I spent a recent weekend in October as I typically do: Watching a tremendous amount of football. I saw at least parts of dozens of games—I saw Penn State defeat Ohio State in a thrilling comeback victory before 107,000 fans uniformly clad in white on Saturday evening, and then the next night, I watched the Cardinals and Seahawks bumble their way through 75 minutes of mediocrity and errata, both teams’ kickers shanking makeable field goals in order to complete a 6-6 tie. And this experience only reinforced the feeling that I and many others already have, which is that the football I consumed got progressively less fun from Saturday to Sunday.
It is no secret that NFL ratings have dropped precipitously so far this season, and you might attribute some of that to the overarching time suck that is the presidential election, plus maybe the Cubs’ run to the World Series and the NFL’s perpetual ability, under Roger Goodell, to make questionable moral choices.
But there is a larger truth at work, which is that the professional game itself is simply not as interesting as the college game right now. College football is a potpourri of styles and ideas, the cauldron for nearly all the innovation happening in the game today. Here, then, are five lessons the NFL could take from college football in order to regain its hegemony over the American sports fan.
Rather than moaning about college football, the NFL folks need to think harder, and encourage fresh thinking rather than discouraging it.
1. Open Your Minds
The primary issue with the NFL is that creative thought is rarely rewarded. Coaches loathe taking chances, for fear that it will get them fired, and then they often wind up getting fired anyway. The hiring of Oregon coach Chip Kelly in Philadelphia felt like a watershed moment, but Kelly wound up alienating the fan base in Philly and then landed in San Francisco, where he’s attempting to build a new-age offense once more with a group of wretched spare parts. I worry that Kelly’s failure may lead more NFL general managers to feel that the best elements of the college game simply won’t translate to the professional game. And we’ll wind up with a bunch of 16-9 finishes for the indefinite future.
Already, NFL people like to bitch about the proliferation of wide-open offenses in college football, and how quarterbacks simply don’t come prepared to play in the league. And I understand: No one wants a 66-59 game to become the norm on the NFL level. But maybe there’s a middle ground, and maybe the rules can be tweaked to encourage innovation. (Maybe if owners and fan bases and general managers weren’t so damned impatient with coaches and quarterbacks, it would be easier.) Rather than moaning about college football, the NFL folks are the ones who need to think harder, and encourage fresh thinking rather than discouraging it.
2. Change Overtime
It felt ridiculous when college football adopted its overtime rules back in 1996—giving each team an untimed possession from the opponent’s 25-yard-line was a completely contrived way to resolve a tie. But now: I love it. Everyone loves it. There’s nothing cooler than a team running a successful double-reverse pass in double overtime, and then winning on a two-point conversion. As opposed to… you know, whatever the hell the NFL rules are now. Set the ball back at, say, the 40-yard-line, or even the 50, and give each team a shot until the situation is resolved.
3. Dump the Preseason
Nobody cares, nobody watches and nobody really wants it. But one of the best things about college football is that you often enter the first week of the season with no real idea of what teams are good and what teams aren’t, about which quarterback might start and who might completely surprise you. I’m not saying the NFL shouldn’t have training camps, or even low-key scrimmages, but keep the actual games confined to the actual season, and you may just increase the anticipation.
4. Shorten the Play Clock and Stop The Clock on First Downs (When It Matters)
I understand that football games are already too long, but if you shorten the play clock in the final two minutes and stop the play clock to reset the chains on first downs in the final two minutes, you’ll encourage more of those Alcoa Fantastic Finishes that made all our childhoods so bright. As Georgia and Tennessee’s back-to-back Hail Marys showed, the beauty of a competitive and offensive-minded college football game is that it never feels like it’s over. The NFL should adopt that same mentality.
5. Find a Way Go Less Corporate
This one’s tricky, because the NFL is obviously a huge corporate entity. But NFL games are not nearly as much fun as college games, where the passion of the fans and the students and the marching band can elevate even a mundane contest into an enjoyable display of pageantry. The best NFL crowd is arguably in Seattle, but if the Seahawks were a member of the Southeastern Conference, they’d have maybe the seventh-best home-field advantage in their own league. NFL games are boring in part because the atmosphere never ratchets up to the level of intensity that the best college games do; dull corporate monstrosities like the 49ers’ Levi’s Stadium encourage fans to sit on their hands. I’ve been to Jerry Jones’s shrine to self-indulgence in Dallas, and it feels like watching a football game on a spaceship.
There’s no intimacy to the experience, and this is the NFL’s challenge: Make it feel less like a product. Part of that might be achieved simply by Goodell and the NFL owners actually displaying some humanity, and showing that they care about the issues affecting the future of the sport. Too much of the time, they come across like soulless automatons, and this is how their product is starting to come across, as well…