Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Opinion: Roger Goodell Has (Almost) Broken Football

Editor's note: The following is an opinion about the National Football League.  It is NOT a political piece, no matter how much you wish it to be.

Months ago, when the mud-slinging that became downright malicious in the Presidential campaign, eventual winner Donald Trump claimed that if he were elected, he would fire NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

Well, he didn't exactly claim he would fire Goodell.  He more or less nodded and nervously grinned, cutting short an impromptu autograph session after a January rally in Massachusetts, when some douchebag lawyer from Maine asked him if he would promise to fire the NFL commissioner if elected President.

And why not? After all, the commissioner did oppress Trump's good buddies Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, and nobody messes with The Donald's friends.  Besides, it was a hollow gesture in the first place, because there's no way in hell a naive Billionaire real estate developer with the verbiage of a sailor and the hands and attitude of Caligula would ever be able to leverage his way into the White House, right?

Of course, not even the President of the United States has the authority to unseat the commissioner of a sports league, regardless of whether his philosophies and doctrine border on delusions of grandeur.

The National Football League is experiencing a downward trend in popularity, as evidenced by plunging television ratings, the league pointing to competition for viewership with a compelling World Series and a soap opera-esque Presidential campaign between two nasty-tempered candidates, a phenomenon that captured the attention of the entire nation.

The euphoria of the Chicago Cubs actually winning a World Series championship is starting to subside and the election is over - and the NFL is hoping that the viewership will spring back to their 2015 levels.

Maybe they will and maybe they wont.  If they do, it will shield the fact that Goodell's policies and the cornucopia of  rule changes approved by various committees run by owners of the 32 individual franchises have done to professional football what the "kinder and gentler" policies of the various Presidential administrations have done to the United States.

The "Wussification" of the National Football League is ruining the sport.

"Thirty years from now, I don't think it (the NFL) will be in existence" bemoaned former Baltimore Ravens' safety Bernard Pollard, who during his playing days was known as one of the most fearsome hitters in the game. "It's just my opinion, but I think with the direction things are going - where the NFL rule makers want to lighten up, throwing flags and everything else - there's going to come a point when fans are going to get fed up with it."

Since Goodell took office a decade ago, the league had experienced unprecidented growth, maintaining it's status as the most popular sport in north America, and perhaps evolving into a world-wide power as the league has set it's sights on globalization - and many of his policies were aimed at improving the excitement factor of the game...

...approving rule changes that favored high-flying passing offenses by restricting how defensive players were allowed to compete against pass catchers who, increasingly, are becoming bigger and faster and more explosive - and even though defenders complained about it bitterly, scoring was up as was the resultant viewership.

But it wasn't enough.  Starting in 2014, the league mandated that game officials strictly enforce pass interference, illegal contact and defensive holding penalties - the result being an exponential increase in defensive penalties that slowed the game to a crawl and forced defenders to play inside a five-yard box from the line of scrimmage and leaving the rest of the field wide open for the receivers.

Apparently, he instructed the referees to be a little more liberal in their offensive holding calls as well, as the numbers this season show that holding penalties in 2016 have already surpassed those from any other season in NFL history, and offensive pass interference calls are on pace to top last year's high water mark of 53 by week eleven.

Goodell also seems intent on eliminating a good portion of special teams play, first by mandating that officials throw flags on an inordinant percentage of kick and punt returns, to the point where a penalty is expected on any return, then by "solving" this unsavory part of the game by initially moving kickoffs to the 35 yard line from the 30 in 2011...

...and then when that didn't produce enough touchbacks - that is, the returner taking a knee in the end zone to end the play - this past offseason he ratified a plan that he had shelved in 2011 as a leverage move, moving touchbacks from the 20 yard line up to the twenty-five, giving teams plenty of motivation to take a knee since starting on the twenty-five was a couple of yards better than the average NFL return produced.

But, let's take a break here for a second and question whether rule changes and the arcane number of penalty flags are even enough to devalue the product to the point where one in every ten football fan now opts for other activity on Sunday afternoons?  And Sunday nights? And Monday nights? And Thursday nights?

Time was, it was an honor to be selected to play on Monday Night Football, and when you were selected, it was because you earned the selection by building and maintaining success and/or an exciting collection of players that entertained audiences, and both actually worked hand in hand.

Take the Patriots for example.  There have been periods of time - protracted blocks of time, in fact - when the Patriots put a horrible product on the field.  They weren't nicknamed "The Patsies" for nothing, but in reality they were the very personification of inconsistency.

In that light, the Patriots of the early 1970's were so bad that it took three seasons for Monday Night Football to come calling, and even then it was because of some sort of weird rotation between a pool of teams that sucked, perpetually, as evidenced by the fact that it took three more seasons before they again appeared under the bright lights.

But when Chuck Fairbanks began digging the Patriots out of the AFC East cellar, the Patriots found themselves on Monday Night Football for seven straight seasons, as they experienced six consecutive winning seasons, had colorful characters on the team and set records on offense - including the most rushing yards in a season, a record that still stands today nearly four decades later.

