Football is the most popular sport in America. The Super Bowl this weekend will be the most watched television event in history. Millions and millions of eyes will be locked to the television, butts firmly stapled to their chairs, as million dollar commercials and million dollar halftime shows break up the action before a winner is showered in confetti and etched into history. And yet the future seems clear… by the year 2046, there will be no National Football League.
How many times have you seen the following situation play out: Its 3rd and 13, and a bad quarterback throws a bad pass to a bad receiver, who gets subsequently laid out by 220 pounds of world class athlete, running at 19.3 miles per hour, only to draw a yellow handkerchief, essentially rewarding him for not having the fast twitch muscle, hand-eye coordination and body control required to hang onto the ball.
Fifteen yards, first down.
Even though the aforementioned penalty is a bastardization of the game of football, something needed to be done about concussions/brain injuries. As more and more former players from the 1970’s began forgetting their granddaughter’s names too often, and therefore suing the NFL for Billions, something had to change. If there is one thing that will get the league to change its ways, it’s most certainly the loss of money.
Why are brain injuries becoming such an issue? Because the NFL is currently caught up in a perfect storm of dangerous gameplay that involves two contributing factors: 1) Athletes of increasingly-freakish physical prowess, and 2) A brand of NFL football that is getting more high-flying and spread out by the minute. With the advent and widespread use of the shotgun formation, and the spread offense with 3 and 4 receiver sets, the players are more spread out on the field than they ever have been before. Being more spread out…means faster play…faster play means longer running starts to the ball carriers…longer running starts means harder hits…and harder hits means more concussions. If this were 1996, and 80% of the game was played between the hashes, and running the ball out of I-Formation was still en vogue, then there would be less impactful collisions. Unfortunately, with all of the pass-happy game plans we are seeing today in the league, high speed collisions where both parties have 15 yard head starts are inevitable, and happen more frequently than in the past, by orders of magnitude.
As if the transition to more pass-happy, and therefore more dangerous, style of play wasn’t enough, the second component of the perfect storm involves NFL athletes becoming bigger, stronger and faster year after year. Remember “The Freak”? Of course you do. Jevon Kearse was given that nickname when he came out of the University of Florida in 1999 because (at that point in time) nobody had ever seen someone that big and strong run that fast. At 6’5, 255 pounds, he ran a “blistering” 4.62 40 yard dash at the NFL combine, and from that moment on, scouts couldn’t stop drooling, nobody had ever seen anything like him before. Now snap back to the present; how many players from the past 3 combines ALONE weighed more than 255 pounds and ran faster than 4.62? Quentin Couples, Ezekiel Ansah, Chandler Jones, Lavonte David, Dion Jordan, Barkaveous Mingo, Jadavion Clowney, and Dee Ford. Freakish pass rushers who weigh 260 pounds, run 4.5s and bench press Honda Accords are very much like cellular phones: back in the 90’s having one was considered a divine luxury…nowadays if you DON’T have one, you’re clueless. So not only has the game itself become played in a more dangerous style, but the players playing the game are more equipped than ever to inflict irreparable bodily harm. The perfect storm.
I cannot say with certainty that the NFL will cease to exist in 30 years, but what I do know is that the game is nearing a dangerous crossroads of sorts, as the powers that be try to wrestle with the judicial system, the Player’s Association, and physics, in an effort to make a safer game. Here is how I see it playing out:
- Present day 2015 => The Golden Age. The NFL is more profitable than it has ever been. After a calendar year during which the league earned a total of $9.8 billion in revenues, it is easy to see why when you consider what the NFL has going for it:
- Transcendent superstars at the end of their reign who we will be talking about 60 years from now in a Joe DiMaggio-Ted Williams-Willie Mays kind of way (Brady, Manning, Peterson)
- An absolutely absurd amount of parity and preseason unpredictability-Teams regularly go from picking top 10 in the draft to making the playoffs the next year. This is due to many things, including but not limited to: roster turnover, injury attrition, and the fluid state of coaching vacancies from team to team (bright/successful assistants get poached for HC jobs).
- A playoff system that has (an almost annoyingly) high amount of outcome variance. To those who never took AP stats, that’s a nerdy way of saying “upsets happen right and left”. From 1978 (first year of a 16 game schedule) to 2005, only 1 team had won a Super Bowl in season which they won ten or fewer games, the 1988 Niners. Since 2005 though, in ONLY ten years, we have seen that happen 4 times (2007, 2011 Giants, 2012 Ravens, 2010 Packers).
- The NFL also has a talent pipeline (the NCAA) that is a wildly profitable multi-billion dollar industry on its own, and that broadcasts its games on ESPN as well as the big 4 cable networks every Saturday. It has gotten to the point where the majority of the most talented NCAA football players have already made a celebrity out of themselves months, if not years, before they even step on an NFL field (Manziel). By the way: the popularity of the NCAA as the NFL’s talent pipeline cannot be overstated, just ask Baseball or Hockey how important that is. Those are two sports that are falling off the national stage more and more by the day, largely because nobody knows/cares who the best players are at the amateur level before they are drafted. Between College Saturdays and Friday Night Lights at the High School level, football has mastered how to market the amateur version of its game to the American consumer in ways that other sports have yet to.
