Last week I wrote about some Browns memories from over fifty years of watching this team in action. It got me thinking how much the game has changed from a rules standpoint, unlike baseball, which has virtually stayed the same for well over 100 years.
Almost all of the changes in football have been made to help the offense put more points on the scoreboard.
Let's start with the beginning of the game, where kickoffs used to come from the 40 yard line. That has been moved back for a couple of reasons. The main reason is to allow for more returns for touchdowns, one of the most exciting plays in the NFL. If the kick is not returned for a touchdown, it should give the offense the ball in better field position than they would have at the 20-yard line, after the touchback. Unfortunately, it seems more often than not, the returns result in a penalty on the receiving team, bringing the ball further back for the offense's starting point.
While the NFL loves touchdowns, it has implemented rules over the years to discourage field goals. The first obvious move was to move the goal posts ten yards back, from the goal line to the end line. Dante Lavelli and Otto Graham perfected what we now call the post pattern, by having Lavelli head straight toward the goal post, using it as a legal screen on the defensive back, and having Graham throw the ball just ahead of the goal post. The other rule change to discourage field goals came when the NFL decided, after a missed FG, to give the ball to the other team at the spot of the hold. As a result, if a team tried a FG with the line of scrimmage at the forty, it would be a 47-yard kick, and a miss would turn it over at the 47-yard line. Most offenses these days aren't able to put together more than three first downs in a drive, so this is obviously an advantage to the offense.
On the other hand, the change of the hash marks over the years was meant to help the offense, but in reality, made it easier to kick field goals. The hash marks today are virtually lined up with the goal posts, making every kick the same. In the days of Lou ‘The Toe' Groza, you might have to add another five to ten yards to a kick to compensate for the angle. It was common to give up the chance, on third down, to get a first down, by running the ball toward the middle of the field to set up a better angle for a field goal.
Another big change came inside the 20 yard line, allowing the offense to have more weapons to score touchdowns. In the old days, if the line of scrimmage was inside the 20 on fourth down, an incomplete pass would give the ball back to the other team at the 20. As a result, teams were reluctant to anything other than run the ball on fourth down.
The two-point conversion, laughed at by the NFL when the AFL used it, was introduced in the 70's, but it never resulted in the excitement that was intended. Now that overtime is part of the game, no team ever uses the two-point conversion, for anything other than to overcome a big lead or to bring the score to where a field goal becomes an option. For example, if a TD brings the margin of the game to 5 points late in the game, a two-point conversion brings it down to three. Wouldn't it be fun to take away overtime, and see which coaches had the guts to go for two points in the last minute after trailing by seven?
I won't even go to the rules about what defensive backs can and can't do away from the line of scrimmage, but the rule change that really changed the game had to with tackling the ball carrier. Younger fans are stunned when they see old highlights where a ball carrier is hit and knocked down, but can get back up again because he wasn't ‘covered' by the defense. Today, runners can do that when they fall down without being touched, and it's always funny to see the defense stand around when that happens.
It has been nice to look back at the game of football over the past couple of weeks, but it will nicer to get training camp opened so we can get an idea how the 2005 Cleveland Browns will be able to fare using the rules of the modern game.
‘More Sports & Les Levine' can be seen M-F from 6-7pm with replays at 11pm on Adelphia Channel 15 in Northeast Ohio. E-mail Les through his website, http://www.leslevine.com