During his pre-Super Bowl news conference this week, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell addressed a concern substantially less pressing than concussions and domestic violence, but a concern just the same.
There are too many delays, and the kids are getting bored.
The average length of an NFL play, from snap to whistle, is four seconds. Those four-second plays add up to 11 minutes of action during games that typically last more than three hours, which means three hours of nothing much happening on any afternoon that Richard Sherman isn’t ranting at coaches along the Seahawks sideline.
A few months ago, the Cowboys beat the Steelers in a 35-30 thriller. At least the finish was thrilling, but it took a while to get there. Pittsburgh scored a touchdown with 1:13 remaining in the first quarter. The quarter ended 16 minutes later.
I didn’t watch that game, but I’m pretty sure what happened. The Steelers touchdown was followed by several TV commercials. Play resumed with a kickoff ruled a touchback, and then there were several more TV commercials.
“The Steelers are leading the Cowboys by nine,” a broadcaster likely said before the first commercial break, “and we’ll be right back.”
No, we wouldn’t be right back. Between the score and Dallas’ ensuing possession, we would have a chance to walk the dog, fry some bacon for a toasted BLT, complete half of a crossword puzzle, and make a phone call to catch up on everything the freshman-year college roommate has been up to since the freshman year of college.
Advertising rows the boat, I get it, but when 16 minutes in real time include 44 seconds of hut-hut competition, something is wrong.
Here’s one: Reroute those tedious commercial breaks before and after kickoffs to halftime. The halftime of a regular-season NFL game is 12 minutes. Extending the intermission to, say, 20 or 25 minutes strikes me as a convenience for fans in the stadium — more time to hit the concession stand, and, ahem, visit the room down the concourse from the concession stand. It’s more time for players to cool down on September days, and warm up on December days.
That the most recent NFL game I witnessed (Seahawks 26, Lions 6, in the 2016 wild card round) took almost two more hours to conclude than the first NFL game I witnessed (Bears 6, Rams 0, in 1963) is not a problem. The problem is the pace: Huddle-and-hike continuity has been truncated by replay challenges — on any given Sunday, 17 minutes are spent in booth review — and overzealous officials dropping flags for irrelevant penalties.
On those rare occasions that play isn’t interrupted by a booth review, or officials huddling to discuss a penalty, there’s a good chance a timeout will be called. Teams are allowed three timeouts in each half, and at the risk of sounding like a rebellious heretic, three timeouts in the first half are, like, three too many.
The timeout is a device to stop the clock in the fourth quarter. Strategic application of the timeout has sustained many a dramatic comeback, and the dramatic comeback — specifically, Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas pretty much inventing the concept of a two-minute drill in the 1958 championship game — was pivotal in the NFL’s transformation from autumn diversion to the world’s most successful sports organization.
But the timeout should not be a bar of soap. Quarterbacks often call a first-half timeout because the seconds on the play clock are dwindling — the running back lines up in the wrong place, there are too many men on the field, whatever — and it spares a team a 5-yard penalty for delay of game.
A loud crowd contributed to some miscommunication issues? Sorry, but that’s life in the fast lane. You shouldn’t be saved by a get-out-jail-for-free card.
Eliminating timeouts in the first half picks up the pace. So does rescheduling a second block of TV commercials after the score responsible for a first block of TV commercials.
The NFL doesn’t care what I think — I’ve outlived the league’s TV advertising demographic — but it needs to care about regeneration. It needs to care about the future.
It needs to care about kids yawning through first quarters that produce 44 seconds of action over 16 minutes.
John McGrath: @TNTMcGrath