NFL rules while majors strike out

September 22, 1994|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Don't call it the No Fun League. Not now. Not anymore. The NFL is better than ever, and its improved product should provide further embarrassment to major-league baseball, if that's possible.

The NFL's arrogance is no secret in Baltimore, but at least when its game is broke, the league fixes it. Baseball's problems are just as acute, yet the owners are too busy union-busting to notice.

Their arrogance goes beyond the NFL's.

Their product stinks, and they don't care.

Forget baseball's off-the-field troubles. On the field, it has one problem, and one problem only -- the games are too long.

The NFL faced the same issue a few years back, and adjusted by cutting the time between plays from 45 to 40 seconds and restarting the clock more frequently.

Bingo! Problem solved.

This season, the league adopted a series of new rules designed to increase scoring.

Presto! More touchdowns.

Through three weeks, teams are combining for an average of 43.38 points per game. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, only one season in the past 25 years produced a higher average -- 1983.

Granted, this isn't CFL territory, where teams are averaging 59.77 points per game. Then again, Paul Tagliabue and Co. surely disdain the rouge, or the single, or whatever the heck the CFL calls it.

"Baltimore is in that league," Tagliabue sniffs.

Not just in it, pal -- in its Sun Belt.

But back to the irrational pastime.

Baseball also witnessed a dramatic scoring increase this season -- but not by design, and not without damage. The trend, applauded by many, had both a negative cause (poor pitching) and effect (longer games).

The average time of a National League game in 1994 increased from 2 hours, 44 minutes to 2:52 -- and that was the good news. The average time of an AL game increased by a whopping 11 minutes, from 2:52 to 3:03.

Remember the World Series, baseball's showcase event? The average time of a game in the 1993 "Classic" was 3:29 -- nearly an hour longer than when the Orioles won the series a decade before.

Nearly an hour.

That's appalling.

And still, the owners never knew their game was in trouble even before this ridiculous strike.

For all its faults, the NFL doesn't stand for such nonsense. It received a barrage of negative publicity for its dull, low-scoring games last season, and reacted accordingly.

Major League Baseball celebrated its 125th anniversary by adding uniform patches. The NFL celebrated its 75th anniversary by fixing its game.

Adding the two-point conversion. Moving the kickoff from the 35-yard line to the 30. Enforcing rules against "chucking" to give receivers more freedom.

Subtle changes, but significant nonetheless.

Few coaches try the two-point conversion -- there were only 28 attempts in 217 chances (12.9 percent) the first three weeks -- but that's not the point.

The New York Giants' 31-23 victory over Washington last Sunday wasn't decided until the final play, all because of the possibility of a two-point conversion.

Likewise, the effect of the kickoff change -- and the switch to one-inch kicking tees -- only appears to be minimal.

The average kickoff return, logically enough, has increased by yards -- from the 24 to the 29. But the difference in the game isn't only reflected by field position.

It's early, but the Redskins' Brian Mitchell, of all people, is on pace to break the NFL record for total offense (2,535 yards, Lionel James, 1985).

How does Mitchell get most of his yards?

Kick returns.

Yet, Mitchell isn't the only player benefitting from the new rules. Check out the receivers. They're practically under 24-hour protection, now that the referees are closely monitoring "chucking."

Tap Jerry Rice on the shoulder for an autograph, and a zebra won't be far behind, but who cares? The receivers are the best athletes in the game. Fans want to see them perform, and now they're getting that chance.

Four receivers -- Rice, Andre Rison, Henry Ellard and Ben Coates -- are on a pace to break the NFL record for receiving yardage (1,746, Charley Hennigan, 1961). Heck, Ellard has the most receiving yardage after three games (374) of any Redskin in 32 years.

It's a different game now, a better game. The salary cap and free agency increased player movement, and that might be another reason defenses are struggling. Still, no one minds. This way is more exciting.

It's amazing -- the No Fun League is embarrassing baseball.

Baseball, where the product is sacred, except when there's union-busting to be done.

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