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Blanket Coverage: NFL poised for a post-election rebound ... if it doesn't screw up

The NFL is in the right place at the right time to help a wounded, divided nation put itself back together. But will the league be able to answer the call to be America's Game once again?

In the wake of the Presidential election, these are uncertain times for much of the Republic.

Regardless of how you voted, there is great angst among many Americans. Co-workers and neighbors are looking at each other differently, wondering who voted for whom and what, if anything, that says about them. Many parents are having difficult conversations with their children. People of different races, religions, sexual orientation and ethnicities are unsure of what is to come, and whether they will have a place in this country. There is uncertainty about the economy, health care, climate and a whole host of other issues.

Basically, people have a lot of serious questions and issues on their minds. And that’s on top of the normal stresses that come from everyday life as a student, employee, manager or parent. Much of the nation is on edge.

Which leads to another truth: people will want to escape from all of that, even if just for a few hours each week. They’ll want to step away from the rancor on Twitter and Facebook, they’ll be turning off the contentious cable news in droves for the first time since the election cycle began, and they’ll just want to sit and enjoy something for a few hours with good company, without having to revisit the election or the big questions that come with it.

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Enter the National Football League.

The league is still doing well, but limping a little bit. For various reasons (and we all have our beliefs, be it the election, saturation, level of play, poor officiating, political protests or whatever) its ratings have been down this year. And wouldn’t you know it, while the nation is licking its wounds and looking for distractions, the NFL just happens to be entering the second half of its season and teams are making their postseason push.

The phenomenal baseball postseason is over. The NBA and NHL have just started their long seasons. College football is only around for another month. The NFL is primed to rise once again and capture the imaginations of people from all walks of life.

That is, if it doesn’t screw it up.

And that’s one big if.

The NFL is indeed in the right place at the right time to help the nation put itself back together. If that just so happens to coincide with a rebound in the TV ratings, then all the better for the league. It has teams from blue states and red states. It features players and coaches from all over and with different skin colors and beliefs. NFL teams reflect the divisions in this country, yet they find a way to make it work (well, most of them…sorry Cleveland and San Francisco).

But there’s downside to all this. With so many anticipated eyeballs, there better be a good product for those people to see, or else the NFL risks these normally casual viewers from turning away from the NFL for some time.

Will the NFL answer the call to be America’s Game, as it likes to consider itself, or will it continue down a road where football people and non-football people are as divided as rural whites and coastal elites?

We’ll get our answer over the next few months, but I have my doubts. These are the areas where the NFL needs to be better, if it is to regain its status as the roundly cheered national sport:

Compelling national TV games: The NFL finally has some momentum that it needs to sustain after Monday night’s terrific (for the most part) Seahawks-Bills game. It starts with its much-derided Thursday Night package, which used to do fine in the ratings but not so much now that the novelty has worn off. Tonight’s game between the 0–9 Browns and 4–4 Ravens would seem to be a case of bad timing, but I’m optimistic that this could produce some drama. Everybody loves an underdog, and I could see the Browns making a push for their first victory. And the best announcing team of Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth will easily capture the drama if the game is compelling. After that, there’s actually a string of compelling TNF matchups (Saints-Panthers, Cowboys-Vikings, Raiders-Chiefs) featuring stars and rising teams. The NFL could really use a classic in the Sunday Night Super Bowl rematch between the Seahawks and Patriots this week, and later matchups (pending flex options) should bring eyeballs with a host of star quarterbacks (Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, Andrew Luck, Cam Newton, Russell Wilson). Hopefully that builds enough momentum for Monday nights, which have some ugly matchups on the schedule outside of Packers-Eagles and Ravens-Patriots.

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Play good football: There’s not much the NFL can do about this now (some practice changes would be nice in the offseason), but it’s time for the coaches and players to step up. We’re in Week 10, now. It’s time to tackle properly, not block by dragging down opponents, turn around and play the ball when it’s in the air instead of running into a receiver, not completely blow coverages (which had to have happened a dozen times on Sunday); for quarterbacks to set their feet before passing, and for receivers to catch the ball. The coaches, who are responsible for all that, are not off the hook. They need to not go for it on fourth down early when three points would be just fine, or get conservative with a lead; they need to coach their teams to conduct two-minute drills that don’t look like foreign concepts and take 35 seconds between plays; they need to use offenses that actually scheme players open and just don’t rely on the time-tested “just get open” technique (ahem, Mike McCarthy), and learn when to challenge and how to use their timeouts. At times, it looks like amateur hour out there.

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Competent officiating: Can we get back to calling the blatant fouls that actually have to do with the play and let the other stuff go? People are sick and tired of tuning into games and seeing a combined 20-plus accepted penalties, which has happened way too often (coaches have a big role in this as well). The refs also need to know it’s OK to let contact go if the pass is uncatchable. They also need to have a general clue—which Walt Anderson’s crew didn’t on Sunday night—when it comes to actually blowing the whistle when a rusher is unabated to the kicker, and knowing the situation with the game clock before deeming the ball ready for play. This also applies to the crews of Pete Morelli and Jeff Triplette, among others. The NFL also might want to finally get together and agree on what a catch is, and how to judge spots, and touchdowns at the goal line. Those are kind of important, yet seem like unattainable goals.

Keep Goodell hidden: Every couple of weeks or months, Commissioner Roger Goodell pops up to sell something (does he think he’s good at this?), whether it’s player safety or his failed policy on domestic violence, and he looks out of touch and/or says something that doesn’t make any sense, and reminds everyone that the leadership of his football league is largely incompetent. And that makes everyone feel dirty again. The NFL is about the game and the players. Keep all the attention there. Goodell has never said anything that has made anyone feel better about the NFL. Stop over managing the product. The NFL became great because Pete Rozelle and Steve Sabol were premier marketers who knew the NFL’s attraction came solely from the on-field product, and they stayed the hell out of the way. Somebody would do well to remind Goodell of that.

