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P-P-PLAYOFFS!?!

Updated: Jan 18

(And THE TABLE’s Suggestions For

Improving NFL Football)


The NFL playoffs are indelibly associated with January. Our suggested rule changes– which would surely improve the game– will NEVER happen.


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Why the sputtering “P,” you rightly wonder? Because it is difficult for any well-seasoned pro football maven to hear the word “playoffs” and not instantly think of THIS GUY and smile. Since Indianapolis Colts Head Coach Jim Mora uttered that priceless rant in 2001, the NFL has expanded the playoffs from 12 to 14 teams. And due to the 09/11/01 terrorist attacks, that season’s Super Bowl was nudged for the first time into February, where it has remained since 2003. For this current season, the NFL expanded the regular season schedule from 16 to 17 games, thereby pushing Super Bowl LVII (57) out to February 12, nine days after winter’s geophysical midpoint and therefore actually closer to springtime than to autumn.


I’m old enough to remember when Roman numerals were taught in grade school and football was considered an autumn game, with many a high school concluding its gridiron season against their league archrival in a Thanksgiving morning “Turkey Bowl.” And the pro football playoff season used to be a lot shorter as well. My favorite Super Bowl of all time– quite significant for its societal implications well beyond the scope of this essay– was Super Bowl IV (4), played on January 11 and, quite unthinkably today, during daytime hours. (Kickoff was at 2:40 PM CST.)

QB Len Dawson (16) led the Chiefs to their amazing and dominant upset victory

over the feared Vikings in Super Bowl IV.

Dawson is among the many luminaries we sadly lost in 2022.


But rather than sound like even more of a Grumpy Old Mansplainer, I actually applaud the present month-long NFL playoff format… especially since the last weekend of the NFL’s regular season, having itself permanently crept into January, has become a de facto playoff round in itself. The final postseason slots are often still up for grabs in Week 18, often with a downright comical matrix of “Team A can make the playoffs if and only if Teams B and/or C win and Team D ties or loses” scenarios. Indeed, who among us pigskin geeks can forget last year’s epic Raiders-Chargers season finale and its convoluted playoff implications?


For the sake of avoiding overwrought tenses and verbs, let’s go back to that week in real time– If the Raiders win, then they and the Steelers make the postseason and the Chargers do not; likewise, if the Chargers win, they and the Steelers head to the playoffs with the Raiders watching from their sofas. HOWEVER– if the Chargers and Raiders play to a statistically improbable TIE, then they BOTH advance to the postseason and leave the Steelers faithful crying into their Terrible Towels.

Many devoted members of Visigoth-like Raider Nation– even their young– expected

their beloved Silver & Black to play it safe and settle for a tie.


Of course the score was tied at the end of regulation, sending the game to overtime. And under regular season overtime rules, a tie is the end result of an even score after the ten-minute overtime period. With less than a minute left in overtime, the score, of course, was tied after field goals from each team. The opposing coaches then engaged in a rapid-fire combination of 3-D chess, chicken, and pigskin poker– both teams desperately wanted to make the playoffs, so neither could afford to lose. And yet for both coaches to tacitly agree to play for a tie would not only invite treachery from the opponent but also likely incur the expensive wrath of the Commissioner’s Office for fixing an outcome. (Click HERE for the final result and insightful analysis.) Spoiler alert– the Chargers played for a win and somehow managed to lose.


So, now that this year’s 14-team playoff field is all set, let us enjoy the “Second Season,” i.e., the month-long, one-and-done tournament that will determine the final combatants for Super Bowl LVII (Roman numerals, again.)


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As I anxiously await Week One of the NFL postseason, a.k.a. Super Wild Card Weekend, I cannot help but contemplate a few rule changes that would surely make a three-hour NFL football game much more enjoyable to watch.


PROBLEM:

We all love to watch a good 2-Minute Drill. More, please!


SOLUTION:

At present, only the 1st and 3rd quarters are automatically initiated with a kickoff, which means that play is continuous from the 1st quarter into the 2nd and from the 3rd quarter into the 4th. How about starting all four quarters with a kickoff? That would potentially add two more 2-Minute Drills per game– at the end of the 1st quarter and the 3rd. And while we’re at it, how about stopping the clock for 10 seconds after every 1st down to avoid punishing success on long downfield gains during these frantic sequences?


