The NFL's 2010 Season:  From Bad to Worse (to Worst Ever?)

If you've taken some of your precious free time and invested it in the NFL this year, I'm guessing you'd want a refund.  If you don't, perhaps then you should rethink what the NFL has given you so far in 2010.  What follows is a recap - the sort of recap the NFL doesn't want you to remember - of what the league has brought its fans thus far.

Before the 2010 season even kicked off, a little covered lawsuit wrapped up in which a New York Jets fan sued the New England Patriots over the "Spygate" scandal.  The suit reached the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals where it was dismissed (read more details of this case here).  What was interesting was what came out of that case.  During the trial, the NFL actually argued that had fans known the Patriots were cheating, they still would've lined up to purchase tickets.  If that doesn't make you feel good, then consider what the judge had to say when the case was thrown out.  The judge stated in his ruiling that when you purchase a ticket for a NFL game, the only right the ticket-buyer has is to see a football game, plain and simple.  If a team cheats, if referee blows a call, or if a league manipulated/fixed/rigged the outcome, it doesn't matter as you saw a football game and the ticket seller has fulfilled their obligation to the buyer.  Consider that as you read on....

Bad Calls

Prior to Week 14 of the NFL season, ESPN aired a segment on its Sunday Morning Countdown called "The State of Officiating" hosted by former NFL players (now ESPN "analysts") Mike Golic and Mark Schlereth. The pair watched a random NFL game to see how often they believed the penalty of holding could have been called in that game. Their conclusion? Holding could be called on every down. If that is the case (and few NFL fans could or would argue it), then clearly the rules aren't being enforced, or more to the point, they are being enforced selectively. Wouldn't this then mean referees - being able to call penalties when and if they feel like it - can truly control the outcome of NFL games? 

Were any of the following NFL games rigged by the league?

 WEEK 1 - Detroit Lions v. Chicago Bears - Calvin Johnson makes a spectacular catch in the endzone late in the game to win it for the Lions.  Except the referees, after looking at the catch during an official review, determine Johnson didn't maintain control of the ball all the way to the ground.  The Bears go on to win the game, and later, their division.

WEEK 5 - Cincinnati Bengals v. Tampa Bay Buccaneers - Tied with only seconds left in the fourth quarter, Buccaneers QB Josh Freeman completes a pass to his wide receiver, but the WR clearly bobbles the ball on his way out-of-bounds. Instant replay this time rules a non-catch is actually a catch.  On the next play, the Buccaneers kick the game-winning field goal. The Buccaneers remain in the playoff hunt throughout the season.

WEEK 6 - New York Jets v. Denver Broncos - Trailing late in the fourth quarter and down to a 4th and 6 play, Jets QB Mark Sanchez underthrows a 46-yard bomb to Santonio Holmes.  Both Holmes and the Broncos DB fight for the ball which ultimately falls incomplete. After a moment of apparent indecision, referees flag the Broncos for pass interference. The Jets go on to win in route to securing an AFC playoff berth.

WEEK 6 - Houston Texans v. Kansas City Chiefs - In yet another fourth quarter, game-altering call, Houston Texans WR Andre Johnson is flagged for offensive pass interference after catching a 31-yard pass. Oh wait, the refs decide, that's defensive pass interference on the Chiefs. The Texans go on to win, yet its the Chiefs that are playoff bound.

WEEK 7 - Minnesota Vikings v. Green Bay Packers - Two calls alter this game, and both favor the Packers. The first call occurs in the second quarter when Packers TE Andrew Quarless catches an Aaron Rodgers throw in the back of the endzone.  Replay clearly shows Quarless did not have possession of the ball when he landed on his back, but the TD stands.  Then, near the end of the first half, Vikings TE Visanthe Shiancoe makes a diving catch in the endzone. This play is reviewed and it's ruled the ball hit the ground. No TD. Two plays, two incorrect calls. The Packers win, leading them to a Wildcard Playoff berth.

WEEK 7 - Pittsburgh Steelers v. Miami Dolphins - Once again, late in the fourth quarter an incorrect call changes the fortunes of two teams.  Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger dives for the endzone only to fumble the ball. It's recovered by the Dolphins, except, well, let's go to the replay. The referees oddly rule that yes, the ball was fumbled, but since replay couldn't determine who recovered the ball, they give possession back to the Steelers on the half-yard line. The very next play, the Steelers score the game winning TD. Pittsburgh keeps their divisional lead and wins a first-round playoff bye while the Dolphins are knocked out of the playoffs.

