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Madden: NFL hits new high in boredom factor

Saturday, November 30, 2002

Apparently, the NFL has a new unwritten rule: Even though it's a full-contact sport, you can't hit an opponent too hard. They're all union brothers, after all.

Green Bay Coach Mike Sherman called out Tampa Bay lineman Warren Sapp for violating said rule Sunday, verbally berating Sapp face to face after Sapp had injured the Packers' Chad Clifton with a clean block on an interception return. Fortunately for Sherman, Sapp chose not to violate one of society's written rules, specifically the one that prohibits a behemoth from beating down a pasty-faced old guy.

A barrage of fines has significantly reduced NFL violence. Want to see a big hit? Play a video game.

Legislated parity keeps any one team from being too good, and any one team (besides Cincinnati) from being too bad. Too much expansion has diluted the talent pool dramatically.

Personality is being eliminated from the game. The NFL actually has employees making sure everyone wears their socks the same. The players are being turned into uninteresting automatons devoid of originality. Do something mildly inventive or funny -- like Terrell Owens with the Sharpie in the sock -- and you get lambasted by a bunch of media drones who fear what they are not, namely creative.

All the teams play the same and play it safe. Besides the admittedly high-octane St. Louis Rams, name one team that has distinguished itself by its style over the past half-decade. Maybe Baltimore with that incredible defense two seasons ago, but it fell apart too quickly to leave a mark.

The NFL is obviously a TV game. Is there anything worse than league-approved major-network coverage of pro football? Former jocks spewing a whirlwind of cliches accompanied by jock-sniffers that are just honored to be in a booth or studio with a real, live former NFL player. When I can't avoid watching an NFL game, I do so with the sound down. And, no, I don't listen to Myron.

Face it, the NFL is boring. This is the worst time to be a football fan. People still watch out of force of habit -- and because they bet -- but right now the NFL is succeeding despite a lousy product.

Oh, the sheep that merely root, root, root for the home team are probably happier than ever. Ten teams being within a game of each other at the top of the AFC playoff seedings means that people in those 10 cities can still realistically harbor Super Bowl hopes 11 games into the season.

But for those who appreciate good football and good teams, there's not very much to appreciate.

That "any given Sunday" crap gets old. When every game can produce an upset, after a while there's no such thing as an upset. It's just a bunch of mediocre teams playing each other. The winner is usually determined by a handful of big (or lucky) plays, not by one team imposing will and skill on the other for 60 minutes. Most games, you might as well flip a coin to determine a winner.

Then, after 16 games, the 12 teams which were a little better than mediocre have a playoff to see who can get lucky.

That's all the Super Bowl winner will be: lucky. That's all the New England Patriots were last year. They got hot at the right time. There's no definite Super Bowl favorite this season. Someone will win three (or four) playoff games in a row because someone has to, not because they're particularly good.

So, what's going to be done about this?

Nothing.

Hey, I can't say I'd do anything about it if I ran the NFL. Financially, the league is stronger than ever. If it ain't broke, don't fix it, and in terms of profitability, the NFL ain't broke.

When you consider how the line between parity and parody is getting blurred -- what will the tiebreaking procedure be when every team finishes 8-8? -- remember that truly great teams will occasionally be assembled within the context of the salary cap and break through. I thought the Steelers had a chance to do that this season until practically every defensive player hit his sell-by date simultaneously.

Consider also that the salary cap isn't going away, and if it did, the pendulum would likely swing too far the other way and provide something even more insidious, namely store-bought dynasties.

Conundrums like this make you realize why the NFL so closely identifies itself with gratuitous alcohol consumption, particularly before games. Not many Rhodes scholars attend pro football games, and, when you stir in a few six-packs -- and those twins! -- nobody really cares about the caliber of play. Perhaps the NFL wants the fans to feel part of the show so they don't bother to evaluate the show objectively.

America's other pro sports leagues all stink, which gives the NFL even bigger margin for error. Nobody tries during the regular season in the NBA. You can't even see the puck when you watch an NHL game on TV. Rednecks driving in a circle will always have limited appeal. Baseball is, well, baseball. Women's sports are, unfortunately, played by women.

So, what to do to avoid boredom?

Head to Liverpool for the big game tomorrow against Manchester United, of course. Now that's real football.


Mark Madden is host of a talk show from 3 to 7 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250).

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