Bill Belichick, the New England Patriots’ mystical coach, came out from under his hoodie the other day to propose a pair of radical rule changes for the NFL:
“Philosophically, plays that are nonplays shouldn’t be in the game,” he told WEEI, a Boston radio station. “I don’t think it is good for the game. Extra points, when the odds are in the 99 percent range, it is not a play. Let’s move the ball back to the 15-, 20-yard line and not make it a tap-in. Let them kick it. Same thing with the kickoff return. If you’re going to put the ball on the 20, put the ball on the 20.”
See? This is what happens when there’s a lockout and coaches have the entire offseason to think big thoughts. They dream up wacky things like 35-yard PATs and the elimination of kickoffs. Of course, you have to understand where Belichick is coming from. He’s the iconoclast who sent in Doug Flutie to dropkick an extra point several years ago. Heck, if you want to put the thrill back in the point-after, why not make everybody dropkick it?
Actually, pro football folk have been railing against the extra point since the 1930s. Tim Mara, the New York Giants’ founder, and Bert Bell, the commissioner from 1946 to ‘59, didn’t see any need for it and favored an overtime period to break ties. Alas, they never got enough of their lodge brothers to agree with them.
One preseason — 1968, to be exact — the league experimented with a truly revolutionary PAT: Kicks weren’t allowed. Instead, the scoring team had the option of running or passing for the point from the 2-yard line. But that idea didn’t gain much traction, either. Years later, the NFL copied the colleges and added the two-point conversion. Unless a club is playing catchup, though, it rarely “doubles down.”
And now Belichick wants to “move the ball back to the 15-, 20-yard line” for the point-after, which would call for a kick of 32 to 37 yards. Would this have a dramatic effect on the game? Probably not. Granted, kickers were virtually flawless on extra-point tries last season — they made 98.9 percent — but they also were successful on 88.7 percent of their field goal attempts from 30 to 39 yards. That’s still pretty automatic. And let’s not forget, if they missed one of these mid-range PATs, their club could try to compensate for it later in the game by going for a two-point conversion.
Maybe the best argument for the “gimme” extra point is that it makes a touchdown worth more than two field goals. I mean, shouldn’t a TD - putting the ball in the end zone against heavy resistance - be worth more than, say, two 40-yard field goals (both of which likely resulted from a failure to penetrate the 20-yard line)?
Belichick’s thoughts on kickoffs are a bit more timely. In the hope of reducing injuries this year, the NFL has moved up the spot of the kick from the 30 to the 35. This has dramatically increased the number of touchbacks, which are one of the biggest “nonplays” — to borrow Belichick’s term — in football. In last week’s preseason games, 89.9 percent of the kickoffs reached the end zone and 42.8 percent weren’t returned. Discretion, in other words, has become the better part of valor. And discretion, I’ll just point out, isn’t what made the NFL the most successful league in history.
The Patriots have been hurt by the new rule as much as anybody. In the past five years, they’ve scored six touchdowns on kickoffs. Only the New York Jets (nine) and the Cleveland Browns (seven) have scored more. But now their return men are taking a knee and flipping the ball to the official, which is why Belichick wonders if it might make more sense to dispense with the kick and just “put the ball on the 20.”
A bold suggestion, you have to admit. But, hey, if the league is trying to limit injuries — in particular the bone-rattling collisions that are so common on kickoffs — it might want to consider a drastic measure like this, cockamamie as it might sound. Unless, that is, it prefers to wake up, smell the coffee and move kickoffs back to their rightful place, the 30. After all, there’s only so much you can do to legislate the football out of football. One way or another, there will be blood.
Belichick’s brainstorms are hardly the worst I’ve heard, by the way. Why, once upon a time, a famous sports columnist advocated turning off the clock and having the two teams run a set number of plays. His reasoning: “A championship fight goes 15 rounds. A baseball game goes nine innings. A golf match is 18 or 36 holes. … There is no reason at all why a [football] game couldn’t be measured by so many plays a quarter, rather than so many minutes.”
“There would be no more of this nonsense of stopping the clock or running out the clock. Then the dial over the scoreboard would show not how much time remained but how many plays remained.”
Those words were written in 1958 by Walter Wellesley Smith, otherwise known as Red. Fortunately, they didn’t do his career any lasting damage.