Pick up the NFL schedule for the last month of the season. Find a game that turns you on. We dare you. On Dec. 19 the Miami Dolphins will host the Buffalo Bills, and the AFC East title could be at stake—if backup quarterback Steve DeBerg and his dental floss arm can keep the Dolphins afloat. The Jan. 2 meeting of the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Giants could be a biggie, even though the Giants are in one of the worst offensive funks an 8-3 team has ever been in.
But come on now. Roll out the Big One. Where's the Monday-nighter that's going to blow Northern Exposure clear back to the Arctic Circle?
It's not there.
O.K., let's turn to the players. Who's the rascal that half of us love and the other half love to hate? That would be Deion Sanders, except that he spent the first six weeks of the football season riding the Atlanta Braves' bench. On top of that, his Atlanta Falcons are 5-6 and will appear on national television only once the rest of the season.
Who's the charismatic hero that we can't read enough about? That would be Kansas City Chief quarterback Joe Montana. He plays about once a month, when his hamstring wakes up on the right side of the bed. His heir to the NFL marketing throne, Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman, also hurt a hammy, and his final month of the season is touch and go. Four more of the game's brightest stars—Dolphin quarterback Dan Marino, Giant linebacker Lawrence Taylor, Detroit Lion running back Barry Sanders and Philadelphia Eagle quarterback Randall Cunningham—have all missed playing time with injuries, and Marino won't be back at all.
No question about it, a malaise has settled over the NFL because, very simply, the game is not as good as it used to be. "Is it just me, or is this the worst football we've ever seen?" says broadcaster Matt Millen, the former linebacker. No, Matt, it's not just you. We saw what a wonderful game pro football can be when Dallas and Miami played that nail-biter in a snowstorm on Thanksgiving Day. But for three months we have seen too many crummy field goal duels, too few big plays.
Yes, the games are as close as ever, and the Sunday-afternoon ratings are down only slightly from last year. But what are we watching? Games of skill or games of chance? You get the feeling that quite often it's not the ability of the players that decides these games. Instead, it's a silly mistake, like the officials' failure to properly operate the clock in the final minute of the Los Angeles Raiders' 24-20 win over the New York Jets on Oct. 10. Or it's a matter of who survives a war of attrition; injuries devastated two perennial playoff teams, Philadelphia and the Washington Redskins, by the middle of October. Or it's who has the hot kicker; the San Diego Chargers, still in the playoff hunt after Sunday's games with a 4-6 record, would be 2-8 if not for kicker John Carney.
Yes, the NFL is ailing, but solutions—none of them radical—are at hand.
1 The problem: Parity is a monster unleashed. Don't get us wrong; we are in favor of free agency, but just as the open marketplace can bring a bad team closer to contention, it can also drag a good one down to the middle of the pack by sapping it of its backup quarterbacks and overall depth. This is only the first season of free agency, and for the first time since the '50s, pro football has gone two straight years without a 9-1 or 10-0 team. Think about that. There are some very good teams right now—Dallas and the San Francisco 49ers seem to be the best—but no great team. Certainly nothing like the Dolphins of the early '70s or the Niners of the '80s. Says Millen, "Parity is fine, if we have good teams beating each other. But bad teams with good records are beating each other, and usually the games are full of sloppy play."
The solution: The NFL must reward, not punish, solid, long-term franchise-building by modifying the salary cap, which is set to begin in 1994. Teams with expensive, talent-laden rosters will soon be at a disadvantage in the battle to keep their free agents because they are either at or above the projected spending limit. For next year only, each team should be allowed to exempt its two highest-paid players from the total payroll. If not, the 49ers, with a payroll that is currently some $10 million over the projected cap, could lose three starting offensive linemen, wideout John Taylor or fullback Tom Rathman during the coming off-season. If the Niners decide to open the vault for those players, they would lose substantial depth because they would have spent so much to keep the stalwart starters. If they don't, one of the NFL's marquee players, quarterback Steve Young, could be rendered helpless behind a feeble offensive line. Either way, one of the league's flagship franchises will be weakened.
2 The problem: One quarterback injury and a contender falls like a house of cards. It used to be that when Sonny Jurgensen went down, Billy Kilmer would swagger in. Out went Bob Griese, in came Earl Morrall. Today, Cunningham goes down and in comes...Bubby Brister. Philadelphia's season is over. Here's a list of backup quarterbacks who are a pulled hamstring away from guiding playoff contenders: Ty Detmer (Packers), Tommy Maddox (Broncos), Kent Graham (Giants), Browning Nagle (Jets), Peter Tom Willis (Bears). If you're a defensive back, you've got to be licking your chops.
"The quarterback thing really is the key to what's happening in the league," says John Madden. "There's so much pressure on the passing game today. If you don't have a good passing game, you don't win. Yet you can count the great quarterbacks on one hand. The colleges aren't developing them. So you have not enough good quarterbacks, and that leads to not enough good teams, and that leads to not enough good games."
