NFL Announces Major PAT Rule Change. I Like It But I’d Have Done More With Scoring

NFL owners this week voted 30-2 to adopt a new rule, the first major rule change to affect scoring in a long time.

football-goalpostsUnder the new rule, point-after kicks — which have become routine, ceremonial plays with all the drama of drying cement and the impact of a mosquito landing on your arm — are going to take on a whole new adventurous meaning.

The change has two aspects.

First, rather than kicking PATs from the two-yard line, the ball will be placed at the 15-yard line for the attempt. Although that’s still not a real challenge for an NFL place-kicker, it does increase the margin for error and give the defense the ability to build up a hard charge intended to deflect the kick. And of course, the PAT becomes a 25-yard field goal. (In the 2014 season, there were approximately 250 field goal attempts inside 30 yards and kickers made all but five of them.)

So maybe it won’t be that much more difficult for the kickers. But the second aspect of the rule change is that if the defense blocks the PAT, they will be allowed to recover the ball and run it back for a two-point score. (I don’t know if they’ll call this a safety or give it another name.)

Nice Move, But Not Far Enough!

As I said, I like the rule change even though its impact is likely to be small.

But I’ve been advocating another scoring rule change for years that I’d still like to see the NFL implement at some point. And that relates to the number of points scored for a field goal.

Long field goals are hard, so you’d think I might be in favor of giving teams more points for long kicks than for chip shots. But you’d be wrong. Follow me here.

Every drive is intended to produce a touchdown. (A college coach told me back in the day when I was writing sports full time that every play is designed to score a TD, thus the vast majority of plays were failures.) The closer a team gets to the goal line, the closer it comes to its real goal. If they get stymied just shy of the six-pointer, I think a field goal should be worth more than one kicked from 50 yards away by a team that could barely get the ball into enemy territory.

In other words, by my way of thinking, you reward the team with points dependent on the overall offensive drive’s performance, not on the basis of one guy’s strong, accurate leg.

So,  here’s how I’d do it.

Distance    Points
————    ——–
1-10               3
11-30             2
31+                1

Call me crazy but I think that would spice games up a lot. I hate to see a team win in the waning moments of a hard-fought game by moving the ball to just across the 50 and then punching in a long field goal. Make them work for those points!

What do you think?

Niners Get Two Comp Picks, Now Have Nine in Upcoming NFL Draft

At the NFL owners meetings today, the San Francisco 49ers were awarded two compensatory NFL draft picks, bringing their total number of draft positions to nine. The compensatory picks are designed to make up for a team’s net losses from free agent signings.

Here’s a look at the 49ers’ nine draft picks:
Round 1: No. 15 in round
Round 2: No. 14
Round 3: No. 15
Round 4: No. 27
Round 4: No. 33 (compensatory)
Round 5: No. 15
Round 6: No. 14
Round 7: No. 29
Round 7: No. 37 (compensatory)

The draft will be held April 30-May 2 and the Niners need all the high draft picks they can muster even if they have to trade to get some. The team is looking pretty mediocre for the upcoming season from where I’m sitting, so it might as well call it a rebuilding year and get real.

So the Niners Are Now Clearly Trent Baalke’s Team. Now What?

49ers GM TRENT BAALKE. It's his team now.

49ers GM TRENT BAALKE. It’s his team now.

It seems pretty clear that the San Francisco 49ers’ near-term future is in the hands, not of totally inexperienced Head Coach Jim Tomsula but rather of GM Trent Baalke.This is part of a larger trend a number of NFL execs annd commentators see toward GMs taking more control of their teams and looking for coaches who will pay attention to the day-to-day execution of the game plans rather than trying to make draft and other personnel decisions.

Frankly, it’s probably an appropriate sharing of power and responsibility provided two things:

  • First, that the personnel responsibilities are at least somewhat shared.
  • Second, that the GM has some clue what’s going on with what the team and the coach really need.

So the question is whether Baalke is that kind of GM or whether the Niners, in the unproven hands of Tomsula, are in for a rough couple of years a I’ve been saying unabashedly since he was hired to take over for control freak Jim Harbaugh, one of the most successful coaches in NFL history.

