Let's take a few minutes to talk about the NFL 2007, post-Super Bowl edition. Last Sunday on the back page of the NY Times sports section, the league ran a full-page advertisement that played the NFL's season ending theme of "Hard to Say Goodbye" You got the televised version of the ad (a result of a competition the league successfully staged this season) late in the fourth quarter of the telecast. On TV, fans were struggling with the fact that they were facing seven months without a meaningful game, weeks until the Draft (and the haunting specter of all-Mel Kiper, all the time) and a few more weeks until mini-camp, free-agent season, roster trimming, signings, and then training camp itself. The NFL is a year-round passion and I love it.
The NFL said goodbye to the 2006 season in the print ad, highlighting some of the memories it created and some of what has been lost: from the success of Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith to the vision of the late Lamar Hunt, to the retirement of former Commissioner Paul Tagliabue to the violent death of Denver Broncos DB Darrent Williams. Along with these they recalled mostly unspecified ‘magical moments' and there were several, none better than that Monday Night Football return to New Orleans or the continued brilliance of LaDainian Tomlinson and Peyton Manning and Jason Taylor and Brian Urlacher.
But there are some things that we need to know that the NFL is facing up to and not ready to put a high-gloss finish on and hope it goes away. We love the NFL and we care about it but some things demand attention.
Brain Injuries: Back in October we called for Steelers Coach Bill Cowher to sit Ben Roethlisberger down for weeks if not for the season when he sustained his second concussion in five months. Lots of Citizens of the Nation thought I was wrong, and maybe so. But a lot thought I was right, too. And in the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl we learn the reason for the mysterious suicide of former Eagles DB Andre Waters may be the brain injuries he suffered regularly as an NFL player. These injuries led him to have brain tissue that a pathologist said resembled that of an 85-year-old man. Waters was 44 when he died. Then last week as everyone was focusing on Super Bowl XLI, news came that an important player in recent Super Bowls, Ted Johnson, linebacker for the New England Patriots, had suffered such severe head trauma when he played that he was now suffering depression, amphetamine addiction and symptoms of early onset Alzheimer's. Ted Johnson is 34 years old. Now no one is saying that the Patriots or the NFL have to take all the responsibility for the damage these two players suffered (and many others have suffered as well). Players assume a lot of risk for the benefits of playing professional football. But a little compassion might be nice. Instead this is a quote from an unnamed Patriots official in the Globe's story:
"(Team Owner Robert Kraft) has always cared for him," said a team official. "But Ted Johnson is a very sick young man. We've been aware of the emotional issues he's had for years. You can't blame all of his behavior on concussions."
Johnson's doctor disagrees, but whoever's right can you have a little feeling here pal? And when you give us such an uplifting quote do you have to fulfill all of our low expectations by hiding in anonymity?
Pro Bowl Selections: Shawn Merriman's statistics scream Pro Bowl Player, that is all of his stats but one: Merriman was suspended for four games for violation of the league's drug policy, widely reported as for steroid use. Merriman's reaction? "It was in my diet supplement." To that we say: Yeahhh, surrrre. Now the League and the Players Association are contemplating making players ineligible for the Pro Bowl in seasons that include such a suspension. It's a start. And the other day we saw that the Redskins DB, Sean Taylor is going to the Pro Bowl. Now there's a player you can cheer for.
The League and the PA did take the initiative to announce an expanded joint program for more stringent testing and made it public in the off week before Super Bowl Week. They are also working with a proposal to keep players suspended for steroid use from being eligible for the Pro Bowl. But for now, Shawne Merriman's going to the Pro Bowl; Sean Taylor, too.
New Orleans: It looked great to have the NFL back in New Orleans, it felt great to have the Saints in the playoffs and giving the Bears a run for their money in the NFC championship game but.... The reality of New Orleans is something far different than most of what we saw and you can't help wonder how long the Saints can make it in this city that not only care forgot but now the government has, too. You can be of any political persuasion and still know that the rebuilding of homes, businesses and lives in the Big Easy is not only not going well, it's hardly going at all.
NFL Network: If they played eight football games ostensibly on national TV and no one watched, would the results count? This season the answer was yes. The NFL Network for the first time took eight regular season games and put them out there for all to see, except almost no one has the NFL Network. I don't. Do you? If the Network still gets push back from all the cable providers who are resisting its enticements, how much longer can the experiment last?
Battling owners: This is one that will make Commissioner Goodell old before his years. Under the surface the fights have been going on between the teams that print money (the Redskins, the Cowboys, the Patriots, and soon with their new stadium, the Giants and Jets) and those that "scuffle" for their bucks (the Bills, the Jaguars, even the Steelers). Watching closely will be the players hoping that the fight gets so public that the players discover new revenues to which they're entitled to a share. This could get very ugly.
Bad acting coaches: Bill Belichick has been cited as the prime cause of Ted Johnson's second concussion by virtually ordering him to practice when he should have been recovering. This genius's shove of a Globe photographer following a playoff against the Jets gives a clear picture of what we're dealing with here and it ain't pretty. On the other hand the implosion of Dennis Green for all to see on National TV did result in his being shown the door in Arizona. But can anyone doubt that some other team will crown him with another head coaching job. (On a positive coaching note: the League has done something about the lack of African-American head coaches and now it seems the playing field is leveling. It's more than Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith in the Super Bowl, it's that good candidates are getting consideration and the results are starting to show. They're not there yet but it's going in the right direction.)
Arrested developments: There were nine Bengals players arrested this season; the Bears' Tank Johnson had to get a court's permission to play for Chicago in the Super Bowl because his arrest on gun charges included a ban on his leaving the state of Illinois without that OK, the Chargers LB Steve Foley was shot following a high speed chase after which he was charged also with driving while intoxicated. And the coaches too, got into the act, none more memorably than Lions assistant Joe Cullen who was charged with Driving While Naked.
At his first State of the League news conference two days before the Super Bowl, Goodell had this to say:
"We have to do something about it," Goodell said. "I think it's an incredibly important issue. One incident is too many in my book. I think we need to reevaluate all our programs. Gene (Upshaw) and I are going to put together a group of players we're going to meet with in the next several weeks to give us their perspective on what's really happening and what are the issues so we can try to learn something first.
"We continually tell our players and coaches that we're raised to a higher standard in the NFL and we have to exceed that standard. I firmly believe that and I think Gene does also. We have to make sure our players are accountable, but I think also our clubs have to be more accountable and we will be reevaluating our position to see if there are ways we should make our clubs more accountable in the offseason. I think we all take it personally. I think it's something we have to address."
Michael Irvin: To top it all off Michael Irvin was elected last Saturday to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Few things make me go GRRRRR and throw up my hands in defeat more than this does. Here's a guy whose career included a cocaine bust and suspension by the League, and several other incidents that, shall we say, did not reflect too well on him, the Cowboys or the NFL. In retirement he's shot his mouth off in a racist direction on occasion, had another bust for having drug paraphernalia (which resulted in a suspension by current employer ESPN) and for that he's going to Canton. Players with better overall career statistics like Art Monk wait for a call that may never come and Irvin's going to Canton. Irvin had the blessing of Hall of Famer Troy Aikman and future HOF Emmitt Smith, both Cowboys teammates. Michael Irvin was an outstanding athlete whose questionable behavior was enabled as a player and now as a broadcaster. And for that he's going to the Hall of Fame. Can we request that his bust reside right next to OJ Simpson's?