The solution: The NFL has already begun working toward this one by reviving a World League for the spring season of '95. Now each NFL team must stock a World League with bright quarterback prospects—as Miami did successfully with Scott Mitchell, and Detroit didn't with Andre Ware—for grooming. Teams must also offer guaranteed contracts to backup quarterbacks. This would make a good backup think about staying where he is, rather than jumping to the first quarterback-poor team that calls. Had the Eagles signed Jim McMahon to a guaranteed multiyear deal before last season, for example, he might have had them in the chase. As it is, McMahon is with the Minnesota Vikings.
3 The problem: The double byes are a double disaster. A second bye week was added this season in order to stretch the network TV schedule to 18 weeks. The bonehead result was that there were as few as 10 games per weekend through the first two months of the season, not 14. Fewer games, fewer chances for good games, obviously. Another by-product of the double bye: With so much time off between games, teams fall out of sync. "We beat Minnesota, and we were ready to roll," says 49er quarterback Young. "Then we had to pick our noses for two weeks before playing Dallas." The result: Dallas 26, San Francisco 17. The 49ers are 1-3 after bye weeks over the last three years, 30-8 without a week off.
The solution: When the new TV contract is signed, probably early next year, it should provide for a 16-game schedule over 17 weeks. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue told SI last week that this will probably be the final year of the practice of giving two weeks off to each team. Thank you, Commissioner.
4 The problem: Saturday consistently brings all the best college football games in the nation to our living rooms. But until January, Sunday never brings us all the best pro games. On Saturday, Nov. 20, viewers in New York, the nation's biggest market, were able to watch Ohio State-Michigan, Boston College-Notre Dame, Miami-West Virginia and North Carolina State-Florida State. In other words, nearly every game with major bowl implications. The next day New Yorkers endured a yawner (Jets 17, Cincinnati Bengals 12) at 1 p.m., followed by another (Giants 7, Eagles 3) at 4. The Pittsburgh Steelers versus the Denver Broncos, the day's most interesting matchup, was not available to New Yorkers because a league rule effectively prevents a game from being shown opposite the telecast of the home team's game. Local broadcasts of the Jets and the Giants are never blacked out, because both teams sell out Giants Stadium. Consequently both teams are on TV every Sunday, which deprives some 2.5 million to 3 million viewers of the choice of switching to a more exciting or more meaningful game. The same thing could happen in Los Angeles, the second-biggest market, if the Rams or the Raiders were ever to sell out their respective stadiums—which doesn't happen often these days.
On that same Sunday night, New York, L.A. and the rest of the country were subjected to the national telecast of Minnesota versus the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, two NFC Central also-rans.
The solution: The networks must give New York and Los Angeles the doubleheader game each Sunday, so they aren't penalized for simply having two home teams. Likewise, both CBS and NBC must give the league the option, at least once a year, of switching a good game into that showcase Sunday-night slot to replace a who-cares game.
5 The problem: Kickers are becoming too good for the game, and they are too big a factor in the outcome of games. Including point-after conversions, placekickers are accounting for 35.1% of the points in NFL games this season, an alltime high—and that's way too much.
"We shouldn't diminish the importance of kickers," says New Orleans Saint kicker Morten Andersen. "If quarterbacks excel, what should we do? Use a weighted ball to penalize them?"
The solution: A number of things must be done to return the NFL game to a contest of who scores the most touchdowns—and we'll deal with most of them in a moment. But first, bring on the two-point conversion. Imagine the suspense it would add to a 28-20 cliffhanger at the two-minute warning. "It's the most exciting play in football," says Young, who used it in the United States Football League a decade ago. On June 30, 1984, Young's Los Angeles Express trailed the Michigan Panthers 21-13 with a minute to play. The Express scored a rushing touchdown, making it 21-19, and Young scrambled in for the tying conversion. The Express won in overtime.
6 The problem: Unlimited substitution is killing offenses. These days defenses are filled with specialists who stay fresh by playing only 20 or 25 plays a game. In their Super Bowl run last year the Cowboys often fielded 19 players a game on defense, some for only a handful of downs.
You can hardly blame teams for indulging in this sort of musical chairs; free substitution encourages specialization and role-playing on both sides of the ball, but the problem is most glaring on defense. Situation substitution, however, is clearly bad for the game. Whatever happened to the great all-around linebacker who blanketed pass receivers as efficiently as he stuffed the run? Or to the defensive end who stopped the run on first down and rushed the passer on second and third? If the Steelers of the '70s were playing today, Jack Ham or Jack Lambert might not be every-down players. The result is that a fan has no idea whom his team is putting on the field much of the time. Players simply become interchangeable pawns in a chess match between coaches.
