- David Fleming, ESPN The Magazine
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I’ve got theories on where football is headed. Lots and lots of theories.
I won’t say they’re all outlandish, or bizarre, but let me put it this way: I used to get a kick out of running them by Brad Childress when he was the coach in Minnesota and, before that, the offensive coordinator in Philly, and when he’d see me coming he’d laugh and shake his head and yell out something like, “Oh no, what crazy stuff have you got for me now?”
To name a few: possible rule changes; innovative ways to reduce injuries; the evolution of the quarterback; and offenses in general. Oh, and why teams should replace all current scouts with talent evaluators who are women.
For a long time I’ve also had one on the future of quarterbacks (or lack thereof) buried deep in my notebook, but it still seemed just a little too far out there to bring up.
This week, though, in just four plays the league lost four marquee quarterbacks (Jay Cutler, Michael Vick, Ben Roethlisberger and Alex Smith) to injury -- and along with it pretty much the fate of four franchises and maybe even the outcome of the entire playoff race.
And all of a sudden the crazy idea that sometime in the next 10 years the NFL would outlaw all contact on quarterbacks didn’t seem quite so outlandish anymore.
The truth is we really aren’t all that far away from turning quarterbacks into punters.
It’s already illegal to hit a passer above the shoulders, below the knees, into the ground, while he’s in the grasp, from behind by the collar, after he releases the ball or once he begins to slide. How big of a leap is it from there to banning all contact?
Considering how much quarterbacks mean to the bottom line in football -- offense equals entertainment, entertainment equals $9 billion in revenues -- and how hard it is to even find or develop or keep 32 decent passers healthy these days, is it really that ridiculous to think that someday soon the NFL might just step in and make them completely off-limits?
Not if you understand how historically the NFL has regularly and dramatically altered its rule book in favor of promoting offense and scoring (and cash flow) above all else.
In 1977, dominant defenses had brought scoring to its lowest point in 35 years.
What did the NFL do?
It made it illegal to contact receivers more than five yards off the line, blockers were allowed to extend their arms and open their hands on pass plays (commonly known by its more technical name: holding), a seventh official was added to monitor pass interference downfield and refs began to stop play when QBs were in the grasp.
And what did these outlandish, crazy, girly-man rule changes bring?
Just the blossoming of the West Coast offense, the invention of the spread and basically, the pass-first, high-flying, high-scoring, video-game, fantasy-football era of the game we all enjoy so much today.
By the way, if you don’t think the NFL is capable of radical changes to the very DNA of the sport all in the name of profit, you aren’t paying attention. How else can you explain why, with thousands of former players lining up to sue the NFL because of safety and health concerns, the owners simultaneously would be pushing to add more games to the schedule?
If they would risk that much to boost profits by maybe 10 percent, what would they do to protect the one position that holds the entire future of the sport in its hands on every snap?
I’m not sure the NFL can even wait 10 years to encircle quarterbacks in new layers of rules like so much bubble wrap.
Half of the top 10 QBs in the league right now already have had to battle back from career-threatening injuries.
This week, in just four plays, passers making more than $53 million collectively were rendered almost as worthless as the tickets fans bought in hopes of seeing another epic rivalry game between the Ravens and the Steelers -- who, it turns out, are 0-4 against Baltimore without Ben.
Steelers backup Byron Leftwich -- who I tweeted yesterday has a glacial windmill throwing motion that looks like he was tutored by Pete Townsend -- is not exactly a good fit in a system the relies on short, timing routes.
Meanwhile, fans in San Francisco and Chicago, expecting Cutler and Smith to provide a preview of the NFC Championship Game, will now more than likely be treated to something closer to a UFL preseason tilt manned by Bears backup Jason Campbell (31-39 as a starter with an NFL-low passing-attempt distance of a paltry 6.6 yards) and 49ers second-year pro Colin Kaepernick (career TDs: zip).
Poor Bears fans have seen this before. Chicago was 7-3 last season and in a prime position for a deep playoff run until Cutler got hurt and backup QB Caleb Hanie lost four in a row.
