A veteran Monitor observer of the sports scene offers his two cents worth on the NFL's ultimate contest in a missive to the commissioner.
Dear Commissioner Goodell,
Congratulations on another entertaining season, capped by last Sunday’s Super Bowl. Surely you were pleased to learn the game had attracted the largest US television in history for a third consecutive year. It’s hard to argue with that kind of success, but since fan feedback can be important to any league’s continuing popularity, here are two thoughts for the NFL’s consideration:
1. While the last minutes of Super Bowl XLVI were plenty exciting, the ending nearly backfired with potentially embarrassing consequences, or so it seems to this observer.
The circumstances surrounding the New York Giants’ winning touchdown run encouraged both the Giants and the New England Patriot defenders to basically quit playing. Everything came out in the wash, partly because of Ahmad Bradshaw’s inability to stop completely enough to keep from falling into the end zone for the go-ahead TD. But if he had stopped short of the goal line, an even stranger scenario could have played out in which the Patriots would have again invited the Giants into the end zone by standing aside or feigning any genuine defensive effort. Surely, that’s not how the league’s championship game should end.
Millions of fans, of course, understand how this strategic peculiarity occurred. The Patriots felt they needed to get the ball back with enough time left to mount a come-from-behind scoring drive.
The Giants trailed by two points but had driven to the Patriots 7-yard line, and were virtually assured of going ahead with a chip-shot field goal. They had the luxury of running down the clock, since New England had only one timeout left. A few running plays would set up the game-winning kick and leave virtually no time for Patriots quarterback Tom Brady to work any last-minute magic.
So when Bradshaw was handed the ball and the Patriots offered no resistance. Giants quarterback Eli Manning yelled at Bradshaw to go down and not dash in for a touchdown that would stop the clock. Bradshaw tried to kneel before the goal line, but his momentum carried him in for the score.
This was a chess match, for sure, but one that went against the basic instincts of players on both sides. The defense was trying to let the offense score, and the offense was trying not to score (at least until the last seconds).
While this situation may seldom be repeated, there is a way, it seems, it could almost be totally avoided. The solution? Stop the clock after every play after the two-minute warning if the offensive team is inside the “red zone” (within 20 yards of the end zone) and can either tie or win with a field goal or touchdown.
This could conceivably add to the last-minutes drama of many games, not just the Super Bowl, and wouldn’t eliminate the need for teams that are behind to have an effective “two-minute offense.”
2. This second suggestion somewhat echoes the first in its desire to eliminate play that doesn’t best represent the league. The focus in this case is on the Pro Bowl, which you have acknowledged last week raises quality concerns. Even NFL-starved fans in Honolulu, where the game is played, booed some of the lackluster effort exhibited in this year’s 59-41 AFC win. Aaron Rodgers, the league’s MVP, went so far as to say some of his NFC teammates “embarrassed themselves.”
Clearly, there are many factors that gravitate against the Pro Bowl being a good showcase for serious football. First among them is the contact nature of the sport: No player wants to sustain an injury in what amounts to a postseason exhibition game. Add to this that there is very little practice time, players are in Hawaii vacation mode, and that many of them haven’t played in nearly a month and are a little rusty and out of shape, and it’s easy to see why this all-star contest either needs to be overhauled or eliminated.
Frankly, it’s hard envision how to satisfactorily improve the game. So maybe the best thing is to go in a different direction. Among the possibilities, incorporate recognition for the Pro Bowl players in the NFL’s prime-time awards TV show, “NFL Honors,” which debuted successfully this season as part of the Super Bowl week festivities. The star-studded, Academy Awards-style affair could include an on-stage introduction of the Pro Bowlers, some of whom, of course, might also collect Rookie of the Year, Comeback Player of the Year, and MVP awards.
The players, of course, won’t want to miss out on vacations in Hawaii, so make those a separate reward for Pro Bowl selection, just don’t ask them to play in the meaningless game. Instead, go to something closer to the skills-type competitions that have become such popular attractions at the baseball, NBA, and NHL All-Star weekends.
The format for this has long existed in the successful youth “Punt, Pass & Kick” competition, which celebrated its 50th anniversary this season and which the NFL sponsors. At the Super Bowl site, bring together the league’s top season-long punters, passers, and placekickers (those not in the Super Bowl itself) for a Thursday night TV event.
The appetite for seeing NFL players during Super Bowl week would seem to support this kind of thing, based on what happened in Indianapolis last week. When the league opened the annual Media Day to the public for the first time, fans quickly snapped up the $25 tickets to the event, even though it meant they were only spectating on player interviews conducted at the Lucas Oil Stadium. If fans are that eager then surely they would flock to a Punt, Pass & Kick competition as much as they do to Major League Baseball’s Home Run Derby or the NBA’s Slam Dunk Contest.
An NFL skills competition would also serve as the perfect platform for letting the PP&K age-group winners – boys and girls from 6 to 15 – show off what they can do. Introducing them at halftime of an NFL playoff game is nice, but seeing them in action would even be better.