WEEK 12 - Indianapolis Colts v. San Diego Chargers - This time, one of the calls is so bad, the NFL actually apologizes on behalf of its officials. San Diego Chargers S Eric Weddle clearly turns Colts WR Reggie Wayne in what should've been ruled defensive pass interference. Instead, Weddle intercepts the pass and returns it for a TD. Chargers win. The win doesn't help the Chargers secure a playoff berth (which perhaps secures the team's relocation to Los Angeles), but the loss momentarily hurts the Colts playoff chances while improving their divisional opponents the Jacksonville Jaguars' standing.

WEEK 13 - Chicago Bears v. Detriot Lions - In a small bit of deja vu all over again, the Bears game-winning drive is influenced by a bad call against the Lions. While scrambling, Bears QB Jay Cutler crosses the line of scrimmage and is pushed down by Lions DT Ndamukong Suh.  The referees flag Suh for a "non-football act" (it's ruled Suh hit Culter with a forearm to the back of the helmet which replays proved was not the case). The extra 15-yards aid the Bears in driving into the endzone to win the game.

End of the regular season - It's interesting to note that the Jacksonville Jaguars, a team that suffered through a few blackouts last season with more pending in 2010, had a sudden resurgence and came within an eyelash of making the playoffs. Oddly enough, they were bumped out by the Indianapolis Colts, or should I say Peyton Manning, whom the networks would much rather see playing on Sunday than David Garrard.

It's also interesting that according to the Chicago Sun-Times "the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are the only NFL team that couldn't sell out any of its home games this season..." yet they, too, were a breath away from reaching the promised land of the playoffs.

Now that could just be coincidence that two suffering franchises witnessed success while the Seattle Seahawks made the playoffs with a 7-9 record while being outscored by 97 points throughout the regular season (which became a national story benefiting the NFL). But the strength of the NFL is in its collective whole, not in a single team. Though all profit when one succeeds, each franchise needs to remain strong for the league to keep pushing forward.

The Playoffs

Wildcard Weekend

Remarkably, in three of the four games - NO v. SEA, NYJ v. IND, and GB v. PHI - the underdog won straight up against the point spread (in the other, BAL v. KC, the Ravens covered the spread by a significant margin). Also, in those same three games won by the "dog", each game was not decided until less than two minutes remained in the game, with both the Jets and Packers winning on the final play of the game (for all intensive purposes). That sure helped ratings, no? Simply a coincidence?

The Seahawks win over the heavily favored (and last year's Super Bowl champs) Saints instantly squashed all talk of league and playoff realignment. Their win saved the NFL's collective face.

The Jets have been the NFL's anointed team since being gifted a playoff berth last season (remember both the Colts and Bengals laid down to allow the Jets in back in 2009). Being showcased on HBO didn't hurt them, nor has the constant press surrounding Head Coach Rex Ryan. The NFL wants the Jets around.

The redemption of Michael Vick had to end some time - he's still a villian to many fans. How the Packers nonexistant running game managed to lift an unsung rookie RB rush to over 100 yards against the Eagles lackluster defense remains a mystery.

Divisional Round

Once again, oddsmakers were off the mark. Yes, they technically went two for four (the Bears and Steelers covered), but the point spread never was a factor. That makes it eight-for-eight where the point spread has not matter for the betting public.

Now since I can't prove these games have been fixed, take a moment to consider this: had this weekend's games all been reversed (where the two favorites that won were the Falcons and Patriots, and the underdog winners were the Ravens and Seahawks), the Championship Games would have been Ravens v. Patriots and Seahawks v. Falcons. Is that can't-miss TV?

Yet the NFL is now blessed with Packers v. Bears, where the league's oldest, most storied rivalry meets in its most important game ever, and Jets v. Steelers, where the league's "heel" Rex Ryan (who made a Joe Namath-like prediction that the Jets would be in the Super Bowl during the preseason which was made into a HBO show) will face off with the NFL's other biggest villian Ben Roethlisberger.

