The NFL’s 2018 To-Do List

What the league needs to fix to stop the shrinkage next season.

January 9, 2018 5:00 am
NFL head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots speaks with a referee during a game against the Atlanta Falcons at Gillette Stadium on October 22, 2017. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
NFL head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots speaks with a referee during a game against the Atlanta Falcons at Gillette Stadium on October 22, 2017. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Getty Images

The NFL is all about getting bigger: more money, more games, more markets. (Ideally, in foreign countries—London is currently projected to get a franchise in 2022.) Then something funny happened: TV ratings dropped for the second straight season.

Understand: the NFL remains America’s most popular sport by far. Game 7 of the World Series was the most watched non-NFL sporting event of 2017. It still drew roughly half the viewers the Packers did when they took on the Cowboys in the NFC Divisional Playoff. For those who don’t follow the National Football League, this is two rounds away from the Super Bowl—basically, the NFL’s warmup acts dwarf everyone else’s headliners.

Yet, unless progress is made on a few fronts, it increasingly seems the NFL may remember 2015 as the moment things were as good as they would ever get. Make that many fronts. Some involve what’s happening on the field, some draw in the greater world, and virtually none of them have easy solutions. Commissioner Goodell, prepare to earn your $200 million.

Reach a Resolution to the Anthem Protests. As long as they continue, some fans will be angry, possibly even staying away from stadiums and turning off TVs. Here’s the problem: polls show a majority of fans back the players’ right to protest. (Even if they don’t agree with how these protests have been conducted.) Indeed, some polls show a majority of fans oppose rules requiring players to stand. In short: winning back the fans who are currently upset might alienate another chunk of the audience.

Recognizing a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation, the NFL tried to think outside the box with a proposal to donate to social justice causes in return for the protests stopping. This idea was criticized for the relatively small sum owners would contribute (each would provide $250,000 per year for seven years—keep in mind the Bills are the least valuable NFL franchise and they’re worth $1.6 billion) and the fact that the NFL apparently intended to take money from other charities it supported. These reportedly included breast cancer awareness and the NFL’s Salute to Service, which celebrates the military. (Yes, this did mean a plan to appease people who feel the military doesn’t get proper support from the NFL would result in less funding for the NFL’s program to show support for the military.)

Everything would be much easier to address if progress could be made on the next item.

Better NFL Relations With Its Players. In 2012, former Super Bowl MVP Drew Brees was still bitter over Bountygate, saying of Roger Goodell: “Nobody trusts him.” By 2016, however, Goodell had successfully won back the Saint legend’s support. Just kidding! In fact, Brees said, “I’m not going to trust any league-led investigation when it comes to anything.” No other American sports league gets along so poorly with its players, particularly its stars. (Tom Brady’s a huge Goodell fan too.) Yet Goodell isn’t exactly beloved on the other side of the aisle either and could use…

Better NFL Relations With Its Owners. Goodell is surprisingly unpopular among the folks who just approved the deal to give him up to $40 million a year. (Imagine what they’d pay if they actually liked the guy.) Dallas owner Jerry Jones tried to block Goodell’s new contract and quipped, “I probably have a much better relationship with the commissioner of the Salvation Army than I do right now with the commissioner of the NFL.” (While Jones failed, his efforts reportedly had at least one serious backer in Washington’s Daniel Snyder.) Previously Goodell battled perceptions he was biased in favor of the Patriots—he inexplicably ordered incriminating tapes destroyed during the Spygate investigation—right up until the moment he alienated Pats owner Robert Kraft during Deflategate.

So when there’s tension between players and owners, Goodell can’t call upon much goodwill with either side as he strives to resolve matters.

Okay, so there’s significant work to be done off the field. Once the games start…

Improve Instant Replay. Instant replay, even when it works perfectly, has downsides: it stops action on the field and makes games longer. (Which isn’t ideal, since despite the NFL’s efforts to streamline things the average regulation game still stubbornly remains over three hours.) Nothing is more infuriating for fans than when officials take a lengthy break for a review and reverse a call that seemed to be right in the first place. In particular, this has highlighted a need to…

Correct the Catch Rule Already. RCL has addressed why the NFL’s definition of a catch seems to grow more confusing with each modification. This feels like an issue that should be easily fixable, but the solution never arrives. And if the NFL can’t solve this, good luck with the next item.