PROBLEM:

Kickoffs are usually boring touchbacks. And the onside kick is a joke– it has a highly improbable success rate and is often embarrassingly clumsy-looking and even dangerous.


SOLUTION:

We keep the aforementioned four kickoffs to start each of the four quarters… but we move them back to the 25-yard line, beyond the human physical capacity for kicking automatic touchbacks. (Teams can still attempt an onside kick if they so choose.) AND– instead of having a kickoff after every offensive scoring play, let’s impose the “Schiano Rule,” whereby the scoring team gets possession at their own 25, 4th & 15. Under normal circumstances they will almost certainly punt, and punts are much more interesting and less dangerous than kickoffs. But if a team is mounting a fourth-quarter comeback, they are free to try a play from scrimmage to gain the requisite 15 yards in order to maintain possession and start a drive, or they can run a fake punt… both of which are much more viable and watchable options than the onside kick.


PROBLEM:

NFL overtime over-rewards the winner of the coin toss, and, under regular season rules, can still result in a tie. (Especially if the quarterback is unfamiliar with the rules.)


SOLUTION:

Since we so love watching the hurry-up offense in the 2-minute drill, let’s have the teams alternate overtime possessions from the 50-yard line with 2 timeouts and 1:00 on the clock for each possession– that would surely feature non-stop excitement! Think of it like “rounds,” to wit– Round 1: Team A goes first and either scores a touchdown, kicks a field goal, or comes up empty by either running out of time or losing possession on downs or by turnover. Team B goes second and either 1) wins by out-scoring Team A’s Round 1 effort; or 2) exactly matches Team A’s effort, sending the overtime to Round 2; or 3) fails to match or exceed Team A's effort and loses. Repeat as often as necessary until one team outscores the other in a given round. (And, by the way, a pick-6 or other defensive touchdown wins immediately.)


PROBLEM:

Too many games are decided by a field goal.


SOLUTION:

(Grumpy Old Mansplaining Alert) I am a former NCAA placekicker, so I’ve thought a lot about this one. Please stay with me here.


Prior to 1964, field goals were almost an afterthought in the NFL– they had a low success rate and there were comparatively fewer attempts per game, almost always taken by position players because kicking specialists weren’t yet a thing. But then along came a parade of European soccer players with a newfangled style of kicking, and they revolutionized the game. Football fans suddenly found themselves watching the toughest guys in America beating the living crap out of each other for 59+ minutes, only to have some foreigner in a clean jersey come in and kick the winning field goal from mid-field. (HERE is a good read on the evolution of kicking styles.) The NFL responded by making it progressively more difficult to score a 3-pointer– first by moving the goalposts to the back of the end zone, and then penalizing missed field goals with progressively better field position for the opponent.


What happened next, of course, can be explained by Darwinism– the value of good kickers increased, and their higher salaries coupled with the rule changes served to breed better and better kickers. During the 2022 regular season, NFL placekickers converted attempts of over 50 yards with almost boring consistency, and even nailed five of 60 yards or more.


SO–


Instead of penalizing kickers, maybe it’s time to change pro football’s scoring values. At present, a touchdown (6 points) is worth exactly two (3-point) field goals. How about making touchdowns 5 POINTS and field goals 2 POINTS? That would automatically put a greater emphasis on scoring touchdowns. And while we’re at it, how about eliminating the extra point kick and making every after-touchdown play a far more exciting 2-point attempt? That, coupled with the elimination of kickoffs after scoring plays, would replace the most boring sequence in all of sport– the perfunctory point-after kick followed by the usual touchback on the ensuing kickoff– with something far more engaging.


And finally,


PROBLEM– The most ridiculous rule in the world is Section 7, Article 3, Item 4a of the Official NFL Rules– “When a fumble goes out of bounds in the end zone, the following shall apply: (a) If a ball is fumbled in the field of play, and goes forward into the opponent’s end zone and over the end line or sideline, a touchback is awarded to the defensive team…” Can someone please fix this?


