A couple of years ago, the problem of concussions and the long-term impact of persistent brain injuries became a signature issue for the National Football League.
As players got bigger and faster, and medical care became more sophisticated, the scope of the problem grew, more attention was given to it, and now the ability to deal effectively with a major matter of player health has become prominent.
The league is still a long way away from actually solving the problem, but at least now serious work is being done and a more appropriate and proper amount of attention is being given to it.
But the league is also at an existential crossroads because in order to really address the problem, you have to legislate a lot of the power and violent contact out of the game. To do so risks losing the very characteristic that attracts a lot of spectators, and that puts the NFL’s business model in failure mode. That helps nobody.
So far the result of trying to stop players from launching and taking shots up high has been an uptick in the number of leg and knee injuries. So if next they try to stop low hits, how will the game progress when the legal tackling zone becomes limited to the waist?
The reaction thus far has been to proceed very cautiously, slowly, and (one might even say) conservatively) to instill the necessary changes that are actually in the players’ best interests. Player still want to play, and while they want to be safe they also accept the risks.
We fans want to watch exciting action. There is common ground and we will get there, but it requires patience as we apparently all have to learn a new way to play and enjoy the game.
What the league does not need to move slowly on, though, are the ongoing issues with fan safety and behavior that occur at every venue in the country just about every week. Obviously this is not just an NFL problem, but a cultural problem at all sporting events these days.
When you get right down to it, it’s an alcohol problem. Each city, led by the franchise’s owner, needs to push for greater control of fan behavior. Mob mentality, like what happened a few years ago in Chicago over the bizarre Steve Bartman incident at a Cubs post-season game, cannot be anticipated.
But the excessive tailgating experience that is the modern culture of ball games has gotten way out of hand. It has turned some venues into gauntlets or even mosh pits of abuse in which rival fans attack one another just because they are there and walk past the wrong person wearing the wrong color.
Although it may seem that way, sixty thousand-plus fans do not show up each week in order to get drunk and fight, and arresting people after the fact does not fix the problem. The league and its host cities need to make it a priority that each venue be safe, secure and as peaceful as possible for everyone. The league and its entertainment product are at risk in this case, too.
Cowboys at Eagles - Once again it’s time for Tony Romo to play brilliantly right up until crunch time. Losing DeMarcus Ware is a big deal. Philly’s running game is an even bigger one.
Bears at Redskins - RGIII’s knee and confidence are slowly returning. He will make some plays and Washington will gradually get better and better, but right now it won’t be good enough against a defense that remains as tough as they come against the passing game. Being at home helps; but still, not enough.
49ers at Titans - San Francisco is on the mend and piling up the offensive statistics. By the fourth quarter, Tennessee won’t be able to keep up unless Chris Johnson makes a real appearance. His game will continue to dry up and blow away as long as the Titans’ offensive line and receiving corps remain averse to run blocking. Now would be a good time. It would also be a surprise.
Browns at Packers - Aaron Rodgers will still figure out somebody to throw it to. Unlike Brandon Weeden, he puts it someplace the receivers can both catch it and do something with it. The nightmare curse that is professional football in Cleveland continues.
Texans at Chiefs - This could get ugly as K.C. could set some sack records here. Unlike Cleveland, Houston was not equipped for its visit from Freddie Krueger.
Ravens at Steelers - Baltimore is far from impressive, but has an up-and-coming defense holding them together. Unless they can figure out how to turn Joe Flacco into a consistent threat, it seems most everybody has got his number now.
Pittsburgh is full bore into pride mode. This an all-hand-on-deck salvage job. It may cost them everything they’ve got for the next two weeks, but, to a man, the Steelers would rather die than lose to these guys at home this year. This is all they’ve got now to play for, and that’s good enough for me.
Broncos at Colts - It would be borderline lunacy to pick against undefeated Denver, but no one can claim any real surprise if Indy pulls the upset. Sure to be good entertainment for a Sunday night, though.
Vikings at Giants - When a 1-4 team falls to an 0-6 squad and no one sees it, does it make a difference? Advertisers on ESPN should get a reduced rate. That’s about it.