Never mind that the Bears and Jets play in the U.S.'s two biggest media markets, according to a September 2010 Wall Street Journal article, the Neilsen Company ranked the Steelers, the Bears and the Packers as three of the top five most popular NFL teams in the U.S. ("America's Team" the Cowboys are #1, but they couldn't play in a "home" Super Bowl). This is all merely coincidence, right?

Can you question the play in this weekend's games? I can. How many drops did the Ravens WRs have? Was that holding on the Ravens' punt return? What happened to the unstoppable Patriots offense? Wes Welker was benched why again? And while the Bears and Packers won convincingly, what happened to the Falcons' D? The NFL average is one in every eight offensive drives from 80 yards results in a TD. The Packers did that in four consecutive possessions.

Championship Games

Both the Packers-Bears and Jets-Steelers games were really determined by halftime. Both underdogs - in the gambling world at least - somehow staged second half comebacks, making things interesting for the viewing public all the way until the two minute warning. I'm sure the NFL appreicated that (with a special thank you to the Bears' Calib Hanie).

But what may be the oddest thing to come out of the two championship games was what occurred in Las Vegas. Once again, Vegas bookmakers were off the mark in setting their lines (and to date, the point spread has yet to come into play in any of the 10 playoff games this season). Bettors made both the Packers (approximately 65%) and the Steelers (approximately 60%) their choices, and they were correct. Vegas was the loser.

Super Bowl XLV

The result of the Super Bowl came as no surprise to me. Could you really picture Roger Goodell handing the Lombardi Trophy to Ben Roethlisberger after how this season began for the both of them?  Another non-surprise was the fact that the Super Bowl was the most watched televised event in US history (the playoffs were no slouches, either, ratings-wise as they set records, too). Not a bad little money grab for the NFL and its broadcast partners on the eve of a lockout that may cancel the entire 2011 season.

Hope you enjoyed it all, football fans.

Player "Safety"

The NFL is rightly concerned about its players suffering from concussions. But let us not forget that perhaps the real reason this has become a league-wide issue is due to the NFL's alumni association. Had these former NFL players not repeatedly pointed out the suffering of its own members - and at the same time demanded money from the NFL to help those former players suffering from post-concussion syndrome - perhaps the "problem" of helmet-to-helmet hits would have never been raised.

Due to the seeming rise in helmet-to-helmet collisions, the NFL has cracked down on players' tackling habits to the point of absurdity.  Pittsburgh Steelers WR Hines Ward rightfully pointed out the NFL's hypocrisy regarding player safety (part of his rant deals with the NFL's want of an 18 game season, something I'll get to shortly) and what the NFL considers a legal hit. The problem has become that players don't know what is and isn't a legal hit after the NFL's meddling. Ndamukong Suh, in the "illegal" hit on Jay Cutler mentioned above (which, recall, wasn't illegal at all), was still fined $15,000 for the tackle. Meanwhile, prior to Week 17, the NFL actually lowered the fines doled out to three players (including helmet-to-helmet hit poster boy James Harrison pictured above) for their "illegal" hits due to appeals on the players' behalf.

Some of the helmet-to-helmet hits in question are clearly against NFL rules. That is true. But perhaps the real reason why concussions are on the rise has more to do with the size, speed, and strength of the players and not these evil helmet-to-helmet hits. 

NFL players are becoming near super-human, and much of this has to do with performance-enhancing drugs. Charlie Bernstein, a member of the Pro Football Writers of America, stated in an interview with me on his radio program that he had a source inside the NFL who believed at least 75% of NFL players were taking Human Growth Hormone (HGH). HGH is not tested for in the NFL as there is no urine test yet to detect the drug. So players are free to use it at will, despite the league's PR campaign claiming its players are drug-free.

Perhaps the rise in concussions has more to do with bulked up players and less to do with players leading with their helmets.

"Investigations"

It is a rare time that a league such as the NFL isn't embroiled in some sort of controversy. This year is no exception to that rule. Each week brings another story of players arrested for an assortment of crimes while others routinely test positive for drugs and face manditory suspensions (see my own chronicle of these infractions). The NFL doesn't seem to care because none of these incidents stop fans from watching football. Proof of this is clear:  why else would Michael Vick be voted in as the starting QB for the NFC in the Pro Bowl?

But there have been four controversies in the NFL this year that bare further investigation. However, since the NFL has no oversight, a true investigation will never be conducted into any of these stories. If something does come from the league office concerning any one of these stories, the NFL will (as routine) chalk it up as an "isolated incident" and wait for the controversy to blow over.

