An NFL field change is a pretty radical change, and apparently one that the league may revisit. The NFL is exploring every possible option to reduce the collisions that cause concussions. Stretching the field in terms of width could potentially reduce some of the violent plays that have led to concussions. It would be a move inspired by the Canadian Football League, which features a wider field. But would moving the sidelines out really reduce the number of big hits?
It's tough to say how effective an NFL field change would be in reducing the number of big hits that could lead to concussions. The NFL has previously discussed a possible change to the width of the field and could look into the issue once again this year when the competition committee meets in Indianapolis. The NFL field is currently 160 feet wide, while the Canadian Football League features a field that is 195 feet wide.
As Dan Pompei of the National Football Post reports, former competition committee Bill Polian is a big supporter of revisiting the idea:
"I’m not so sure we shouldn’t think about widening the field. It’s a radical idea, but I think it’s worth thinking about. You would have more space and perhaps a safer game. I say that based on my CFL experience. There are less collisions of that type in the Canadian game."
The basic premise of the idea is spreading the players over a wider area, thinking that will reduce the number of big hits. It's a theory, but one that might not hold up upon further examination. Think about how many times a ball carrier is able to squirt out of bounds just before a linebacker or safety is able to make contact. Stretch the field by about six yards each way, and that defender will probably get there in time and be able to deliver a big hit near the sideline.
It's also a matter of how offenses space themselves. If team truly do use the space when lining up, then it would serve to spread the players out horizontally. But with so many teams electing to bunch players up and utilizing tight formations from time to time, the change would simply move the safe haven of the sidelines further away from the action, as mentioned above. Moving the sidelines further out provides more space, but you can't make the offense use that space when they line up. Timing between routes and the quarterback's ability to reach the sideline will impact how team's space the field.
Consider how many throws to the sideline are nearly picked off because the defender breaks on the ball just a hair late. Now move that route six yards further away from the quarterback. That gives defenders more time to react and would probably lead to more of those passes being intercepted, putting a greater premium on arm strength for quarterbacks. There are plenty of quarterbacks in the NFL that can't consistently complete the deep out as is. That would be a deterrent to teams actually using the added space.
The game could also be significantly changed by widening the field. Offenses attempt to stretch defenses vertically and horizontally. If teams take advantage of the extra space, they might be able to create more seams in the defense to exploit, which would lead to higher scores and more headaches for defensive coordinators. That's cool if you like big point totals, but there are plenty of purists who wouldn't be too happy about that.
Kickoff coverage would also be an interesting study. Adding 35 feet would add about a yard or so to each coverage lane for individual player on kickoff width-wise. Think about how many shoe string tackles save long returns and possible touchdowns. Now spread those players out and think how many returners would squirt through and break a big one.
Of course, it's all speculation at this point and it's easy to poke holes in an idea simply thrown out as a way to make the game safer. It will be interesting to see if the NFL does in fact revisit the idea and how it is received. Would the NFL go as far as to test it in preseason games if the idea starts to gain some steam?