How long will fans in Chicago and elsewhere continue to pay $400 to take a family of four to watch an inferior product? How long will they pay Cutler ticket prices for Hanie performances?
At the prices the NFL charges. I’m shocked no one has sued yet for their money back. I’m serious.
Ask yourself this question: If you paid 400 bucks to see the Rolling Stones this fall and Mick Jagger got a cold or sprained his ankle and couldn’t perform, you think the promoters would trot out Chad Kroeger and still hold the concert?
Of course not. But the Eagles are about to replace Vick with Nick Foles and no one’s gonna think twice about it.
Because of player health concerns, the league can no longer market itself and hook future fans by subtly selling the breathtaking violence of the sport. That used to be our drug.
The future of the game, however, belongs to fast-thinking thrill-seekers weaned on the Web, iPods and Madden.
Let’s be honest, it belongs to the guys with five fantasy football teams.
To convince them to open their wallets, the NFL needs scoring and entertainment and lots of it. And to produce that, they need healthy quarterbacks.
In the end, too much is riding on keeping those rainmakers in the pocket safe and sound for the NFL to continue to protect them with just flags and fines and lectures.
So then the question becomes: How do we do it?
Bodyguards? Velvet rope and bouncers around the pocket? A popemobile bulletproof golf cart for Tom Brady?
I don’t think you want to eliminate the pass rush altogether. The tension and battles it creates is one of the best parts of the game. So the league would have to come up with some kind of sensor or signaling device or, honestly, a time limit, that would blow the play dead and spot the ball where the QB is standing if the pass rush gets close enough before he can get rid of the ball.
(Does that sound like flag football a bit? Yes, it does. Congrats, you’re starting to catch on.)
On scrambles, either the current rules apply (a QB outside the pocket can be treated like a running back by Ndamukong Suh) or we just eliminate the scramble altogether. If the QB can’t find anyone to pass it to before Suh triggers his sensor, then the play’s over.
And if -- sorry, when the league does this, it has to go all the way.
No fines and flags.
Just ask Cutler how well that’s working as a deterrent.
Any contact with the QB is a game suspension. Below the knees? Four games. The head? Eight.
It’s terrible, I know, the thought of Tom Brady never getting his knee bent backward or Joe Theismann not getting his leg snapped in half like a dry twig or a concussed Alex Smith not having to throw a TD pass with blurred vision.
But when it happens, we all have to try and focus on the positive and what could be the next great wave of offensive innovation in a league full of meatheads wearing Sansabelt pants where the last big idea (the West Coast) is about to turn 40.
Because once you eliminate the threat of injury to the quarterback, a lot of cool stuff can happen.
For starters, superstars like Peyton Manning could play forever.
Also, you won’t need as many blockers. If that leads the league to reduce the number of players required on the line of scrimmage from seven to six, that extra man could become an eligible receiver downfield.
What’s more, with six-man receiver sets, the game would continue to evolve into a form of basketball on grass. It wouldn’t be long before we’d see a "second line of scrimmage" downfield where, after completions, the receivers actually run a second "play" by pitching, lateraling or handing the ball off to another playmaker in the open field.
(Defenses would have to respond by getting smaller and faster, making the game safer and open to more regular-sized kids on the high school and college level. Dwindling participation? Fixed. You’re welcome, Roger.)
When the Fleming Rule goes into effect to protect quarterbacks in 2020 and save the NFL as we know it, games that end 45-40 will be considered low-scoring defensive battles. You will need a super computer to calculate your fantasy football results, which, of course, you’ll wear on your wrist.
And the QBs in Super Bowl LIV each will surpass 1,000 yards passing in a single game for the first time in history.
You can have that as your NFL future.
Or you can look forward to championship games that end 10-6 and feature Scott Tolzien versus David Carr and Caleb Hanie taking on Tyrod Taylor.
Let that sink in for a bit.
And when you realize I’m right, I’ll share my theory that proves how offensive tackles will one day evolve into hybrid, pass-catching tight ends.