Put Out the Trash Fire That Is Thursday Night Football. Teams hate playing these games—they throw off the weekly practice schedule, reduce player recovery time, and allegedly cause more injuries. (Just ask Drew Brees—yes, this is another matter on which he has some strong feelings.) Started back in 2006, one thing’s clear: TNF hasn’t connected with the public the way Monday Night Football did. (Seriously, has it produced even a single moment like the one below?)

The NFL has denied reports it wants to limit or cancel Thursday Night Football. Even so, at a time the NFL is trying to ensure football remains essential viewing, this is programming fans feel they can safely miss.

Indeed, fans will continue to feel they can miss a lot of games until the NFL figures out how to…

Create More Competent Quarterbacks. Hey, we said fixing football would be tough. RCL has explored how the NFL has continually added rules to help QBs stay safer while putting up huge numbers. For many teams, it’s worked. There are at least four certain Hall of Fame QBs currently playing: Brees, Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers. They’ve each been with their current team over a decade and won at least one Super Bowl. There’s some promising young talent in the game as well, notably Carson Wentz and Jared Goff. The problem is that QBs have become so essential that without one, your team’s not only going to lose, but anyone who isn’t a franchise devotee will find them unwatchable. (Nobody’s staying up to see the Rodgers-less Packers versus the Houston Texans without Deshaun Watson.)

NFL Europe was ended in 2007 with reported annual losses of $30 million. In hindsight, it may have been worth the money. It was key in the development of two Pro Bowl QBs who won Super Bowls (Kurt Warner and Brad Johnson). That sum seems particularly small when it’s remembered that Brock Osweiler earned $16 million to not play for the Browns—even knowing they had to pay his full salary, the team that drafted Brady Quinn, Brandon Weeden, and Johnny Manziel while averaging .5 wins per season over the last two seasons still decided they’d be better off if Osweiler went somewhere else immediately.

Since we’ve reached the point when the tasks go from “difficult” to “damn near impossible,” might as address the long-term elephant in the room.

Make Playing Football Less Risky to Participants’ Long-Term Health. We’ve discussed both the dangers and benefits of football growing up. Many people focus on the negatives, as enrollment in youth football and high school football are both on the decline. Even Bears legend Mike Ditka has announced he would refuse to let his son play football: “I think the risk is worse than the reward.” At a minimum, the NFL will have a smaller American talent pool in the future, likely resulting in a worse product on the field. Indeed, kids today may enthusiastically embrace other sports and follow them their entire lives, meaning the only “football” watching they’ll do is when Real Madrid takes on Barcelona F.C.

So there’s a lot to handle. Will there be patience as the NFL fixes itself? Maybe not, because the league has to worry about…

Keeping Fans Who Were Literally Left Behind. The Rams and Chargers are now in Los Angeles. (Indeed, the Chargers may have turned into a permanent road team, as visiting fans regularly outnumber their own supporters—related to this, their quarterback Philip Rivers has become the ultimate commuter by declining to move his family to L.A.) Soon the Raiders will be in Vegas. In each case, the NFL decided it made financial sense to move, but it’s worth asking: how many fans will decide they don’t need to follow?

Keep in mind the NFL business model isn’t built around casual observers. Nope, they expect full-on fanaticism and price their product accordingly. Let’s say in 2017 you decided to go, by yourself, to watch the Chicago Bears play. While there, you had a hot dog and a beer, plus paid for parking. CNBC reported you could expect it on average to cost just under $200 for the privilege of cheering on the guys who finished last in the NFC North.

What if you want to be there every home game? The Los Angeles Rams are considering charging up to $225,000 for individual personal seat licenses. This onetime fee only earns you the right to buy a ticket—those might cost $400 a game. (To their credit, the Rams are the first NFL team to discuss refunding the PSL fee. This gesture becomes less generous when it’s noted they intend to do this after 50 years with no interest.)

Below, former 49er Chris Borland explains why he retired after just a single season at age 24. He felt so strongly about it he reportedly returned to his team over $450,000 of his signing bonus. When a highly promising young player—he tied the NFL record for solo tackles in a game with 16—not only turns down big money but actually flings it back, it’s time for even “the shield” to get a little scared.

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