How The NFL Is Truly Becoming The No Fun League

The behemoth that is the NFL has grown to seemingly unstoppable proportions. A league that has been struck with a bevy of recent scandals, both on and off the field, has yet to see negative effects on its bottom line.

That being said, for me it is really becoming the No Fun League.

The No Fun League jokes started to fly years ago as the league tried to crack down on the ever-more-creative celebrations being put on by the likes of Randy Moss, Terrell Owens and Chad Johnson. Sure, sometimes the antics were way over the top, but for the most part they were harmless and thoroughly entertaining. So naturally the league had to squash it, as it does with most displays of individuality put on by players — God forbid someone wears different colored socks, cleats or wristbands — and the unsportsmanlike flags began to rain down until a detailed set of rules could be produced governing acceptable celebrations.

Unfortunately, a few unsportsmanlike penalties would seem like a walk in the park compared to what a fan must endure during a 2015 NFL game. The average length of an NFL game has swelled to well over three hours. The league’s misguided attempt to basically regulate defense out of the sport has added to an already voluminous rule book. Combined with the ridiculously complicated rules for something as simple as determining whether a player has actually caught the ball or not and the fact there seems to be a replay review on every third play or so, and you have a product that is laborious to watch.

Not a catch?

Through Week 3, the league was on a record pace for flags thrown. Based on what I saw in Week 4, that pace is not in danger. It’s getting to the point where I’m surprised if a flag isn’t thrown. That is not good.

I understand the league is trying to improve player safety and it believes that offense is sexy and makes for a better product. Unfortunately, it is difficult to legislate both of those things. Trying to make gains in those areas through rule changes might not be the best approach.

Penalties such as roughing the passer and hits on “defenseless” receivers are hard to judge in real time and are far too subjective to be called consistently league-wide. Attempting to legislate the effectiveness of defense is ridiculous to begin with, and that is evidenced by the illegal contact and defensive holding calls we see week in and week out — five-yard penalties that no matter what result in a first down for the offense. Most of the time the referees make the right call by the letter of the law, but the eye test and common sense tell you that what you just saw should not have been a penalty. Again, that is not good.

Not only do flags come out all too often on big, game-changing plays, but they also have an effect simply by volume. If a team finishes a game with less than 10 penalties, that is considered a victory. I can remember a time when if your team committed 10 penalties, you would swear the ref was against you and rue the penalties as your downfall. With so many penalties, the referees have much too big of an impact on games. The old saying goes, “A good referee is one you didn’t know was there.” Well, these days, there are far too many NFL officials I would recognize on the street.

As if the penalty parade wasn’t bad enough, if your team manages to make a good play or even make it to the end zone without yellow laundry littering the field, it’s still not time to celebrate. There is a good chance that that play will undergo a replay review. Anything near the sideline, the first-down marker or the goal line is sure to lead to five minutes of holding your breath and/or rationalizing why the play will be decided in your favor while you watch about 8,000 replays. You have to listen to the announcers go over the minutiae of the play while you wait for a middle-aged guy in striped shirt to emerge from a hood to give you a dissertation on why an acceptable football play was or was not made. It sounds ridiculous, and that’s because it is ridiculous. It also sounds boring, because it is.

The issue was exacerbated with the debacle at the end of Monday night’s game between the Detroit Lions and Seattle Seahawks. Despite the preponderance of flags and reviews, officials still failed to make the right ruling on the most crucial play of the game.

It is disturbing that despite all the flags and incessant replay reviews, officials were still able to botch such a vital call. It is also a problem that literally no one seemed to be aware of the rule for that situation: not the players, not the coaches, not the commentators and not even the referees themselves.

Perhaps the rule book is a little too big and a little too complicated. Regardless, it is a bad look for the league that its officials are throwing flags at a record pace and replay reviews are so prevalent, yet they appear to not even know all the rules.

We don't know...

The crux of the problem is that when a big play happens, your first instinct isn’t excitement. You no longer leap from your seat and scream. No, your first instinct is to look for that little yellow box to pop up by the score graphic. All too often it does. And even when it doesn’t, most of the time you’re still subject to the riveting review process — a process that takes viewers literally seconds to determine yet referees minutes on top of minutes to (sometimes) get right. Then, and only then, is it truly safe to celebrate … but by then the moment has passed. You’ve calmed down. The thrill of seeing an incredible athletic achievement or of your team scoring some much-needed points has subsided. The NFL has managed to turn its most exciting plays into something akin to law lessons.

Other sports don’t have this problem. When a baseball player hits a home run, you simply react to the feat and to what your senses tell you. You hear the crack of the bat, you rise from your seat, you follow the trajectory of the ball and, when it clears the fence, you erupt. When a hockey player gets on a breakaway or an NBA team is out on the run, you don’t sit on your hands and wait to hear a whistle or for a five-minute breakdown of the play; you simply react. You let your senses and your emotions bring the joy and excitement of sports to the surface.

The closest thing I can compare it to is soccer, when you may find yourself peeking at the assistant referee after a goal to see if that offside flag has gone up. Even that scenario is much rarer than what happens in today’s NFL.

Perhaps lost in the on-field implications and the effect this has on watching the sport is the effect this has on fantasy football. Fantasy football has been a major boon to the NFL, with droves of people with no rooting interest in the game now watching religiously. Even many people who were fans before the explosion of fantasy now supplement their football enjoyment with fantasy participation. Big plays and touchdowns get nullified by penalties routinely, and seemingly legit plays get overturned by technicalities. It just takes the fun out of it, and it's gotten to the point where a more fun fantasy league might be one in which you draft referees and get points for the penalties they call.

This isn’t to say that the NFL has initiated its own demise. All evidence points to the league being virtually bulletproof in its bottom line — at least for now. But for this fan, the NFL has unwittingly removed the spontaneity and unbridled excitement from its own game. With each passing week, with each barrage of penalty flags and endless replay reviews, it is truly becoming the No Fun League.

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