None of these things should be that hard, yet they have been going on years. It’s past time for the NFL to get its act together. Much of the nation turns its confused, scared and lonely eyes to you. You have a chance to Make Football Great Again. Don’t screw it up. 

Blanket Report

Your resident “Wet Blanket of Reason” takes the temperature of the most intriguing storylines in the NFL this week:

Go crazy, folks:

Sheldon Richardson would have been worth it for Cowboys: According to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the Jets wanted a first-round pick in either 2017 or 2018 for defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson. The Cowboys balked because Richardson’s contract is only through 2017. Sorry, but that’s not a good reason. First of all, the Cowboys could franchise Richardson in '18, when they don’t appear to have any other candidates. That gives them leverage towards a long-term deal. And are you telling me that a player the caliber of Richardson is not worth the likely low first-round pick the Cowboys would have to give up? The Cowboys draft well, but Richardson is a proven player that can help you this season in a drive for the Super Bowl, and for the next two years at least. That's a worthwhile deal. If you said the Cowboys were spooked because Richardson has been suspended once for substance abuse, that would be one thing. But a first-round pick is not asking for the moon when it comes to Richardson.

McCarthy on the spot in Green Bay: I don’t think Mike McCarthy’s job is on the line this season with the Packers, nor do I think it should be. The Packers will likely have a winning record for the eighth-straight season, and that’s nothing to sneeze at. But it’s on McCarthy to get the offense fixed, and it’s on him that his team fell behind 31–10 at home to the Colts. The team isn’t right, and that’s the fault of the coach. But he has earned the right to get it fixed.

Slow your roll:

Sherman was not in the wrong on Monday night: Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman has been called everything from reckless to dirty as a result of the field goal attempt before halftime of the Monday night game against the Bills. The fact is this: the whistle was not blown until after Sherman blocked the field goal. If Sherman would have stopped without a whistle, and Dan Carpenter made the kick, Sherman would have been criticized for not playing to the whistle. The fault lies with referee Walt Anderson, who failed to blow the whistle in a timely fashion. Not Sherman.

Houston might not be huge boost to the Chiefs: The Chiefs activated OLB Justin Houston, a first-team All Pro in 2014, from the PUP list this week, but it’s unclear when he’ll return to the lineup. When he does, a healthy Houston would be a huge boost to a Chiefs defense that is good but could use some more pass rush. Hopefully Houston does return as good as before. But there’s no guarantee he will. Houston had surgery in March to deal with an ACL that wasn’t functioning, but wasn’t torn. Will it be back to normal? We won’t know that until he’s on the field, but he’s not guaranteed. Just look at what happened to RB Jamaal Charles, who tore his ACL in Oct. 2015 and tried to return in Week 5. He played in just three games before being put on injured reserve. There’s hope for Houston, but that’s about as far as you can go.

10 thoughts on Week 10

1. Great pivotal matchup when the Saints meet the Broncos that pits Denver edge rushers Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware against Saints tackles Terron Armstead and Zach Strief. New Orleans is unusually strong in both spots, the line has been a huge key in Drew Brees’ resurgence the past two years, and gives the Saints better than a punchers chance to outscore the Broncos if the Saints take care of the football.

2. I would expect the Vikings to be better on offense this week because Washington’s defensive front is good, but not good enough to keep Sam Bradford under duress.

3. Don’t feel the same enthusiasm for the Packers offense rebounding against the Titans. Tennessee isn’t great on defense, especially against the pass (27th by, but DT Jurrell Casey and OLBs Derrick Morgan and Brian Orakpo can cause problems, even against a good line like Green Bay’s. And the Titans’ offensive line is way better than that of the Colts, which had their way with the Packers.

4. Will be interesting to see what Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan has dialed up for the Eagles’ defense. Speed is Philly’s best asset so I could see Atlanta using a big horizontal game by putting the onus on their fast running backs running and catching the ball.

5. The Panthers’ best avenue to beat the Chiefs is to get back to using their varied running game. Kansas City can be pushed around a little up front.

6. The Steelers-Cowboys game could be straight out of the 1970s. Both teams have awesome ground attacks and neither defense is built to stop teams on the ground. Potential big weeks for Ezekiel Elliott and Le’Veon Bell.

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7. It’s tough enough that the NFL is making the Seahawks travel to New England after playing a Monday night game, and the Patriots are coming off a bye week. But the games the Seahawks have played before this make it a truly bad spot. In the previous three weeks, Seattle has played the tie at Arizona, a 25-20 loss at New Orleans, and then a tough 31-25 win against the Bills. The Seahawks defense has been on the field for 90, 72 and 82 plays (81.3 average) in those three games for an average of 40 minutes, 56 seconds. That’s a ton of play and time. The Patriots defense averaged 68.5 plays and 31:19 before the benefit of the bye week. So it’s almost a double whammy for the Seahawks, and a really tall task.

8. Expect the Patriots to try and take advantage of this in one of two ways, or a mix of both. They can run and play ball control like the Cardinals, Saints and Bills did. Or they could go uptempo and try to get the Seahawks tired out. Either way, the Patriots should have a distinct advantage in the fourth quarter.

9. The Patriots know how to handle TE Jimmy Graham, and they’ll do so by testing his physicality at the line of scrimmage, and then they’ll defense him with a mix of CBs Eric Rowe and safeties Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung. The third receivers could have big games because the third corners for each team are really weak.

10. This week in brilliance: The Texans (5-3) have the lowest efficiency rating ever for a team (they’re ranked 30th) with a winning record through Week 9. The Lions (5-4) are 10th on that list and are ranked 27th.