Steve O’Rourke: For a $14 billion company, the NFL sure has some cheap rules

16 min

American Football has been around a long time. It’s only 100 years or so younger than the country from which it takes its name. At about the same time some college students changed the rules of rugby because it wasn’t violent enough, Abraham Lincoln was regretting his trip to the theatre, Thomas Edison was having his light bulb moment and the outlaw Jesse James was committing his first bank robbery.

So football’s ancient and, on any given Sunday, it feels like some of its rules are almost equally as antiquated, even if Jesse James is still making headlines.

James, of course, was at the centre of the call — the correct call by the letter of the law — that decided the result of the Patriots and Steelers crunch AFC encounter; for my money the best game of the season to date.

James caught a pass from his quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, controlled the ball and crossed the plane of the goal line with the ball in his hands. In line with Duck Theory — if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck — it was a touchdown. However, James was ‘going to the ground’ as a receiver and so he was not treated like a runner who can throw the ball up in the air, shoot it with a musket and mount it on his wall after crossing the plane and it would still count as a touchdown.

No, because he was ‘going to the ground’ it’s expected that James maintain’s full possession after the ball hits the ground and upon replay at 1/100th of the speed of real-time, the ball moved and the touchdown was correctly ruled out.

To me, crossing the plane with the ball or having possession of the football with two feet in bounds should be all you need to register a catch.

Was it a catch? Jesse James and the majority of others thought so.

Or, if we must look at replays to decide, only allow them to be watched in real-time, the same speed with which every other decision on an NFL field is made.

Remember, this happened the same night as the Carolina Panthers were awarded a touchdown because an arse cheek in bounds is the same as having two feet in bounds. Good to know.

The other ridiculous rule that came to the fore on Sunday night is perhaps the most punitive in the NFL. It happened when Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr stretched for the end zone against the Dallas Cowboys only to fumble the football resulting in a touchback.

There wasn’t nearly the same level of controversy about this as James’s catch in the earlier game even though both were correct decisions by the letter of the law, even if the laws themselves make no sense. But the fact remains that both rules punish players for making athletic plays and reward the defense in a way that is not commensurate with the mistake by the offense. Surely the obvious — and fair — solution is for the offensive team to get the ball back at the opponent’s 20-yard line, or even just where they lost possession?

I don’t know why, but I just get the feeling one of these antiquated rules is going to come back to haunt a team this postseason.

Game 1 – Buffalo Bills 8-6 @ New England Patriots 11-3

It’s worth taking a moment to consider what the Patriots have done in the Bill Belichick and Tom Brady era. Last weekend, New England claimed the AFC East title for the ninth consecutive season and for the 17th time under Belichick’s reign. The Pats have now made the playoffs for nine straight seasons (2009-17), tied with Dallas (1975-83) and Indianapolis (2002-10) for the most in NFL history. And, if they get another win, will join the Cowboys as second to the 49ers in the list of most 12-win teams since the NFL merger.

Lost amid the James catch controversy was just how well the Patriots played down the stretch in a must-win game.

Tom Brady’s numbers may not have jumped off the page, but as he mounted his team’s comeback, he connected with some of the best throws you’ll ever see a quarterback make and, in any fair world, would be a shoe-in for the regular season MVP prize.

If the season were to end today, the Bills would be in the playoffs for the first time this millennium. Sadly for fans of New York’s other team, the season has two weekends remaining and road trips to Boston and Miami. The one sliver of light for Buffalo this weekend is the fact they can boast the league’s sixth-ranked rush attack and face a Pats defence ranked just 26th on the ground.

New England is not much better against the pass, but nobody has fewer yards through the air this season than Buffalo’s 171.2 per game. However, Tyrod Taylor, as he has shown all year, can beat you with his feet as much as his arm and you’d have to wonder how ownership and management feel about inexplicably dropping Taylor — and watching his replacement Nate Peterman throw five picks — and losing a game that could potentially cost them a place in the playoffs.

The Patriots are 11.5 point favourites and it must be noted they are just 8-6 against the spread this season. However, they easily took care of Buffalo on the road and home comforts mean I’ll be backing them for another facile win. I’ll also be taking the over (47) in this one.

Game 2 – Atlanta Falcons (9-5) @ New Orleans Saints (10-4)

The NFC South is definitely the most open division in football this season and it says it all that — with two game weeks remaining — three teams from the South could still make the postseason, or just one. The best part is that each of the three contenders — the two above and the Carolina Panthers (10-4) — all meet over the coming fortnight with the other team in the division, the Bucs, primed to play the role of the spoiler too.

I’ve written a few times this season about the Falcons’ struggles on offense with the switch from Kyle Shanahan to Steve Sarkisian as offensive coordinator but the fact remains the Atlanta offense, as it showed again on Monday Night Football as they really struggled against Tampa Bay.

More worryingly for Dan Quinn’s side is the fact the defense — his strength — have not taken the step forward most pundits expected this year and that could cost them a playoff spot.

Coincidentally, the Saints defense have improved well above anyone’s expectations having finished no higher than 27th in the NFL in yards allowed or points allowed since 2013 and have worked their way through five defensive coordinators in nine seasons. However, the addition of cornerback Marshon Lattimore and safety Marcus Williams in the first two rounds of the NFL Draft have made a massive difference, so much so they’re allowing 8.8 fewer points than last season.

For all those reasons, the home side are 5.5 point favourites and I’d be more than comfortable backing them at anything up to 7.5, even taking into consideration what’s at stake and it being a divisional rivalry. The points total (52.5) is a little high considering how good the New Orleans defense is.

Game 3 – Seattle Seahawks (8-6) @ Dallas Cowboys (8-6)

This is one of those strange games where both teams must win to keep their playoff hopes alive, but both also know that finishing the season with a 10-6 record might still see them coming up short.

Of course, the main talking point coming into the game is the return of running back Zeke Elliott from his six-game suspension, a period during which his team went a respectable 3-3 but also failed to score more than nine points in three consecutive games for the first time in franchise history.

Indeed, this season they have averaged 28.3 points when the former Ohio State star has been in the backfield and just 18.3 in his absence, a huge drop-off.

Elliott averaged nearly 140 yards in his three games before the suspension, but the Cowboys could struggle in both the pass and run game with All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith questionable with a sprained knee.

The Seahawks, of course, have been devastated by injuries themselves. Kam Chancellor was the latest big name for Seattle to find himself on injured reserve where he joined Richard Sherman this week.

Seattle are also likely to be without linebackers Bobby Wagner and KJ Wright in this game too with the likes of Mike Tyson — not that one — and linebacker Kache Palacio joining the 53-man roster from the practice squad.

Dallas are 4.5 point favourites in this one and, while we don’t know how much rust Elliott will have to shake off, they are undoubtedly the better team with him in the side. I’ll also be edging towards the under (47) when it comes to the points total with both teams incapable of putting up big numbers.

Steve’s Week 16 Selections:

  • Patriots -11.5
  • Over 47 points Bills @ Patriots
  • Saints -5.5
  • Under 52 points Falcons @ Saints
  • Dallas -4.5
  • Under 47 Seahawks @ Cowboys

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