By Jason Whitlock | ESPN.com
I’m falling out of love with professional football. We’re growing apart. She’s not the same game I remember as a young man.
She’s unfair, favoring the fair-haired quarterback over all others. She’s codependent, controlled and manipulated by overworked and/or narcissistic referees. She’s put on weight and grown soft in all the wrong places, enacting strict rules about where, when and how she can be touched when we’re most intimate.
I don’t want a divorce. Football loved me when no one else would. She supported me through college. She’s been the backbone to my career. She never gets jealous when I sneak off with basketball, golf, the Olympics or any of the other girls. It’s been a wonderful, 40-year open marriage.
But we need counseling. We need to rework our relationship. We need ideas on how to spice up our love life. Occasional trips to Vegas for a wild romp at a sports book are no longer enough.
Sunday was my breaking point. Football and I were spooning on the couch watching the New Orleans Saints and the San Francisco 49ers exchange haymakers. With the Saints down three points late and the game on the brink of climax, Ahmad Brooks shot past the right tackle, steamrolled toward Drew Brees and bear-hugged the QB at his collarbone. The ball popped loose. The 49ers recovered and seemingly salted away a well-earned victory.
I was absolutely elated. Great game. Great finish. A tough football team won a tough football game by making the toughest play. That’s the game I love unconditionally.
The ref wiped out the play. He threw a flag, penalizing Brooks for hitting Brees in the neck area. The Saints went on to win the game. It was flag football. That’s what we have now in the NFL, a game dominated by judgment calls from name-brand referees, a game in which you have to ask permission to touch the quarterback, a game that wants to become safer through punishment.
“Scared straight doesn’t work,” Hall of Fame cornerback Darrell Green told Showtime’s “Inside the NFL.” “If it did, we wouldn’t have all these people in prison.”
Rather than punishment, Green championed a dramatic rule change to cut down on dangerous, concussion-causing hits. He suggested rules that stipulate safeties line up much closer to the line of scrimmage and cornerbacks must play man-to-man defense.
It’s a fabulous idea. It doesn’t quite go far enough though.
Given the league’s justified safety concerns and its investment in star QBs, football is in need of an overhaul. I love Green’s concept. I just want to enhance it. And I’d love to see the NFL test out these ideas in the Pro Bowl. There’s no better place to experiment on the game than in Honolulu with the world’s best players as lab rats. These tests would give the Pro Bowl a significance it hasn’t had for decades.
Green is right about moving safeties closer to the line of scrimmage. You ever wonder why, on average, there are more big, over-the-middle hits in the NFL than in college and high school? It’s because the safeties play deeper in the pros. Calvin Johnson, Dez Bryant, Julio Jones and strong-armed quarterbacks scare the hell out of NFL defensive coordinators.
In a standard Cover 2 NFL defense, the safeties line up 14 to 20 yards off the line of scrimmage. A weenie-arm high school QB and a 4.8-40-yard-dash receiver don’t strike fear. In a standard Cover 2 high school defense, the safety lines up 10 to 15 yards off the line of scrimmage. Those 5 to 10 yards make a huge difference upon impact. Less time to gather speed means less impact upon collision.
If you make Washington safety Brandon Meriweather stand 8 yards from the line at the snap, he’s going to blow up far fewer receivers. NFL safeties are big, athletic, fast, smart and instinctive. Give ’em a 20-yard downhill run and they can do a lot of damage. We need to shorten their runway.
Rule No. 1: No defender can line up more than 8 yards from the line of scrimmage.
Rule No. 2: Eight defenders must line up within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage.
I don’t like Green’s suggestion that corners must play man-to-man. I’m against limiting Dick LeBeau’s creativity. A 76-year-old mind is a terrible thing to waste.
However, I would enact a rule that makes it much easier to play man-to-man. The game is too easy for the offense. We’ve yet to invent a quarterback better than John Elway. But all the rules changes have made Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and all the rest perform at Dan Marino levels.
That’s not the game I love. Let’s make the game fairer for defenders. Let’s give the defense some tools.
Rule No. 3: Bump-and-run, physical pass coverage is allowed everywhere on the field until the ball is in the air.
No more bogus illegal contact penalties for inconsequential handsy stuff. No more ticky-tack pass interference calls. Let’s make receivers fight to get off the line of scrimmage and fight to get open downfield. Let’s play defense!
My next set of rule changes will be the most controversial. It’s necessary. And remember, we can test these rules at the Pro Bowl.
Rule No. 4: Quarterbacks are not allowed to run the ball past the line of scrimmage.
Yep. No more running QBs. Once a quarterback steps beyond the line of scrimmage the play is dead. You don’t want QBs to get hurt? Stop them from running.
Rule No. 5: The offense gets a 12th man — a sixth blocker, a noneligible receiver.
Bringing the safeties closer to the line will make it much more difficult to run the football. Outlawing quarterbacks from running will make it much more difficult to run the football. Allowing defensive backs to play physical with receivers will make it more difficult to pass the football. How do we solve all of these issues? We give the offense an extra blocker. This will help with the running game and pass protection.
Peyton Manning will have more time to throw the football. He’ll make good use of it.
Along with these changes, I propose that we take a hard look at relaxing the rules regarding hitting a QB in the head and neck areas.
Forbidding a defender from leading with his helmet to the chin and head area is a good rule. Ahmad Brooks’ hit on Brees should be perfectly legal. Accidental head slaps to the helmet area are no big deal and shouldn’t be penalized.
It’s fine to penalize helmet/shoulder pads/body shots to a quarterback’s knees. A defender should be allowed to tackle, with his hands and arms, at the QB’s knees and shin.
Hitting the quarterback hard in the pocket while he is holding the football is an essential element of football. This cannot be eliminated. When a QB releases the ball, I’m all for protecting him. But we’ve clearly gone too far. Drew Brees is a football player. Football is supposed to hurt.
Like the rest of America, Roger Goodell and the NFL have fallen in love with a law-and-order approach to every problem. The league wants to fix its concussion problem with fines, penalties and handcuffing defenders. Punishment doesn’t address root causes.
If the NFL fixes its game by massaging its rules, college and high school football will follow suit, and the game will be safer for kids. That’s how we all win. That’s how we get back the game we love.
• Columnist at the Kansas City Star for 16 years
• ESPN.com Page 2 columnist from 2002 to 2006