I am not the biggest NFL fan in the world by any stretch of the imagination. I pay attention—you can’t do what I do and not pay attention—and I think the season I spent with The Baltimore Ravens in 2004 has left me with a pretty decent understanding of what players and coaches go through during a season and how the league works.
But it isn’t as if I build my fall Sundays around being at a game or making sure I’m in front of the TV from 1 p.m. until midnight. I still make it to Baltimore when I can to see the Ravens play and to stay in touch with the people up there. I wouldn’t be caught dead going to the stadium formerly named for Jack Kent Cooke because getting in and out is so painful and because sharing a stadium with Little Danny Snyder just isn’t something I need to do at this point in my life. (Note to Redskins fans: I am awed by your loyalty. Many of you showed up for the completely meaningless finale against the Giants and when I was picking my son up two hours after the game ended I heard a traffic report that said, ‘it’s still pretty heavy getting to the Beltway on Arena Drive and Central Avenue.’ TWO HOURS! You people really deserve much, much better than you are getting).
All of that said, it is impossible not to acknowledge just how damn good the NFL is to watch. Once you wade through the un-ending hype and build-up and expert projections and all that other garbage that is dispensed during the week, the GAMES are fabulous—even with the never-ending barrage of TV timeouts. Serious question: How do YOU occupy yourself when a team scores, TV goes to three minutes of commercials, the scoring team kicks off and then TV goes to another three minutes of commercials? If Tony Kornheiser was here he’d say I write a book. He exaggerates. Maybe a chapter or two.
This past weekend the NFL began its playoffs with four wild card games. One produced a stunning upset of The Super Bowl champions; one produced an amazing finish; one was compelling until the final seconds. Only Ravens-Chiefs was a dud and as someone who likes the Ravens, I was fine with that.
My pal Kornheiser—yes Tony this is your day to appear in the blog—was chortling on the radio last week about the fact that the Seahawks making the playoffs at 7-9 is proof that the BCS isn’t as bad as people like me saying it is. Bad teams shouldn’t play for the championship and in the BCS that never happens. Talk about missing the point. To begin with, there’s almost no way a sub-.500 team would get into an eight team playoff in college football or even a 16 team playoff. There are 120 teams in Division 1-A, not 32.
But let’s just say for the sake of argument that The Sun Belt champion got into the playoff with a 5-7 record. So what? Even if they somehow won a game, so what? There have been sub-.500 teams in the NCAA Tournament and last I looked it was a pretty good event. There have been sub-.500 teams in the NBA playoffs and—until they changed the rules on doling out points in overtime games—in the NHL playoffs too. The Mets made The World Series in 1973 with an 82-79 record.
Maybe—maybe—the NFL should tweak the system so that the team with the better record always gets home field. You can certainly make the case that the 7-9 Seahawks should have played AT New Orleans and the Saints almost certainly would have won playing at home. But two other road teams with better records managed to win this weekend so it certainly isn’t entirely unfair.
The point is that the magic of postseason is the underdog who gets a second chance. You think it’s BAD for the NFL that the Seahawks won on Saturday? I don’t. Is it BAD for college football that TCU went 13-0 and had no chance to play for the national title? Of course it’s bad. It’s a joke. (Note: This is the part in the blog where I annually plead with my brethren who vote in the AP football poll to PLEASE vote for TCU regardless of who wins tonight to send a message to the frauds running the BCS. Like last year with Boise State I will be ignored. What ever happened to the days when reporters were willing to take a stand or go out on a limb? Nowadays everyone just wants to play along with the power brokers so they can get hired someday by ESPN).
Back to the NFL: The long-winded point here is there has never been a sports gold mine in history like this league. For all its faults and issues, it has put together a product that the public finds irresistible. That’s why, in spite of all the sabre-rattling on both sides, I do not think there will be a serious work stoppage next summer or fall. Maybe a few days of pre-season camp or even an exhibition game or two—losing two exos might be Roger Goodell’s way of proving they are un-needed in his bid for an 18-game season.
Goodell has become a lightning rod because, unlike Paul Taglaibue who never met a serious decision he couldn’t find a way to run from, Goodell has been out there since he became commissioner. People may not like everything that he does and he’s clearly management-oriented (why not, they pay his huge salary) especially when it comes to doling out punishments.
But he’s a very smart guy. So is DeMaurice Smith, the new head of the player’s union. Both men have exchanged some fairly strong rhetoric in public but I honestly believe when they get into a room together and the golden goose is in any kind of serious jeopardy, they’re going to find a way to keep the golden eggs coming. Management will find a way to get richer while the players will find a way to stay rich and save face.
That’s the interesting thing about all these collective bargaining disagreements. It is ALWAYS management that wants to rewrite the rules, that insists it needs more money while the players make less. You see, for all the talk about how selfish and greedy players are, what they really want to do is PLAY. Sure, they want to play for as much money as possible and they will always take the best deal—which they should. Their window to make huge money is a small one—especially in football.
Owners always want more. In most case that’s how they got so impossibly rich in the first place, by always wanting more, by always getting the best deal for themselves. After that first billion you really MUST make the second billion. Whenever there’s a work stoppage—and more often it is a lockout and not a strike—the public screams about the selfish players. More often than not, the players are just trying to hang on to what they’ve got. It is the owners crying poverty and screaming for cutbacks. Have you listened to David Stern moan about how much money his owners are losing and how contraction is possible? You think that’s NOT sabre-rattling at its finest?
The NBA might have a work-stoppage simply because it wouldn’t cost the owners that much money and might (ala hockey in 2005) save them some money. That would not be the case in the NFL. Everyone would lose if any part of the regular season was lost.
I don’t see it happening. I think Goodell and Smith know that they’ve been given a license to print money. My guess is they won’t stop the presses when it really matters anytime soon.