The last day of the year is always an appropriate time to look back at what has taken place over the past 364 days. As it applies to the NFL, however, one must remember that there is still plenty of seasonal business to take care of, with the playoffs in January and Super Bowl XLVII set for Feb. 3 in New Orleans.
That said, even though the 2012 NFL season isn’t officially over, it’s not too soon to start looking ahead to next season. Many changes will take place between now and next fall, whether these are in the form of coaching or franchise leadership changes, roster moves or additions made through the draft, in addition to other league-related business that will occur.
While it is anyone’s guess as to what the end result will be for all 32 teams and the league as a whole, here are a few things at the top of this football fan’s wish list for America’s favorite sport as we look towards 2013.
A “quiet” offseason for the NFL
Anyone who follows the NFL can remember all too well what took place less than two years ago, when the offseason was dominated by the lockout. Even though the labor stoppage officially lasted about four and a half months, the all-too-public labor dispute was without a doubt THE leading NFL storyline, which meant the focus was taken off of what was happening on the field even before the lockout materialized.
Fast forward to this past offseason, which was first “tainted,” if you will, by the BountyGate scandal involving the New Orleans Saints, and then by the second labor dispute to impact the NFL in as many seasons. After suffering through three weeks of replacement referees, culminated by one of the most confusing and logic-defying game endings in NFL history, the league and the zebras finally agreed to a new labor deal in late September.
Needless to say it’s been a pretty rough past two years for NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. Because of his position and his unmistakable presence and participation in all league matters, Goodell has borne the brunt of the criticism that has been lobbied towards the NFL over the past two years. Regardless of whether all of this has been warranted or not, no one can deny that Goodell, and the league as a whole, could use a “quiet” offseason, one in which the only thing that generates headlines and extensive media coverage is the “normal” business that takes place, like the draft in April.
There’s a saying there’s no such thing as bad pr. I am pretty sure the NFL would disagree with this, and would like nothing more than to not have to worry about it in the first place in 2013.
Leave the playoff format and kickoff alone
Speaking of Commissioner Goodell, I would like to offer some unsolicited advice to him in regards to some potential rules changes that have been reportedly discussed: don’t mess with the current playoff set up and leave the kickoff alone.
The commissioner and owners have reportedly raised the possibility of looking into expanding the playoff field from its current 12 teams to either 14 or 16. Why? I don’t know and honestly, I don’t really care, although the cynic in me immediately thinks it has to do with money. More playoff games means more games on television, which means more revenue through broadcasting rights and advertising, correct?
Regardless of the economics, I see no reason to expand the playoff field. As it stands right now, six of 16 teams in each conference earn their way into the postseason. Do we really want or need to see it get to a point where potentially half of each conference gets in?
Also, unlike the BCS or the NCAA Tournament or even major league baseball, which recently expanded its own postseason field, do you ever really hear about that NFL team that got “snubbed” because they didn’t get into the playoffs? No because with the field set at 12 teams, everyone knows there aren’t any snubs, just 12 teams that earned the right to keep playing. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?
As far as the kickoff goes, I personally didn’t think the league needed to move it up from the 30- to the 35-yard line in the first place. Now apparently the powers that be are mulling eliminating the play altogether.
Look, I’m all for player safety, but last time I checked football was a contact sport. From what I can tell, moving the kickoff up five yards has already helped in this respect because the number of touchbacks has risen considerably. There still have been a decent number of returned kicks, though, and if anything, the difference of five yards has resulted in even more exciting returns, along the lines of those that cover more than 100 yards.
In my mind, eliminating the kickoff would not only remove a fairly significant aspect of the game itself, it would serve as the latest, and arguably the loudest, signal that the league is headed towards the equivalent of two-hand touch football. Is that what we really want?
