Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Lighter, Better, Faster, Stronger: The Case for Streamlined Football

"He ain't heavy. He's my brother."

So would say many players on Alabama's national champion football team.  He, of course, is Terrence Cody, the Crimson Tide's All-American defensive tackle who kept Alabama's undefeated season alive all by himself with a crucial block of a last-second field goal in the Tide's game against Tennessee.

Cody's generally good-natured persona and size have made him popular both with his teammates and on a national level.  His ability to eat up space on the line of scrimmage has frustrated many opponents, earning him the nickname "Mount Cody."  He smiles a lot and manages to keep the mood at practice fairly light through shenanigans like racing his coach.

In April, Cody hopes to be among the 200+ players drafted from the college ranks who are given the opportunity to play football for a living.  Given his role as a key player on a national championship team, there's a decent chance that Cody will get his wish, as he has proven that he can be a valuable on-field asset.  The only real question that stands between Cody and an NFL contract? His weight.    

Throughout his life, Cody's weight has fluctuated constantly, even topping 400 lbs. at its highest mark.  When he was recently measured at college football's Senior Bowl, Cody weighed in at 370 lbs., roughly 20 pounds heavier than his playing weight in Tuscaloosa.  When a football fan hears a stat like that, generally the only thought given to it is "Wow, he's a really big guy."  Fans don't realize the physical reality of such a figure. In case you were wondering, it looks like this.

By any standards, that photograph is a portrait of an unhealthy body.  Suffice it to say that Cody's endurance (or lack thereof) has long been questioned by professional and college coaches, including his own.  Cody was not allowed to play more than two downs in a four-down series this past season because head coach Nick Saban had concerns that he would tire quickly if he attempted to play the entire game at such a high weight.

It's not like other players at the same position aren't equally as big. NFL defensive linemen like Casey Hampton, Haloti Ngata, Vince Wilfork, Albert Haynesworth, and Shaun Rogers all have playing weights that might make it difficult for them to fit into a SmartCar.  Cody is simply the next big thing in a long line of them.

The regrettable fact here, the elephant in a room full of similarly huge men, is that the growing size of the average NFL lineman is more a result of popular indifference than it is gluttony at the drive-thru window or not enough time on the treadmill.  Football is America's unique sport, created and refined and adored to the point that it stands alone above every other athletic endeavor in this country.  We love it so much that we no longer take note of how big the athletes that participate are.  We're willing to sacrifice someone else's health to see our team do well, and many players readily comply because of the desire to be remembered, enshrined, and most of all, to compete with the guys on the other side of the ball who are hearing the same message.  We encourage our teams to get bigger because we know that in a team game with a lot of man-to-man battles, strength reigns supreme, specifically on the offensive and defensive lines where the combatants are asked to engage each other rather than trying to outrun the other man. 

So what can we do? If we sit on our hands, we are silently endorsing the idea that people who are obese and in poor physical shape can realistically be considered athletes if they run a short distance a few times per week and are able to simultaneously draw the physical attention of two individuals of similar size for short periods of time.  Given that an ugly proportion of Americans are already overweight, that's not a great precedent to set.  In order to maintain the health of everyone involved, the NFL should consider making a few changes to the playing rules to cap the ever-increasing average player size.

Progressive Weight Limits

Beginning in 2010, the NFL, NCAA and NFHS should beginning instituting coordinated mandatory weight limits for all players on a progressive scale that gets higher as the players get older. The 2010 limits should be 350 lbs. for the NFL, 330 lbs. for the NCAA and 310 lbs. for the NFHS.  Those limits are fairly reasonable considering that most of the NFL and NCAA players already meet those requirements.

In the next six years, the weight limits would decrease at a constant rate of 5 lbs. per year, meaning that by the start of the 2016 season, players in the NFL, NCAA and NFHS would not be allowed to weigh more than 320, 300, and 280 lbs. respectively.  The six-year plan would give athletes time to adjust their present weight in a healthy way in accordance with the rules for each division.  In a perfect world, 300 lbs. would be the maximum for all levels, but there needs to be progress in that direction before an extreme ultimatum like that is even considered.

The benefits of streamlined football would far outweigh the negative effects the system might have on the modern game.  Given the reduced weight allowance, players would be more intent on actually getting stronger rather than just adding mass to their frames to give them more leverage in the trenches.  The chances of a death like that of Korey Stringer would decrease (assuming coaches follow healthy practice procedures like regular access to water) because athletes would be in better physical shape and would not be taxing their hearts as much as they do now.  A side effect of the weight limits might be a slight decrease in the amount of concussions that occur each year, given that the tackling force of a player may be limited by how much he weighs.  However, concussions are another subject altogether.

The biggest casualty of the weight limit system would probably be the 3-4 defensive scheme, since it would be less plausible to have a dominating "two-gap player" like Cody due to the equivalent weights on opposing sides of the ball.  Some would say it's unfair to inhibit a coach's play-calling abilities like that, but there have been other changes (e.g. the forward pass, the outlawing of the head slap and the horse-collar tackle, etc.) that have altered the way the game is played, and very few would argue that football is considerably worse because of those changes.  Modern coaches have some of the most creative minds in the history of the game, and they should be able to adequately adjust to such restrictions, especially when given six years to implement the necessary changes to their schemes.

The bottom line is that football is literally getting too big for itself, and it's starting to have a negative effect on those who play it.  Fans of old-school buffet busters like Ted Washington, Keith Traylor and William "The Refrigerator" Perry may be unhappy to see the game altered like this, but they should realize that this kind of change is done with the health of the players in mind.  If the number of ailing NFL retirees isn't enough to convince someone that health is a serious issue, they need to remember that the players who are entertaining them on every autumn weekend are humans first and performers second.

It's hard to watch someone as likable as Cody struggle with his own weight when you take the time to consider the fact that fans and coaches play a role in pressuring him to be that big in the first place.  It would be nice to see him looking a little more fit by the time the draft rolls around in April, but don't get your hopes up.  Old habits die hard, especially when others stand by and watch as those habits are developed.

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  1. great blog and great writing. well considered prose is rare online. as for the weight limits, i agree with your argument, but have one compelling doubt. Football is so very American, which means we like it, "the bigger the better," sadly one our most ardent mantras. The NFL would never impose weight limits because they are afraid people don't want to watch regular sized folk crashing into each other. The larger than life players are so heroic in the eyes of some because they are actually larger than life.

  2. Thanks for commenting, Johnny. To be honest, I never even considered the "larger than life" issue in that light - it does make sense that the average fan would want to see something that maybe they could never imagine doing on their own (e.g. going toe-to-toe with a 300-pound man). At the same time, the average weight for American males is supposed to be around 200 lbs., and I think there are enough skill players of that size that fans could also say, "Hey, I'm as big as he is, and he's doing that? Wow!"

    I guess the real question we're facing is determining how big is too big. For me, that combine photo of Terrence Cody spoke volumes. It might not be so bad if Cody were 6'9" and built more like a castle than a Gatorade cooler, but the fact that he's that size in an unhealthy way is troubling. I just don't know if that photo strikes other fans the same way.


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