Sunday was the first without football since early September, and in an effort to be somewhat timely, I feel it’s important to discuss this past season before I wait 3 months to write something else in a timely fashion.
As seasons go, 2014 will go down in history as one of the worst in the history of the NFL, if not all of American professional sports. Sure, in the League’s history, they’d probably say the strike years of 1982 and 1987 were worse. And it’s hard to argue that this year ranks with the 1994 MLB season, which saw the cancellation of the World Series, and only Gary Bettman and the NHL would cancel an entire season. But eliminate work stoppages, and this year’s football season was about as bad as it gets.
And the Super Bowl provided the perfect capper.
Let’s offer a quick recap. The season really got off to its start in February, when Ray Rice knocked out his fiancee (now wife) and was caught on camera dragging her out of an Atlantic City elevator. In July, Dictator…sorry, Commissioner Roger Goodell decided that seeing a guy dragging his unconscious fiancee out of an elevator after he’d knocked her out was only worth a 2-game suspension. In September, TMZ released the video of Rice actually hitting his fiancee. Shortly thereafter (as in, later that same day), the Ravens released Rice and the NFL suspended him indefinitely. If you think it’s problematic that the NFL suspended a guy for an offense that they’d already suspended him for, congratulations, you’ve got more common sense than the NFL commissioner and really any of his advisors in the League office.
Four days after the Rice video surfaced, Adrian Peterson was arrested for beating the shit out of his 4-year-old son. I won’t get into the ugly details of the case, but it’s safe to say that you’d think a guy who’s 6’2″, 217 pounds and is built to handle a football in the NFL 300-400 times a year probably could’ve found a way to discipline a 4-year-old kid without ordering the kid to bring Peterson a switch. The Vikings “deactivated” him for a game, then ownership decided they wanted him reinstated, so they sent the GM out to make that announcement (despite the fact that the GM disagreed with that decision). Of course, the GM did it in front of a backdrop that was covered in Radisson advertisements, so Radisson decided they were going to pull their sponsorship of the team. Ownership then stepped up and decided to “deactivate” Peterson indefinitely (never question the power of the almighty dollar) and Peterson was put on the Commissioner’s exempt list, with pay. After he pleaded his case out, a representative of the NFL told Peterson he would get a 2-game suspension, with time on the exempt list being credited against that suspension, only to have Goodell suspend him for the remainder of the season, with no consideration for time served.
Rice and Peterson aren’t what you would consider sympathetic figures, and Peterson’s behavior after he was deactivated probably had a lot to do with his punishment. But look at the way the NFL treated the punishment process – to say they made it up as they went along insults the people who truly are making stuff up as they go along – and left the players union out of that decision-making process paints the League in a truly unflattering light.
So as these two cases hung over the League for quite literally the entire season, the playoffs went exactly how you would expect: with no one speaking about what happened on the field and instead talking about incompetent officiating, deflated footballs and the dumbest play call perhaps in the history of the League.
In the Wild Card round of the playoffs, the Lions led by 3 at Dallas with just over 8 minutes to go in the game. On 3rd and 1, Matthew Stafford dropped back for a pass to Brandon Pettigrew, who was both held and interfered with on the play. The refs threw a flag, Dez Bryant ran on the field to complain, and then the refs picked up the flag without calling a penalty. Not for the hold, not for the pass interference, not for the hothead running onto the field to complain to the refs. It’s not quite fair to say that this one play cost the Lions the game – they scored 3 points in the second half, Jim Caldwell decided to kick the ball away on 4th and 1 instead of trusting his defense, and Sam Martin unleashed a 10-yard punt at the worst possible moment – but being in field goal range with a fresh set of downs would’ve made the Cowboys’ job a lot harder.
The following week, as if to prove that karma exists, the Cowboys got screwed by a bad rule (although not a bad call). Dez Bryant made what should’ve been regarded as one of the best and most clutch catches in NFL postseason history to give the Cowboys 1st and goal inside the 2-yard line. Instead, an idiotic rule that burned the Lions in 2010 was called – correctly – the Cowboys gave up the ball on downs, and the Cowboys lost a game that they might otherwise have won.
In the conference title game, the Packers collapsed, blowing a 12-point lead with just over 2 minutes left in the game to send Seattle to the Super Bowl. Meanwhile, the Patriots destroyed the Colts, winning 45-7, but the big news became the fact that the Patriots were using footballs that were deflated to less than the NFL’s minimum requirements. The fact that the NFL used properly inflated balls for the second half of the game, a half in which the Patriots outscored the Colts 28-0, seems to be irrelevant.
(I saw an interesting theory prior to the Super Bowl that the Lions’ curse contributed to the Seahawks making the Super Bowl. The theory went that the curse transferred from the Lions to the Cowboys on the pass interference that wasn’t, then from the Cowboys to the Packers on the Dez Bryant catch that wasn’t, then from the Packers to the Seahawks on their last-minute collapse. Considering how the Super Bowl ended, it’s somewhat difficult to disagree with this theory.)
After the Wild Card round we talked about officiating. After the Divisional round we talked about stupid rules. After the Conference title games we talked about deflated balls. So it’s fitting that the Super Bowl ended with a terrible play call and a brawl.
The general discussion surrounding the NFL for the past few years has related to things happening off the field. Concussions, domestic violence, the general incompetence of the Commissioner. Very few discussions have included the play of the players. The only real discussion related to the play on the field this season became whether or not Tom Brady has cemented his place as the greatest quarterback of all time. It’s not a ridiculous discussion, but it’s interesting that we probably don’t have that discussion if Pete Carroll calls for a handoff to Marshawn Lynch instead of having his QB throw it over the middle.
It hasn’t changed since the Super Bowl. On top of the Pete Carroll play call, we’ve heard about a texting scandal that could bring about fines and suspensions to the Cleveland Browns, not to mention the year-long suspension of their star wide receiver and the story that their supposed QB of the future is in rehab. Oh, and four more players have been arrested this week, on charges ranging from drug and gun possession to assault to animal cruelty. The NFL is nothing if not consistent.
There’s nothing to suggest the NFL is going anywhere. The viewership hasn’t changed, attendance isn’t down, and no advertisers have walked away. So as bad as this season has been, not much will change. But if we see many seasons where the discussion isn’t about what the players did on the field but rather what they did off the field, the number of kids playing the game might continue to drop. There was a time when boxing and horse racing were on par with baseball; now they’re niche sports. Is it realistic to think that the NFL is headed that way? Probably not. But stranger things have happened.
Let’s just hope that there aren’t many more seasons like this to help advance the NFL’s demise.