The NFL Didn’t Take a Strong Stance on Kneeling…Does It Have To?

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If we learned one thing from this past weekend of national anthem drama, it’s that the NFL loves unity. Both the league and many of its teams chose to approach the situation by embracing that ideal, whether it be through a statement or locking arms on the field.

“The NFL and our players are at our best when we help create a sense of unity in our country and our culture,” Goodell said in his statement.

“Our country needs more unifying leadership right now, not more divisiveness,” the Miami Dolphins’ statement read.

After the Titans stayed in the locker room during the national anthem, one player explained the move by saying, “The NFL and our players are at our best when we help create a sense of unity in our country and our culture.”

Although some teams and owners used stronger language in their statements, the overarching message of the weekend was that the NFL was united with its players. While this made some feel good inside and have hope for the future of the league, others asked, “Well, what are we showing unity towards? Anger towards Trump? First amendment rights? Recognizing an inequality problem in the county?”

The answer to that question was less clear, as nearly every official statement avoided the real reason players knelt in the first place (racial inequality/mistreatment towards African-Americans) in favor of “pursuing positive change” or something similar. This didn’t sit well with too many people, leading them to challenge the NFL to take a stronger stance and acknowledge if there’s a race problem in our country. But should they?

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While it’s fair to say the NFL approached the situation through a PR lens, is it fair to bash them for it? The NFL, as well as its individual teams, all share a responsibility to their stakeholders (fans, owners, players, employees, etc.) and they did their best at finding an effective way to do that in an extremely tough situation. Perhaps the best example of just how difficult it was for teams to balance that line was when Jerry Jones and his Dallas Cowboys took a knee before the anthem and were still booed! Some fans are so hypersensitive to any sign of disrespect of the anthem that “unity” is just about the only reasonable course of action left. Conversely, vague displays of trust also leave many unimpressed.

Would it have been nice to see the NFL address the racial issues in our country or show support for the kneeling NFL players’ cause? Sure. Whether you agree with the extent of the issue or not, it would have been cool to see the NFL become a leader on a social issue like equality. But expecting them to is setting expectations a bit too high. Kaepernick’s fight is not their fight. By NFL standards, the move to call the President’s words divisive and disrespectful was pretty bold.

As a quick aside, I’ve never been one to complain about politics in sports. I also like players to be opinionated and unafraid to be their authentic selves. But in this case, I just can’t fault the NFL for staying neutral on this one (if that’s even what you can call it). The NFL doesn’t want to talk politics any more than fans do and that’s understandable. For once, I think the NFL’s statement was enough. It allowed players to approach the situation how they saw fit. It didn’t censor them. LeSean McCoy even stretched on the sideline during the anthem (vastly more disrespectful than taking a knee) and the league hasn’t said a word about it.

So where does the NFL go from here? I understand some still faulting the NFL for claiming to care about the interests of the players while catering to its fans and brand image more often. But this whole anthem situation really presents a great opportunity for the NFL and its teams to make a positive impact in society and come out looking fantastic after it’s all said and done. How can they do that? I don’t have that answer. But why not attempt to capitalize on all this “unity” and show that the league can be an agent for positive change (in anything) through actions, rather than statements? For once, the league and its players agree on something. That’s a rare and powerful combination. Let’s see if they use it for more than just fighting the President.

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The Battle Between Two NFL Fanbases

The NFL has a silent war on their hands.

We’ve all seen the news and worry over the recent dip in ratings the NFL has experienced over the past year or so. The culprit? Who knows? Election season is over and ratings continue to slide. Too many commercials? Low quality football? Is it Kaepernick’s fault?

The NFL has already made a lot of moves to address the issue, but the ratings decline has only expedited and magnified what has been an existing dilemma: who does the NFL cater to in this quickly-evolving viewership landscape? The way we watch and consume football has changed so much in just the past decade and with it, the way the NFL must position their sport. The problem is, the NFL is dealing with two starkly different types of fans. When the NFL makes one move to appease one side, it risks pissing off the other.

