The NFL is Asking For These Rules Controversies and Slow-Adapting Players Keep Delivering

Kyle Koster

If the NFL is America’s new pastime, an even newer one is experiencing deep mental anguish when it comes to the rules of the game. Yesterday the league suffered a brutal 1-2 punch as the the Steelers’ Jesse James was denied an apparent game-clinching touchdown in the waning seconds and Derek Carr fumbled away any hope of a Raiders playoff spot through the end zone.

Both plays were entirely unsatisfying to the vast majority of non-partisans, yet were correctly adjudicated under the rules. The problem, of course, is so many think these rules need to be changed. It’s easy to see why. Watching competitors go to war for three hours only to have the result decided by a flawed technicality feels antithetical to the whole spirit of football.

This morning we wake up and the concept of “a catch” is still murky. Sure, some out there want to be blinded by anger and never truly pursue the league-sanctioned definition. But there’s a swath out there genuinely interested in the truth having a hard time grasping it — both in concept and in practice. This morning we wake up and the idea of losing possession due to a fumble that hits the pylon out of bounds while stretching for the end zone still feels entirely unfair.

The cold reality is that both players should have taken the rules into consideration in order to secure victory. James should have wrapped up and fallen short of the goal-line. Carr should have stepped out of bounds or put two hands on the ball. The Steelers and Raiders likely win if those things happen. This is not an attack on the decision-making, it’s just the truth.

But, like most things, these situations are far more nuanced and complicated than some appreciate. First, James and Carr are both tasked with making split-second strategic decisions in the heat of the moment and fighting human nature telling them to strain for paydirt. It takes a special kind of player to weigh the risks and reward in these situations.

Perhaps more importantly, James and Carr may have hurt their teams with their extra effort, but they were doing exactly what the NFL wants them to do. The league wants the diving touchdowns, the leaping feats of athleticism, the fighting for every inch. That’s how it sells itself. A Superman dive into the end zone is way sexier and marketable than a six-inch fullback dive for a score.

The obvious disconnect there is that what’s best for the league and highlights is oftentimes not what’s best for the player’s team.

There’s also the discussion if both of these rules are good for the NFL. Is a nation of confused and unsatisfied fans parsing regulations a positive? Wouldn’t the league rather be reveling in two amazing offensive plays to clinch ballgames?

Cynically, I believe it doesn’t matter to the NFL. They may not really want these rules and all the consequences, but their existence won’t turn away fans in significant number. Today’s soap opera and soap-box-climbing is not great press but press nonetheless.

The NFL’s rules problem is not a surface blemish. Its roots run deep.