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  • The NFL is facing a season that could potentially be plagued by debate over a new tackling rule and the continuing controversy over kneeling during the national anthem. This season could also rise above the rest, buoyed by young players lighting up the game and fresh coaches bringing new gameplans to the field each week. But which will it be?
By Conor Orr
August 31, 2018

For the final installment in our Countdown-to-Kickoff features this week, we’re answering a big question: Where is the NFL headed in 2018 and beyond? 

When it’s truly over, when the NFL attempts to fill up a gigantic, town-swallowing stadium with nostalgic but largely ambivalent fans one last time many, many, many years from now, what will they say was the beginning of the end?

Even after everything the NFL has gone through over the last decade, the league still carries tremendous weight. The ground shakes whenever it moves. Television programming is at its mercy, as are most of the politicians, businesses moguls and executives pulled into professional football’s orbit. There were more people two weeks ago watching a Browns-Eagles game that didn’t count, the kind with backup players, vanilla schemes and five total points than the entire population of countries like Libya, El Salvador or Nicaragua.

More than anything, this indicates overall good health for the NFL despite recent indicators of uncertainty. We point to the ratings and the revenues, which eclipsed $8 billion in 2017, and the fact that current television deals with all major networks won’t expire until 2022. The money keeps pouring down. Just this week, teams handed out record-breaking contracts to Odell Beckham Jr., Aaron Rodgers and Aaron Donald, resetting the markets for their respective positions. Even if future generations don’t strap on helmets at the same rate, there’s still a million ways to sucker them onto a couch or a stadium parking lot, where a Bud Light can run them damn near $10 with nowhere else to go.  As legalized gambling tears it’s way through the United States, it won’t be long before even the most apathetic observer of the sport will flick on a Cowboys game via the William Hill betting app to place a $2 bet on this next field goal because, what the hell, it beats sitting in traffic and staring at the car in front of them.

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Even then, as we try and wrap our heads around the NFL’s unbelievable heft, might the times we live in answer that question years from now? Might we be looking at the beginning of the end?

Put another way: Could 2018 be the kind of season that makes or breaks the NFL?  

Acknowledging that it’s not avant garde or prescient to predict the NFL’s demise anymore (since people seem to do it every single year), consider this just another swing with updated panic.

Imagine if the worst-case scenario comes to fruition this year:

• The president continues to effectively weaponize the visual of players kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial inequality and social injustice. The mania is fueled by a midterm election cycle that could bring more vitriol and chaos than we’ve seen in decades. Teams in the south or deep red areas of the country begin to truly panic about local revenues and counter-protests. The unparalleled hate, anger and suspicion of one another permeate every tailgate and beer line—even on sacred Sunday.

The creation, or lack thereof, of a new anthem policy further widens a rift between player and team, player and fan, team and fan, and player and league.

• Despite best intentions, the new helmet rule impacts the outcome of a handful of early-season games, playing into the notion held by some that the league is getting too soft—another popular but misconceived piece of ammunition the president has used to delegitimize the sport to swaths of skeptical fans at his rallies. Alternative leagues start subtly promising a return to violence and “American Values,” much like the XFL. While these leagues are never a true threat to the NFL, the utopian idea for some fans is enough for them to abandon the NFL altogether.  

• Another unfortunate rash of injuries spreads throughout the league, hitting some of the most popular players in football. Last year it was Rodgers and Watson, Watt and Berry, Johnson and Edelman. There were more players on injured reserve or IR-designated for return, or PUP or NFI on Nov. 1 last year than any of the previous five years. Worse? Like last year, it could hit the league where it hurts the most—by taking marquis fantasy football names off the table. Fantasy games keep even the most distant fan partially tuned in on Sundays.

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• Meanwhile, the NFL continues to wriggle between a rock and a hard place. The league is feeling tugs from one side to make the game safer for the sake of its players and tugs from another to keep it tethered to its JACKED UP roots; tugs from one side to keep bad players out of the football and tugs from another sick of lengthy suspensions and investigations swallowing up the news cycle; tugs from one side who want to see scoring on the rise again and tugs from another who lament the constant rule changes and clarifications. Even when their best intentions are forward, there always seems to be a mad scramble in the league office, putting out one fire while another emerges in the background.

The evidence of a wavering fan base is not anecdotal. A new poll in the Wall Street Journal published on Friday shows that interest is down. A few weeks ago, the paper published a column wondering if it was time for owners to sell their franchises—and for the first time, the notion of getting out on a high note before the storm didn’t seem ridiculous. Most of these owners can make gobs of money elsewhere, any time, without so many eyes on their every move.

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And yet, on the flip side…

This year could also make us forget there was a problem in the first place. The quarterback dearth is quickly evaporating. Loads of young, exciting offensive players at every down positions are taking over games week after week. A handful of younger coaches, or coaches with a fresh perspective, are lighting up scoreboards with big plays and new-to-us offenses. A turn toward true parity might finally be taking place after years of tinkering.  A true optimist could make the case for about half the teams in the NFL, maybe slightly more, as having a shot to reach or win the Super Bowl.

This year could produce one of those breathless, whimsical regular seasons with important matchups dotting the prime-time schedule almost every week. The ones we remembered before it all got so complicated.

This year could be the year when the president finally drops the anthem issue altogether in search of the next outrage fuel amid his own personal turmoil, setting the game adrift on calmer waters.

This year could be better, or at least good enough to stop us from panicking for a while.

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