To make things easier, I’m going to ultra-generalize these two fanbases to the point where we can treat them as a single, representative fan. For instance, let’s use “Marcus” as our NFL fan representing a younger generation. Marcus is in his 20s and is as big an NFL fan as anyone. He has a fantasy team and follows many of the games on his phone or computer (he doesn’t have cable). However, he recognizes that football is a dangerous game and doesn’t mind the league putting in a few safety measures to protect players a little better. He loves the different personalities in the game and often laments the strict celebration rules, calling the NFL the “No Fun League” for banning bow-and-arrow gestures. His problems with the NFL front office extend to off-the-field issues as well, as he bashes the league for their inconsistency with punishments and overly-strict rules regarding marijuana use. As far as social issues go? He could take or leave the Kaepernick stuff and other anthem protests. He doesn’t mind them protesting, but could do without constant coverage flooding the sport broadcasts and analysis. Overall, Marcus is your typical young, forward-thinking, and connected fan and is constantly looking for cheap, convenient ways to watch his favorite sport. However, tons of commercials, penalties, and NFL front office blunders chip away at his will to tune in.

Screen Shot 2017-09-16 at 9.49.30 PMThen, let’s take Joe. Joe, in his 50s, is a much different type of NFL fan, but his love for the game matches Marcus’ and is rooted in memories of watching countless games with his father when he was young. He relishes the aggressiveness of football and its undeniable tie to American culture. However, the game today is far different from the one he watched as a young man. Safety precautions have turned the game “soft” in his mind and he often quips that “they’ll be playing flag football in a few years.” He watches the game the only way he knows how, on regular and reliable cable. He also makes a point to attend a couple of games in person each season. Similar to Marcus, he too notices the much-too-frequent commercial breaks and thinks the sport has gotten way too “corporate.” Another thing that bothers Joe is the boisterous and arrogant players that have populated the league. He prefers players to “act like they’ve been there” when scoring and crediting the team, rather than soaking up the adoration of fans. His biggest complaint? The NFL and media’s apparent tolerance of Colin Kaepernick’s anthem protest, which went against everything he stands for. He wanted the NFL to rebuke Kap’s actions and vehemently believes the dip in ratings is due many feeling the same disgust that he feels. Despite all this, Joe still watches the NFL and roots as hard for his team as he did 30 years ago. However, each season Joe is hesitant to pour more money into tickets as the league changes from what he once knew.

Before moving forward, it’s important to note once again that these are obvious and extreme generalizations. In reality, the overlap between the Marcuses and Joes of the world is large. There are many fans that think the NFL is going soft, while also agreeing with Kap’s protest. Or fans who are in their 20s and still prefer watching on cable, and vice versa. The differing and overlapping sensibilities of these fans extend across race, gender, age, and much more. However, ratings continue to fall and the NFL is scrambling to make sense of which fans are more important, or rather, how to please all. So with that in mind, we’ll deal with Marcus and Joe as they come. These two avid fans are at war, yet it’s the NFL that hears complaints from one side for any decision they make to appease the other.

So is it time the NFL pick a side and stick with it? We saw them recently make a few changes that would please the “Marcus” type of fan. They laxed their celebration penalty rule, allowing teams to use the ball as a prop again and plan group celebrations (dunking the ball and violent gestures are still not allowed). Also, we’ve seen an interesting decline in the extra point-commercial-kickoff-commercial sequence that enrages any millennial in need of constant stimulation. We’ve also seen them give Marcus easier ways to watch by streaming games for free on Twitter (in 2016) and Amazon Prime (this year). It would appear the NFL is extremely interested in courting and keeping their younger fans, the obvious aim for any sport interested in existing long into the future. However, these aren’t exactly tough moves to make. There’s no Joe that will stop watching altogether because of lenient celebration rules and will benefit from the decline in commercials and added viewing options.