Baalke has served in various personnel-related capacities for several NFL teams over the years. His resume includes stints at the Jets (1998-2000) and Redskins (2001-2004). He started his 49ers career in 2005 as Western Region Scout and was quickly promoted to Director of Player Personnel in 2008 and then to VP of Player Personnel a year later. In 2011 he became the team’s General Manager just as Harbaugh was being hired out of Stanford. Conventional wisdom at the time was that Harbaugh wasn’t coach-GM material and that he’d need a strong hand on the tiller if he was to be successful.

Over the next three years of Harbaugh’s stint as head coach, he became increasingly resistant to Baalke’s strong management style. The GM had been named the NFL’s Executive of the Year in 2012 for his role in turning the 6-10 team into a 13-3 squad in one season. How much of the success was attributable to Baalke vs how much credit Harbaugh should be given is something we’ll probably never know.

What we can say is that the 2011 draft turned out amazingly well. It was viewed at the time as a largely developmental draft designed to give a first-year NFL coach something with which to build a future club. The top three picks were LB Aldon Smith, QB Colin Kaepernick and CB Chris Culliver. RB Kendall Hunter and OL Daniel Kilgore rounded out the top five. Not bad for a “developmental” draft. I suspect that Baalke had a lot more to do with those picks than Harbaugh did. After all, the new Head Coach had his hands full in those first few months in his NFL debut and wasn’t all that familiar with college personnel outside the Pac-10. So give Baalke credit for the majority of the value-added from the 2011 draft.

As good as that first draft was, that’s how ineffective its followup was in 2012. Of course part of the problem was the Niners had a low draft position because of their success the previous year. But part of it was that the Niners went with the nearly always fatal “best athlete available” approach to drafting. I’ve never had much respect for that way of building a roster. Not one of the players picked in the 2012 draft has had any significant impact on the roster. By now, it was probably true that Harbaugh had more influence over the decisions than he did in Year One, but that may or may not be all that relevant an observation.

I dug back into the archives and read an assessment of Baalke made when it was announced he would run the Niners’ draft in 2008. I didn’t find anything there that set off any alarms, good or bad. His assessments seemed middle-of-the-road, not particularly insightful, although his assessment of the overall QB situation in that draft was spot on (and agreed with almost everyone else’s).

The really open question in my mind is to what degree is Baalke enamored of his ability to run the team once the player personnel are in place. How much freedom is he going to give Tomsula and Geep Chryst (OC) and Eric Mangini (DC)?

One thing seems very clear. This is Baalke’s team. Its success or failure in 2015 must be laid squarely on his shoulders. If the team does well, he’ll deserve the lion’s share of the credit. If the team does not do well, the clamoring for change should be in his office, not that of the hapless Tomsula or his erstwhile assistants. Another season down the road, that picture could change. But for 2015, that’s how it shapes up.

I hope Niners fans keep this in mind as the season unfolds because it promises to be a bumpy ride.

49ers Make Playoffs! But if Defense Wins Championships…

The San Francisco 49ers defeated the Atlanta Falcons yesterday, 34-24, in a game that was closer than it sounds and shouldn’t have been.

49ers-FalconsThe lowly Falcons shouldn’t have posed any real challenge for the Niners. Atlanta starts more rookies than any team in NFL history that wasn’t an expansion team in its first season. Seven rooks on the defensive side of the ball a good part of the day? QB Matt Ryan is at best a slightly above average player. The Falcons were 4-10 and out of reasons to play other than maybe morale. The Niners were playing to clinch a playoff birth (which they did) and keep slim hopes of a division title alive.

And yet Ryan and his low-octane offense scorched the Niners time after time after time. They ended up the evening with 402 yards of total offense, 341 of it through the air. And a good bit of that yardage came on long passes that seemed to find the pores in the Niners’ passing D. When the Falcons tried a desperation on-side kick with just over 2:00 left in the game — and freaking recovered it! — I really thought it was game over for the Niners. A tie seemed all but inevitable and the way Ryan had the team working, a winning TD wouldn’t have come as a shock.

Then a fluke INT plopped into NaVorro Bowman’s hands and he returned it 89 yards for a TD and the game was over. Finally.

I must say the Falcons acquitted themselves very nicely. They have demonstrated to their fans that they can play with the league’s elite even if that comes too late to salvage a disappointing season.