SOLUTION– Yes. To be fair, this absurd rule is a vestigial remnant from soccer (the goal kick) and rugby (the free kick), where it quite reasonably transfers possession after a failed scoring attempt. But it applies awkwardly at best to the new Great American Game, and it has always been an issue.


A separate rule enacted in response to the infamous 1978 “Holy Roller” Play negates the possible advantages of fumbling into the end zone either intentionally or unintentionally, so my first instinct would be to build upon that and just replay the previous play with loss of down, even if that entails a change of possession because the fumble occurred on a failed 4th down play. However, such a fumble through the end zone might occur on an interception or kick return, in which case replaying the play wouldn’t make any sense. SO– let’s just call the play dead at the point of the fumble and go to the next down from there. Simple!


Like I said, none of these changes are likely to ever happen; the NFL is simply too stodgy and hidebound, and presently so popular that in springtime their annual college player draft draws more interest and coverage than do the NBA or NHL playoffs. So why change a single thing? But this gives me something interesting to think about during my long and boring overnight drives. Who knows? Maybe someone in Commissioner’s Goodell’s office is secretly a DANNY’S TABLE regular and reading this along with you. If so, maybe this rant will inspire change… and if not, I’ll still be following all the games on the road to Super Bowl LVII.


* * * * * * *


Meanwhile,

NFL fans as well as the larger world learned an important thing a couple of weeks ago– that if you’re going to suffer a cardiac arrest, then a packed NFL stadium is a darn good place to have it. Buffalo Bills Safety Damar Hamlin received expert CPR and other critical care less than a minute after his nationally-televised loss of consciousness, thus preserving his cognitive function and likely saving his life. When he awoke from his medically-induced coma, his first (written) words were, “Did we win?” The true answer, I think, is that the better side of humanity won– the NFL quickly suspended and then canceled the game; much of the country united in prayer for a positive outcome; and Damar’s GoFundMe page– originally a $2500 toy drive for poor kids in his Pittsburgh home neighborhood– has ballooned to nearly $9 million in charitable donations (including a modest contribution from Danny’s Table.) As fellow human beings, we cheer every step forward in Damar’s recovery. And as a Buffalo Bills partisan, I look forward to his appearance as an honorary captain for Super Bowl LVII’s coin toss and perhaps even his return to the playing field next September.


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The aforementioned "societal implications" of Super Bowl IV were indeed significant. For starters, the 1969 season was the last for the upstart AFL... which, quite richly, was founded by Lamar Hunt, who doubled as the owner of the Kansas City Chiefs. Hunt's Chiefs had been soundly thrashed by the Green Bay Packers juggernaut in Super Bowl I, and Coach Vince Lombardi had been notably less than gracious toward the AFL in victory. The 1969 edition of the Chiefs had barely made the playoffs as a "wild card" team and then eked out two tough victories to advance to the Big Game. The Minnesota Vikings, in contrast, had utterly destroyed the entire NFL en route to their Super Bowl IV berth. Notwithstanding the Joe Namath-led upset in the previous January's Super Bowl III, the AFL Champion Chiefs were generally expected to absorb yet another brutal beat-down by a superior NFL team. In retrospect, the pigskin "experts" were clearly blind to something big.


Not so widely recognized in January of 1970 was the racial disparity between the long-established NFL and the young AFL, which had proved far better at identifying and signing lesser-known talent from black colleges. While the Minnesota Vikings had become known during the 1969 season as the "Purple People Eaters" for their physical demolition of their opponents, Coach Hank Stram's Chiefs, particularly the defense, had quietly morphed into an extremely talented unit... with a roster featuring, for the first time in pro football history, a majority of black players.


Super Bowl IV was not even close-- the big, bad, Purple People-Eating Vikings were beaten purple to their very bones by the "upstart" Chiefs in every phase of the game. The Chiefs were clearly bigger, stronger, tougher, and faster; they outran, out-hit, out-coached, and just plain outplayed the old NFL's standard-bearer in the very last game ever played by the AFL.


For an absolutely delicious and well-detailed history of the AFL, check out "FULL COLOR FOOTBALL" on YouTube. HERE is a link for the first of five installments.

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