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From Buccaneers Review: The Perfect League (Almost)

An informal poll of the Bucs’ locker room turns up a number of rules and issues that, from a player's perspective, could use some work, but the overall impression is of a league that is humming along quite nicely, thank you

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RB Michael Pittman isn't prone to excessive celebrations after a touchdown, but he doesn't mind if other players express their excitement

(Editor's Note: The following feature was first published in Volume 2, Issue 10 of Buccaneers Review,* the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' ground-breaking answer to the traditional game program. Buccaneers Review is sold at every Tampa Bay home game and it includes entirely new material, cover to cover, every issue. The magazine-style publication includes exclusive interviews with Buccaneer players and their opponents; in-depth feature stories such as the one below; technical explanations of the game's fundamentals by Buccaneers coaches, such as this one; a close look at the opponent and their key players; cheerleader features; columns by Head Coach Jon Gruden and long-time Buc standout Dave Moore; trivia quizzes; rosters, depth charts and much more.)*

It's like a broken window on the 98th floor of a skyscraper, or a tiny scratch on the fender of a Maserati.

It's a problem, but not a fatal flaw. Most observers won't even recognize it. To dwell on it is to needlessly detract from the grandness of the entire structure.

Still…

Somebody on that 98th floor is feeling a draft, and some obsessive Maserati owner is spending hours at the fender with a buffing cloth. These things don't have to be ignored. Beauty can always be enhanced.

**

And in that very vein we ask this: How could the National Football League be better?

By any reasonable measure – attendance, popularity polls, revenues, television ratings – the NFL is the premier sports league in America. It is played with, and inspires, boundless passion. It combines astounding grace with rugged collisions. Each NFL game is an event, preceded by a week of buildup and intrigue. It has the type of long-standing labor peace and escalating TV contracts that most leagues would kill for. The NFL has a gloried past and a bright future.

But nothing is perfect. And so we ask again: How could the NFL be better?

In this case, we're not asking the tourist walking down the sidewalk along the first floor of the skyscraper, or the pedestrian watching the sports car zoom by. We're talking to the office worker on the 98th floor and the man behind the wheel of the Maserati.

We want to know what it is that those inside the game would like to fix. What scratch on this great game needs polishing?

To that end, we asked members of the 2007 NFC South Champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers this questions: If you were suddenly given the power to fix one thing about the National Football League – be it an actual rule of play, a part of the structure of the game or even a piece of its culture – what would you change?

One thing immediately came to the forefront, one issue so pressing that the league may need to instantly convene the competition committee to give it its due. Player safety? Salary structure? Competitive balance? Hardly.

Try fashion.

If there was one issue that forced its way to the top in our informal poll of the Buccaneers' locker room, it is the supposedly Draconian nature in which the league's uniform policy is enforced. If pressed, many of these players might speak passionately about chop-blocks and free agency requirements, but when asked what issue first comes to mind, little takes precedence over matters of uniform.

"I would change some of the uniform rules, the way they police those things," said wide receiver Joey Galloway. "I'd be a little more loose on that type of stuff."

Galloway, of course, is a bit of an individualist, an on-field stylist whose normal practice-field wear includes a white doo-rag with strips that trail down his back and extra-long shorts with jagged cuffs. He's not particularly loud or demonstrative during games, but his practice gear suggests he might try to define his own style during games if given the chance.

Sometimes, players aren't even interested in expressing themselves. They would just like to worry a little bit less about a sagging sock or an untucked jersey. Every game has an NFL representative seated in the press box whose sole job is to survey the field and look for uniform violations. Players can be warned if their knees are exposed, for instance, and they can even be fined for repeated or willful violations.

"I don't like the uniform policy," said linebacker Barrett Ruud, who comes across as more of a straight-laced type. "We can't wear the black tape on our hands anymore and there are all the rules about the height of your socks. That's the first thing I would change."

Oh, the black tape issue. That has struck a nerve with several players, most notably offensive tackle Anthony Davis.

Many players spat their shoes or wear athletic tape on their wrists and hands to add stability. The most common version of that tape is white, but it also comes in black, and that's the color of choice for some men in the game, including Davis. One can solve that problem by wearing approved gloves over the tape, but that doesn't really help the veteran lineman.

"I don't like wearing gloves and we can't wear black tape," bemoaned Davis. "I would change the rule back so that we could wear black tape again."

You can feel for Davis. The no-black-tape rule just came down at the beginning of this season, catching him by surprise. Players get married to their superstitions, and something as simple as tape color or undershirt choice can seem significant. And, compared to choreographing an end zone dance or pulling a prop out of your sock, a little black tape on the wrist seems harmless.

Speaking of which…

"I'd like to see the celebration rules changed," said running back Michael Pittman, whose never been guilty of any Chad Johnson-esque end zone stunts. "I think sometimes they're taking the fun out of the game for the players. They think we're trying to show up the other team, but we're just out there having fun. In the heat of the moment, you just want to celebrate. I don't like to see them taking the fun out of it, so that's the first thing I would change."

