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Is the Evolving NFL... A good Thing?

by jeff beyel
I cannot tell you how many times I have heard some sports radio talk show host, football analysis "expert", or pundit pontificate about how one "...has to evolve..." or perish.

These individuals constantly profess that their success, and the failures of others, was due to their abilities to evolve while others did not. They, then, extend their views onto sports and in particular the NFL. What does this evolutionary concept actually to mean? What does the new and ever improving version of the NFL, if that what it is to be viewed as, really look like? And, in the end, where will this mindset of constant evolution eventually bring professional football?

It seems a relatively simplistic exercise to lump the economic and viewership success of the NFL into a bowl that also contains improved competition and excitement. But, in truth, such an analysis would be far from reality and certainly inaccurate. The NFL has evolved from what was once a much smaller league comprised of mostly regional and local fan loyalties to a financial behemoth who's monetary coffers never seem to be satiated. At first, there was the absorption of the AFL into the NFL via the early Super Bowls and the eventual creation of the AFC and NFC construct. Then there was a complete altering of divisional alignment and even the moving of several old NFL franchises into the newly created AFC (The Baltimore Colts, and Pittsburgh Steelers).
Monday Night Football became the next slice of meat on the table for fans to devour. Then the league moved to more divisions and an expanded playoff inclusionary act in order to enhance fan interest with the creation of the wild card system that leads to 12 teams out of 32 (37.5%) qualifying for the post-season.

The earlier adjustments always seemed to increase the interest in the NFL bringing with it more money. The NFL soon found itself in a race to always spiral upwards and onwards or stop evolving and soon dissolve into some mysterious state of economic stagnation that would doom the league.
So, Monday Night Football was soon joined by Sunday Night Football (and the eventual inclusion of the "Flex Game"), Thursday Night Football, and then onto Three Thanksgiving Day games and even multiple games on Monday Night Football! Games then began going international. In 2019, the NFL played an exhibition contest in Winnipeg, Canada, 4 regular season games in England (2 at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium and 2 at Wembley Stadium). and another regular season game in Mexico.
But, scheduling games alone, increasing playoff potentials, and exploding the game onto TV on an almost daily basis was not the only evolution the NFL experienced.
Technology soon exposed the errors and flaws of humans officiating the game. Very slo-motion and high definition replays were revealing calls that were inaccurate leading to a flurry of next day protests and criticisms that soon climbed to outright anger among fans. The NFL quickly reacted by enacting and emerging instant replay into the game. The replay efforts were supposed to "get the call right" but the crusade melted into a series of rules constraining the use of the replay. Each team would get red hankies, the replay booth would review all scores and turnovers, and only the replay booth could overturn a call inside the last 2 minutes of each half. Hankies flew, calls were reversed and then...? Some bad calls did not get reversed as one team had run out of hankies and a play happened outside the 2 minute window thus totally negating the very purpose of replay and leaving fans enraged despite the league's best efforts.
Yet, the NFL was still not done evolving. Concussion awareness and the unmasking to the world of the amount of permanent damage done to players led to the development of high tech helmets, the concussion protocol system, and the changing of many rules to protect the quarterback. Helmet to helmet rules, roughing the passer rules, targeting rules, holding rules, hands to the face rules, chop block rules, illegal use of the hands rules, false starts, illegal formations and about 10000 other rules have swamped the league with so many rules that it seems every single kick and punt return has a flag and games constantly spin on a dime with one rule or another influencing the outcomes. How many times do we have to see the "illegal block in the back" call?

Some of these changes had to occur due to liability and lawsuits and simple human compassion. Nonetheless, each rule has always been carefully crafted to enhance the entertainment experience of the viewer. The net effect the profuse amount of rules has had cannot be ignored. As the rules tried to move the game from "boring" 17-14 games typical of the 1960-70 eras a strange phenomenon commenced to take shape: The game itself changed! Running backs suddenly came to be seen as a dime-a-dozen commodity and franchise quarterbacks became the golden ticket to success. The league began mirroring the NBA's tactic of marketing players more so than teams. A typical 2019 NFL game would routinely be billed along the lines of "Brady vs Mahomes" or "Brees vs Roethlisberger". But, the rule changes also led coordinators to evolve as well. The rules all but eliminated the usefulness of middle linebackers in the Dick Butkus or Jack Lambert molds and gave way to quicker, more mobile players who could do multiple tasks on the field to combat the offensive advantages created to make the games more exciting. The need for speed led to incredible blitzing attacks and defensive designs, responding to the new rules, that began to lead to an increase, not a decrease, in quarterback injuries and the velocity and impact events on the signal callers took a steep uptick. This had to happen because defensive coordinators correctly surmised that giving any quarterback time to see and throw the ball would lead to defensive disaster. So, in response to this fact, the NFL enlisted even more rules to punish defenses for being too violent to opposing signal callers.
How has all of this manifested itself you ask in terms of competition? Consider that the great Sonny Jergensen led the NFL in passing yards three out of four seasons in 1966, 1967, and 1969 with 3209, 3747, and 3102 yards! His best year out of those three would have placed him 17th in the league in 2019 although he did play in 2 less games. With extrapolation, Jergensen would have thrown for 4282 yards if he played in 16 games which would have him at #11 in the league today!
I suppose I could go on forever with my complaints about the evolution of the game but I also know that, by the time I got done complaining, a whole new set of evolutionary elements would have already come to the game I love.




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