The National Football League regular season ended Sunday …
If you were interested in the social ramifications of the murder-suicide by Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher (none), the continued debate over concussions (point taken), a possible rule change to dilute a game already too diluted (terrible idea), and this amorphous thing called the NFL culture, in which players act violent off the field because they are violent on it (duh), then it was maybe the best regular season ever.
If you were interested in the quality of play—watched only out of Pavlovian habit or fantasy football or gambling—then the 2012 season ranks among the worst. Not as bad as the 2011 season, in which a Pop Warner second-stringer could have passed for 5,000 yards because of defenses neutered by rule changes and stripped of aggression. But close.
On Monday seven coaches got fired, and it should have been eight, with the New York Jets’ beyond-bombastic Rex Ryan. Owner impatience is one reason, but so were listless teams that played such quarterback studs as Ryan Fitzpatrick, Nick Foles, Brady Quinn, and roughly 35 different ones from the Arizona Cardinals.
The NFL is troubled. It’s not because of concussions or violence off the field or the league’s own politically correct, pussy-whipped ad campaign for improved safety. It is because the product itself is largely unwatchable, too many dull teams playing too many other dull teams, couch catatonia any time the New York Jets are on, the only excitement now guessing the halftime entertainment at the Super Bowl and which performer will trip or simply keel over from old age. Or wondering if the day will ever come that Tim Tebow throws an incomplete pass still in-bounds.
I have said this before and I will say it again:
Football is violent because it was designed to be violent. Football hurts because it is meant to hurt. Hitting is not for the faint of heart, and I proudly number myself among the cowards after getting slammed into the ground on a missed tackle in eighth grade that I still remember.
Safety is an issue; purposeful helmet-to-helmet hits needed to be made illegal. But some of the referee calls this year in which contact was so clearly incidental, defensive linemen gyrating into contorted ballet to not touch the quarterback but still getting flagged, were ridiculous.
Football still is football, but every year it edges closer to a tamped-down ersatz version thanks to Roger Goodell, the Mother Teresa of professional sports commissioners. If Mother Goodell has his way, don’t be surprised if “huddles” become “meditations,” “timeouts” turned into yoga breaks, posturpedic mattresses placed in the pocket to further protect the quarterback.
Now there is serious talk about banning kickoffs. Kickoffs are adrenaline-spiked kamikaze, players running at full speed trying to decapitate each other. Journeyman players whose only skill is total disregard for their bodies become legends, albeit short-term ones. It’s part of the visceral thrill, and no single play in football can shift momentum more than a kickoff return for a touchdown. But because of concern over concussions, the kickoff, not an ancillary part of the game but an intrinsic one, may be outlawed.
If that’s the case, it is only fair that other sports surrender—no more pitching inside in baseball for fear an errant throw might hit a batter, no more body checks in hockey, no more headers in soccer, bowling balls made of papier-mâché for the sanctity of those pins taking such brutal beatings.
The evidence does mount that not only concussions but repetitive hits in football (how the hell are you going to get rid of that?) can have terrible after-effects. An increasing number of former players are showing symptoms of early Alzheimer’s or severe depression due to chronic traumatic encephalopathy in the brain. The adoption of a new rule pushing kickoffs from the 30 to the 35-yard line did result in 20 concussions in 2011 as compared to 35 in 2010. If you subtract kickoffs, the number of concussions rose from 235 in 2010 to 246 in 2011, although part of that increase may be due to more stringent reporting.
Head injuries are an occupational hazard of the game. And is pro football more dangerous an occupation than transportation and warehousing (733 deaths in 2011), construction (721 deaths), or crop and food production (557)? The number of deaths in the NFL directly related to playing is miniscule. A study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health showed that pro players from the 1960s and 1970s, and 1980s had lower mortality rates than the male general population.
To improve player safety and still maintain the necessary bloodlust spectacle of the game, the answer lies in better equipment, not in continued politically correct dilution. Some say helmets cannot be improved, but in the age of technology and advance medical discovery we live in today, that’s balderdash. Better padding also can be provided. Don’t stop players from whacking each other. Stop players from whacking each other with outmoded equipment.
Goodell also has to get off the increasingly wearisome holier-than-thou kick. He recently opposed instituting sports betting in Atlantic City. It may please the holy rollers who also own an arsenal of semi-automatic weapons for Armageddon, but football would be a higher form of bocce ball without gambling. It needs gambling, given the swill we are forced to watch.
There have been exceptions this season. Minnesota Viking running back Adrian Peterson may go down as the best runner in NFL history, and the same with Denver Bronco quarterback Peyton Manning after leaving the Indianapolis Colts. But ponder the playoffs this weekend, and do you really want to see Christian Ponder at quarterback for the Vikings (17th in the league with a 53.8 total quarterback rating as calibrated by ESPN)? As good as they have been, do you really trust two rookie quarterbacks in Robert Griffin III (6th) of the Washington Redskins and Andrew Luck of the Colts (11th), still young mixtures of exciting and woeful? Does Houston Texans quarterback Matt Schaub (14th) do anything for you, given that he has thrown three touchdowns in the past five games? Or Andy Dalton of the Cincinnati Bengals (22nd)? Or Joe Flacco of the Baltimore Ravens (25th)?
The big guns—Manning and New England Patriot Tom Brady and Atlanta Falcon Matt Ryan (maybe)—have first-round byes. But last year’s Super Bowl winner, the wildcard New York Giants, tripped into the playoffs with a record of 9 and 7. Two years before it was the wildcard Pittsburgh Steelers. The last time the team with the best regular season record won the Super Bowl was the Patriots in 2004. Parity has become pariah.
So just make sure your local bookie is on speed dial.