This is a repost of something I wrote for the 2015 Eagles Almanac, in which I explored the increasing over-complication of NFL rules. A few lines are already dated (see that last paragraph, for example), but with each passing week, I’m more confused than ever. Most games, most weeks, seem to be decided by the inconsistent application of incoherent rules, and it only seems to be getting worse.
The images are from my short-lived Existential Ref blog on Tumblr.
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Do you know what a catch is?
This is a sincere question. Can you define, in clear terms, what constitutes a catch in the NFL? Can you be sure this definition will still be precise and true by the middle of next season?
The NFL’s simultaneously overzealous and underprepared officials have caused me to doubt the most basic of sporting actions. I think I know what a fumble is. I can correctly identify intentional grounding about sixty percent of the time. I’ve read the explanation of the tuck rule enough times that I could repeat it to you, but I don’t understand it. Roughing the passer and pass interference penalties are called with all the predictability and logic of tornadoes—there are circumstances more likely to produce them, but you never really know when or where they’ll strike.
On Sunday afternoon, a world-class athlete makes a superhuman catch in mid-air between two defenders and rather than cheering, we collectively sink deeper into our chairs and wait a few days until an unseen board of reviewers adjudicates the catch-worthiness of that play. Maybe sometime Wednesday afternoon, we quietly pump our fists in memory of that catch we think we saw.
Did the player catch that ball? It looks like he did. It’s in his hands. It was in his hands when he fell to the ground. It was in his hands when he stood up. But maybe it wasn’t a catch because the player failed to defy the basic laws of physics by preventing the ball from shifting after it touched his hands. Maybe he blinked too many times while falling to the turf. Maybe he failed to fill out the proper paperwork before the game announcing his intention to enact a football catch.
Or not. Maybe it was complete. Maybe it looks like it was complete and there’s not quite enough indisputable evidence for the on-field CSI unit to determine exactly what happened. Who among us, after all, can see into the soul of the ball? If the ball itself does not consider itself to have been caught, can it be said to have been caught at all? And anyway, why should we take it for granted that the object we’re seeing is even a ball? It is an article of faith that the ball is actually a ball, but short of an on-camera dissection by a disinterested third party, we can’t know its exact nature. Furthermore, without the benefit of some kind of cosmic instant replay system, there’s very little indisputable evidence that proves we even exist.
And also: what the fuck happens if the guy catches it but then he fumbles?
When confusion mounts, the rules are clarified through the addition of a few more clauses. Mid-week, the league issues a press release telling everyone either, Don’t worry, we checked and we got it right, or, worse, Actually we screwed that up. We offer no apology and no recompense.
I’ve watched thousands of hours of football in my life, and I spent a depressing amount of time in my unpopular childhood studying the NFL rulebook. If anyone should be equipped to answer NFL rules questions, it is me. But every week there is at least one play on which the ruling is utterly inexplicable. Later in the same game, there may even be an identical play which elicits the opposite ruling from the same officials.
Determining whether someone caught a ball should be one of the simplest decisions in the world, but it’s examined with such intensity and complexity, it’s like the officials are theologians tasked with determining God’s gender. The NFL and its media partners will say things about football moves. They will offer third-rate physics lessons and they’ll keep speaking until you’re drowning in the jargon. But you know and I know: it’s a simple question. A child could answer it.
I’m not talking only about catches, although that seems like the ruling that causes the most confusion for the most fans. The catch issue is just a symptom of the larger problem, which is that NFL rules are so needlessly complex and seemingly arbitrarily applied that one longs for the simplicity of the tax code.
I thought Dez Bryant caught that ball against the Packers last season. I’ve read the legal arguments against it, but that doesn’t mean I accept them. As an Eagles fan, seeing the Cowboys lose in such an unjust way was a pure delight. But as someone who desires something resembling logical consistency in the way the league is run, it was the most egregious example of the thing I hate most about the NFL: it doesn’t matter what extraordinary athletic feats the players perform unless those plays can survive the scrutiny of an inscrutable legal process. Instant replay calls into doubt our most fundamental understanding of sports. It teaches us to pause before celebrating, stripping some joy out of the game and then filling that void with Miller Lite commercials.
