It used to be that the quarterback was the most important person on a football field, the one who, more than anyone else, determined the outcome of a game.
Well, anyone who has watched an NFL game the last few seasons, and especially in this year’s playoffs, knows differently. Now, the most important and visible people on a football field are the ones who should be practically invisible – the officials.
That was most evident in recent games involving the team that Eagles fans love to hate, the Dallas Cowboys. In one playoff game, against Detroit, the main topic of post-game conversation was about a controversial call by the officials that benefited the Cowboys, and in the other, against Green Bay, it was a controversial call by the officials that hurt the Cowboys.
That kind of over-officiating went on all season in the NFL, and somebody made the joke that in this era of hurry-up football, teams are huddling less and officials are huddling more. And it’s magnified in the postseason, when the scrutiny is closer and the pressure is greater.
Contrast that with Monday night’s collegiate national championship game between Ohio State and Oregon. There were penalties called and some of them were critical ones, but those yellow flags didn’t dominate the game like they did in the NFL playoffs, not to mention the regular season.
Most of the blame for that doesn’t even fall on the officials, although some of it does. Dallas beat Detroit because an official blew a call that was right in front of him – the pass interference call in the fourth quarter that was, for some reason, reversed. But the other big play/penalty of the playoffs, the no-catch by Dallas’ Dez Bryant, wasn’t the official’s fault – he simply made the correct interpretation of a bad rule.
Either way, the guys with whistles and flags are dominating the NFL, instead of the guys with helmets and shoulder pads. And it’s not hard to figure out why.
The reason is greed. It’s all about the almighty dollar and the NFL’s relentless pursuit of it. The league rakes in billions of dollars annually because the NFL has become more popular than all the other major U.S. professional sports combined. The NFL is the big dog in the neighborhood and everybody knows it.
It all goes back to the myriad rules changes over the last few years, all of them designed to boost the offense, especially the passing game. That’s what sells tickets and, even more importantly, boosts television ratings, and both of them push the sales of NFL merchandise, which has become a billion-dollar industry of its own. That’s also why it seems that every week somebody is setting a passing or receiving record. Defensive players can’t touch receivers or even breathe on quarterbacks and that is the main reason there are so many penalties on passing plays, not to mention record-breaking performances.
But there’s another reason, and it’s behind almost everything the NFL does nowadays – the lawsuits the league faces from past players who claim the NFL didn’t care about protecting their health. Nothing in the history of the NFL – not the rise of the AFL or USFL or the often-acrimonious labor dealings with the NFL players union – has scared the owners like the lawsuit, which started with a few players and now includes hundreds of them. It will take years for everything to get settled, but NFL owners know it could end up costing them billions of dollars.
That’s the motivation behind so many rules changes that prohibit excessive violence in a game built around excessive violence. There’s nothing wrong with protecting players, but the NFL doesn’t care about that nearly as much as it cares about protecting its profit margin. That’s why the league pretends it cares about players’ health – the owners want to be able to say in future litigation that, see, we tried to limit the violence in our game.
Ironically, the rules changes that promote the passing game are also a major reason for so many violent hits. Hall-of-Fame linebacker Dick Butkus used to be the meanest man in football, but he lined up five yards behind the line of scrimmage, so even though he hit hard, he didn’t have to travel far to do it, which lessened the impact.
We’ve all seen crash demonstrations where they show the difference between a car hitting a wall at 30 mph and a car hitting a wall at 40 mph – the damage is much greater in the latter case. Well, the same thing applies to football. The rules benefiting the passing game have stretched the field, so players have to run farther to deliver a hit and because of that, the impact is much greater. And, of course, today’s players are bigger and faster than their predecessors and that, too, increases the damage.
If the NFL really cared about players’ health they would address that. But the wide-open passing game and the highlights that go with it are major reasons why the NFL is so popular and makes so much money, and the officials are just doing what the owners tell them to do.
So, the next time you feel like throwing a beer can (hopefully an empty one) at your television set because of an official’s call, remember who is really at fault – the rich guys who are getting even richer off of the pain and suffering of others.