By losing on Sunday the Green Bay Packers‘ playoff hopes went from “somewhat possible” to “theoretically possible because the odds are greater than zero.” While disappointing, hopefully this will inspire the Packers to make some wholesale changes to re-tool for 2018 and beyond. Sunday’s game in Charlotte also featured plays that should inspire the NFL to make a pair of corresponding rule changes.
First, the NFL should follow the lead of college football and implement a targeting penalty for helmet-to-helmet hits. If you watched the Packers-Panthers game, then you also saw Davante Adams suffer his second concussion of the season in the third quarter. Adams was concussed by Thomas Davis on a clearly dirty hit after a Rodgers interception. Davis was flagged for an illegal blindside block, but that was it. If this was college football, Davis would have been called for a targeting penalty and ejected from the game. An ejection is what should have happened.
Davante Adams is one of the best receivers in the NFL and now his career is teetering on the brink because of an illegal hit that never should have happened. Adams is not going to retire, but how many more concussions is he willing to endure? Furthermore, fans don’t want to see hits like that anymore. While there is no way to eliminate concussion-causing collisions, there are steps the NFL can take to reduce such hits. One way is to dis-incentivize defenders from turing themselves into high-speed wrecking machines. If a defender knows that a helmet-to-helmet hit will result in an ejection then they will need to play the game in a different, less concussion-inducing manner.
The drawback of targeting is that it’s a difficult rule to enforce. As college football fans can tell you, players are unfairly ejected because of clean tackles. (This TJ Edwards hit against the Purdue Boilermakers is a good example of an unfair ejection.) Even so, brain damage is worse than iffy ejections. The type of hit that Adams suffered against Carolina (and Chicago) must be drastically reduced from the NFL; ejecting players for initiating these hits is a good place to start.
This leads us to rule change #2: the elimination instant replay.
Damiere Byrd’s third quarter touchdown gave the Panthers a 24-14 lead. It was also initially ruled incomplete. This ruling was overturned because, as referee Craig Wrolstad said after the game, “His rear end hit in-bounds.” Of course, Byrd also bobbled the ball and half of his body landed out of bounds, so the play could have just as easily been ruled incomplete. This was not the only controversial play of the afternoon. Later in the day a go-ahead touchdown in the New England Patriots–Pittsburgh Steelers game was overturned because the Pittsburgh receiver did not “complete the process of the catch,” a phrase with clear meaning but wildly inconsistent application. Replay makes it impossible to consistently decide what a catch is.
In theory, replay is valuable because it allows egregious errors to be reversed. However, there is no net reduction of absurdity as a result of replay. For example, this play from Austin Seferian-Jenkins of the New York Jets was not a touchdown, but actually a fumble through the end zone that resulted in a touchback. Never mind that the ball was always between his forearm and his chest, because Seferian-Jenkins bobbled the ball for a split-second he actually lost possession. Does a slight bobble equal loss of possession? Only in the world of replay.
Replay eliminates the terrible calls made in real time and replaces them with terrible calls that can only result from watching a play at 1/64 speed. Replay reviews also interrupt the flow of a game and reduces your ability to enjoy a game without reservation because, who knows, maybe that catch was not actually a catch. The NFL was perfectly enjoyable without replay. Bad calls were made and yet fans still watched the games. Sports is entertainment, and the NFL is perfectly entertaining without replay.
It’s also perfectly entertaining without helmet-to-helmet hits.