But defensive specialization is creating something even more ominous than the gradual disappearance of marquee defensive players. Specialization is stripping the game of touchdowns. Defenses are laying back in soft zones near the goal line and saying: We'll let you get close, but we won't let you in. Five years ago 52.5% of drives that penetrated the red zone—the area inside the opposition 20-yard line—ended in a touchdown. This year that figure is down to 46%. Football was never meant to be an 18-on-15 game. It was meant to pit the 11 best offensive players against the 11 best on defense.
The solution: Each unit, offensive and defensive, must be allowed only one substitution per play. You want to play in this league? Fine. You have to be able to do more than one thing well. Side benefits could be a reduction in the size of rosters, which would allow payrolls to stay within the bounds of reason, and even a reduction in the size of players, who would have to be more mobile and more durable.
7 The problem: Big plays are becoming extinct. The safe, deep defensive zones are squeezing the life out of offenses. Four years ago Sterling Sharpe led the NFL with 90 catches for an average of 15.8 yards per catch. Today Sharpe is leading the NFL with 76 catches, but this time for a meager 11 yards per catch. The coverages on the great receivers have become stifling. "There are not as many risk-taking defensive coaches throwing blitzes at the offenses," says Phoenix Cardinal defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur. "So there's not as much exposure to the big play."
And there haven't been this few big plays since the Carter presidency. In 1989 there was one 20-yards-plus play per 18 downs. Now it's one per 23 downs.
The solution: See No. 6. With unlimited substitution, defenses can keep shuttling fresh nickelbacks in to help out with coverage on deep-threat receivers like Michael Irvin of the Cowboys and Jerry Rice of the 49ers. Let's even things out so that cornerbacks and safeties are as winded as the wideouts, and so that great secondary receivers like Dallas's Alvin Harper and the Niners' John Taylor might find themselves in single coverage.
8 The problem: artificial turf. Nobody likes the stuff. The players are convinced that it is a factor in injuries, and it has become a burr in the relationship between players and owners. "If AstroTurf is so good," Aikman says, "then why do all the artificial-turf teams practice on grass during the week?"
Players of the '90s are bigger, faster and stronger than they were in past generations, and artificial turf makes the game even faster. As a result, the damage done to the body during high-speed collisions—whether body on body or body on turf—is greater.
The solution: Rip out the plastic stuff at the four football-only outdoor arenas—Rich Stadium in Buffalo, Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Texas Stadium in Dallas and Giants Stadium in New Jersey. This would raise the percentage of games played on real grass from 46% to 64%. "If New England and Chicago can rip out artificial turf and put in grass," Jet quarterback Boomer Esiason says, "there's no reason a place like Buffalo can't."
9 The problem: The 40-second clock makes offenses rush and misfire. After 10 games there have been fewer touchdowns than in any season in the last decade. The 40-second clock, introduced this season, was supposed to speed up the game. The upshot has been the addition of a whopping four plays per game, but the average play has been less effective. With more time, brainier quarterbacks are able to check off at the line; but with only 40 seconds between plays, quarterbacks must hurry and run plays that in many cases they know won't work. Indianapolis quarterback Jack Trudeau said that in a game this season in Cincinnati, he wanted to call audibles three times in the red zone when he saw the Bengal defensive schemes. No chance. The 40-second clock was winding down, and he would have cost the Colts a delay-of-game penalty by checking off.
The solution: Put five seconds back on the clock and give quarterbacks a chance to use their game-calling IQ.
10 The problem: The game has no characters and almost no color. You're the NFL. You're about to select an expansion city for the league's 30th team, and the leading candidates are St. Louis and Baltimore. St. Louis offers a domed stadium with artificial turf. Baltimore offers a football version of the Orioles' lovely Camden Yards, with natural grass. The St. Louis group is bankrolled by a developer named Stan Kroenke, who has no football experience and no feel for the game. One of the Baltimore groups is led by a ponytailed spark plug from the youth-apparel business named Leonard (Boogie) Weinglass. Weinglass wants to turn kids back on to football. He says he'll hand out 2,000 free tickets to kids at every game to forge a new generation of fans.
So what happens? Maryland governor William Donald Schaefer backs another gray suit, financial executive Alfred Lerner, to obtain the Baltimore franchise, and the clear impression is that NFL owners will be more comfortable with Lerner. Weinglass is, in effect, waived.
The NFL hierarchy has gradually been rendering the league faceless, smothering any tiny uniform innovations with $1,500 fines. "We need personalities in this league, and we need nicknames and gimmicks," says Esiason. "We used to have the Steel Curtain and the Fearsome Foursome. Where's that? The NBA accentuates the personalities, but we don't."
The solution: Follow the NBA's lead. Make the game young again, in marketing and philosophy. When it comes time to choose expansion sites, don't just think market size; factor in passion. Encourage individuality. Embrace Sanders's exciting versatility and Miami linebacker Bryan Cox's fire.
There's still time. Polls tell us this is still America's game. Fix it, NFL. Give us Miami-Dallas in the snow once a week, not once a season. Make us excited about fall Sundays again.