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Neither Joe nor Marcus is particularly happy with how Goodell has managed their favorite sport.

So how about those tough decisions? Whether it’s contributing to declining ratings or not, the Kaepernick issue matters to a lot of fans and are watching to see exactly how the NFL handles it. The difficulty of balancing this line can be perfectly illustrated by Goodell’s politic-speak when asked about Kap. “The national anthem is a special moment to me,” Goodell said. “It’s a point of pride. That is a really important moment. But we also have to understand the other side, that people do have rights and we have to respect those.” You can almost imagine Goodell teetering on a tight rope in his own head as he risks pissing off large swaths of its fanbase with each passing sentence.

Kaepernick is far from the only issue. How about how the league handles marijuana use? The NFL has a bad (or good, depending on your view) reputation for handing out severe penalties (often a 4-game suspension) for players caught using marijuana. To someone like Marcus, these punishments are absurd when juxtaposed to the one- or two-game suspensions of Josh Brown and Ray Rice, both of whom admitted to domestic abuse (they were both later suspended longer amounts, but only after extreme public outrage). As for the NFL’s future view on the issue? This time, Goodell was much more decided. “Listen, you’re ingesting smoke, so that’s not usually a very positive thing that people would say. It does have addictive nature. There are a lot of compounds in marijuana that may not be healthy for the players long-term,” Goodell said. It’s safe to say the league’s substance abuse policy isn’t changing anytime soon. And while we’re at it, how about legalized betting (for fans of course, not players). Once again, Goodell knew where he stood. “The integrity of our game is No. 1. We will not compromise on that,” Goodell said about the prospect of legalized gambling. As far as these issues go, it’s clear that the NFL is erring on the side of Joe, whether intentional or not.

And finally, and perhaps more important than anything, how about the sport itself? Both Marcus and Joe complain about the quality of what they’re watching. Marcus is sick of the dink-and-dunk offense and yearns for deep routes and heavy blitzes, fake punts and two-point conversions. Joe longs for the days of skull-rattling hits and the power running game, and he screams at his TV every time a “roughing the passer” is called when the QB was “barely” dinged in the head. This is perhaps the NFL’s toughest challenge. They can’t rollback safety measures after the massive settlement they just paid to former players for head injuries. And changing the rules of the sport to encourage more exciting plays is as risky a move as they come. A mere tweak to the extra-point distance was met with resistance and anger on all sides (although, with social media today one could argue that any change could be met with resistance at first, only to be accepted later). The NFL finally hired full-time referees in an attempt to improve the officiating, a common grievance from fans in the 2016 season. Still, we continue to hear the complaint that the “NFL isn’t what it used to be” and somehow this is coming from both Marcus and Joe, which has to be maddening for the NFL.

It would almost seem easier for the NFL to just commit to a position and stick with it. But of course this is an impossible ask. Fans like Marcus are the key for the NFL to maintain longevity, but they don’t bring in the money or fill stadiums at nearly the capacity that Joes do (yet). Filled stadiums and high cable ratings, both things that Joe helps out with, were and are still the key for the NFL to score gaudy sponsorship and broadcasting deals. The NFL is far from losing sponsors altogether, but what they do stand to lose is the leverage to justify the exorbitant amounts these deals are worth. With each type of fan on different ends of the spectrum on many issues, the NFL is navigating its toughest period yet.

This, of course, is far from a unique problem for a sports organization. The NBA, MLB, NHL and others are all struggling to determine how to position their league in the best way possible. Some leagues are arguably doing a better job than others, putting even more pressure on the NFL to get this right.

Maybe you, the reader, identify partly with Marcus and partly with Joe. What can the NFL do to keep you interested? Keep an eye on the NFL’s moves this season and the near future to see who the NFL is speaking to: you, or someone else.

 

What ever happened to 2014’s cellar-dwellers?