Though it is less restrictive than its NCAA counterpart, the NFL has enacted a series of rules over the last decade to curtail outlandish touchdown festivities. Props – signs, Sharpies, anything in Terrell Owens' oeuvre – are a no-no. Obviously planned celebrations will draw a flag, and players are discouraged from drawing their teammates into gala affairs involving dancing and contortionists.

Derrick Brooks, who has more career touchdowns than most defensive players could ever hope to score, isn't that concerned with pulling his teammates into his celebrations. Rather, he would like to see more of the men he works with every day get a chance to play on Sunday.

The NFL's current roster limits, both during the week and on game day, have been the same for the better part of two decades. Teams are allowed to employ 53 men on the active roster during the regular season, but they may only suit up 45 of them on game day. That means deactivating eight men every Sunday. For the average NFL viewer, that's an invisible part of the game, except when a prominent player is injured. But those who go through the on-field preparations for a game are acutely aware of which players are allowed to participate after the opening kickoff.

Brooks feels for those men who offer up as much blood, sweat and toil as their teammates from Monday through Saturday but are left out of the action on Sunday. He had an epiphany on the subject on Super Bowl Sunday in January of 2003.

"It just dawned on me the year we won the Super Bowl," said the 10-time Pro Bowler, who has never been deactivated for a game, for injury or any other reason. "In that game, we had to put eight guys down, and I wish they all could have dressed for it. I'd probably bump it up to at least 48 or 50 players being able to dress for a game.

"Yes, if I could change one thing about the league, I probably would allow a team to dress more than 45 players for a game. It would just be a reward to more guys who are practicing throughout the week."

Brooks wasn't the only Buccaneer who addressed this issue from the perspective of his fellow players. A first-round draft choice of the New York Jets in 2000 and a coveted free agent for the Buccaneers in 2004, Becht has always been secure in his roster spot and has rarely battled injuries. He knows, however, that his NFL experience isn't necessarily the norm.

"Guaranteed contracts, that's what I would institute," said Becht.

Becht refers to the sort of system one finds in the NBA and Major League Baseball. In those sports, in most cases, a player who signs a five-year deal is going to receive all of the money in that deal, regardless of how long he actually remains with that team. The NFL has lucrative contracts, huge signing bonuses for a good number of players, a rapidly expanding salary cap, a majority of its revenue going to player salaries and an overall system that keeps the revenue stream strong for everyone. But, in most NFL contracts, the season-to-season salary is not guaranteed.

"Football is probably the most physical, injury-laden sport there is," said Becht. "Some of these players who are trying to make it deserve a little more security."

Perhaps more surprising than the support shown for less-established players by Brooks and Becht is the stance taken by the Bucs' starting right tackle Jeremy Trueblood.

Trueblood's primary goal on a daily basis is to keep the Buccaneers' quarterbacks upright, and yet his number-one complaint with the NFL's rules is how much they coddle the passer.

"I wouldn't protect the quarterback as much as they do," he said, understanding the irony of his stance. "I mean, I'm an offensive lineman and it's my job to protect the quarterback. I agree that's important, but sometimes I think the rules as they have them take away from the game too much. Some of these hits you see called as penalties, there's no way it's roughing the quarterback. It gets a little ridiculous."

Perhaps Trueblood's position comes from having an up-close view of some questionable calls. The NFL is understandably concerned with unprotected players taking cheap shots or dangerous blows to the head, and the quarterback is often in more danger than any other man on the field. The problem, as Trueblood sees it, is that the understandable emphasis on quarterback safety has led to some non-dangerous plays drawing penalties.

Not surprising, the quarterback's main nemeses, defensive linemen, are less delicate about the situation. Veteran defensive end Greg Spires scoffs at one of the devices the league uses to keep its passers safe.

"C'mon – giving the quarterback the opportunity to slide without being able to touch him when he's scrambling?" said Spires. "They should change that rule!"

Of course, any player can declare himself down by the feet-first slide in the open field, so this isn't really a quarterback specific rule. Still, it's taken as gospel that this is the scrambling passer's way to avoid taking the hit he has rightfully earned by venturing out of the pocket.

Game day eligibility rules, quarterback safety, touchdown dances…have we even scratched the surface of what could be improved in the NFL? Every well-meaning rule, every long-standing tradition is going to have its critic. Running back Earnest Graham, for instance, believes the preseason should instantly be cut in half, to two games, and this comes from a man who first made his mark with outstanding performances in August.

But perhaps scratching the surface is all we can really do. The players in our informal poll were anything but outraged; some actually had to stop for a moment to gather their thoughts before coming up with a single complaint. It's clear that the NFL is getting most things right, and it's a fact of life that you can't please everyone, all the time.

Perhaps some of the above issues are worth reviewing. Until and if they are, the NFL will keep humming along as the people's choice.

"This is the best league, for sure," said cornerback Ronde Barber. "We all have flaws. Everything does, including this game. But sometimes it doesn't help to dwell on them. Remember this: Change can create more problems. We've got a good thing going here."

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