The stories are separate, but they’re not separate. Not really. In Kansas City, we have an NFL player killing his girlfriend and then himself — and the shadow of football and its insidious head injuries hangs over it.
In New Orleans, we have former commissioner Paul Tagliabue presiding over the bounty hearing, in which four Saints stand accused of promoting a dollars-for-decapitation system.
In Baltimore, we have future Hall of Famer Ed Reed saying the league is trying to legislate the aggressiveness out of the game, turn it into “powder puff.”
Throw in the concussion lawsuits, which are approaching 4,000 plaintiffs, and, well, it’s pretty clear the direction pro football is heading — the direction it must head if it’s to remain a viable enterprise. It might not morph into the “powder puff” version envisioned by Reed, but it’ll increasingly be a kinder, gentler place, kind of like a really contentious 7-on-7 passing scrimmage.
It’s going to happen sooner than you think, too. A decade from now, when the legal dust has cleared, it could be a whole new ballgame in the NFL. Players could be running around in those padded-on-the-outside Gazoo helmets. There could be a penalty box, a la hockey, to discourage vigilantism. (Hey, don’t laugh. That was a proposal that was batted around in the ‘20s.) There might even be a rival Ultimate Football League that plays the game under the old rules and caters to more traditional fans.
We’re not there yet, of course, but you can see it from here. The winds of change are all but bending the flagpoles. One recent addition to the Concussion Contingent, as colleague Nathan Fenno reported this week, is former NFL-er Corwin Brown, who a year ago was in a lengthy standoff with a SWAT team and emerged with a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Any aberrant behavior by any player, past or present, is being viewed through the prism of football — and the toll it can take on cognitive function. In such a climate, the league simply can’t keep conducting business as usual. It must evolve.
And it is evolving. To hear Reed tell it, it has expanded the “defenseless player” concept to include just about anybody with his head turned. We’re used to hearing this kind of grousing from James Harrison, the pitiless Pittsburgh Steeler, but from a stand-up guy like Ed, one of the all-time greats, it carries more weight. When he says, “It sucks, man. It sucks real bad,” you know the league is taking serious steps to make the game less hazardous to your health.
Beyond that, all the offense-friendly rule changes are turning pro football into even more of a fireworks show. Just look at the numbers quarterbacks are putting up. Last year, two of them, New Orleans’ Drew Brees and New England’s Tom Brady, topped the record for passing yards in a season that had stood since 1984. This year, Brees broke a record that had been undisturbed since 1960 — Johnny Unitas’ mark of 47 straight games with a touchdown pass. And get this: By the middle of next season, Brady (currently at 44) could break Brees’ record (54).
In Detroit, meanwhile, Calvin Johnson has 1,428 receiving yards through 12 games. That projects to 1,904 over a full season and puts Jerry Rice’s mark of 1,848, set in ‘95, in serious jeopardy. This is what the NFL is like now. Maybe the record book should be kept in pencil.
As Reed put it, “They want the physical play out of it, kind of. They want like powder puff to where you can just run around and score points ‘cause that’s going to attract the fans. I understand you want to make money, but bending the rules and making the game different, you know, it’s only going to make the game worse.”
Worse, perhaps, to those who glory in its demolition-derby aspect. But as time goes on, such fans will decrease in number. And the generations that follow won’t know what they’re missing, won’t know how unabashedly brutal the NFL used to be. (Unless, as I say, the Ultimate Football League lands a contract with ESPN Classic.) If they can bet on the games and play Madden 2525, they’ll be happier than a slot receiver in a two-minute drill.
It’s Darwinism at its finest: adapt or die. The only thing that doesn’t compute is the continued resistance of some players to making the game safer, to the idea of the commissioner — for their own good — trying to police them. We see that in Reed’s comments, and we see it in the suits filed by the Bountygate Four.
Oh, wait, I almost forgot. These are men who knock helmets for a living. That means they can’t be held entirely responsible for their actions. Not any more.