So the Niners are in the playoffs. Depending on how they do in the final game this week at St. Louis. But you have to be a little worried about that defense. Over the past three or four games they’ve had lapses that have seemed incomprehensible. And they’ve yielded their share of penalties while contributing very few turnaround or scoring plays or opportunities. Sure, they’re still stingy as hell on scoring and that’s huge, but in the playoffs it doesn’t take too many lapses before you find yourself playing catch-up.

And Coach Jim Harbaugh and his staff have to reduce the number of dumb play calls and poor clock management incidents or they’re going to cost us a crucial close game.

On the up side, the offense has been clicking a bit more smoothly and efficiently of late. Kaep got some of his wheels back yesterday and looked really good a couple of times. He’s still making too many bad decisions on passes, sailed a couple too high and ate the ball once too often. But given that he’s only a bit more experienced than a true rookie, I guess we have to cut him some slack.

Why Do Low-Scoring Football Games Bore Me, Unlike Low-Scoring Baseball Games?

So what’s the matter with me? I love it when a baseball game ends with a low score and a low winning margin. Pitcher’s duels are a feast for my baseball eyes. But show me an NFL game that ends 10-9 like the Niners’ loss today to the Carolina Panthers, and I’m bored to tears.

Never mind that my team lost; the Panthers’ defense was obviously much better coached and prepared than the Niners’ offense. In fact, I’m beginning to worry about the Niners’ ability to sustain a championship run with an offense that is dead last in the NFL in passing. I thought Colin Kaepernick was supposed to be a gun. Maybe a Derringer?

But I digress.

The game today was just dead for me. To many turnovers, too many sacks, too much offensive futility, and far too little scoring. I think that my sense is that when a baseball game ends 2-1 or 1-0 or 3-2, there’s dynamic tension and strategy at work. But when an NFL game ends that way, it generally means, as it seemed to me today, that the offenses were just sputtering. It comes off as ineptitude. I’m not saying the teams in today’s game were not good teams; they clearly both are. But they’re not exciting teams, at least not the way they played each other today.

I expected a track meet, a high-scoring shootout. Both teams were on long winning streaks, both had scored 30+ points per game in their last several outings in dominating opponents. Instead — and I was obviously in a minority in my expectation because most other observers seemed to expect what we got — we got brutish, smash-mouth, in-your-face defensive football. Which I just don’t enjoy.

kaep_running_towardFWIW, I no longer expect the Niners to make a run at the Super Bowl this year. They may not even make the playoffs but if they do, they’re not going very far. Kaepernick has proven to be a weak (that is, inaccurate and sketchy) passer and once the defenses in the NFL caught on to the college-style offense the Niners tried to get away with behind Kaep, the team has relied on running and defense to win. That formula won’t carry the day, as they learned painfully today.

But I don’t care if they make the playoffs or not; I just hope they find a way to win and lose future games in a bit more exciting fashion than they did today in their first real test against a good defense since the Seahawks clobbered them.

If not, it’s going to be a long five weeks to the end of the season.

 

Harbaugh’s Not Whining. Seattle DBs Break the Rules

According to this piece on Bleacher Report today, 49ers Coach Jim Harbaugh plans to seek league clarification on how far defensive backs can go with physical play downfield.

I know a lot of fans around the country will accuse Harbaugh of being whiny and trying to influence the officials before the Dec. 23 rematch between the Niners and the Seattle Seahawks. But the truth is, in this case, it appears to me that Harbaugh’s concerns are legitimate.

During last Thursday night’s game between the two teams at Candlestick, I was continually astonished by the downfield contact the Seahawks DBs engaged in, often right in full view of officials who seemed somehow blind to their offenses. Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman were particularly egregious offenders from what I could see.

NFL rules prohibit a defender from making physical contact with a receiver more than five yards from the line of scrimmage. Yet I saw a dozen or more plays in which the ‘Hawks backs blatantly broke that rule. Not one such penalty was ever called.

I’m not saying this is limited to Seattle, though they seem to be the most egregious offenders according to NFL scuttlebutt. Whether it’s Seattle or someone else, though, it’s important that teams be able to count on the rules being enforced consistently. Harbaugh is right to question the performance of Thursday night’s officiating crew on this point.