Dan LeBatard asked an interesting question on his ESPN radio show last week, wondering what possibly could cause a slide in NFL popularity. There were few convincing answers.
Noted journalist Charles Pierce suggested it would take not just an on-field fatality, but a series of high-profile deaths such as (God forbid), Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers. An anonymous special-teamer or obscure offensive lineman would be insufficient. A solitary A-list player wouldn’t be enough.
I suppose a flurry of in-game tragedies among the most-prominent stars could shake the NFL from its position as TV’s undisputed ratings champ and pop-culture Goliath. Or perhaps a season where the number of deceased players is so startling – like seven football deaths in high school this year – their identities wouldn’t matter.
The majority of fans are undeterred by football’s violent nature. They won’t stop watching just because some players are carted off in immobilization devices. The mental and physical toll that players often experience after retirement doesn’t impact viewers’ enjoyment of in-the-moment action.
There is no evidence that the game is too violent for consumers’ taste.
But could it become too non-violent?
Complaints about the number of rules designed to protect players have never been louder. More than 35 years have elapsed since Hall of Fame linebacker Jack Lambert stated “quarterbacks should wear dresses.” He might suggest they wear bikinis nowadays. Receivers, too.
Some of the game’s most devastating hits occur when a receiver, defender and pass arrive at the same point simultaneously. The league has gone out of its way to legislate such high-velocity collisions, prohibiting contact above the shoulders when receivers are deemed “defenseless.”
But based on the ire raised Sunday when Washington cornerback Chris Culliver was called for unnecessary roughness – wiping out a spectacular interception returned for a touchdown against Carolina – going too far for safety’s sake could be as big a threat to NFL popularity as doing nothing at all.
Panthers tight end Greg Olsen caught a pass and lowered his upper body to prepare for impact, which Culliver delivered immediately and forcefully. The ball popped out, Culliver grabbed it from the air and ran untouched for 75 yards. But the officials called it back.
Seemingly everyone aside from Carolina fans thought it was a clean hit and great play that should’ve stood. Instead, we got Fox Sports analyst Mike Pereira, former NFL vice president of officiating, explaining that it was a good call based on the rules.
“The hard part about this for a defensive player is Olsen had basically altered his body position,” Pereira said. “He went down to brace for the contact. But the rule book says the entire liability falls on the defensive player, even though the offensive player changes his position. If you’re still considered defenseless, the defender cannot go to the head or neck area with his helmet, shoulder or forearm. It’s tough to play defense, but it is a foul.”
Tough to play defense? Illegal to play defense is more accurate.
You have to feel for a defender like Culliver, giving up six inches and 55 pounds against a tight end like Olsen. Culliver could aim directly for the sternum but earn a 15-yard penalty if Olsen gets lower in time. What is this, a limbo contest?
Making split-second adjustments on moving targets is exceedingly difficult. Still, there are plays where it’s virtually impossible for the defender to hit someone any cleaner than Culliver hit Olsen. The league might as well outlaw attempts to “break up” passes via contact.
“It was just one of those plays where I’ve never seen anything like that before; it was a great play,” Washington receiver DeSean Jackson told reporters. “A lot of guys were frustrated on the sideline by that play because we play tackle football. It’s not two-handed touch. For an unnecessary roughness call, that’s a crazy call.”
Such calls frustrate fans as well.
It’s not like Olsen was reaching for a pass high overhead and was blasted with a blow to the head. Most of us agree that those types of hits no longer belong in the NFL. In determining when a hit is inappropriate, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said it best in reference to pornography: “I know it when I see it.”
The problem is we’re reaching the point where we can’t trust what we see. We don’t know what constitutes a good hit or penalty and a catch or an incompletion. The officials don’t know half the time, either.
A slew of on-field deaths certainly could damage the NFL’s preeminence. But pro football morphing into something we don’t recognize might do the trick, too.
I doubt that the National Flag League would be as popular.