For Ndamukong Suh to finally get his act together
I can still vividly remember Suh almost single-handedly ruin Texas’ season when Nebraska nearly beat the Longhorns in the 2009 Big 12 Championship Game. Suh had seven tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks and was named MVP in that game, which Texas won 13-12 on a last-second field goal, otherwise the Longhorns wouldn’t have played in the BCS National Championship Game a little more than a month later.
No one was surprised that Detroit drafted Suh with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, and everyone was expecting big things out of the athletic defensive tackle who dominated as a senior at Nebraska. Suh got off to a great start in the NFL, earning AP Defensive Rookie of the Year honors, but since then he has gained far more attention for the plays he made that don’t show up in the box score.
The first notable one was the stomping of Green Bay offensive lineman Evan Dietrich-Smith’s head during the nationally televised Thanksgiving Day game in 2011, which resulted in a two-game suspension. That was preceded by several other instances of discipline, mainly fines, for on-field conduct, not to mention the numerous personal foul penalties he was flagged for.
Sadly, not to be outdone, Suh was in the Thanksgiving spotlight for the wrong reason again this season for what appeared to be an attempted kick to Houston quarterback Matt Schaub’s groin area while trying to bring him down. While that play didn’t result in any discipline from the league, Schaub and other Texan players made their feelings known about Suh’s questionable tactics.
It’s no surprise that Suh has been tagged the NFL’s dirtiest player in numerous forums, including surveys of his own peers, but it’s gotten to the point where even his own team and teammates are growing tired of his act. For one, the production hasn’t matched up with the other stuff related to his playing style, if you will, and then there’s the matter of his seemingly persistent off-the-field issues.
Since joining the NFL, Suh has been cited or involved in numerous driving-related incidents, including speeding and wrecking his car. While these may not seem serious, Suh’s pattern for getting into trouble, both on and off of the field, made enough of an impression on Commissioner Goodell to warrant a face-to-face meeting in November 2011.
There’s no denying Suh’s natural talent and ability, along with his other marketable skills. There’s a reason he has secured endorsement deals with the likes of Dick’s Sporting Goods, Nike and Subway. Besides being a freak of an athlete, Suh is educated (graduated with a degree in Construction Management from Nebraska), articulate and fairly personable. He’s also done his share of good deeds and charitable efforts in both the Detroit area and for his alma mater.
That’s why is there is absolutely no reason, Suh should have the reputation he has right now as one of the most despised players in the league. However, that’s where he’s at right now, a mere three years into his career, and it’s a label he has quite frankly earned. It’s not too late for him to change this perception, but time is running out. If he doesn’t figure things out soon, he unfortunately will add his name to the growing list of talented, potential-filled college players who were high draft picks and then turn out to be nothing but disappointments once they get to the NFL.
A second chance for Andy Reid
It’s highly likely that Reid and the Philadelphia Eagles will be severing their long-term working relationship. In fact, the end could come as soon as this week, if not today, after the Eagles stumbled their way to a 4-12 record this season. Should that happen, I sincerely hope Reid gets another chance to be head coach in the NFL, provided he wants it.
Despite how this season went, Reid will leave the Eagles as the franchise’s all-time winningest coach with a career 130-93-1 (.583) record. He is tied for 22nd in wins on the all-time list and he also posted a winning record in postseason (10-9) play. In his 14 years as the Eagles’ head coach, Reid had only three losing seasons (1999, 2005 and ’12), won seven division titles, went to the playoffs nine times and led his team to an appearance in Super Bowl XXXIX.
While he may not have been able to bring a world championship back to the City of Brotherly Love, he did produce a consistent winner in a city that’s not easy to win in, and it’s even tougher when you lose. Love him or loathe him, you have to give Reid the credit he deserves for what he accomplished during his tenure as the Eagles’ head coach.
Besides everything he had to put up with the on the field, Reid has had to deal with this share of trouble and pain off of it as well. In 2007, it was the added attention paid to the legal troubles of his oldest sons, Garrett and Britt, because of his position as an NFL head coach. Sadly, his two worlds collided again more recently when on Aug. 5, Garrett died during Eagles training camp at Lehigh University from an accidental heroin overdose. There’s no question this has been Reid’s most difficult season yet, and it has nothing to do with what’s taken place on the football field.