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Many times, it takes a breakout performer to complete the turnaround every team dreams of. (Photo credit: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Back in August before the season kicked off, I took a look at one of the most interesting recent trends in the NFL. It’s a trend that certainly plays a part in making the NFL the most engaging sport year after year and it’s repetitive as hell:

In eight of the past nine seasons, at least one team with four wins or less made it to the playoffs the very next season.

In short, it’s the epic turnaround. A terrible team turned great in the span of one offseason. We love these comeback stories whenever they occur and the best part is, it happens all the time. Only one time in nine seasons did this remarkable trend fail to repeat itself and that happened to be last year (2014-15 season). That made this past season all the more interesting: will the trend get back on track?

You bet it did.

The “terrible” teams from 2014 were the Jets, Jaguars, Raiders, Titans, Buccaneers, and Redskins. In the preseason, it was seriously hard to imagine any of these teams playing past December. The Titans and Bucs were just starting to rebuild with rookie QBs, the Jets and Redskins seemed to lack legitimate “playoff talent,” and the Jags and Raiders were just so bad for so long that we were getting used to it. As you know by now, the team that extended the trend to nine out of ten years was the Washington Redskins.

Washington took advantage of an awful division to clinch a playoff spot as NFC East champs. They only went 9-7, but that’s a 5-win improvement from their 2014 campaign. Kirk Cousins will be the person most people credit for this jump and rightfully so. Cousins had a breakout year, throwing a touchdown in every single game this season (playoffs included) and ending the year with a top-5 passer rating (101.6). The defense should get a little credit, too, for allowing about 3.7 less points per game this season. That may not seem like much, but it can make the difference in a division where everyone is racing to finish 8-8.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Raiders, Bucs, or Jets coming pretty close to joining the Redskins. The Raiders and Bucs were in the thick of their conference’s respective wildcard races with about four weeks to go, but fell apart in the end. The Jets, on the other hand, were just a single win away. The cutthroat nature of the wildcard race didn’t let them get away with a loss in Week 17 and we saw the Steelers squeak in instead.

So, the trend lives! The Redskins were the chosen team. This, of course, now raises the question, “Who are our cellar dwellers in 2015?” Knowing how strong this trend is, can we pick a bad team to tab early and look smart when they miraculously make the playoffs? If we do, it’ll be one of only four teams that finished 4-12 or worse: Browns, Titans, Chargers, and Cowboys. Dallas is the obvious choice here, as they were playoff-hopefuls last year before Tony Romo was sidelined for the season with an injury. Unfortunately, this isn’t too exciting of a choice. The trend almost seems destined to repeat itself now. However, if you want to take a more ballsy approach, the Browns are a team nobody will be looking at. Could Cleveland be the team that shocks us all? According to the trend, they have a 25% shot right off the bat. For a city that hasn’t seen its football team make the playoffs since 2002, that’s hope.

Did the 0-2 rule hold up?

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Andrew Luck look poised to take the Colts to the playoffs in 2015. Instead, they fell into an 0-2 hole and couldn’t find their way back. (Photo credit: Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Waayyyy back in late September I took a look at a trend involving 0-2 teams and the playoffs. It’s probably the most repeated stat after two weeks of football, but in case you forgot, the rule is basically this: historically, around only 12% of teams that start 0-2 end up making the playoffs.

This year, we had a staggering nine teams drop their first two games. According to the rule, only one of these teams (1/9 = 11%) would end up making the playoffs. This was hard to believe at the time given some of the heavy-hitters in the group (Ravens, Colts, Seahawks, etc.). Now that the season has come to an end, we can take a look back and answer the golden question:

Did the rule hold up?

I’ll make this simple. Below are the teams that started 0-2 and then whether or not they later clinched a playoff spot:

Detroit Lions? No

New York Giants? No

Philadelphia Eagles? No

Indianapolis Colts? No

Chicago Bears? No

Baltimore Ravens? No

New Orleans Saints? No

Seattle Seahawks? Yes

Houston Texans? Yes

So did the rule hold up? No! Not exactly, anyways.

