Generally speaking, I am a laissez-faire guy. The NFL has thrived and grown to Death Star-like status over the past 20 years because the game is great and the athletes are special. We are in a golden era of the sport, and for the most part the health of the game is extremely strong now.
Changes tend to happen more organically to the sport over time, and though we can point to a few important adaptations that have helped shape football’s path forward — modern free agency, instant replay, some rule changes, division realignment — it mostly has kept true to its core existence. And for good reason.
Tinkering isn’t always a good thing. Nervous coaches like things to stay the same, for the most part, because the more changes there are year to year, the more chances they have to make mistakes and have to adapt new strategy. The same is true with players, who already have a lot going through their heads during games, as well as team and league officials, who carry a heavy burden as stewards of the NFL.
That said, the NFL’s competition committee convened, along with the clubs' owners, this week at the league’s spring meeting to discuss rule changes, and it considered a few very interesting things on the table. The NFL passed three new rules, including moving the trade deadline back, expanding injured reserve and making added pads mandatory for the 2013 season.
Some changes do help the game. Oftentimes they are subtle, but they can help improve the safety, watchability and quality of the overall product in small but tangible ways.
Let’s go through the new changes, one by one, and discuss what the effect will be:
The NFL’s trade deadline had passed on the Tuesday of the sixth week of the NFL season, and it typically has done so with a whimper.
Brandon Lloyd was dealt to St. Louis a season ago, and Roy Williams went from Detroit to Dallas in a fairly notable trade in 2008. The fact that neither deal significantly altered the postseason race, though, is not a reason to keep the deadline where it is. Moving back the deadline two weeks opens the door for more teams to make playoff-changing maneuvers. That’s a start.
Ask the Texans, who lost Matt Schaub to injury, and the Chiefs, who lost Matt Cassel, what they thought about the Week Six deadline — especially after a lockout-shortened offseason that dramatically restricted player movement.
Had those injuries happened earlier, they might have been able to make a Carson Palmer-type deal, as the Raiders did, to solidify their QB positions. As it was, they had to find help from within and with street free agents. The Texans, despite a great defense and run game, barely fell short in the playoffs against the Ravens, and the Chiefs didn't make the postseason.
The evidence in recent history suggests that player-for-player or player-for-draft-pick trades are becoming more prevalent in other times of the year as the economics of the NFL make those deals easier to execute. Why not adjust the timing of the deadline?
Did they get it right? Having a Week 13 trade deadline is not unrealistic at some point down the line. But baby steps are OK, too. They made this change with a testing-the-waters approach, and it should lead to it being pushed back down the line. This is a good first step. Expect one or two more notable in-season deals per year with the added time.
Changing injured-reserve rules
The NFL’s injured-reserve rules have been the most restrictive in all of sports. Namely, once players find themselves on it, it’s “see you next season.” Although league officials have discussed for years finding some kind of shortened form of the I.R. — similar to baseball’s 15-day disabled list — the lack of a true minor-league system and concerns over teams seeking ways to manipulate the rules have steered the NFL away from anything like this.
In March, the owners discussed having a one-player exemption to the rule where a major injury to a franchise-type player would not necessarily end his season, but it did not pass until this Tuesday. Every club will now have the option to designate a single injured player who was on the roster through Week One as a reserve exemption, and that player will be eligible to practice in six weeks after that time and play in a game eight weeks after the designation. The Ravens' Terrell Suggs and the Eagles' Jason Peters might be candidates for this, although they could be eligible for the physically-unable-to-participate (PUP) list if the clubs so choose.
Previously, there were shorter versions of the I.R. Up until 1990, players had to sit out six games, and through '93 it became a four-game absence. Those rules were changed to prevent teams from illegally stashing players on I.R. — either prospects who are not ready to perform or players whose injuries are minor, or nonexistent.
The NFL still has the PUP list designation that allows injured players to return to action during the season, but those players cannot take the field before landing on the list and must wait to return during a three-week window of Weeks 7-10.
Another, separate proposal discussed in March had each team able to place a player on the inactive list each week because of a concussion without losing a roster spot. But this appears to have lost some steam of late.
Did they get it right? The one-player exemption passed, and it makes a lot of sense. The Colts, for instance, wasted a roster spot much of last season on Peyton Manning with the hopes he might play — and rescue them from a winless campaign. Although no player on the streets or their practice squad would have come close to matching Manning's impact, they had needs all over and could have used another healthy body to contribute. This designation, which now clearly needs a catchy name, gives teams more roster flexibility and allows for a star player to help return to a team after a long injury. It's one spot, so roster chicanery is not really likely, although the league's competition committee folks calling it a "marquee" slot does open the door for interpretation.
The NFL will make thigh and knee pads mandatory on all players, starting with the 2013 season. The use of hip pads will be encouraged, but it was not passed as part of the safety changes. It’s part and parcel with commissioner Roger Goodell’s aim to make the game safer in all respects without trying to dramatically change the game.
But will the extra padding provide the results the NFL says it is aiming for? There is no concrete data that suggests extra protection will provide that, and players don’t like the extra mandatory padding because it tends to make them feel bulkier and, thus, less quick and fast. Smaller, quicker players, typically receivers and defensive backs, often eschew the extra padding although, as smaller players, they might be more susceptible to injuries.
It’s possible the NFLPA strongly opposes such changes, not only because its members don’t like them. The proposal actually could be in violation of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, as it relates to working conditions. The measure, in these cases, might have to be taken up as a sort of amendment to the CBA and agreed upon by all parties. Or if the league tried to impose such a measure, the union could file a grievance.
The union, which has continued to butt heads with owners over several issues despite labor harmony, issued the following statement Tuesday:
"Any change in working conditions is a collectively-bargained issue. While the NFL is focused on one element of health and safety today, the NFLPA believes that health and safety requires a comprehensive approach and commitment. We are engaged in and monitor many different issues, such as players' access to medical records, prescription usage and the situation with professional football's first responders, NFL referees. We always look forward to meeting with the NFL to discuss any and all matters related to player health and safety."
Did they get it right? No. At least not fully. The NFL likes to flex its muscles when it can, and when a move is made with the auspice of improving health and safety, it will act boldly. Adding more padding might be the right approach, but the way the NFL did it — without first talking to the union — was wrong. The league has been emboldened recently the more that people come out saying that the NFLPA was shafted with last year's CBA and that the players got the short end of the stick. Correct or not, the public sentiment has the NFL acting with pre-CBA levels of boldness and making changes it knows the union won't be fully behind. This is where an olive branch might have done some good.