At midway point in NFL season, uncertainty rules
Sure, the Colts ripped through the first half of their schedule for the fourth time in five seasons, and the Patriots are dominating the AFC East. Yes, Adrian Peterson is running away from defenses, and the Saints are passing over them. The Steelers are their usual stingy selves, and the Lions as incompetent as ever.
Still, this has been a year of disparity and uncertainty.
On the field, there are two unbeatens and five clubs with just a single win. Off it, there’s the specter of an uncapped 2010 season, then perhaps no football at all in 2011. And things could get a whole lot more muddled in the near future.
“This will be a long process,” commissioner Roger Goodell said of talks with the union for a new collective bargaining agreement. “We are going to move as fast as we can to get an agreement that’s appropriate and as soon as possible. But I’m not working off of any deadlines. The point is to try to get an agreement and do that as soon as possible.”
Neither Goodell nor new NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith want negotiations to obscure on-field performances. But there have been enough distractions already to fill an entire season:
-- Rush Limbaugh joining a bid to buy the Rams and then getting cut from the team.
-- Larry Johnson getting himself released by the Chiefs after using gay slurs to reporters and then on Twitter.
-- Raiders coach Tom Cable investigated after being accused of hitting and breaking the jaw of an assistant coach, which prompted another inquiry concerning possible abuse of a former spouse and girlfriend.
-- Congress diving into the discussion on concussions and player safety, and holding a separate hearing on drug testing after Vikings defensive tackles Pat and Kevin Williams got drug-related suspensions delayed in a Minnesota court. Goodell and Smith testified before congressional committees looking into those issues.
Those headlines haven’t quite eclipsed the actual game action in a half-season during which the NFL welcomed back Tom Brady, who’s beginning to look like his superstar self, and saw Michael Vick return to lots of attention but a virtual non-role in Philadelphia.
Brett Favre’s flirtation with the Vikings reached fruition when he unretired for the second straight year, and now he has Minnesota leading the NFC North at 7-1. Favre’s return to Lambeau Field earlier this month to play the Packers was hyped like a Super Bowl, and the 40-year-old quarterback responded with four touchdown passes in a win.
New Orleans and Indy are 8-0, and both will need to get by the Patriots—who are eager to protect their unprecedented 16-0 regular season mark in 2007—to remain unbeaten. The Colts host the Patriots on Sunday night, and the high-scoring Saints get their chance on Nov. 30. Both are prime-time matchups that can only further boost the league’s strong TV ratings.
“Every one of the teams we play from here on out has us marked with a big star,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. “We understand what’s at stake here and obviously the opportunity we have just doesn’t come along all that often. ... It’s all about the next game.”
Even if, at times, that next game is merely a walkover. Consider that the Saints are on a record scoring pace with 303 points at the halfway mark. They still have St. Louis, Tampa Bay (twice), Washington and Carolina on the schedule, opponents with a combined 7-25 record.
Those tailenders, along with Oakland, Cleveland, Kansas City, and Washington, generally have established a new nadir for ineptitude. Parity? Pfft.
Haves and have-nots
There has been such a gap between the haves and have-no-shots this season that no Brady to Randy Moss rockets could bridge it. As some of the awful teams fall deeper into the dysfunctional abyss, repeats of New England’s 59-0 romp past Tennessee—the league’s most puzzling team, going from 13-0 last year to 0-6 this season before two recent wins—might become commonplace. Matchups between contenders and failures could get even uglier.
Sure, there have been aberrations (Oakland over Philadelphia, Tampa Bay over Green Bay), but they have been few and far between. The “any given Sunday” theme has been displaced in 2009 by “ain’t got a chance Sundays” for nearly three months.
Has that had an effect at the stadiums? Attendance declined 2.4 percent through eight weeks, modest compared to some other sports, and the weak economy likely is more to blame than any other factors.
TV ratings up
Television ratings, meanwhile, have soared. Through two months of the schedule, the average audience was up 15 percent from last season, the biggest one-year increase of the last two decades. NFL games were watched by an average of 17.2 million viewers through eight weeks, the highest total since 1989.
In some cities, however, blackouts once more became a dark topic. Jacksonville hasn’t come close to a sellout for its four home games, and won’t likely approach one the rest of the way. There have been just nine blackouts overall through nine weeks, and with so many teams struggling, filling stadiums could become impossible in a half-dozen other places.
Those generally are the teams that can’t score. Cleveland and St. Louis, both 1-7, have scored 155 points combined. Twenty-one clubs have scored more than 155.
Overall, scoring is down from 44.2 points a game to 43.6, which still ranks fourth all-time through nine weeks.
More big plays
But the big plays that excite everyone except the teams victimized by them are coming at a record clip. There have been 91 touchdowns of 50 or more yards, the most through nine weeks since 1970.
While there’s been no sidelining of a star of the magnitude of Brady this half-season, injuries have, as always, made an impact. Chicago lost linebacker Brian Urlacher and the Jets lost Leon Washington. Both teams are 4-4 without such key contributors.
The injury that is drawing the most attention in NFL cities—and on Capitol Hill—is concussions.
Goodell made two trips to Washington in the span of a week, once to defend league policies about head injuries, and once to seek legislation to help get around state laws that make it difficult to carry out doping-related suspensions, such as the case of the Williamses.
Goodell was grilled about concussions by lawmakers, some of whom complained about the commissioner’s lack of direct answers. Some members of Congress also lamented that the doctor who chairs the NFL’s committee on concussions did not show up.