(I worked as a Sports Editor from late 2004 until the summer of 2006. This is one of the many columns I was able to save that were originally published in The Sun-Times of Heber Springs, Arkansas.)
I remember a time not too long ago when the NFL ruled the professional sporting world. Major League Baseball hadn’t reached its long ball renaissance, and the NBA had yet to be turned inside out by Michael Jordan’s gravity defying game.
Back then every game was the stuff of legend. With true gridiron warriors who cared more about making a good block or a sound tackle than chest thumping or contract years. It was a time when, for the most part, players stayed off the police blotter and left the violence on the field.
It was that long ago era in the 80s when the only pull corporate sponsors had was in deciding what color of wine to have with their escargot while sitting in their luxury boxes.
Now the NFL has gone the way of FM radio, where you have to look real hard to find any genuine quality. Where are the superstars cut in the mold of Bart Starr, Johnny Unitas and Roger Staubach? How many guys out there are content to keep their mouth shut and just do whatever it takes to win on that one Sunday afternoon?
In just 20 years the game has evolved from mythical gladiators testing their will against each other and the elements, to an exercise in bloated consumerism with breaks for subpar football played by showboating, greedy millionaires.
I would wager that if it weren’t for the fantasy football craze, the NFL’s popularity would be on par with the WNBA. Maybe that’s a stretch, but it would definitely be behind the NBA, NASCAR, MLB and possibly the PGA.
The only thing it has going for it is that when it’s good, it’s the best game in the world. But when it’s not so good, you get a ho-hum season like the one that just ended with possibly the most boring Super Bowl in history.
I’m going to take the positive rout and learn from this season. The lessons were right in front of our face, and it was up to us to pay attention.
This season we learned that it’s becoming more and more difficult for the officials to referee a good game. Maybe it’s because the intimidating presence of instant replay is looming over every call. More than likely it’s due to the fact that the biggest, fastest, strongest players in the world are being made to follow the rules by middle-aged, out-of-shape guys who generally can’t keep up with them.
Whatever the case, this was one atrocious year for the refs. I foresee a very near future when every call is made from the replay booth, where the vantage point provided by 75 high-definition cameras will be far superior to old men trying to keep up with world class athletes.
This season we learned that Mr. Tagliabue’s fining system is way out of whack. This year Clinton Portis was fined $20,000 for wearing unauthorized socks and black shoes, while teammate Sean Taylor was only fined $17,000 for spitting in Michael Pittman’s face.
First of all, what are unauthorized socks? Did they have ROZELLE in big block letters down the side? I wonder what would have happened if Taylor had spat an unauthorized sock into someone’s face.
This season we learned that the NFL has ceased to be hip. If the aforementioned fines for the dress code weren’t proof enough, look no further than the decision to have the Rolling Stones hack their way through halftime of the Super Bowl. The NFL should be immune to what’s cool or uncool, it should be timeless. Tying the league to ancient rock stars who would have never played the Super Bowl in their prime is just plain stupid.
This season we learned that hot dogs eventually get eaten. Terrell Owens finally had his comeuppance after years of being the loudest mouth in football. The Eagles are as much to blame as Owens, but hopefully this will teach young players that one player is not bigger than the team.
This season we learned that the Pro Bowl doesn’t matter. Who really cares about the Pro Bowl? The players don’t. Check out Tom Brady, who pulled himself from the game after pulling something that led to a sports hernia. So instead of going to Hawaii and showing up for the honor, Brady decides to play golf in a well-publicized Pro-Am.
The game is usually very ugly, and this year was no different. Penalties, turnovers and uninspired play was the theme of the day. If something isn’t done soon, the game will lose all relevance whatsoever.
This season we learned that Peyton Manning is overrated. I can’t deny it anymore. Manning has never won anything at any level. His only losses in high school were in the state playoffs. Tennessee didn’t win a National Championship until after he graduated. And after posting the best regular season in 20 years, he promptly stuck a chicken bone down his throat in the AFC championship game. Then he follows that up with a three-interception performance in the Pro Bowl.
This season we learned that you can go home again. Just ask Jerome Bettis, who parked his bus in his hometown after winning the Super Bowl. Ricky Williams also came home back to the Dolphins this season, who forgave him of his pot-smoking odyssey and welcomed him and his 4.5 yards per carry back to Miami.
This season we learned that longevity is rewarded. Bill Cowher, the longest tenured coach in the NFL finally won the Vince Lombardi trophy.
The Steelers are always a contender under Cowher, and the Rooney clan has to be applauded for not being knee-jerk reactionists like the rest of the owners in the league.
This season we learned that everyone gets old. The flip side of longevity is the aging process. Brett Favre has been in Green Bay forever, and this season he finally played like it. The sad thing is he isn’t old. He’s my age, but in football years that’s like saying he was born in the Bronze Age.
This season we learned many things about the NFL. The number one lesson we learned is we didn’t learn anything. We’ll be back in front of the TV and in the stands next season, hoping that this time it will be better.