You, the fan, should not forget so easily.

The Brett Favre/Jenn Sterger Soap Opera - By now, you know the details: Favre, while a member of the Jets may have sent "inappropriate" photos and text messages to Jets sideline "reporter" Jenn Sterger. Yet this story didn't break until two years after the incident occurred, and it only seemed to come out because the sports blog Deadspin paid a secondary source for the messages. 

What should only matter to NFL fans is the investigation the league conducted regarding this incident. Prior to Week 16, the NFL had yet to reveal its "findings" though sources claimed the investigation concluded. Commissioner Goodell in fact told Sports Illustrated that he was "following up" on the investigation to make sure he came to the "right decision" just prior to Favre being literally knocked out of the Monday Night Football game (and likely professional football) by the Chicago Bears.

Finally, just prior to the end of the 2010 regular season, Commissioner Goodell brought down his fist. The ultimate result of this fiasco was to fine Favre $50,000 for "failure to cooperate" in the investigation which revealed next to nothing of substance.

This raised two immediate questions: One, how did Favre "fail to cooperate?"  The NFL and Goodell never once made mention to the press that Favre wasn't being fully cooperative prior to this fine. Nor has the league said where Favre was failing them since the fine was levied.

Two, Favre's "failure to cooperate" somehow did not violate the NFL's "personal conduct policy," meaning no suspension (unless the NFL told Favre "reitre or else" as I believe the NBA told Michael Jordan years ago). How is that possible? 

So get this straight, NFL fans: a player's unwillingness to help the league in an investigation does not mean that player is violating the league's conduct policy. In other words, stalling and lies lead to no punishment. Nice precedence, NFL. Perhaps we'll get the real story as Favre is being sued by two former Jets' massage therapists over similar accusations.

The Jets/Dolphins Sideline Trip - The New York Jets strength and conditioning coach Sal Alosi deliberately tripped the Dolphins punt-return gunner Nolan Carroll during the two teams' Week 14 game as seen above. Alosi has already apologized, been suspended "indefinitely," and fined $25,000 for his moronic action.

Will the NFL further investigate why Alosi did what he did? No, they originally stated. Why? It was the action of one coach who apparently lost his mind, if only momentarily. (Or, in other words, he was thrown under the proverbial bus by the Jets and the NFL would let them handle it.)

But was that really the case? Not that Alosi was told to trip a player if he came close, but now what were only rumors have been confirmed: Alosi "ordered" Jets players to line up along the sidelines on punt returns to impede the opposing teams' gunners. This action, the NFL now claims, is illegal and has been since an owners' meeting earlier this season (coincidental, no?). 

Meanwhile, the Jets actual special teams coach Mike Westhoff went on a media tour of sorts (he appeared on NY and even Chicago radio for some reason), making sure everyone knows he had nothing to do with Alosi's apparent season-long activities and hinting that the Patriots ("a team up north" as he actually stated) regularly formed a similar type of player-wall during punts. Head Coach Rex Ryan had "no idea" these infractions were occurring, either. Amazingly, no one seems to find this odd considering the amount of game film that is watched each week in coaches' meetings.

After all of this, the NFL suddenly changed its tune and decided to look into the affair. Yet, what really seemed to interest the league is coach Westhoff's comment about the Patriots. Why? Apparently a league memo written by Commissioner Roger Goodell was circulated back in 2008 warning not to spread false claims about other teams or else face league punishment.

As a result, prior to Week 17, the NFL fined the Jets $100,000 for Alosi's "rogue" actions and Westhoff's comments against other teams. Justice served.

This sort of behavior is not really an isolated incident. It's known that teams do engage in behavior that seems more Spy-vs-Spy than you'd believe. This includes searching visiting team's hotel rooms for playbooks accidentally left behind to things such as....

Denver Bronocs (Former) Head Coach Josh McDaniels Picks Up Where Spygate Left Off - Supposedly a six-minute video of the San Francisco 49ers walk-through practice caused this latest videotaping controversy. When the Broncos played the 49ers in London this season, Broncos' video operations director Steve Scarnecchia recorded six minutes of footage and handed it off to Broncos Head Coach Josh McDaniels. McDaniels' sin wasn't watching the tape (he claims he didn't), but it was failing in reporting it to the "proper authorities" fast enough.