The list of NFL head coaches who have gotten a second shot somewhere else is ridiculously long. Look no further than this: of the 32 head coaches this season, 10 of them are on at least their second team. Whether he takes a year or two off or decides to jump right back in, I certainly hope some team decides to add Reid to this list. If anyone deserves a second chance, it’s him.
A quarterback for Larry Fitzgerald
Fitzgerald, the No. 3 overall pick of the Arizona Cardinals in the 2004 NFL Draft has been an All-Pro and made six trips to the Pro Bowl. From his rookie season until 2011, Fitzgerald posted the following per-season averages: 87 receptions, 1,201 receiving yards and nine touchdowns.
This season, however, those numbers plummeted to 69 catches for 785 yards and just four touchdowns. Not surprisingly, Arizona finished with a 5-11 record in a season that saw the team use four different quarterbacks. Injuries played a big part in the revolving door at the position, but the Cardinals’ disappointing season was largely due to the overall lack of production and consistency the team got from its quarterbacks.
Collectively, Arizona’s four quarterbacks this season – Kerry Kolb, John Skelton, Ryan Lindley and Brian Hoyer – combined to complete less than 56 percent of their passes for 3,158 yards, 10 touchdowns and 20 interceptions. Pass protection (league-worst 56 sacks allowed) was certainly an issue, but the Cardinals’ aerial attack, even with Fitzgerald on the field for all 16 games, was pathetic to put it mildly.
Fitzgerald’s best seasons came when Kurt Warner was pulling the trigger, a combination that helped the Cardinals earn a trip to Super Bowl XLIII, the franchise’s first-ever. Since Warner retired following the 2009 season, Fitzgerald’s numbers have declined in each of the following seasons, as the Cardinals have struggled to identify their next franchise quarterback.
Kolb was supposed to be that guy when the Cardinals acquired him from the Philadelphia Eagles in a trade prior to the start of the 2011 season and then signed him to a lucrative contract extension. Things have not worked out so far, however, as Kolb is just 6-8 as the starter in his two seasons out in the desert and has missed more games (17) than he’s played in (15) because of different injuries.
What Arizona decides to do at quarterback is the most critical decision facing the team this offseason. Even if they decide to take a quarterback in April’s draft (highly likely), this year’s crop of college signal callers is nowhere near the caliber of last year’s draft that saw Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III go first and second overall, and also featured Ryan Tannehill and Brandon Weeden picked in the first round and Russell Wilson taken in the third. All five are starting for their respective teams and, to some degree or another, have shown signs that they either are the long-term solution for their team or could develop into that in time.
Depending on how Arizona feels about the likes of a Matt Barkley or Geno Smith, chances are an immediate solution is not available in this year’s draft, meaning the coaching staff and front office will have to decide whether they stick with Kolb for another season or look elsewhere for a new option. In fact, it’s not a stretch to say that this decision impacts the coaching staff as much as it does the players. Another season like they had in 2011, and head coach Ken Whisenhunt and his staff are probably looking for employment elsewhere.
Fitzgerald, however, is going nowhere as he is the indisputable face of the Arizona franchise and by far its most popular player. Besides being one of the most talented wide receivers to ever play in the NFL, he’s also one of the real good guys in the league, a true role model that you want your child, aspiring football player or not, to look up to.
Fitzgerald won’t even turn 30 until right before the beginning of the 2013 regular season. He should be enjoying the prime of his career and everyone should be able to enjoy watching him do his thing on the field. But neither will happen unless Arizona can find a quarterback that can get the ball to him on a consistent basis.
Fitzgerald will never throw his team or his teammates under the bus or pull a Keyshawn Johnson and go public with his discontent, but for the sake of NFL fans everywhere, let me be the one to ask the Arizona Cardinals this: Can you please find someone who can throw him the darn ball?