It held up in the sense that at least one of these teams would still make the playoffs, but if going to be strict with that 12% figure, then no, the rule did not hold up. Two teams (22%) managed to find their way into the postseason, showing us that an 0-2 start is not quite as deep a hole as we thought. Or maybe it tells us that the more 0-2 teams there are, the better chance there is of multiple teams making it out alive (duh). We hardly ever see nine teams start this poorly and it’ll be interesting to see how many of these teams we’re left with next season. If it’s around the number we’re used to seeing (5-7), then I don’t expect more than one team to get so lucky.

It’s worth noting that six of the remaining seven teams on that list finished with losing records, the lone exception being the Colts at 8-8. The dreaded 0-2 start may not be a death sentence, but it still remains an ominous indication of where your season is headed. Super Bowl hopefuls Baltimore and Indianapolis learned that the hard way this season. Who will fall victim to the 12% rule next? See you in eight months.

The dream! Denver flips the script on Carolina, the entire league

The formula was simple: go 1 for 14 on 3rd down.
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The 50th edition of a legendary game goes to a legendary player, and that’s pretty cool. (Photo credit: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Before the game, I felt that no matter who the confetti fell on, it would be a fitting end. It could’ve been Carolina sticking the landing to a near-perfect season, with Cam smiling next to the trophy while the talking heads praise his improved maturity and leadership. Instead, it’s what we saw last night. A game that, through both its quality of play and eventual winner, epitomized an NFL season that should be remembered for its surplus of flawed teams. Even with a record number of undefeated teams through six-plus weeks, we were somehow still left wondering, “Is anyone great?” And of the undefeated teams, “Who have they beaten?” And now, after watching Denver go 1 for 14 on 3rd down while Peyton threw for under 150 yards and no touchdowns, we’re asking similar questions. “Is anyone really great?”

Yes, one is. That Denver defense.

With doubts of Denver’s ability to win this game, I asked how they could possibly pull this off. I settled on the obvious: Denver’s defense must be great. Carolina launched into huge leads in their first two playoff games and it was too much for even the most spirited of comebacks. If the same happened here, it was over. Denver’s offense simply did not possess the firepower. And so, the defense had to be great. And holy crap, were they ever.

If you watched the game, you saw. Denver abused a great offensive line and harassed Cam Newton all night. Carolina faced 15 third downs and converted just three of them. They may have gained 315 yards and 21 first downs, but they lost the ball four times. Defensive games are almost always within reach, but Denver’s defense was suffocating. The frustration boiled over in the 4th quarter as Cam writhed on the ground in pain. The Denver defense didn’t just beat Cam, they broke him.

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Even during his sullen and reserved press conference, Cam Newton offered three words of hope: “We’ll be back.” (Photo credit: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Perhaps the most telling aspect of Denver’s dominance is the fact that we’ve gone this far without mentioning Peyton Manning’s legacy or retirement. If this is indeed the end for Peyton, it’s a strange one. He’s a legend, one of the best ever, and he went out in the way every player dreams of: walking into the sunset with a Super Bowl win as their last game. Yet, this “walk” into the sunset was more of a ride on the backs of his defense. He didn’t play particularly well this game or all season. There was even a time midway through the season where we wondered if he had played his last game. How will history remember him for this? It’s impossible to say less than 24 hours later, but history does have a knack for leaving out the details. The hard numbers are this: four Super Bowl appearances under four different coaches and two different teams. Two rings with two different teams. That’s something no other QB can say and that’s pretty memorable.

As for Carolina? Pain, for now. Plenty of blame will go around as it always does with losing teams. In this case, I don’t think that’s warranted. Cam didn’t choke. Rivera didn’t gameplan poorly. Denver simply played better, but it still hurts. The future, however, is extremely bright for Carolina. Cam is just now entering his prime and the defense will retain its young, growing stars. As much disbelief as I had throughout this whole run, this was no fluke season for the Panthers. Yesterday’s loss was just their second since November 30, 2014. This is a winning team and I don’t expect that to change.

