Sitting in a dimly lit booth at a suburban Indianapolis steakhouse in mid-February, breaking bread and drinking wine with the co-chair of the NFL's competition committee, I gathered my courage and made my move.
"I hate the forceout rule," I said to Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher. "It asks the officials to play God and determine what would have happened if a guy hadn't been pushed by a defensive back. You guys should get rid of that. Then if a DB pushes a receiver out before the guy can get his feet inbounds, it would be known as 'making a play.' "
Fisher, a former Chicago Bears safety, put down his fork and smiled.
"As a matter of fact," he said, "we talked about that at our meeting today."
On Wednesday, at the NFL owners meetings in Palm Beach, Fla., the forceout rule was scrapped by a unanimous vote. Now, with that longtime pet peeve taken care of, I'm here to answer the follow-up question you're all asking: The next time Fisher and I have dinner, what will I throw at him?
Here are five more rule changes I'd like to see:
1. The abolishment of the Tuck Rule
Yes, the arcane regulation that helped launch the New England Patriots' dynasty (not that their rise to prominence wasn't inevitable) and proliferate the paranoia of Raider Nation is still on the books, utterly counterintuitive and subject to uneven interpretation.
Let's do a little exercise here and, putting emotion aside, go back to that snowy January night in Foxborough six years ago when Oakland's Charles Woodson broke free off a blindside blitz, dislodged the football while pummeling Tom Brady and celebrated as teammate Greg Biekert recovered, seemingly clinching a Raiders playoff victory. Quick, who thought the play was a fumble? Answer: You. Everyone you were watching with. Everyone you know. Everyone they know. Tom Brady. (He later admitted to me that, at the time, he assumed it was a fumble.) The ghost of Vince Lombardi, etc. Yet, amazingly, NFL Rule 3, Section 21, Article 2, Note 2 existed then as it exists now: "When a Team A player is holding the ball to pass it forward, any intentional forward movement of his hand starts a forward pass, even if the player loses possession of the ball as he is attempting to tuck it back toward his body. Also, if the player has tucked the ball into his body and then loses possession, it is a fumble."
Referee Walt Coleman ruled that, because Brady had pump-faked a pass before being hit by Woodson – even though Brady had brought the ball back toward his body and was clutching it with both hands, with no intention of throwing at the time of the hit – it was an incomplete pass. My first problem with the rule is that it's totally inane: As I understand it, once a quarterback makes a throwing motion, he can pull the ball back and, as long as it doesn't touch his body and he doesn't raise it to start a new throwing motion, he can then recite the Gettysburg Address, do the Macarena and heave the ball over his head without fumbling. If I were a coach, I'd instruct my quarterback to begin each play with an immediate pump fake, thus reducing the possibility of a fumble. Secondly, I suppose I'd have a slight bit of respect for the Tuck Rule were it an accepted part of pro football. But it isn't – I don't remember it being applied before that Patriots-Raiders game, and I can only think of one semi-significant case since in which it has come up, a 2005 game between the Denver Broncos and Redskins in which Washington was denied an apparent third-quarter safety after Jake Plummer seemed to recover his own fumble in the end zone, only to have the ball ruled an incomplete pass because of a replay review. Denver ended up winning by two points. But most of the time, plays that would seem to fall under the Tuck Rule designation go uncalled by officials and unchallenged by coaches. Not infrequently, in press boxes, I exclaim "Tuck Rule!" after a quarterback fumbles; alas, as loud as I am, the coaches on the sidelines don't seem to hear me. (Maybe it's the headphones.)
All I know is, from the time we start playing football in our front yards as little kids, all of us understand the basic tenets of football, and this is one of them: If a guy comes off the blindside and blasts a quarterback who is clearly not throwing the football, and the ball flies free, the defense must be rewarded. How this rule remains on the books is utterly baffling to me. Supposedly, the competition committee is worried that there will be too many quarterback fumbles if the Tuck Rule is abolished. To which I say: Are you serious? What would be so terrible about that? Forced fumbles are a part of the game, and if you want to limit them, do a better job of protecting the quarterback or instruct him to get rid of it earlier.
2. A different approach to the rule stating that "the ground cannot cause a fumble"
It can't? Well, guess what, boys and girls? Put me in charge, and from now on the ground can cause a fumble. See, it just did. Why? Because I said so.
3. Rewriting the end-zone celebration rules
Scoring a touchdown in an NFL game with tens of thousands of people cheering wildly is a thrill that has been described to me as "orgasmic." So why must the No Fun League go to such great lengths to kill the moment? Other than doing something to taunt an opponent blatantly, like pretending to be a dog and lifting up a leg to simulate relieving oneself on a fallen foe (as the hilarious John Randle once did to celebrate a sack), players should be allowed to have some fun when they score.
For every crusty old stalwart who cringes when a player does a dance or, heaven forbid, uses a prop to display his excitement, there are four fans who eat it up. Creative celebrations such as those conjured up by Terrell Owens (Sharpie, pom-pons), Chad Johnson (CPR, marriage proposal), Joe Horn (cell phone), Steve Smith (diaper-change) and others help generate buzz and could even be incorporated into fantasy leagues, with extra points awarded for creativity. Yet the NFL's elders are either a) intent on ensuring that no one damages the feelings of large men in pads or b) utterly joyless. What is this, the East German Football League?