More understanding and cooperation on concussions
My stance on leaving the kickoff alone (see above) aside, I am fully on board with the league’s desire to improve and focus on player safety. There’s no disputing that a concussion is the injury in the spotlight right now. All you need to do is read a team’s injury report to see how this issue has impacted every single team this year.
The list of players who have missed time this season because of a concussion reads like a Pro Bowl roster – Jay Cutler, Fred Jackson, LeSean McCoy, Michael Vick, among many others – and there’s also the matter of the numerous lawsuits that have been filed by both the players association and former players against the NFL.
The concussion problem isn’t going away, on the field or in the courts, anytime soon, but the only way any progress will be made on attempting to solve it is if all involved parties work together. The NFL is investing a lot of money and resources into the medical study of concussions, their occurrence, and effects, both short- and long-term, while simultaneously addressing the ongoing litigation.
The NFL will have its day in court, and I fully expect them to end up paying substantial amounts of money in the form of settlements and/or damages. That said, at some point the finger-pointing needs to stop and the cooperation needs to start if all sides – the NFL, the current players, the players association, the retired players, the medical community, etc. – truly want to do something about this obvious problem.
As an example of what I mean by cooperation, the players themselves need to stop trying to hide a concussion just so they can stay on the field. No one’s denying that football isn’t a violent sport, but it’s past time to drop the so-called gladiator mentality. Just look at where that mindset has left those who came before this current generation of players.
Less off-the-field tragedies
In reality, one incident alone is far too many, but this season the NFL has gone through two tragic, life-changing events in which players were responsible for the death of someone else. NFL players are human beings just like everyone else, and humans make mistakes. However, both of these tragedies were preventable and the result of extremely poor judgment, and I don’t think anyone can argue with me for wishing that we as a society won’t have to endure in 2013 what the Kansas City Chiefs and Dallas Cowboys have had to this season, and especially the families of Jerry Brown and Kasandra Perkins, as well as those of Jovan Belcher and Josh Brent.
Another competitive Super Bowl
Super Bowl Sunday is, for all intents and purposes, as close as you can get to a national holiday without being an official holiday. Typically the most-watched event of the year, no other game draws as many eyes and as much attention and prestige as the matchup between the AFC and NFC champions. Why do companies pony up exorbitant amounts of money for 30-second commercial spots during the Super Bowl? Because they know everyone will be watching this game, whether they are die-hard football fans or not.
To that point, the past two Super Bowls have broken the record for the most-watched television program in American history. Last year’s game between the New England Patriots and New York Giants was watched by an estimated average audience of 111.3 million US viewers and an estimated total audience of 166.8 million, according to Nielsen.
So why has the Super Bowl set viewing records two years in a row? I strongly believe it’s because the game was competitive and exciting. Two years ago, the Green Bay Packers held off a furious fourth-quarter comeback by the Pittsburgh Steelers to win Super Bowl XLV 31-25. Last year, it was the Giants coming from eight points down in the third quarter to score 12 unanswered and hold off the Patriots, 21-17.
Over the past five Super Bowls, the average margin of victory has been just 6.2 points and that’s largely because of one game, Super Bowl XLIV in 2010. In that game, the New Orleans Saints defeated the Indianapolis Colts 31-17. In the other four, the margin of victory was six points or fewer. And don’t forget that even the 2010 title game was a close game, as the Saints had just a seven-point lead with less than four minutes left in the fourth quarter. It was a Terry Porter interception of a Peyton Manning pass with 3:12 remaining that resulted in the final score of the game and produced the 14-point margin.
The bottom line is this, the past five Super Bowls have been intriguing and exciting games whose outcomes were in doubt until some point in the fourth quarter. Each of these games provided fitting conclusions to that season and I can only hope for another instant classic on Feb. 3 in New Orleans. Everyone will be tuned it, so it may as well be a game worth watching, right?