I’m pretty excited that Chip Kelly is coming to the NFL. If you’ve watched the Oregon Ducks in recent years or the Patriots hurry up offense, you’re probably excited too. It’s fun to see teams try something different, and I like seeing fast offenses break defenses’ will using such a simple concept. Sometimes, the defense isn’t even lined up when the ball is snapped. Teams spend tons of energy trying to outsmart defenses, but a fast offense can make it easy.
If the speed game catches on, it has other possible implications. For example, the NFL could shorten the play clock to encourage game pace. Most people would enjoy more football and less standing around. Whether the play clock changes or not, teams will want smaller, faster players on offense and defense, reversing the rapid growth in player BMI over the last thirty years. A size reduction might help with concussions — though force equals mass times acceleration, and acceleration might go up — and it could also help with heart, heat, and other obesity-related illnesses/deaths that lineman face.
So what does this have to do with first downs? Bear with me. The NFL has a credibility problem with it’s measurement technology. I chuckle every time the chain gang trundles out and the ball is measured one link short. Football certainly is a game of inches: in the case of spotting the ball and measuring ten yards, the margin of error is measured in inches. A first down laser would help with referees wandering up, down, and around the field, but spotting the ball is tougher.
Football acquired down-and-distance rules thanks to Walter Camp in 1882. They were intended to keep teams from sitting on the ball for the entire game, but the more recent addition of the play clock opens up other possibilities. Why not shorten the play clock and give teams a limited number of plays to traverse the entire field? To keep it simple, the rule could be
Downs = Yards to the End Zone/6,
rounded to the nearest down, with a minimum of four. So, if you get the ball on your 20, you get 80/6 = 13 plays to score. If you get the ball on the 50, you get 50/6 = 8 plays, and if you get the ball on the opponent’s 15, you still get the minimum four tries. More complicated functions might work better — to avoid confusion, you could ditch the yard lines and repaint the field with the number of plays available in each direction.
With this system, only two spots really matter: the starting point and the touchdown-scoring play (if the team makes it that far). Errors on other spots along the way will balance out a bit before they have any real impact on possession or play calling. Both important spots can be checked with video without slowing the game much at all. That seems like a big improvement! We would have fewer commercial breaks (make each one longer if you want) with interesting chains of fast-paced, continuous attack by the offense.
What are the downsides? It’s possible that scoring would go down, since teams could grind out enough yards to pin the other team deep every time. However, the faster play clock would help with that a bit, and teams might actually score more, since their path to the end zone would be less restricted (no more requirement to get ten yards every four plays . . . ). Also, the end game gets complicated. The faster play clock helps again, since ten plays might only translate to a couple minutes, but first downs might have to come back for the last two minutes. Maybe 20 yard intervals would be a good compromise.
So, I’m hoping for big things from Chip. If he can speed up the game and show us the benefits of a shorter play clock, we might not need accurate spotting or first downs anymore. You may love all that procedure, but I just want to see the players play the game.