4. Rewriting the end-zone possession rules
Why is it that, when a pass is thrown in the 100 yards between goal lines, a player must catch the ball, retain control of it and make a "football move" before it is ruled a catch … but in the end zone, a totally different standard applies? I am so sick of seeing a receiver "catch" a ball for like .02 seconds, have it dislodged after a hit as his toe touches the turf and still get credit for the TD. This annoys me almost as much as the runner doing the reach-the-ball-over-the-plane-of-the-goal-line move for a score, but I'm not quite certain how to legislate against that, so I'll stick with pass plays for now. The actual language of the rule on what constitutes an end-zone catch would require some haggling, but as with plays on the rest of the field, common sense should be the prevailing standard.
5. Eliminating the various rules which conspire to make the acrobatic downing of a punt near the goal line as rare as a total eclipse of the sun
Seriously, the gunner who races downfield, lays out for a ball and bats it back into the playing field just before it lands in the end zone deserves to be rewarded, for this is one of the most exciting plays in football. There's just one problem: It is a blunder waiting to happen. The fans get fooled every time, too. A guy makes a great play, the ball gets downed at the one and everyone high-fives – and then some kill-joy zebra comes over waving his arms and making the touchback signal. Sometimes it's because the ball (gasp) broke the plane of the goal line before it was knocked back into the playing field. Sometimes the coverage man put his foot in the end zone before leaping back onto the field and making the play. Sometimes a player raced ahead and downed the ball, but his momentum carried him into the end zone after the fact.
I've read all the rules pertaining to this scenario, and they make my head spin. I'd suggest, simply, that the NBA rule on out-of-bounds plays be adopted: If a player on the receiving team can keep the ball from touching the end zone without touching the ground beyond the goal line, the ball remains in play and can be downed by him or another player on the receiving team. That would be fair, and it would be fun to watch. I haven't broken bread with the Ghost of Vince Lombardi lately, but I'm pretty sure he would agree.
TAKE IT TO THE ATM
The next time Arizona Cardinals quarterback Matt Leinart claims he doesn't remember giving quotes to me the previous night, I will be more inclined to believe him – if he can produce photos like this in his defense. … If both karma and an afterlife exist, Jacksonville Jaguars defensive back Brian Williams will spend eternity flipping burgers at the National Organization for Women's in-house cafeteria while clad in red a North Carolina State Wolfpack apron – after walking five miles to get to work. … After some previous claims to the contrary, Broncos wideout Brandon Marshall finally got his "wakeup call" – from quarterback Jay Cutler.
LIES, LIES, LIES
1. Gene Upshaw is a tactful man, and no one can ever accuse him of being a hypocrite.
3. After tabling the proposed rule prohibiting players from having hair that flows out of their helmets, NFL owners voted to force Raiders defensive coordinator Rob Ryan to adopt Mel Kiper Jr's. hairstyle.
OXYGEN-DEPRIVED THOUGHT FROM ABOVE
Is Browns general manager Phil Savage seeing little green men outside his office window, or is he just having a little fun at the media's expense? I'm hoping it's the latter, but I'm not especially confident that's the case after reading Savage's comments in the Cleveland Plain Dealer detailing his decision to increase the team's contract offer to quarterback Derek Anderson. Savage said he feared the Cowboys would sign Anderson, then a restricted free agent, to a contract that contained a "poison pill" that the Browns couldn't match – all as part of a grand plan to trade him to Miami, where former Dallas coach Bill Parcells is now the executive vice president of football operations. He suspected this not because it was reported or because he heard about it from his own sources, but because the Dolphins wouldn't return his calls. (Cue spooky music.) Then Savage took an even bigger leap, suggesting the Cowboys would have been motivated to swing the deal because they were bitter at the Browns for finishing with a better-than-expected record in 2007, which caused the '08 first-round pick Dallas acquired from Cleveland in the Brady Quinn trade to be later than expected. "What better way for them to get back at us for having a good year?" Savage asked. Uh, yeah, Phil – whatever you say. NFL people are paranoid creatures, but even by those standards, this is out there.
LET'S DO SOME DON JULIO SILVER SHOTS FOR …
Rick Telander, the great Chicago Sun Times columnist, author, spiritual guru and unrepentant rocker for the Del Crustaceans. That's him, belting it out with a typically lost-in-translation guest vocalist on the eve of the Cubs' home opener.
YAHOO! SEARCH WORDS OF THE WEEK
Mike Ditka nuts
ROLLIN' WITH THE ROYALS
Since we last checked in on the Reading Football Club, the Royals have acquitted themselves quite nicely, picking up four precious points in their effort to survive to play a third season in the English Premier League. A mini-homestand at Madejski Stadium featured a 2-1 victory over Birmingham and a 0-0 draw with Blackburn, leaving 15th-place Reading six points clear of the drop zone with six contests remaining. Two goals by André Bikey, the second in the 79th minute, keyed the victory over Birmingham. In the Blackburn draw, our old friend Marcus Hahnemann played a huge role, making a couple of huge saves as the Royals played the final 18 minutes with 10 men after Marek Matejovsky was sent off for a second yellow card. On Saturday, Reading travels to Newcastle for a rematch of the stirring game that prompted my allegiance in the first place, with a chance to draw even with 12th place United in the standings.
LYRIC-ALTERED SONG DEDICATION OF THE WEEK
My children got an up-close-and-personal view of the illusory traveling call that ended Cal's women's basketball season in the NCAA tournament, and the next morning two of them took the liberty of composing this ode to official Amy Bonner, to the tune of Black Sabbath's "Iron Man."
" 'I am Iron Ref'
Have you lost your mind?
Can you see or are you blind?
Your calls are so lame
You shouldn't have reffed that game
Saw it with my eyes
Your calls are a bunch of lies
What were you thinking?
Before the game were you drinking?
You made people cry
Might as well have made them die
You can't end our season like that
Don't give us any more of that crap
Nobody wants you
Leave your whistle at home!
Nobody wants you
Don't ever ref again!"