- January 2018 => The Call: Sometime in the next couple of years, there will be a game with major playoff, revenue generation, and coach-employment implications that will be decided by an egregious player-safety-oriented personal foul call.
- You can already see it, can’t you? The score is 21-20, with the trailing team in possession of the ball at midfield with :41 seconds and one timeout. Its 4th down and the pass over the middle into traffic falls incomplete, but there is a flag on the field. After a two minute chorus of vitriolic boos from the home crowd, and a couple erectile dysfunction commercials, the kicker on the trailing team lines up for a challenging yet very make-able 51 yard field goal, and makes it. Game over…season over…and the Ol’ Ball Coach gets his pink slip, has to sell his house and pluck his kids from school. But player safety is a victim-less initiative, right?
- For a couple of days after the game, all the vomiting heads on ESPN debate back and forth about player safety, and the way officials are taught to handle such situations. “Should we make this reviewable?” “How is it HUMANLY possible to determine whether he hit him in the (legal) shoulder pad area, or neck area when they play is happening at high-speed, with the naked eye, in real time? “Is the penalty too severe? Should it be 5 yards and a repeat of down, instead of a 15 and a first?” These are all questions that will be asked, but due to potential legal repercussions from the Player’s Association, the NFL will not soften/amend the player safety rules.
- October 2021 => Tragedy Strikes
- Despite the rule changes, despite the initiatives, and despite the company lines that everyone regurgitates when the cameras are rolling…NFL football is still a fierce, violent game that is played by physically dangerous athletes. In October of 2021, there will be a very productive and very popular wide receiver coming off a 1,400 yard season that becomes paralyzed from the waste-down because of a nasty hit. It is just a matter of time. The hit will not be legal, but it will not be malicious either. Just a hard-nosed kid playing safety, doing what he has been trained to do since he was 8 years old: “put his hat on the ball”.
- There will be bigger issues in play here though; for the first time in American history, the general public starts to wonder if football, a game so rooted in machismo and physical bullying, a game that is unavoidably barbaric and brutish by nature…truly has a place in a 21st century society that is becoming more and more progressive, cultured, and status-conscious by the day.
- September 2021 to January 2031- Welcome to the era of flopping, and ankle biting.
- At this point in time, the player safety rules as we know them today in 2015 will have been around for over a decade. As a result, players, coaches and front office executives alike become savvier in working the officials, and they start finding loopholes.
- Wide receivers will be taught to sell the calls, very much like basketball players do when they feel any sort of contact while driving to the basket. If they are ever hit even the slightest bit hard while trying to make a catch, receivers will be taught to let their bodies go limp right on the spot, lay facemask-down on the turf, completely motionless, and pretend they got shot in the temple. Seeing a motionless, potentially quadriplegic body face down on the turf will be too much for the refs to handle, and flags will fly.
- As most cat and mouse games go, the other side will eventually find a way to counter. Defensive players during the 2020’s will enjoy their dirtiest decade of all time, and become “ankle biters”. Their rationale, which many will deem dirty and unjust, will be simple, logical and pragmatic. They’ll argue: “If I get flagged for hitting high, I will hit low”. Ankle biting will have very severe and unsightly repercussions; superstar offensive players will blow out ACL’s, MCL’s and UCL’s at an unprecedented pace, as the NFL defender’s idea of a “form tackle” transforms from hitting a guy squarely around the belly button and driving them to the ground…to haphazardly flinging your entire body weight towards their shins and knees, hoping to trip them up without getting flagged.
- This ugly decade of reduced football will see an astounding number of running backs and receivers undergo reconstructive knee surgery at one point or another from ankle biting, and as a result, the 32 NFL owners get nervous. They know that in every American sport, “stars, scoring, and offense” are what generate interest and revenue, not defense. Seeing all these star offensive players get hurt will force the owners to lobby the commissioner to extend the slide rule to all offensive players, not only quarterbacks. For the first couple of years, it’s only the small, speedy Mike Wallace types who opt to slide and avoid contact because they are the ones least suited to get hit, but eventually it spreads, and by the end of the decade, 35% of plays from scrimmage will be blown dead via sliding. In essence, the act of making a tackle, something that has set football apart as a contact sport for over 100 years, will be on its way to being legislated out of the game entirely.
Scary, huh? Hate this analysis all you want but there isn’t a knowledgeable football fan out there that doesn’t see the trend forming. Football is more than a game. For the inhabitants of this country it’s a way of life. Football changes the discretionary spending habits, and dietary decisions of most red-blooded males (and females) from 1-11 PM on each Sunday, and it is revered on par with most religions. But when will the demand for safety change the game for good; warped into something we only vaguely remember as football? The human race outgrew fighting in the Colosseum, they outgrew training and battling slaves, and they moved on from jousting and hand to hand sword combat for sport. American Football might be next. So enjoy Super Bowl 50 this weekend. Be sure to get your fill of food and drink and enjoy the game with friends and family, because it will not be around in another 50 years.