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Ravens' John Harbaugh: NFL should narrow field goal posts to improve it's product

Mackenzie Rivers looks into the statistical changes in kicking, passing and scoring over the decades, from the 1930's till now.

Kicking has become easy in today's NFL
Kicking has become easy in today's NFL
Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

After beating the Pittsburgh Steelers by two points on Thanksgiving night - much to the ire of triptafenned-out Ravens' betters laying three -  2012 Super Bowl winning coach, John Harbaugh identified a disturbing trend in the NFL: field goals are attempted and made today much more than at any other point in NFL history.  To better the game, he suggested that the NFL should narrow field goal posts to make field goal tries harder and less prevalent.

Historical numbers suggest Harbaugh is right about this one.  19 of the last 20 NFL seasons rank the in TOP 20 of NFL seasons with the most field goals made.  1973 is the only other year bucking the trend at #17.

Here are the seasons with the most field goals made per team per game:

Year - FGM

2013 - 1.7

2012 - 1.7

2008 - 1.7

2011 - 1.6

2007 - 1.6

The trend of more and more field goals made per game has been steady and consistent since the 1970's when teams averaged less than 1 field goal per game.

If the NFL is thinking about changing the field goal posts to, say, arena football like widths, I think this might be the most important development of the 2013 NFL season.

Football, despite its name, is at it's most exciting when people are running, throwing, catching and hitting - that is, not when they're kicking.  To the neutral fan a field goal is as hated as a tie.  When you think about it, it basically it is a tie between the defense and the offense, both teams coming away with something to feel good about.  Narrowing the posts will encourage coaches to make all or nothing decisions on more drives that stall just outside of the red zone.  Going for it on 4th and 2 from the 30 becomes a much more appealing option for a coach when he think his kicker's chance of making the 47 yard field goal is only 50/50 or worse. Think about the future fun this could bring to the NFL: Dual threat quarterbacks lining up in the shotgun on 4th and 2 from the 30 makes for exciting football.

More daring play calling wouldn't be the only advantage to the rule change; it might also improve the pace and appeal of the TV product.  Less field goals means less kickoffs, which, Devin Hester notwithstanding, are usually very mundane and too often sandwiched between a pair of commercial breaks.  Also, the change could help the NFL buck the trend of concussions by decreasing the number of kickoffs, and therefore decreasing the number of high speed collisions.

A potential negative of changing the game will be that it will inevitably distort the records books.  If the field goal posts are narrow, it's likely that no one will try and beat Jason Elam and other's record of a 63-yard field goal.  It is even more likely that no one will approach Justin Tucker's current percentage of 92% made kicks.

Justin Tucker, by the way is John Harbaugh's kicker, and his record kicking percentage will almost certainly go down if the practice gets harder.  Perhaps this fact lends credence to Harbaugh, who might actually be thinking about the quality of the game more than his own team.  Or maybe making the practice harder will only help Harbaugh's competitive advantage of having the best kicker in the game.  Either way, it's the right call.

As good as the NFL product is, I don't think there's any question it could be more exciting and fluid.  This change would be a great step in the right direction.

If the NFL did narrow the field goal posts, I bet there would be many talking heads that suggests it would be just another example of the NFL "legislating defense out of the league" by forcing teams to go for it more on fourth down.  However, really it would be a counteractive measure that's good for defenses.  Making scoring harder would help mitigate the recent offense friendly NFL rule changes.

Much is made of the fact that NFL scoring is up by the way, "It's becoming touch football!", but the change has been more subtle than you might think.  Here is scoring in the NFL by decade.

Decade - PPG

1930's - 11.58

1940's - 16.94 (+46%)

1950's - 21.54 (+27%)

1960's - 21.74 (+1.0%)

1970's - 19.21 (-12%)

1980's - 20.89 (+8.7%)

1990's - 20.15 (-3.5%)

2000's - 21.14  (+4.9%)

2010's - 22.58 (+6.8%)

And here are the 5 highest scoring years in NFL history:

Year - PPG

1948 - 23.6

2013 - 23.3

1965 - 23.1

1950 - 22.9

2012 - 22.8

Although scoring is trending up, it's changing within the historical average and not nearly rising at the pace that field goal kicking is advancing.

The progression in scoring also pales in comparison to the progression of the efficiency of quarterbacks as measured by the traditional passer rating metric.

Decade - QB Rating

1940's - 47.8

1950's - 58.8 (+23%)

1960's - 69.4 (+18%)

1970's - 65.2  (-6.1%)*

1980's - 74.4 (+14.1%)

1990's - 77.3 (+3.9%)

2000's - 80.8 (+4.5%)

2010's - 84.9 (+5.1%)**

*Interesting that both scoring and passer rating dropped in the 70's after rising steadily in the 40's, 50's and 60's.  The bad, lazy historian in me wants to chop this up entirely to the Steel Curtain annihilating opposing QBs around the league.

**Keep in mind this decade has only been three and half years.  Currently, there are 19 QBs in the league with better than a 85% passer rating in 2013.

Scoring so far this decade is only up around 6% compared to what it was in the 1950's, which was around the same as it was in the 1990's.  Passer rating this decade however is 45% higher than the average rating in the 1950's, and 11% higher than the league wide average in the 1990's NFL of Favre, Aikman, Marino, Young and Elway.  If NFL purists are interested in the integrity of the NFL record book, someone has to curb the ascendancy of efficiency among the league's quarterbacks.

I am not interested in keeping the numbers consistent at all.   This isn't baseball.  Football is about spectacle.  I love that they're protecting quarterbacks.  I love to see deep bombs completed down field and I love to see shootouts.   What I don't love seeing is teams moving the ball 60 yards in two minutes, only to kick a gimme field goal from the 30 with one yard to go for a first down.

These numbers show that the league has never stopped evolving and changing.  John Harbaugh's suggestion to narrow the field goals posts could usher in a new and more exciting era of football.  How it will affect the numbers should not be considered, but instead we should think progressively about how it could make for a better game.

Sources: Pardon the Interruption,