Once upon a time, Sports Illustrated ran a cover (seen here) that now looks comical in the rear view mirror.
Yeah. Thank God, we as a nation figured out how to "save" the National Football League. I put that, right up next to the Moon Landing on our national resume.
Sarcasm aside, I will admit that okay, sure this was following several years of decreased scoring, league wide. There were a particularly high number of gawd-awful-looking 6-3 games, including the Jets v. Redskins ode to incompetence, a 3-0 assault on the eyeballs on December 12th of that year.
And yeah, the league tweaked up the rules, a new batch of great QBs and teams rose like cream in coffee, and the supposed perils of a "boring" NFL are now nothing more than an archived SI.com punchline.
But the American appetite for professional, high impact, neatly packaged, tackle football just keeps growing like a hurricane over warm water.
Prime evidence of this hunger, is the logic defying TV rating garnered by the Pro Bowl last Sunday. Just when the game itself, took a dramatic slip further down the ladder into pitty-pat, grab-ass "football" on the field, the TV rating spiked by almost 35%.
I had figured the Colts objections to players having to be there when they weren't going to play, along with Bryant McKinnie's seemingly impossible trick of getting booted from the roster for missing practice, along with a move away from tradition, was going to signal a death knell for this game.
It is here to stay, more than ever. Because if it's football, and NFL football, then people are going to watch.
It doesn't mean that there won't be contrarians every now and then, who breathlessly opine that deep, deep TROUBLE lies ahead for the league.
Take for example, the very compelling Gregg Easterbrook of ESPN.com's Page 2 and Tuesday Morning Quarterback.
I pulled this little nugget from his column in the aftermath of the Patriots Spygate scandal. (Note: Put down the milk, and finish drinking first.)
Why is the situation worse than people think? Because the NFL is on the precipice of blowing its status as the country's favorite sport. The whole NFL enterprise is in jeopardy from that single word: cheating. It's the most distasteful word in sports. And now the Patriots have brought the word into the NFL.
Think the NFL can't decline? Fifteen years ago, the National Basketball Association was going up, up, up by every measure and was widely considered the gold-plated can't-miss "sport of the next century." Since then, NBA popularity and ratings have plummeted while NBA-based teams have floundered in international competition. At the moment of its maximum success, the NBA became overconfident and arrogant in ways that need not be recounted here. Key point: There was no law of nature that said the NBA had to stay popular, and it did not.
Today the NFL is king of the hill in sports status, ratings, merchandising and association with the American psyche. There is no law of nature that says the NFL has to stay popular. Overconfidence and arrogance could be the downfall of the NFL, too – and we might be on that precipice. People will always watch and play football, of course. But nothing guarantees that the NFL's version of football must remain the super-successful money machine that it is today. There could be autumn Sunday afternoons in the near future in which the overwhelming majority of Americans couldn't care less what NFL games are being shown. Fifteen years ago, sports-marketing types would have said "impossible!" to the notion that only 11 percent of American households would watch the NBA Finals, which is what happened this June.
Plummeting popularity for NFL broadcasts seems "impossible!" right now, but might happen fast enough to make your head swim.
Sorry Greg, there is no precipice, and my head is still bone dry sitting on a beach chair.
It doesn't mean that the NFL in particular, or tackle football in general, doesn't face some daunting issues right now.
One of the big issues, is of course, the undeniable fact that football is not very healthy for you.
Now this doesn't come as any surprise to many of us, but remember that we are living in an age where there is a push to eliminate anything and everything that could be of harm to us, no matter if the enjoyment from that thing is immense and greatly desired by many.
Today, trans-fats, smoking, helmets for kids on bikes. Tomorrow, tackle football?
I won't go so far as to say the sport faces an actual "ban" in some localities (hell, we've still got boxing, right?) but you just never know where the current road might lead.
Time Magazine has a twin pair of stories devoted to the issue, along with its cover.
In it, you can read about how some coaches and organizations are advocating some pretty radical things to improve player safety. Among the ideas being tossed around...
- Automatic 3 month layoff for every concussion
- Prohibiting running backs from lowering their helmet upon impact
- Eliminate the 3 point stance for all lineman, offense and defense
- Dramatically cut back on all off-season contact work
- Mandating more equipment to lessen the effectiveness of the helmet-as-weapon.
Says Rich McKay of the Falcons: "You start with the premise that nothing is off the table."
The key problem I see, is that the NFL's "smash-em-up" factor has gone hyperspace in the last 30 years. Athletes are simply bigger, stronger, faster (ahem, and not all because of wind sprints and skinless chicken... ahem..) and as such the body-to-body explosions are wreaking more havoc.
Yes, equipment has played a part. Yes, the highlight culture has played a part. Yes, poor technique has played a part.
But at its most basic level, the 22 cars on the field are smashing each other to pieces because of the better-and-better-horsepower under their hoods.
So while "nothing" may be off the table, let me throw one little idea out there for everybody to shoot down as idiotic and unworkable, remembering that I only want to somehow "dial back" the product on the field, not change it irreparably.
What about strict weight limits for certain positions?
Unfair? Not really. Lose a few pounds, bubba. Or change position. If you kept lineman under 300, linebackers under 250, and DB's under 225, then you might just keep guys from getting demolished.
You could replicate similar limits on offense, for each position.
There would not only be no need for a wideout to "bulk up" in a sort of muscular arms race with defenders, it would actually be prohibited.
Look, I am of the firm belief that we can't make everything in life perfectly safe, and perfectly consequence free. I hate so much of what is going on right now, it makes me crazy. And I certainly would never want to hurt this great game will love so much.
But part of me does wonder: "What happens, the day that an NFL player gets blown up on a hit, and there's a funeral on Monday."
I hope that day never comes.