Bird that Sings

February 4, 2008

Limited Substitution

Filed under: Sports — admin @ 11:23 am

It’s the day after the Super Bowl and a stunningly good game it was. What with the Giants’ upset win over the Patriots it would seem like a bad time to talk about what a mess Pro Football is.

Nonetheless . . . every society gets the spectacle they deserve—for the Elizabethans it was bear baiting and the public theatre—for us it’s Pro Football.

It wasn’t always this way. Football once was a sport, not a spectacle and a great sport too; as great an American contribution to the world as baseball and basketball. The legendary fighter Archie Moore once said of fried chicken that it was the perfect food; you could eat it hot, eat it cold, eat it at home or take it with you. Similarly football was a great game to play or watch. And you could watch live or watch it on TV. You could play it with four or five others or you could play a full eleven-man to a side game. The sad thing is I can remember pretty clearly when it started to change.

College Football was always a big deal in America, but not so the Pros.

Television’s discovery of Pro Football—which is usually pegged to the nationally televised 1958 NFL championship when the Baltimore Colts, led Quarterback Johnny Unitas, upset the New York Giants—basically created the modern game. My father always maintained that this was because the ad guys in New York began following the Giants after this and saw not only what a great game it was, but what a great vehicle for advertising. And surely no one who grew up in the Sixties can forget Julie London tonguing her cigarette in the back of a cab—“you get a lot to like in a Marlboro”—or those nightmarish Prestone anti-Freeze commercials

The problem kicked in sometime after the first Super Bowl in 1966 when instead of being a sport that was televised, Pro football became a made-for-television entertainment. The relationship of Pro Football before 1970 and Pro Football after, is roughly equivalent to the difference between homemade (cayenne and salt marinated) fried chicken and Chicken McNuggets.

Indeed when you tell people now that all home games were by rule blacked out locally until the mid 70’s—or that the Philadelphia Eagles NFL championship game in 1960 was blacked out on local Philadelphia television—they look at you like you must have just winged in from a parallel universe.

However as commercial as Pro Football had become by 1980, it’s nothing compared to what it became later.

Everything in the Reagan era of course, was turned into a commodity whose raison d’etre was how much it could bought or sold for. By the late Eighties this dedicated economic equation had taken direct hold of Pro Football and there was a trickle down effect to College Football and even big time High School programs.

Part of the commodity effect was the increasing specialization of play, but the more important part was the specialization of size and weight. In 1980 there were five players in the NFL 300 pounds or over, there are now over three hundred and fifty players who weigh 300 pounds and over.

The species is getting bigger, but not that much bigger.

The steroid scandals and investigation of recent years have almost laughably been aimed at Major League Baseball, but steroid use in baseball is a more or less victimless crime, since you are not directly assaulting anyone except perhaps the record book. In football you are aiming your steroid or HGH enhanced body at another body and attempting to commit mayhem upon it.

The widespread use of anabolic steroids, so called designer drugs and Human Growth Hormone in the NFL is not necessarily because players want to use these substances. The average career of an NFL player is about four years and the competition for roster spots more or less compels it. And so we have not just 330 pound Offensive linemen, but 325 pound Defensive lineman, and 250 pound outside linebackers, not to mention some monster defensive backs. Not all, but lots of these guys are juiced.

The burgeoning size of the Pro linemen and linebackers has created a premium on size in the college ranks. In most big-time College programs, the offensive line now averages at least 300 pounds while the defensive line probably averages about 285. These are twenty and twenty-one year olds we’re talking about, whose bodies are not finished growing. How many of these linemen and linebackers are taking steroids is difficult to say, but we know anecdotally at least, that many, if not the majority are.

While some High School football players are experimenting with steroids, many High School athletes—and some middle school kids— in every sport are taking a water retention drug called Creatine.

The idea of Creatine is that by retaining water and mass, you can, by weightlifting, more easily turn that mass into muscle.

The upshot of all this, is that first, we have an impending health crisis in the Professional Ranks with many players at risk of obesity, hypertension, kidney and heart disease, diabetes, and likely early mortality. However more profoundly, at the college and high school football level we have a public health emergency on our hands, since steroid use and abuse effect not hundreds of players, but hundreds of thousands.

We can’t go back and change what football’s become, but we can change the course of the game going forward.

One idea would be a return to limited substitution.

Limited Substitution was a scheme that was widely used by the NCAA in Fifties and Sixties. It basically means an end to platoon football. It means that your offensive team is also your defensive team.

The problems with limited substitution are fairly obvious and we’ll get them to them in a moment.

The benefits of Limited Substitution are manifold.
The main demand playing both ways makes on a player is increased endurance. For linemen it means that rather than playing at your heaviest weight, you pretty much have to play at your lightest. You then have a reverse domino effect where players, instead of going for size and strength first, are going for speed and endurance first.

There’s no way a normal human being can play both ways at 300 pounds (though ex Eagle and Raider Bob Brown did one year in college at Nebraska, but Hall of Famer, Bobby Brown is not a normal human being).

In a two-way system your average lineman would go from 300+ pounds to about 260 in fairly short order. In addition we would soon see the return of the 220 pound outside linebacker and the 220 pound tight end.

It might not cut down on injuries in pro football, but it would radically cut down on the use of, or need for steroids in the game.

The downside of limited substitution is that some guys who are great linebackers might only be mediocre receivers or running backs. And what about Quarterbacks? How could Tom Brady or the Manning Boys even play at the Pro level if they also had to play free safety too?

Here are the fixes I would put into “limited substitution” to remedy some of these problems. Classic limited substitution only allowed for the substitution of two players at each change of possession. I would allow for four new players to come in, and I would also allow for two more players to be allowed to come in, on third downs. This would allow for certain specialty players, like quarterbacks, to come off the field on defense, as well as allowing for five defensive backs on 3rd down and other specialty defenses and offenses.

I would also allow for two injury timeouts a game per team and increase the number of regular time outs from three to four a half.

There still could be a problem with punters and kickers, but I’m glad it’s not my problem.

Since the Pros are not really interested in the problems of their players or even with their game itself, as long as its making money, one would not introduce Limited Substitution in the Pro Ranks first, but in colleges, especially Division II and III colleges. We could then introduce Limited Substitution into D1, and from there, after it had shown its worth, into the Pros.

Every society may get the spectacle it deserves, but it doesn’t mean we have to like it.

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