The NFL benefits from the Byzantine rules structures because, from commissioner down to the officials, they’ve established a precedent that they can apply nearly any penalty they want in any situation and find a way to defend it, and at least some fans will back their decisions. People complain, but nobody stops watching. The blowback from sports radio callers and ESPN debaters does no actual damage to the league and it ensures they’re the top sports story for days. In the meantime they’ve tried to make their terrible rules a feature in games via endless replays and parsing of rulebook language by shouting men in ill-fitting suits. The very worst things that have ever aired on my TV are the interminable replay reviews during which Phil Simms or Jon Gruden try to remember the rules and spew nonsense guesses to fill air time until some result is announced and then we either cheer or boo according to the whims of the official. Under the soundtrack of inane announcer blather, people in sports bars nationwide play along, leaning in like they’re in the crime lab studying blood samples under the microscope. We become participants in the farce.
These breaks frequently end with announcers saying things like, “Wow, I really don’t see how they made that decision.” Then they call in a retired official who offers a wishy-washy, garbled explanation of the rule, often concluding, “hey, it could’ve gone either way.” Although the replay system is presented as an objective measure of rightness, limited camera angles and ambiguous rules often lead to games being decided by the subjective judgment of one part-time employee staring into a tiny video screen. This does not happen because football is so difficult to understand. It happens because the rules don’t make any sense, and they don’t make any sense on purpose.
The NFL makes frequent reference to its commitment to transparency, but the league is as committed to transparency as a brick wall. Sometimes they part the curtains just a bit, and they release a stream of legalese that pretends to clarify but is intended to obfuscate. They receiver your questions and then in response they bury you in words. They pummel you into fatigue.
The Roger Goodell era has been defined by a long string of seemingly arbitrary punishments handed out to players, coaches, and organizations without precedent or a clear rationale. Goodell has spent a decade fumbling through the public discussion of complex issues as he scrambles desperately to appease the next loudest voice. Nobody, especially the man in charge, seems capable of explaining the rules governing the decisions the league makes.
In 2015, the NFL opened a period of free agency called “the legal tampering period,” a phrase so obtuse it dealt a subconcussive blow to the language itself. A few days into this period, they “launched an investigation” into tampering activities that occurred during the period that the league itself had created to foster these activities. An offense occurs and then investigations are launched and committees are formed. Committees are tasked with solving the problem, but they will not solve it because this is not what committees do. They complicate problems and reframe problems, but they are the enemy of simplicity.
The best, most recent, example of this approach is the absurdly long Wells Report, which took 243 pages to come to the conclusion that it was “more probable than not” that some wrongdoing may have occurred and that Tom Brady was aware of it and this probable wrongdoing had some effect on some games. This report was a battering ram of transparency. It was designed to maintain the appearance of having said something while saying nothing at all.
While the report was being compiled, Roger Goodell said, “Whether a competitive advantage was gained is secondary, in my mind, to whether that rule was violated.” There has never been a better definition of the NFL’s legalistic bureaucracy. Bureaucracy, above all else, has an interest in sustaining itself. It is incapable of questioning itself or understanding its flaws. It exists because it exists and it continues to exist because it must necessarily continue.
With every added layer of complexity, the NFL is able to present a relatively simple sport as if it’s advanced calculus. It reaffirms the notions of genius coaches and athletic savants. It tells you that the head coach’s 20-hour work days were totally necessary, rather than a weird affectation of sociopathic hard-workiness that equates sleep deprivation with productivity. It presents a façade of extreme, sciency precision that distracts from the fact that most years the champion is decided largely by luck.