Overlooked in this game: Denver up 16-7; with 5:44 left in the 3rd quarter, Cam Newton throws an interception to TJ Ward. Ward fumbled the ball at the Denver 14-yard line, which was somehow recovered by Denver’s Danny Trevathan at the 7. If Carolina recovers that fumble and scores, the game is 16-14 with an entire quarter left to play. Instead, Carolina never sees the inside of Denver’s 20-yard line again.

These are the type of plays that define a season. And with it, the Denver Broncos are Super Bowl 50 Champions.

The 2015-16 NFL season is over, but that doesn’t mean we have to be. In the coming weeks, we’ll take a look back on some preseason posts and see what we learned from another yet another weird year.

Super Bowl 50: Two teams I didn’t believe in

Well this isn’t what I expected. Despite 27 wins between them, 21 of which came without a loss (7-0 and 14-0), the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers were two teams I refused to buy into. Now they play for the Super Bowl.

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Peyton Manning reminded us his window is closing, not closed. (Photo credit: ESPN.com)

Denver rattled off seven straight to begin the 2015 season. Seems like a good barometer for success, but something felt off. Five of those wins were within one score and they came against relatively weak competition. They scraped by against the Ravens (5-11) and Browns (3-13), just two of many games that highlighted their struggles on offense. The defense, however, could not be ignored. They allowed under 20 points in all but one of those first seven games, forcing turnovers and absolutely punishing QBs. The defense really shined in Week 8 in a highly anticipated matchup with the high-flying Packers. In a game most–including me–expected to see Denver’s struggles catch up to them, the Broncos made a statement. They crushed Green Bay 29-10 and gained a lot of respect.

Then, things started to fall off the rails. A struggling Peyton Manning got injured, setting the scene for what would be a rocky second half of the season. Brock Osweiler filled in nicely for Peyton, going 5-3 in his eight starts, including impressive wins over the Pats and Bengals. Still, it was the defense that shined in the wins. When the defense stumbled and allowed 27 to Indy, 29 to KC, and 34 to Pitt, Denver didn’t have an answer. The offense couldn’t generate enough points to make up for any major lapses on the other side of the ball. A team that one-dimensional was hard to believe in. To their credit, the defense has shown up in the postseason and a healthy Peyton has backed them up with two decent performances. It’s strange; Denver’s problems haven’t gone away, they’ve just been able to overcome them enough to make it further than I ever would’ve thought.

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Before the season, I would’ve said a Super Bowl run for Carolina would require an MVP performance. With limited offensive weapons, Cam Newton has delivered just that. (Photo credit: ESPN.com)

My reluctance to accept Carolina into my life began well before the season started. How could I believe in a team that went 7-8-1 last season, especially after losing their star wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin? Gotta admit, I had no hope for this team. I had them going 6-10 and placing last in their division. Seven consecutive wins later, I still wasn’t convinced. Much like Denver’s hot streak, the wins were hardly dominant. One score wins over the Saints, Texans, and Colts had to be indicative of a future letdown. Seven games and seven wins later, the letdown finally came. A 20-13 loss to the Falcons finally showed the world the real Panthers.

If only.

By that time, it was clear. Carolina was a great team. A fantastic team. But a Super Bowl caliber team? My mind still couldn’t accept it. I had a red-hot Seahawks team finally exposing them in the second round of the playoffs. Instead, it was more of the same from Carolina. A vicious beatdown of both the Seahawks and Cardinals will surely have the Panthers opening as Super Bowl favorites. At 17-1 and all smiles, the Panthers cannot be ignored. It’s strange to say considering my preseason expectations, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see this Panthers team complete a near-perfect season with a Super Bowl victory.

I was wrong about these teams. All that remains to be seen is who I was more wrong about.