The Philadelphia Eagles took the opening kickoff on Monday night and marched right down the field. No huddles, no milking the play clock, just Mike Vick running the offense and Washington peddling backwards. In little more than four minutes, they were in the red zone. Then Vick gets rushed and the ball hits the ground. A Washington defender picks it up and runs it the other way, into the far end zone. FedEx Field is buzzing with excitement. Touchdown? Maybe.
The official ruling is touchdown. The teams send out their extra point packages. Then a whistle. Automatic review for any scoring play. Or turnover. This is both. Let’s go to commercial. Five minutes pass. Six minutes. The crowd is standing around. Waiting. Announcers and fans parse a rulebook they barely understand. Finally, a ruling. It’s a touchdown. Nearly 10 minutes after the first six points, the PAT is kicked and Washington leads, 7-0.
Philadelphia dominated the first half despite the turnover. Their offense is blazing fast. Exciting. Fun. But despite all its speed and flash, Washington would mount a second-half comeback that falls just short. The game stretches past its planned time on Monday night, the second half of the doubleheader starts in San Diego on ESPN2 while Robert Griffin III throws two late touchdowns to make it close. DVRs everywhere get confused.
These are the two directions the National Football League is being pulled in. The speed of its athletes and schemes, and the snail’s pace that the league’s framework has thrust upon everyone else. There are endless commercials and reviews and timeouts. A league already known for its standing around is becoming slower, and it’s not because of a new offensive play call or style.
The pace of the National Football League’s product stands directly opposed to the direction the sport of football is heading. Offensive coaches and players are trying to work faster, to squeeze more plays and more actual game play into the four quarters that are mostly wasted each week. The juxtaposition makes for a difficult viewing experience plainly clear on opening weekend. Waiting for reviews. Waiting for commercials to end. Kickoffs that, at this point, feel ritual at best and pointless at worst. There were flashes of excitement punctuated by long pauses of confirmation. Or debate. Or Bud Light commercials.
While Chip Kelly and the Eagles will get the national attention for their quick-strike offense, Doug Marrone and the Bills are looking to use a very similar offensive philosophy. Packaged plays in the no-huddle. A quarterback presented with multiple options making quick decisions and keeping a defense in base sets. Wearing them out, then getting the big strike out of the very same formation that tired them out in the first place.
It’s a lot of fun to watch, something any college football fan could have told you years ago. But seeing this revolution of sorts hit the NFL is exciting because progress and innovation is often so tough to come by in this league. Something is always trying to slow it down. Usually it’s a team’s defense. On Monday night, it was players faking an injury to catch their breath. Unfortunately, it’s The Shield itself that’s now creating most of this stuttering pace.
Standing around at Ralph Wilson Stadium on Sunday, it was clear that the pace of the game may be forever ruined. Television timeouts are never going away, but even the most exciting parts of the game have been assigned a waiting period thanks to instant replay.
Da’Norris Searcy returns a fumble 74 yards for a touchdown. Pandemonium. Then everyone waits around to see if it counts. Was the runner down? Was Searcy touched while picking it up? Was there a penalty? It’s a Vine’s worth of excitement surrounded by an ocean of buffering.
It’s only going to get worse as the replay rules now essentially encourage officials to let the play continue and figure it out later. Instant replay is now a crutch, adding complexity and uncertainty to a game riddled with plays that don’t count and game clocks moving backward. It’s frustrating, but it’s not going anywhere. The in-stadium experience continues to get worse, making it a harder and harder to enjoy the exciting things happening in football without a television and remote. I can’t wait to see what the Bills can do with packaged plays and the read option. The same goes for the rest of the league.
Football is only going to get faster when the game clock is ticking. When it’s not is now entirely the problem.