They hit the skids again in the early 1980's, then elevated their game to another protracted streak of winning seasons, and went to their first Super Bowl, then bottomed out in the early 90's before rising to another Super Bowl and experienced another streak of good fortune in the mid-to-late decade - each of these peaks and valleys were reflected in the Monday Night schedule, including a six-year hiatus between 1989 and 1995.

That's where the Patriots' brand ceases to be a good example of the in's and out's of primetime television, as they were on the doorstep of an unprecedented run of success that continues to this day, a run that has seen them in at least one Monday night game each season since the turn of the century - but in 2006, just after Goodell took office, effectively came an end to the novelty that made primetime football - well - a novelty.

In 2006, the fledgling NFL Network and NBC began primetime broadcasts of their own - Thursday Night Football and Sunday Night Football, respectively - while the Monday Night brand that had become both a staple and icon of American television ended it's run on commercial network ABC, with parent company ESPN taking over the broadcast.

There's a philosophy among sports purists that expansion waters down the overall talent level among all of the teams and cheapens the product, and the expansion of football primetime broadcasts has thinned the overall talent level and has cheapened the product.

Now, instead of being "honored" by the league by being granted an appearance on Monday Night Football, the league has adopted a policy of "spreading the wealth" with the creation of the Sunday and Thursday night brands, leaving schedule makers to fill in 34 slots created by the inclusion of the brands - and with the league consisting of 32 teams, the novelty of playing on nationally televised primetime games wore off quickly as every team, both good and bad, got a turn.

Most of the criticism has been leveraged towards the Thursday night brand, which came about as nothing more than a power play for Goodell to gain leverage with cable providers - and many have speculated that the Thursday night scheduling is also a bargaining chip to be used to entice NFL owners to approve Goodell's dream of an 18-game schedule.

As a move to "encourage" cable providers to carry the NFL Network as part of their standard digital lineup instead of pay-per-view packages, they anticipated that furor over the fans inability to see their teams play on Thursday night would force the cable providers to start carrying the NFL Network or face mass exodus from their subscribers.

Of course, the providers relented, but what we were left with was an inferior product, due to timing issues and general malaise that accompanies too much of anything.

But Thursday night was different. Teams still considered playing on Monday night an honor, or at least a vehicle to drive their own agendas, and Sunday nights became an even bigger draw, as anticipation among fans built all day on Sundays to settle down and finish their football viewing with mostly excellent matchups, based on what NBC called "flex scheduling", which allowed the network to replace poor matchups - based on records or waning fan interest - with more highly watchable games.

This was something that the league couldn't pull off on a Monday or Thursday night because the logisitics involved in flexing games out and in would prove to be near impossible, what with ticket purchases, travel and rest time for the athletes barriers to success, while NBC had the ability to draw from a pool of games scheduled for earlier in the day, with the only stipulation that the network required to inform the league and the participants 12 days in advance.

So with Monday nights already engrained in television lore and Sunday nights promising the most exciting matchups of the week, Thursday nights became a vortex that no player wanted to participate in, no coach wanted to prepare their team for and, eventually, no fan with a casual interest in the participants wanted to watch.

What it boils down to is that the current television contracts give football fans too much of a good thing, and fans have started to take football for granted.

Is there a way to fix all of these things?  Of course there are measures to take that would bring back viewership, but there has already been a lot of damage to the NFL brand, and no matter what Goodell does now, will be taken with a grain of salt, because he has shown no inclination to take suggestions and his behavioral pattern suggests nothing but self-edification.

The TV contracts run through 2022 and the combined networks (Including FOX, which shows only Sunday regional broadcasts) are under contract to pay the league a whopping $40 Billion for the rights to broadcast games, so Goodell is under no obligation to change anything - and he is actually constrained by the contracts to maintain the status quo.

But he does have plenty to say about the scheduling and about rule changes.

As far as the Thursday night brand, the scheduling can be constructed to coincide with each team's bye week, and actually make fans, players and coaches look forward to the mid-week contests.

If the league would schedule teams coming off of their bye weeks to play on Thursday night, it would give each team 10 full days to rest and prepare, then it would give those same teams 10 days after the contest to rest and prepare for the rest of their schedule.

The benefits would be enormous for all involved.  For fans of the teams involved, there would only be 10 days between seeing their team play as opposed to 14 under the current format.  Players would actually have more time to rest and heal and work on their individual technique, and coaches wouldn't have to scramble to put together impromptu, mostly vanilla game plans that are anything but exciting.

Casual fans would be treated to a better product, the league's safety protocol would be adhered to much more completely, and the players and coaches would be completely on board.

In the past couple of days there has been talk of the league looking to end the Thursday night brand, and that would be fine, were it not for the leverage that cable companies and the networks now own over the league, so for the next five seasons, Thursday Night Football will more than likely continue to air like some sort of preternatural participation trophy...

...appeasing Goodell's long-dead vision of parity in the league which, as a result, causes exactly the opposite effect.  Like it or not, the overwhelming number of primetime games that dilutes the talent pool are here to stay, and unless the league takes ownership of the Thursday Night brand and fills the slots with marquee matchups, the ratings will continue to decline.

No comments:

Post a Comment