In the aftermath of the minor scandal, Scarnecchia was fired and faced banishment from the NFL (as he was involved in the Patriots' original Spygate scandal - one in which the NFL claimed there was only one tape, but the truth revealed several seasons' worth of violations), McDaniels was fined $50,000, and the Broncos also were fined $50,000. A few weeks later, McDaniels was fired by the Broncos.

Is that really all there is to this story? Six minutes of tape destroyed two careers and cost $100,000? How valuable could that six minutes have been as the Broncos lost to the 49ers that day 24-16?

McDaniels claimed he didn't even tell Scarnecchia to make the tape. So what made Scarnecchia go rogue? No one will know as the NFL considers it "case closed." But if you believe that two former members of the Patriots from the team's Spygate days (McDaniels and Scarnecchia) didn't do more than just film six minutes of a walk-through practice to face those penalties, you're just the sort of fan the NFL loves.

MNF Referee Asks Coaches to Call Time-Out on Behalf of ESPN - Some people don't believe my claims that the NFL and the networks that broadcast their games can influence what occurs on the field. That's simply an unproven NFL conspiracy theory. This story - which was quickly squashed - proves those doubters wrong.

In the Week 6 Monday Night Football match-up between the Tennessee Titans and the Jacksonville Jaguars, the head referee approached both coaches at the two-minute warning and asked each of them to use their remaining time-outs as ESPN needed more commerical breaks to fulfill their advertising commitments.  It sounds far-fetched, but that's exactly what Titans Head Coach Jeff Fisher told a press conference after he was asked why, when losing 23-3 with two minutes to go in the game, opposing head coach Jack Del Rio suddenly decided to use his remaining time-outs (to no avail, the Titans scored another TD and won 30-3).

The story quickly spread the day after the game, with some outlets reporting that the NFL was going to investigate Fisher's accusations. Then suddenly - poof! - the story disappeared. Why? It was just one of Jeff Fisher's practical jokes...or at least that's what was claimed by a Titans' reporter.

Fat chance.

This is exactly the sort of dirty laundry the NFL never wants revealed. None of its broadcast partners would be foolish to follow this story (especially ESPN which never mentioned the incident anywhere - on TV or on their website) as they know what it really means. NFL football is meant to make those who own it and broadcast it rich, and you're meant to buy what they're trying to sell. If they can cram a few more minutes of advertising into a game, by hook or by crook, they will. Because despite the blow-out, this MNF game was the highest rated show on television for that week.

Will There Be a NFL in 2011?

Now that the NFL's 2010 regular season has concluded, ask yourself: do you really want/need two more games prior to the playoffs?

Due to the end of the league's collective bargaining agreement with its players, there is a good possibility the NFL will not be playing any football next year. The warning signs are everywhere, from the players' union preparing to decertify itself for better legal leverage to NFL teams explaining to their fans how they can receive refunds for their 2011 season tickets to Commissioner Goodell's one-sided email to fans.

Of course, most NFL owners won't mind not playing football next season as they wisely bargained a $5 billion pay-out from their TV network partners for next season even if a single down isn't played. The players, meanwhile, have been told to save their final few paychecks from this season...just in case.

An agreement hinges on two things: an 18-game season and the players' willingness to cut their take of the NFL's revenue from the 59.8% they currently receive. In other words, the owners want the players to do more and make less, otherwise, no football.

What would you do if you were a player?

As Pittsburgh Steelers WR Hines Ward pointed out, the owners give the subject of player safety lip service in regards to the issue of helmet-to-helmet hits, but now these same owners want the players to go all out for 2 more games each year and face further bodily damage. Meanwhile, owner income will certainly rise (that'd be two more games worth of ticket sales, hot dog/beer/t-shirt sales, and most importantly, TV & radio broadcasts), but players' salaries won't.

Unfortunately, the owners hold all the chips in this situation. If they don't get what they are demanding, they don't have to open their doors and hold football games. Fans can label it "billionaires v. millionaires" or whatever they choose if a labor agreement isn't struck, but the end result is the fans will suffer. But since baseball fans and hockey fans who swore off their sport during the MLB's and NHL's recent labor struggles returned to the game once bygones became bygones, the NFL owners know full well that if no football is played in 2011, the fans will be back come 2012.