Thursday, December 13, 2012

Tags Lays the Hammer on Goodell and Other Thoughts on NFL Player Safety

The other day, Roger Goodell’s old boss Paul Tagliabue took his former protege down a few pegs when he completely overturned Goodell’s rulings on four former and current Saints players. Initially, commissioner Goodell suspended Jonathan Vilma for the entire season, Will Smith for four games, Scott Fujita (now with the Browns) for three games and Anthony Hargrove (a free agent) for eight games. 

In man hours, that’s a total of 31 games suspended. Reduced to ZERO by Tags. It was the right call. And not just because I enjoy seeing Goodell with a bit of omelette on his face, but because I think the NFL can change in a really productive way at this moment.

Goodell is being asked to achieve two seemingly incongruent goals at once: (a) find a way to make even more money for the owners and (b) protect the owners from lawsuits over player safety. I rarely say anything nice (or even decent) about Goodell, but I will here -- that’s a difficult thing that he’s being asked to do. And yet, the NFL doesn't have to give up revenue in order to get serious about player safety. But what they're doing now simply is not working and nobody who is paying attention takes their concern (generally via fines and suspensions through their mouthpiece) seriously. It is disingenuous at best.

Here are some easy ways to embolden the image of the league as protector of player safety without losing any money. In fact, I think these steps might increase revenue. 

First, and this is largely symbolic, but take responsibility for the on-field officials. You have asked them to call games differently and use extreme care with an eye toward player safety, particularly head-injuries. I’ve seen a huge number of flags thrown when receivers are laid out with legal hits (hits to the shoulder and mid-section), but are flagged for head-hunting. It’s okay. The officials are working in live action and things happen fast. But the league has to have their backs on this. It won’t change the outcome of games, but it sure would be nice if, on Monday or Tuesday, the league stepped in and said, “Hey, these guys are just calling games the way we have instructed them to, so the buck stops here, not with the on-field officials.” If you believe in the rule changes, then stand up for them for crying out loud. 

Second, and this is important, let's just all agree to wave that flashy thingy from Men In Black and forget that you ever, ever, EVER brought up the idea of an 18 game regular season. Okay? Because you cannot claim to care about player safety and then expand the season by two games. You cannot have it both ways, gentlemen, so get over it.

Lastly, change the format of the Thursday Night Games. But, but -- whah!? What about the REVENUE? First off, the games have been awful this year. Second, and more importantly, it doesn't give players enough time to physically recover, let alone prepare for the games. This is easy to fix. The league gets to keep that coveted prime time spot (with little or no competition) and the players don't have to pay a price for that in terms of their health.

The first step is so damned easy I can’t believe that the entire brain trust of the NFL couldn’t figure this out. The Thursday night games should be played by teams on a bye, which is to say that a team plays on Sunday, then has a full week off and three more days. They play Thursday night. Then, and here’s the really great part, they have another nine days to recover before the next Sunday game.

Here’s an example. The Steelers had their bye in the fourth week of the season. So they played a game on Sunday, September 23rd and then didn’t play again until Sunday, October 7th. The Colts had their bye week at the same time. Wouldn’t those teams have made a great match up on Thursday, October 4th? Both were rested and both had more rest in front of them. 
It doesn’t give players two weeks off on the bye, but it does give them two mini-byes back to back. That would have to be good for their bodies.

Had the Steelers and Colts both played September 23rd, then had ten days off, then played October 4th, then had nine days off, then played on October 14th, wouldn't that just be better? For everybody involved, including the players and the fans? It's a win-win-win-win. So easy. So simple. So obvious. A kindergarten kid could put this together.

As my buddy Bob might point out -- it’s so logical that it will never happen.

One last idea to put more gold in the NFL’s coffers. Starting with the Saturday after the Heisman awards, have a Saturday night game. That gives the NFL four prime time games -- Thursday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday -- with the rest being played Sunday afternoon. College football is kerpupft for a month or so and nobody is really paying attention to college hoops yet. Give the Saturday night game to the NFL Network or, even better, let all the networks bid on it. Mo money, mo money, mo money.

Who says I don’t care about the fat cats on Madison Avenue?

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