My idea for how the NFL could fit cross-conference rivalry games—like Texans-Cowboys or Raiders-49ers—into the yearly schedule. Plus questions on offensive pass interference, a new place for the Pro Bowl and the Raiders' coaching search
I heard from a few of you about the idea of trying to have every team play a rivalry game each year. In the wake of Houston and Dallas playing a thrilling game on Sunday, and now not scheduled to play again until 2018 in the regular season, Donavan from Eagan, Minn., writes:
Your comment about the stupidity of the Cowboys playing the Texans every four years jumped out at me. I've noticed you mentioning it about other match-ups such as 49ers vs. Raiders and Manning vs. Manning. My question is: What would you do about it? There are only 16 games per season. The teams are in different conferences. Would you tinker with the scheduling system the NFL has and works quite well with 32 teams? How is that fair to the rest of the league? I'd hesitate to mess with the competitive balance of the schedule to fix this. It is an unfortunate situation, but hardly stupid.
I have written about this on several occasions. Obviously, I think it is wrong for the NFL to play obvious rivalry games between teams in opposite conferences as often as we elect a president in the United States. Here is how I would fix it: I would designate for each one of the 16 teams in each conference a rival from the other conference.
Some would be easy. The Jets and the Giants. Washington and Baltimore. Dallas and Houston. San Francisco and Oakland. Some will not be easy, because in a regional sense, there may not be a natural rival. And so in that case, you create a rivalry. In the same way that Oakland and Kansas City became fierce rivals, even though they are two time zones apart, the NFL would invent and nurture rivalries, and over time they would be as interesting and as competitive as division games. Even after Peyton Manning retires, you could see a great Rocky Mountain/Pacific Northwest rivalry develop in Denver vs. Seattle. San Diego and Arizona could have a great regional competition. Detroit and Cleveland could play the “Rust Belt Bowl” every year. The benefits of playing these games would far outweigh the one missing game on a team’s schedule that is a happenstance game anyway. Under my proposal, a team would play one fewer conference game per season out of division. There would be many ways to work that out.
So that’s my plan. Let me know what you think.
Now on to the rest of your emails...
OFFENSIVE PASS INTERFERENCE. With all of the emphasis on illegal contact by defensive backs on receivers, it seems as if the officials are ignoring pass interference by the receivers. Dez Bryant was wide open for his touchdown due to a blatant push off against the cornerback. Likewise, in the San Francisco game, Stevie Johnson basically punched the defensive back in the back of his shoulder and then backed into the end zone wide open and caught the touchdown pass. At the end of the game, even though it was incomplete, Anquan Boldin pushed off to get open near the goal line without a penalty call. The Niners then proceeded to kick a field goal to increase their lead to five points.
—Steve, El Cerrito, Calif.
I’ve been noticing the exact same thing. I thought that the Dez Bryant call definitely should have been made. I have not seen the Stevie Johnson play. I thought that the Anquan Boldin call probably should have been made but wasn’t blatant. I have a lot of empathy for back judges and the other officials whose job it is to make these decisions in a split second. On the one hand, you don’t want what the officials call “chicken fighting.” That’s when the receiver and the cornerback basically are pushing and clawing each other well beyond the five-yard bump zone. Also, they don’t want to make a bunch of ticky-tack calls that are really not important to the outcome of the play.
Last year, I had the chance to follow an officiating crew for a week and was able to watch tape one afternoon with one of the best back judges in football, Dino Paganelli, in his home in Michigan. As we watched several plays on his tablet, and I saw how close these calls were that he had to mak, Paganelli told me how difficult it was with the play moving so fast to determine how much contact was too much. So I understand the frustration in watching these games and seeing the flags thrown with different frequency by different crews. But I just think it’s a very difficult thing to have an absolute uniform policy when you’re asking human beings to make judgments when there is so much of a gray area involved in pass interference and illegal contact penalties.
THE SECOND BYE IDEA. I'm surprised to have not heard any chatter about extending the NFL season by one week in order to give each team a second bye. Two bye weeks per team would make it possible to give each team a bye before Thursday games, and also give the NFL an extra week of TV inventory to sell its network partners without actually adding games to the schedule.
