A few years ago, the people who bring you pro football heard numerous complaints that games were dragging on too long. So, they tinkered here and tucked there -- and the average NFL game went from 3 hours and 11 minutes in 1989 to 2 hours and 58 minutes last season.
But for every action, there is a reaction.
The shorter games meant fewer plays from scrimmage. And fewer plays translated into fewer points. In 1992, the average for points scored per game was 37.5 -- the lowest since 1978, when the NFL woke up and realized that a cast of guys named Mean Joe and Hacksaw and the Assassin seemed to be dominating football. The NFL's competition committee instituted a number of changes to make the NFL more offensive-oriented, and we got the Marinos and the Elways and the Montanas.
Now, it's time to tinker again.
In the opulent Stouffer Esmeralda Resorts about 20 miles east of Palm Springs in the California desert, the competition committee is putting together a package of changes designed to add more plays, more points and more pizazz without adding length to the game.
It's a neat balancing act, said Jim Finks, the New Orleans Saints general manager, who is chairman of the committee. In the competitive world of megabucks entertainment, the NFL -- which is aggressively marketing its product abroad -- is always conscious of its image as a slow-moving sport, short on the kind of fleet-footed action that has made the NBA a worldwide phenomenon.
So, what to do? First, says Finks, the committee is likely to recommend to owners, who meet in Palm Springs next week, that the play clock be reduced from 45 to 40 seconds. "That looks favorable," Finks said. "That will give us more plays."
How many more plays is not certain. But many NFL officials hope it will at least reverse the current trend. For the last five years, the average number of plays per game has been dropping steadily -- from 155 in 1988 to 145.4 last season. And the average number of points per game has dropped three points since 1988.
"We're also looking at ways to get more drama back into the game by adding to the number of kickoff returns and punt returns," said Finks. One proposal under consideration is to move the kickoff back from the 35-yard line to the 30-yard line.
Some owners want to go further -- reduce the rosters from 47 to 35 players, limit substitutions, and encourage the no-huddle offense. Another idea is to add the option of a two-point conversion after a touchdown. But those proposals are not likely to go past the discussion stage.
Also under discussion will be one of Finks' pet projects: reducing the number of injuries caused by flagrant penalties.