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How to save the NFL in 11 throwback steps


That was a dandy little survey CBS-TV performed on the NFL last week. After polling some 1,300 people, the league's longest-standing TV network announced that pro football never has been better. "We found that fans love the game the way it is," said a CBS spokesman.

Well, there's nothing like rigging the mechanism to make it work your way.

Are we supposed to watch the games with a renewed vigor, realizing the absurdity of our skepticism during this troubled season? "Gosh, honey, I don't know which CBS game looks better: Rams-Phoenix or Redskins-Tampa Bay. I think that poll turned my whole life around."

By now, there's a good chance you're as weary of NFL critiques as you are of the games themselves. But allow a quick look into our Alternative NFL, where we go for two points if the time is right, wipe the grass and snow off our helmets, and wonder if our field-goal kicker is really up to the task, given that he just blew out his shoulder trying to tackle Jerome Bettis.

It goes this way:

1) Kill the exhibition season. If you're trying to please the fans, revenue isn't a legitimate reason. The games are 100 percent awful, no exceptions. Dozens of key players get hurt. Some teams expose their weaknesses so dramatically, you're sick of them before the season even starts. And it's summertime, for crying out loud. Find me one good reason for exhibition games, beyond money for the NFL kitty.

2) The word "bye" doesn't even exist. Any schedule with a bye, college or pro, is an insult to fans and the sport's great tradition. People wait too long between weekends to come up empty. If you want an 18-week season, then play 18 games. Statistical comparisons to the old 12-game seasons have been worthless for years, and such institutions as the 1,000-yard season already have been rendered ordinary. Just let the fans see their team every week, no exceptions.

3) If you play in a domed stadium, or on artificial turf, you're out of the league. You've got three years to make the switch, or be gone. "But this is America," cry city officials and team owners. "Not any longer," we answer. "It's dictatorship for the common good."

4) Learn how to tackle, or find some other line of work. Forearm "shiver" tackles to the head are worth a 15-yard penalty, and outright spearing earns you ejection and a one-game suspension. These tactics are not only dangerous -- and downright cowardly at times -- they also are weak fundamentally. If you want to see real tackling, check the old films of people such as Bobby Bell, Pat Fischer and Dick Butkus. That's right, Mr. Mayhem himself. Butkus bent the rules with regularity, but his tackling style was right out of a clinic.

5) Pay-per-view television in every home, at decent prices -- say, $5 a game. You'll have access to regular free television, but if you want some other game on the schedule, no problem. Just cue it up.

6) During the last two minutes, the clock stops (to move the chains) after every first down. This works marvelously in the college game, giving life to teams whose timeouts have expired.

7) Discourage all arguments against free agency and limited defensive strategy. NFL players are worth every penny they earn, and they deserve big bucks more than the athletes of any other sport. In regard to defense, we'd all like to see a return to the old 4-3 set, with the ever-romanticized middle linebacker and other well-defined positions. But you can't restrict the imagination of coaches. The NBA already has made this mistake, preventing zone defenses, and what happens? The referees spend so much time worrying about "illegal defense," they miss Dennis Rodman's elbow to Rik Smits' jaw.

8) Let the quarterbacks -- no, MAKE the quarterbacks -- call their own plays. The star of the game should be a Randall Cunningham or John Elway, not a Paul Hackett or Mike Holmgren. The legends of QBs like Bobby Layne, Johnny Unitas and Kenny Stabler were established greatly because they ran the show. Get rid of the idiot headsets and computer printouts; let's pinpoint the real leaders and masters of improvisation and remove the haze of responsibility.

9) Allow the two-point conversion. There simply isn't one legitimate argument to the contrary.

10) For crying out loud, run back the kickoffs. It's been 14 years since anybody went 105 yards on a touchdown return, mostly because today's teams are terrified of risk ("Uh-oh, I'm 2 yards deep. Better not take a chance here."). First, move the kickoff back to the 30-yard line (as John Madden suggests), eliminating those booming kicks behind the goal line. Then make it mandatory to run 'em out from 105 yards or less.

11) And finally, the No. 1 rule of the Alternative NFL: No more field-goal specialists. Bring back the days of Pat Summerall, Wayne Walker and Paul Hornung, when real football players did the deed. You can't kick a field goal unless you actually play the game: an offensive or defensive starter, or a legitimate backup who scrimmages regularly at a designated position during the week.

"We're the best athletes in the game," argues Kansas City kicker Nick Lowery. He actually said that. But even if he's right, kickers aren't the best athletes in a football game. They are aberrations, Fred Astaire-spotless in a world of bloodied faces and torn limbs. You don't stage three hours of warfare to have Pierce Brosnan come in and decide things.

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