Innovation and football

Football I love professional football.  I really do.  But sometimes I yearn for something like that moment when someone threw the first forward pass (Yale’s Walter Camp to Oliver Thompson in 1876).  Apparently, there was no rule against forward passes, so the innovation was allowed to stand.

The game is now so rigid with orthodoxy and regulation that there is nothing that no one hasn’t thought of.  That is to say, there is a rule against everything not in the standard package.  So I can wait for the latter day equivalent of the unprecedented forward pass till I turn blue in the face.  It’s not going to happen.

When a culture creates circumstances in which innovation is effectively banned, this is the moment when the culture turns from evolution to involution.  Evolution is the movement to something new.  Involution allows for refinement and elaboration, but not change.

Now this is strange because football is a metaphor for things that are shot through with innovation.  It has been called war by other means.  It has also been called business by other means.  And of course war and business are innovating and evolving at light speed.  If football wants to keep its place as a quintessentially American undertaking,  it has to make space for change.  I mean for crying out loud, it could end up like baseball. 

So I was thinking whether there was an innovation that would give the game back its future.  How about this?  How about if we allow the ball carrier to make a forward pass after he has crossed the the line of scrimmage  The person to whom the pass the ball, perhaps they should be able to pass it forward too. 

The idea is to graft a little basketball into the game of football.  I don’t know that this is a great idea.  But surely something is called for.  I mean otherwise it’s going to be a very long holiday season.

11 thoughts on “Innovation and football

  1. Steve Portigal

    Check out BASEketball – a silly silly movie (Abrams/Abrams/Zucker, I believe) with the South Park guys – interesting combination of humor. They design a new sport to bring the best of all of the other sports together.

  2. Peter

    It is common, IME, for American businessmen to compare their business life to a game of football. (They almost never compare their business life to baseball, and American businesswomen don’t seem to make sporting metaphors.) What has always struck me as odd about this metaphor is that in business, unlike in football, the spectators get to decide the outcome. Comparing business to a sporting contest seems to ignore the role of customers, and thus the need for marketing . . . .

  3. Graham Hill


    Reminds me of the old saw advising those in positions of authority to “control what you should, not what you can”.

    Perhaps this is why the rest of the world prefers to watch the rather more dynamic and free-flowing soccer rather than American football!

    Graham Hill

  4. Ian

    In Iraq we are playing football, they are playing soccer, and we are loosing. Not until American boys grow up to want to be soccer stars will we be able to win the wars of the future. Football is a choreographed series of staged thrusts, between hyper-thyroid gladiators, controled by an off-field coach/commander in which seizure of territory is paramount. Soccer is a fluid unrelenting continuum, a marathon in which a team of athletes without off-field micro-management constantly probes, re-groups, passses forward back and sideways, looses and gains possession of the ball, and eventually finds a weak spot to for a lightening strike. Football is all tactics, soccer strategy. I repeat: not until America overthrows the rigid ritualistic kabuki-like football dance will we be able to best our enemies at their own game.

  5. DC1974

    Or we could all play Australian rules football, which looks like a combination of Soccer/basketball/volley ball and rugby. I love watching it on television, because I don’t understand it and it seems like every move is completely unexpected (“Did he just do that?”). I suppose to an Australian it makes more sense, but for its more foreign than any sport I have watched. Like visiting earth from a distant galaxy.

  6. Seamus McCauley

    In England we play rugby, where (somewhat counter-intuitively) the ball is moved forward by passing it backwards: by which I mean the ball can be passed as many times as the players wish during a movement, but they must move it forwards by running it and can pass it only backwards. I’m not even certain that numerous backwards passes are prohibited in American Football – it would be interesting, if not prohibited, to see whether a rugby team could make much headway against the offensive line.

    Also, to riff on your analogy a little, war and business are more formalised than they’ve ever been in history. We’ve had nukes for 50 years and used them only twice, restricting ourselves semi-voluntarily to what we call “conventional” warfare instead. The concept of “war crimes” would have simply been derided by the statesmen and tacticians of 100 years ago – put Metternich or Clausewitz in front of a tribunal for “cheating” at war and they’d have laughed, but that’s precisely what has happened to Saddam and others.

    Sarbanes-Oxley codifies the relations between businesses more precisely than they’ve ever been. The room for manoeuvre grows ever less here also, and business success is a matter for lawyers as much as inventors, another case of involution. Perhaps the senescence of American Football is merely an accurate reflection of the arenas it is said to mirror?

  7. kevin r.

    ack! the last time someone tried to innovate football we wound up with the XFL. I think if innovation is going to happen in the professional game it will first have to be proven in a non NFL league like college or arena league. Florida ran a play over the weekend that was essentially a basketball jump shot for a touchdown. I’ve never seen anything like it.

  8. steve

    The soccer bigots are wrong: soccer is a game with all tactics and no strategy precisely because of its fluidity (some would argue its futility). Worse yet, outcomes are only loosely coupled to the quality of play in the game. It’s fine if the inferior team plays better one day and wins; it’s not fine if a team plays worse on that day and still secures a tie or a win.

    Football innovations that might be fun (although I’d rather the current rules be streamlined and many of the changes put in over the past 30 years reversed): Allow motion by all the backs in any direction pre-snap (the Canadians do something like this). Make a muffed lateral dead where it’s dropped or hits the ground, rather than a fumble. Limit situational substitutions (say for a given offensive possession both teams only get to replace injured players, who then must sit out two series). Get rid of the fair catch on kick returns. Put a total weight limit on the players who can be on the field at any one time, and set it to an average of 220 pounds per player. Make communication from the sideline to the field illegal when the clock is running.

    How’s that?

  9. Independent George

    With all due respect, reading these comments makes me wonder if I’m watching the same sport as everybody else. I can’t think of any other sport that has undergone nearly as much innovation as the NFL.

    In the last twenty years, we’ve seen the West Coast Offense (in at least a half-dozen variations), the K-Gun, the Run & Shoot, the Greatest Show on Turf, and the (as yet unnamed) Indianapolis Colts offense. Each offensive innovation has, in turn, spurred a defensive countermeasure: the 46, the Tampa-2, the fire zone blitz, and a bewildering variety of other coverages and defensive schemes without any such names.

    What other sport has seen so much experimentation in different strategies and philosophies?

  10. Tom Guarriello

    I think it’s somewhat interesting that when I was studying psychopathology in graduate school, the psychiatric term for a variety of midlife mental disturbance was “involutional melancholia.” Sounds kind of like what you’re describing.

  11. steve

    Independent George: I agree that football has been pretty innovative in strategy and tactics, but much of it is a) micro-innovation and b) driven by constant rule changes. For example, the wide-open passing offenses like Bill Walsh’s “West Coast” (should be “Cinncinnati”, since he developed it with the Bengals under Paul Brown) depend absolutely on the 1978-1985 rule changes that prevent defensive backs from hitting receivers below the waist, playing bump-and-run coverage, etc. The liberalized holding rules in 1978 turned offensive line play into the upper-body wrestling match it is today, and made pass-blocking much easier (they also took away the head slap and the forearm shiver from the D-linemen). Much of the evolution of the game since then has been a working out of the new possibliities and problems these rule changes created.

    But in terms of macro-innovation, like they had in the 1940s and 1950s? Not so much. The college game is a bit more innovative in this sense, since coaches feel free to integrate option principles and run the spread offense, but the NFL has an awful lot of cookie-cutter teams unwilling to branch out. Look at what happened to the Run-n-Shoot–fantastic stats, playoff appearances, then abandonment once its few champions departed the NFL. June Jones is still having fun with it at the U. of Hawaii, though.

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