Sports News Without Access, Favor, Or Discretion

NFL Rules Are Just Suggestions

Photo: Kevin C. Cox (Getty)

Tom Brady was watching Titans-Jaguars Thursday night and, like every other person with functional eyes, did not enjoy the experience. Only he overcame his revulsion and fear of being found out, tweeting about it and saying all the holding penalties were ruining his fun.

Two days later, Al Riveron, the National Football League’s designated human shield interpreting both the officials and the drunk Jackson Pollock painting the league calls its rulebook, called his small platoon of referees and said, “Okay, we have to knock off calling the thing we told you to call three weeks ago.” And good soldiers that they are, the officials did that, lowering the number of Sunday holding calls by nearly half.

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This suggests one of two things:

(1) Tom Brady is the actual commissioner of football and may as well get Roger Goodell’s paycheck while the Ginger Avenger gets sent to a $55 million-and-over retirement community in upstate New York to kick up his feet and laugh at the next miserable bastard who has to take Jerry Jones’s 3 a.m. calls.

(2) The NFL is just making this up as it goes along and actually has no rules at all, but suggestions that come and go at a whim because the people in charge of presenting football don’t understand football at all.

I desperately want it to be (1) because of the face Bill Belichick will make the first time he is asked about Brady as his boss. Galaxies will implode with the force of his expression of disgust.

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Sadly, though, the true answer is (2). The NFL changes rules every year; that we know, because we laugh at their inability to keep up with their most diabolical coaches. They’ve tried and failed with lowering the head, roughing the passer, and illegal contact before that. But de-emphasizing “points of emphasis” after two weeks, and doing it with a simple conference call a day before a full round of games is the real inside look at how the league works. The NFL, as it turns out, is the shrugging stick figure emoji with expensive suits, with a nuclear fueled ATM attached.

And no, it really doesn’t matter at this point whether de-emphasizing the lobster block prohibition made for better or worse games. It’s that the league has no earthly idea what is or isn’t watchable athletic entertainment is any more, and changes ideas on the fly because it only took two weeks for their alleged good intentions to be mocked and spat upon by smarter and more cunning entrepreneurs with whistles.

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Here’s the process: League changes rule, or offers a new POE (point of emphasis) applied to an old or slightly modified rule. Coaches read rule/POE, immediately start imagining ways to circumvent or neuter rule/POE. Strategies are applied. Games become shambolic. High-powered quarterback tweets out his revulsion. League abandons plan in frustration.

It is to the business’s credit that it can convince football fans that this is actually a good thing. Being flexible in the face of failure, fixing problems on the fly and trying to serve the audience above all other conditions—it’s a brilliant bit of spin, no question, and the number of people upon whom that spin works is truly staggering.

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But it also proves yet again that football is really just the art of throwing stuff against the wall, studying the spatter pattern, and then getting rid of the stuff it brought for throwing. When John Elway shamed Denver tackle Garett Bolles for his high number of holding penalties with the inspirational pep talk, “Does he know what holding is? Does he know what he can and can’t do?” it turned out that the answer was, “No more or less than the people who wrote the rule in the first place.” Put another way, does Bolles get dispensation for violating a rule the league’s rulemakers clearly didn’t understand and essentially abandoned two weeks later?

Maybe acknowledging a screw-up is noble, but the people who couldn’t navigate the arcaneries of a “catch” and are spectacularly cavalier about the concussion protocol shouldn’t get a lot of lead here. It’s far more likely that they simply don’t know what the hell they’re doing and have a work philosophy of “We’ll just wait until someone yells at us.”

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But at least with this latest example, they know who’s doing the yelling, and who got the job of fixing the problem done. And Sunday in Buffalo, I fully expect the referee to ask at one point, “So you good with that call?” And Tom Brady will nod silently. I mean, why wait for Al Riveron’s two cents when the boss is right there?


Ray Ratto is honestly intrigued by the idea of Bill Belichick squinting galaxies into antimatter.

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