found in a tiered adjudication along the lines of flagrant interference that merits full yardage and the more garden-variety infraction that costs some set amount.
But caught in the middle are the already overwhelmed officials, who struggle every Sunday to see what’s happening so immediately in front of their eyes. Asking them to now do more would seem like a fool’s errand. College did away with spot interference, apparently to take the burden off of officials. The NFL responding in the same way would be a white flag waved, admitting that even with the full benefit of every replay and multiple opinions involved that they can’t quite figure it out fairly so it’s better to stop trying. Requiring new judgments on the fly could then cause a larger mess.
The only certainties here is that multiple games each week will have unforeseen confusions, and at least one playoff game will leave us remembering a player’s name for dubious reasons that involve a watershed ruling that half of us think is wrong and stupid. In football’s super-slo-mo investigative environment, the pursuit of better answers will only lead to new and different questions.