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NFL Rules Changes: When Is Football No Longer Football?

Three changes in the way the National Football League plays football are helping to give us a good idea of the shape of things to come. Several months ago, the Competition Committee adopted a new rule banning ball-carriers from lowering their helmets into oncoming defenders in an attempt to break free of the tackle. (The committee also eliminated the so-called “Tuck Rule,” which is probably the least controversial thing the committee has ever done, unless you’re a Patriots fan.) This week, the NFL announced that the Pro Bowl—the much-ballyhooed all-star game that takes place the weekend before the Super Bowl—will not have kick-offs. And new rules, the New York Times reported this week, have all but eliminated tackling during preseason camps.

All of these changes are designed to make the game safer for the players. At the same time, all disadvantage particular types of players (respectively: running backs, who can no longer gain extra yardage by lowering their helmets; kick-returners, whose jobs just got less prestigious; and linebackers as well as defenders generally, who can’t practice tackling technique). And all raise a question that, one worries, the league, led by bungling megalomaniac Roger Goodell, is not thinking carefully enough about: What makes football football?

To me, the most provocative rule change is the elimination of kick-offs from the Pro Bowl. This is the least immediately relevant: The Pro Bowl is a joke, a meaningless exhibition held in Hawaii at season’s end, played at three-quarter speed—unless you’re the late, great Sean Taylor—and watched mainly by people who want something to joke about on Twitter for those three hours. Yet this change is significant nonetheless. The NFL is acknowledging that you do not need kick-offs to have a football game.

The league has been moving in this direction. Kick-offs are arguably the game’s most dangerous play. They are not quite as integrated a part of the game (there are, in football-talk, “three phases”—offense, defense, and special teams—and of them, special teams is obviously the most expendable). Some coaches, including Tampa Bay’s Greg Schiano, have called for its elimination, and indeed in moving the kick-off line from the 30-yard-line to the 35 a couple seasons ago, the NFL tripled the number of touchbacks by making it easier for kicks to reach deep into the end zone, dramatically reducing the number of kick-off returns. It would, in other words, come as no surprise if, 10 years from now, NFL games lack kick-offs, and this is the most definitive evidence of that yet.

But is football without kick-offs still football? No more dramatic returns for touchdowns. No more advantage or disadvantage to be won or lost by improving field position. No more exciting, surprising, game-changing onside kicks.

And similarly: Is football without Adrian Peterson lowering his helmet and knocking over a defender (watch this) still football? And is football with poor tackling still football?

I think most people would answer those questions in the affirmative. It’s different, and maybe it’s more safe and a little less exciting and interesting, they would say, but it’s still football. But to ask another question: Is football without tackling still football? Could the NFL become a flag league? I think the answer is no, and most fans would agree.

Somewhere between these small tinkerings and the move to two-hand touch, we will need to think seriously—no, but actually seriously, like grown-ups do—about line-drawing. The hysterics of purists who do not care about players’ safety—oh look, here is a Rush Limbaugh graphic of a tombstone that has an NFL shield with the initials “RIP” and reads, “1920-SOON”—are not helping to advance this conversation. And anyone for whom football right now is simply too violent and dangerous and for whom the whole spectacle simply too much resembles what the Romans did in the Coliseum have all my respect and best wishes for happy and football-free Sunday afternoons.

But those of us, and I include myself, who understand that football could stand to be safer but is never going to be totally safe, and who believe that the right rules, labor protections, compensation structures, and other things could make for a morally okay sport, need to push for a league that does more than tinker around the edges, but instead is clear about how far it will go to protect the players—and how far it won’t. The National Football League needs to decide what football is.

Follow @marcatracy