Fans fill the offseason in any number of ways, but few of us get away from sports completely. In my case, I recently picked up Upon Further Review, an anthology of “What If” scenarios edited by Mike Pesca. It’s a fun read, and I’d recommend it for any sports fan who is looking for a distraction. However, one particular essay stood out, and it’s worth highlighting it for the football fans in our community. It’s a piece written by Nate Jackson, and it’s titled “What If Football Were Reinvented Today?”
Jackson has an interesting take on the issue, which might not be too surprising given his background as an undrafted free agent who managed to scrape together a six-year career with the Broncos as a receiver and tight end. As such, he has a bit more credibility when it comes to speaking about saving the game and also about the cost of the game. His piece begins with the troubles football was having in 1903. Compared to back then, the problems facing modern football seem tame.
Jackson quotes the Chicago Tribune as calling football a “death harvest”, because in 1903 “nineteen American boys died from their football injuries.” After giving a brief history of Teddy Roosevelt’s effort to save football with a summit to change the rules, Jackson walks into familiar territory:
“Many coaches were flummoxed by the new rules and decried what they saw as the softening of American toughness. Cartoons depicted football players in tutus. This isn’t football, they said.”
Then, interestingly, Jackson goes about trying to save football again. His suggestions do not involve changing the field, the scoring, tackling, or even the blocking and hitting rules. His suggestions instead directly address what he sees as the real problem—the pocket and the problems that come from creating or collapsing the pocket.
His analysis, and its worth reading in its own right, is that many of the problems in football come from overspecialized athletes tearing up their bodies to protect quarterbacks, players he feel are overvalued in the modern game. “They are slower, weaker, and softer, generally speaking, than the rest of the players. They also have the longest careers. It makes little sense that the hardest position in sports can also play the longest.” To Jackson, the problem is that when the forward pass was introduced, it forced dramatic overspecialization that made most of the athletes on the field sacrifice their bodies for a very limited style of play.
His solution is equally engaging. He suggests that all offensive players be allowed to be eligible receivers who might run, throw, or catch the ball. With modern athletes, the argument goes, it is much more likely to have a range of players who can do these things well, and so the ‘guy who can throw’ is way less of a rarity than it once seemed.
Additionally, he suggests allowing much greater freedom when it comes to lining up. As a result, he claims that the overspecialization of players would need to give way to more generalist athletes. He points out the way in which specialization leads to injury, and he also makes a compelling point that with more players doing different things, it will force all players on the field to be more general athletes instead of behemoths too big for their own health. That will, he suggests, decrease the impact of hits and the like down the road, as well (and, he hopes, this could have ramifications for CTE problems).
Other suggestions are included as well, and overall his essay creates an image of football that seems a lot more like a fun game people might play in their backyard than the formal affair that airs on Saturdays and Sundays. It also seems too radical for people to accept, even if it would solve a lot of problems.
What I thought was the most compelling part of the essay was the fact that Jackson found ways to decrease the worst parts of football by changing the strategy element, not the rules about the actual application of force. He suggested ways to keep the sport alive not by increasing the specific protection of any one player or group of players, but rather by making every player a little more equal on the field.
I don’t know if it would ever come to pass, but if Jackson gets his version of football up and running somewhere, I’ll buy a ticket.