A scene from the future: on 3rd & 10, Darren Sproles makes a catch in the backfield and evades two Cowboys defenders on his way to skittering for nine yards, but it looks like he drops the ball at the end of the play. As this is happening, a sixty-year-old man scrambles to keep up and from five yards away, he flings a little blue bean bag at the spot where Sproles may have dropped the ball. In the ensuing pile, men commit war crimes against one another and eventually Sean Lee runs away with the ball. Whistles blow. Hats are thrown. The officials stand in a circle and talk a while before signaling that it was not a fumble. Sproles celebrates like a man who has just been acquitted of a felony on a technicality. Jason Garrett tosses a red flag onto the field. There is more talking. In the booth, the announcers make wild guesses. They say it’s a great challenge by Garrett, because even if he’s wrong, “you have to take that chance,” implicitly noting that the outcome of the review is arbitrary. The replay runs on a loop until you’ve seen it enough times that you remember it more clearly than your mother’s face. It looks like he probably lost the ball just before his knee hit the ground, but it’s hard to tell even after two dozen replays. Because the officials initially said it wasn’t a fumble, they are therefore barred from now calling it a fumble unless King Solomon himself rises from his grave and announces that the ball has been fumbled. The officials determine that it probably was a fumble but because their first guess was wrong and the camera angles don’t show a panoramic view of the entire world and the DNA evidence won’t be back from the lab until next week, then it can’t be ruled a fumble. Garrett is now criticized for having wasted a timeout. Chip Kelly pumps his fist in celebration of impenetrable legalese. Now, two elderly men on the sideline holding a pair of sticks attached by a chain are called onto the field to determine whether Sproles picked up a first down before his non-fumble. They stretch the chains out and the official bends down with a magnifying glass and tries to determine how many angels can dance on the link of a chain. He stands and presents the evidence. Holding his hands apart like an amateur carpenter measuring boards by eye, he indicates: it’s, like, this much. About. Kelly holds his own hands slightly closer together, almost in prayer, indicating: nah. More like this much. Fans sitting a thousand feet away boo angrily because they’re sure the ball was actually slightly closer to the stick on the end of the chain.
As an entertainment product, this is terrible. As an exercise in logic, it is infuriating. As a way to determine the fates of the careers of elite athletes, it is insane. But it is all buttressed by a bloated rulebook that requires more interpretive work than the Bill of Rights.
Any number of variables well outside the control of the people on the field could change everything about that play. Random luck and guessing is the difference between the Cowboys forcing a game-changing turnover and the Eagles either punting or going for it on fourth and short. Everyone knows luck is a factor in football—if Byron Maxwell pulls his hamstring at the wrong time, he can get beat for a deep touchdown that costs the team a game and maybe more—but if fans come to believe that luck is the primary factor in determining the outcome of games, then it all becomes as pointless as feeding your life savings into a slot machine. The NFL, more than any other American sports league, is invested in presenting the ideal of the most righteous and hardest working winning in battle. They need merit and virtue to be tied to the win. But so often, games, seasons, and careers are dictated by an untimely defensive penalty, a disputed catch, a cold front freezing up a great offense, a batted ball falling into the hands of an out-of-position lineman, a heedless desire for indisputable evidence
The 2015 Eagles are led by one of the league’s Anointed Genius Coaches. Many Eagles fans have embraced the notion that they have The Smartest Guy In The Room leading their favorite team. He is unconventional and brash and unafraid of taking chances. He has great conviction in his own intelligence, and the charisma to earn the fealty of many fans. This is a time of great faith in the leader. The Eagles will be able to overcome their personnel weaknesses because he will outsmart the other coaches and he will put those players in the right position and his scheme will be the true star and if something goes wrong he will have the wisdom to correct it, Amen. He may indeed be smarter than the average coach, but the unpleasant truth is that the biggest factor in determining the fate of the Eagles may be the whim of an impenetrable, inexplicable set of rules whose primary function is to enforce randomness while pretending that it does not exist.