Remember “The Fonz?” He was the ultra-cool character on the hottest television show, “Happy Days,” in the 1970’s. The show, while still popular, changed it’s focus from the stars of the show, the kids, to the popular Fonzie in the middle seasons. One episode in 1977 featured a challenged Fonzie on water skis in swim trunks and his motorcycle jacket jumping over a shark. Many felt the stunt, and the episode, signified that the show writers had run out of ideas and Happy Days began a slow decline into TV history.
I have a feeling that’s what may be happening in the NFL this year. I’ve been a lifelong NFL fan, but recently abandoned my team and really have lost interest in the league as a whole. And I feel others are ready to follow suit.
Let’s look a few things that happened this year:
- Officiating : We got the regular refs back all year, and where did that take us? Only to some of the most inconsistent officiating ever. Fan, players, coaches, and I would argue, the League, are not happy with the level of officiating this year. From the never-before-called, field goal assistance penalty against New England, to the brush on the Drew Bree’s helmet, to San Diego’s illegal formation on Kansas City’s missed field goal attempt. Officiating has been at the forefront for a couple of years now, and changing rules isn’t going to fix it. They need to get more consistency one way or another, or fans are going to lose interest.
- Thursday Night Games : Problem one with Thursday Night Football? It’s on Thursday nights. And in the words of Mr. Arthur Dent, “I never could get the hang of Thursdays. ” Something feels funny gearing up to watch NFL football on Thursdays. People are trying to wrap up the work week or plan their weekend, so going out is probably not going to happen. The other main issue with TNF is the matchups. Texans @ Jags, Redskins @ Vikings, Bills @ Browns… are you really going to watch that when there’s quality college football or basketball on ESPN?
- Exploding Offensive Numbers : Thank you fantasy football! It’s amazing that anyone wants to play defense in the NFL anymore. Safety will have to become the highest paid position in the league pretty soon just to cover the percentage of salary that is going to be paid out in fines for hits on defenseless receivers, taunting fouls, or brushing a QB’s helmet on a blitz because he ducked into it. Along with that are back-shoulder throws where the WR is allowed to push off at the top of the route, no touching past five yards and “legal” pick plays, and you have an environment where it’s impossible to play effective defense on a regular basis. Records will continue to fall like crazy, numbers will continue to be diluted, and players that should be in the Hall of Fame based on when they played will continue to be overlooked because their numbers are horrible when compared to today’s era of player. Fantasy football has brought a new breed of fan to the NFL that mirror the “chicks dig the long ball” mentality popularized by MLB in the 90’s. While that ultimately put a dent in Major League baseball for a variety of reasons, the sport survived and is now going through somewhat of a revival. Could the same thing happen hear as players try to stay on the field to keep their numbers up?
- Injuries : NFL players are becoming bigger, faster, stronger every year. These freaks of nature have become weapons of destruction on the field and when they collide the effects can be career, and even life changing. Watching an NFL game is a start-stop endeavor. The game is constantly being stopped to tend to a downed player. And this year it was revealed that some teams have taken advantage of that known carnage to slow down opponents by faking injuries. There’s no way that the NFL can continue to leave a trail of broken bodies like it is now, which will prompt huge rule changes and a ripple-effect down through the football pipeline all the way to Pop Warner. Unless the NFL can demonstrate that football can be played safely, parents will continue to hold their sons (and daughters) out of football and they will lose athletes to other, safer sports.
- And now, the big one… An Outside, Cold-Weather Super Bowl : This is the one that could really do it for me. I understand that football is an all-weather game but most of the Super Bowls have been played in domes or in great outdoor weather. There’s been a handful that have had wind, maybe a little rain or some cooler temperatures. But this game has the potential to have big-time winds, wintery mix precip, and frigid temperatures. Yeah, yeah… the playoffs are all played in real weather and sometimes the best team doesn’t win because of it. San Diego never should have lost to Cincinnati in the Freezer Bowl in 1982. But this is the game that decides everything. Player’s legacies of whether they are regarded in certain circles are decided on this single game. Do we really want Peyton Manning’s label as being the best QB ever be decided on a frozen field in 20mph winds and freezing rain? The game is held at a neutral field to no provide either team a home-field advantage, to make the event special for the teams and to provide a vacation for the NFL fans. Attending a game in 25° and rain isn’t much of a vacation.
- A few other things : Looking at expansion into Europe and Canada. Fantasy football replacing dedication to teams. The media getting unprecedented access to the players, coaches and team executives at all stages of the game and off-season. Violence at stadiums and after games. The Pro Bowl. Former player lawsuits. High-profile arrests. Common PED and other substance abuse suspensions. President Obama speaking out against football. It all adds up.
The NFL is a $9B industry. Ticket sales, jerseys, televisions, licensing… they own all of it. So, realistically, the NFL isn’t going anywhere soon. I’m not serious in saying that the NFL will fold up the tents in five years due to one game and some bad reffing.
But the NFL is at a critical juncture. They are coming off a strike, an official lockout, a massive lawsuite from former players, some horrible late season games, a huge head coach shakeup in the last 2-3 seasons, and skyrocketing ticket prices to match player salaries and stadium construction projects.
So on top of all those events, could this Super Bowl be the worst disaster the NFL has even seen and it jumps the shark? Or, to paraphrase Gene Kranz’s character in Apollo 13, will this be the NFL’s finest hour?