Greetings from Memphis. It’s been 18 years now, since Charlotte and Jacksonville were given the dance ticket Memphians wanted so desperately ... but that wasn’t on your watch. We’ve come to recognize Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium for what it is — not an NFL stadium — and we’ve either adopted the Titans, or stuck to cheering for the Steelers, Packers, or Cowboys. Bottom line: Memphians are NFL fans like the rest of the country.
Our heart rates seem to spike this time of year, as the Hall of Fame welcomes its newest class — it’ll be hard to top the one to be inducted this weekend, including Jerry Rice and Emmitt Smith — and the exhibition season gives us our first glimpse of the uniforms (if not the players) we'll cheer as the mercury drops.
But as great as the game is, as profits continue to add millions through one revenue stream after another, there are fundamental changes the NFL needs to make. You have the chance, Mr. Commissioner, to leave a legacy beyond that of your predecessor, Paul Tagliabue (who continues to have trouble gaining election to the Hall despite serving as the league’s authority for two decades). But you’ll have to be brave, somewhat stubborn, and immune to the criticism you’re bound to receive from pro football’s old guard (pardon the pun)
The necessary changes (listed in order of priority):
• Eliminate the three-point stance. The late Chris Henry — or Henry’s brain, at least — should have the kind of impact in the NFL that Rosa Parks had on the civil rights movement. Only 26 years old, Henry died last winter when he fell out of a moving truck during a dispute with his fiancee. Then Henry’s autopsy report was released in June, showing significant brain damage suffered before the player’s fatal accident.
Your players, Mr. Goodell, are dying. They’re dying slowly, some of them only between the ears (a harsh use of the word “only”). But they are killing one another through collisions to the head in every game and contact practice. Premature deaths of former NFL players far exceed those of the general population, and this has more to do with trauma to the brain than with the ugliest of blown-out knees.
You can pad helmets, you can penalize spearing, and you can try and enforce proper rest for players who suffer concussions. But the only “cure” for concussions is prevention. Forcing linemen to stand at the line of scrimmage will significantly reduce helmet-to-helmet blows and will put a premium on speed and athleticism, as opposed to sheer girth. Football will gain from the change, however odd it appears at first. Better, though, mankind will gain from the change.
• Eliminate exhibition games. As things currently stand, season-ticket packages are sold to NFL fans that include two home contests in the preseason. This is the sorriest excuse for selling “big-league” sports in the country. Star players are routinely excused from these affairs and, if they do appear, play a series or two before giving the field to undrafted free agents desperate to make the final 53-man roster.
Get rid of these games, add a pair of regular-season contests (making the season 18 games), and restore credibility to every ticket you sell.
• Reduce the number of divisions. When 25 percent of the league's teams can call themselves division champions, the title has no meaning. Eight four-team divisions? The NFL is too splintered, Mr. Commissioner. And as long as Dallas is in the NFC East while St. Louis is in the NFC West, don’t suggest regional ties matter.
Cut the number of divisions in half: two eight-team divisions in each conference. A division championship — and the first-round playoff bye it earns — will again be worthy of a banner. Teams with the four best records after the division champs (regardless of division) will qualify for the playoffs. Annual rivalries (like those between the Cowboys and the rest of the NFC East) can be retained while loosening the rotation of opponents from the division-by-division system currently in place.
• Return the Colts to Baltimore. If Peyton Manning’s team wants to wear the Ravens’ uniforms, that’s fine. (A domed football stadium would certainly be the subject of a modern Poe tale of horror.) But Johnny Unitas’ colors and that iconic horseshoe helmet are Baltimore’s. Make this right, Mr. Commissioner.
Finally, a suggestion on the Brett Favre matter. Welcome the future Hall of Famer back. But insist he play in all four exhibition games.
Yours in football,