Column: NFL has issues, but Cowboys making it fun again

Just when it seemed the NFL was losing its tight grip on America's fans, America's team came riding to the rescue.

OK, so maybe the Dallas Cowboys didn't exactly ride to the rescue, though Jerry Jones might take credit for it anyway. But their surprising run behind a pair of spectacular rookies has helped turn into must-watch TV what was shaping up to be a rare down season for the NFL.

The Cowboys didn't do it all by themselves. The man who will likely go down as the greatest NFL quarterback ever is putting on another show in New England, the Oakland Raiders are winners once again, and Los Angeles finally has the Rams back.

Meanwhile, Roger Goodell for the most part hasn't had to rush around putting out fires, though the decline in TV ratings earlier this season should be reason for caution.

It's an indication the NFL is overexposed, and a good reason why Thursday football should be sacrificed for the greater good of the league. There's nothing special about a Thursday night NFL game, which does little for the league other than fatten owners' wallets.

But a season that started with Tom Brady on enforced sabbatical and Colin Kaepernick on his knee just may end with the Cowboys making a deep run in the playoffs for the first time in more than 20 years. And that has to make TV executives and the league's billionaire owners even giddier than they usually are at this time of year.

Imagine, if you will, the Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers facing off in the Super Bowl in a reprise of their 1970s rivalry. Could happen, and then the talk will be of record TV ratings instead of people turning off their sets.

These should be good times in the NFL, where stadiums are for the most part full and the value of teams keeps rising. Television money keeps pouring in by the billions and players remain tied to a long-term deal that is the most favorable for management in major sports.

Football is by far the most popular sport in America. Just the thought of luring the Raiders to Las Vegas was so exciting to Nevada legislators that they quickly offered $750 million in new taxes to get it done.

But there were far more Raiders fans than Chargers faithful late in the season in their matchup at San Diego, where fans are being held hostage by a team intent on getting taxpayer money of its own. And there are other issues that left unattended might someday threaten the popularity of the game.

Chief among them is that the NFL remains a very violent place, despite a number of initiatives designed to cut down on the kind of blows to the head that cause brains to be scrambled early and often.

Concussions remain a vexing issue, as anyone who has watched Cam Newton take a hit to the head can empathize with. The NFL is finally dealing with the issue after pretending for years that it didn't exist, but nearly every game seems to have at least one player go down from a debilitating head hit.

There are also issues with how penalties are called, and fans have grown increasingly frustrated with the ubiquitous TV commercials that make some games nearly unwatchable. The NFL took the commercial issue seriously enough to experiment late in the season with a ''Back in 30 seconds'' promise for some ad breaks.

Still, there's sameness to most games, made worse by the fact there are too many teams not ready for prime time that get put there anyway.

There are prime-time games three nights a week, and many of them are not top matchups. The Thursday night games feel particularly out of place, and the quality of play reflects that: teams don't have enough time to prepare and many players are not sufficiently healed from the week before.

Meanwhile, the Monday night lineup that used to be the star of prime time has suffered from bad matchups and a lack of compelling personalities.

None of it means the NFL - now a $13 billion a year business - is going away anytime soon. Far from it, though the softness in ratings and the continuing cord-cutting by cable subscribers have to be worrisome to a league built on TV.

The new reality may be that the NFL simply can't take things for granted anymore. A league that has grown increasingly insular will have to reach out more to its fans and make more of an effort to connect them with the game.

The arrogance of recent years doesn't work anymore. The NFL has to adapt to the new reality that it must work harder for its fans.

Then again, if the Cowboys and Steelers meet in the Super Bowl, the league will probably be good for at least another 10 years.

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Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg

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