—Ross K., Star, Idaho
On the contrary, the two-week-bye idea has been around for a long time and been discussed quite a bit. It’s definitely an option on the table for the league. I think one of the biggest problems with that is that if you say it would create another week of inventory, and you’re absolutely right, but with 3-4 fewer games in an average week, there are going to be some pretty lousy Sundays for games. The networks, although the inventory will be there, won’t like if there aren’t enough marquee games to fill the prime time and late afternoon slots. But it is possible. The other factor involved is pushing the Super Bowl back a week. I think that is coming eventually.
STILL TRIBUTE. Loved your column today (as much as a Jets fan could love anything football-related today). Thought you should mention the classy act by the Patriots last night in having their cheerleaders wear Devon Still jerseys. How many teams would do that? Have their own cheerleaders wear the other team's jersey ... all of course for a great cause!
—Robert, New York City
You are right. It was a tremendous tribute to Devon Still by the Patriots cheerleaders and by the New England organization. Hats off to them, and kudos to all who have bought Still’s jersey as an act of support for Still, his cancer-stricken daughter Leah, and pediatric cancer research.
DOWN WITH ILLEGAL SHIFTS. Peter, after all the issues we've had this season with penalties, it got me thinking about some of the penalties that are being called, and whether they should still be penalties. So many penalties were made up back in the dark ages of the NFL, and the reason they were made penalties aren't really relevant anymore. I'm talking about penalties like Illegal Shift, Illegal Motion and Illegal Formation. Nobody is getting unfairly fooled by these issues anymore, and in my view they are ticky tack at best and ultimately a waste of time. Would you agree with me that the NFL could remove these calls from the rule book?
—Ken Henry, Los Angeles
Yes, with an asterisk. If a rule that is designed to keep order on offense is eliminated, you have to think of what the consequences are for that rule to disappear. I love the shifting and motions in Canadian football. I believe that the NFL people would look at those shifts and say that it would add an almost incalculable advantage to the offense in a game where the offense already has major advantages. You have to make the decision as a fan whether adding that kind of motion is something that you want with the knowledge that if you change the rule, you’re probably going to have one or two 51-45 games per week. I might be exaggerating there. But I don’t think so. I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with a 51-45 game, but I do think that there would be many NFL architects who believe that it would cheapen offense.
CALL IT THE PRO BOWLE? Long time reader here. I have a question: If the NFL is trying to drum up interest for American football in London, why not stage the Pro Bowl there? That would give British fans exposure to most of the big-name stars that drive ticket sales across America.
Interesting thought, but the Pro Bowl always stinks. It is not competitive. Most players do not give maximum effort. They don’t want to be hurt. The reason why the NFL has insisted on regular-season games in London is to give fans a taste of the real thing, not the exhibition thing. To me, the Pro Bowl would be a step back in competition. The one other problem I see is that so many players automatically withdraw from the Pro Bowl or find some other medical excuse to not play in the Pro Bowl, so I can imagine the fans buying the tickets to see Tom Brady and Drew Brees and then showing up for the game and instead they get Ryan Tannehill and Nick Foles. There’s nothing wrong with those guys, but they’re not megastars. If the purpose of playing the Pro Bowl in London is to attract people by using marquee names, that could backfire if many of the marquee names don’t show.
BE CAREFUL WITH RECYCLED COACHES. Love your column. Everyone is talking about the Oakland Raiders wanting Jon Gruden to be their next coach. I just don’t see it happening. I think Jon has become comfortable with his gig at ESPN. But what about Jim Fassel? Didn’t he have a close relationship with Al Davis? What are your thoughts?
—Tom Besson, Albuquerque, N.M.
My first thought is that Jim Fassel would be hungry and hugely motivated to build a good roster and franchise. I have been opposed to trying to take guys who are comfortable in earning millions in retirement or their next career (like Bill Cowher and Jon Gruden) and handing them a franchise and trusting that they will be the same coaches that they were 15 years ago. I’d rather take a chance on a rising-star college coach like Kevin Sumlin, or a hungry NFL coordinator like Greg Roman, than to get a star coach who’s gotten out of the habit of working the hours that it takes to be a great coach. Nothing against Gruden or Cowher. But I just have seen too many instances of comfortable and secure coaches not winning when they get their next shot.