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Looking back, it wasn't just the year of Brett Favre(notes) redemption and Michael Vick's(notes) return. It wasn't just about Chris Johnson chasing 2,000-yard excellence, or the New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts losing perfection in vastly different ways. Indeed, 2009 was a rougher year for the NFL than we will remember.
Three players (Corey Smith(notes), Marquis Cooper(notes) and Chris Henry) lost their lives. The frightening impact of concussions became far more apparent. Stadium issues lingered. And the potential for labor strife inched closer with each passing month. But with 2010 upon us, the NFL once again has its eye trained forward, poised for another pivotal offseason of decision.
With that in mind, we offer a set of New Year's resolutions for the league – changes which could impact the NFL in 2010 and beyond. Starting with …
Resolving to think radically with concussions
The league has already begun to attack the two simplest fixes with concussions: rule changes and equipment alterations. But in a way, those two remedies work against each other. Legislation tries to limit the violence of the game, but new equipment actually fosters more violence by making players feel safer when they are delivering or absorbing hits. Perhaps it's time to start thinking outside the box – thinking more about mentality or chemistry.
If the mentality of football players is to hit and deliver blows with the helmet, why not make the crown of the helmet stronger but replace the facemask with a less-rigid shield, similar to what hockey players wear in the NHL? It sounds insane, but ask NFL players and many will tell you: If there wasn't an indestructible facemask on helmets, players wouldn't lead tackles with their head and face. Or if such a drastic alteration is unthinkable, perhaps it's time to start thinking along the lines of chemistry and the development of medical cocktails which help reduce the risk of concussions. Fiddling with blood is likely just as unpalatable as removing a facemask, but if the league is serious about curbing concussions or eliminating them entirely, it has to be willing to explore some ideas far outside of the box.
Resolving to get the rookie wage scale in place
It seems like the possibility of a scale has actually become less of a reality over the past year, with ownership and the league office now looking at 2012 as the earliest time such a scale could be implemented. But like most things with the NFL, the longer the league puts off tackling an issue, the less likely it is to come to fruition. Yet this isn't a debate anymore – something has to be done to curb the guaranteed money at the top of the NFL draft. What was once a problem with only the top three picks has now extended beyond the top five.
If the trend continues, teams won't be able to draft inside the top 10 picks without doling out ridiculous guarantees to unproven players by the time 2012 rolls around – particularly if the Oakland Raiders continue to crank up salaries at the top of the draft board. One only needs to look at the nearly $82 million in guaranteed money surrendered to Oakland's past three first-round picks (JaMarcus Russell(notes), Darren McFadden(notes) and Darrius Heyward-Bey(notes)) to understand why the trend is so troubling. The Raiders are to blame for their own mess, but they are damaging the system as well. Put a wage scale in place and shorten all rookie contracts to four years. By then, teams will have a much clearer picture of what they are paying for.
Resolving to extend the collective bargaining agreement
The situation looks dim – we get it. Everybody seems to have a different opinion about what the lack of a salary cap/salary floor would do to competitive balance, and whether a lockout in 2011 is really a possibility. However, there is no denying that the bread and butter of the NFL stems – at least in part – from the league's ability to keep itself on the field. And when the league forgets that, it'll quickly find out that fans don't care about revenue percentage points and which side is getting the richer end of the deal – particularly when fans have already spent years paying through the nose to keep season tickets or even get solid single-game seats.
Fans aren't stupid. The players' salaries are out in the open. Nobody is crying for even the 53rd man on a roster. And fans know billions in television revenue are keeping every NFL owner in the black. This is a fight over maximizing earning potential or investment. If players give back some of the revenue pie, owners aren't going to suddenly decide to pass that savings on to fans. They are going to pocket it. That's fine. Players and owners have the right to make as much money as the market allows. But the fans are still the market, and a work stoppage is unacceptable. One way or another, the collective bargaining agreement needs to be extended.
Resolving to tweak the Rooney Rule
Teams shouldn't be permitted to satisfy the Rooney Rule by interviewing in-house minority candidates for head coaching jobs. It is a lame, perverted tactic that only serves to circumvent the whole spirit of fostering diversity and opportunity. And frankly, it's creating a hostage situation for coaches who are being asked to interview by teams that already employ them. Look no further than the slimy situation with the Washington Redskins, where secondary coach Jerry Gray reportedly interviewed for a head coaching job that has yet to come open. Gray should have never been put into the uncomfortable position of being asked by the Redskins to interview.
If teams genuinely want to give in-house candidates more than a token interview, that's great. But the league should mandate that teams seek out at least one minority candidate outside of the walls of its own facility. Will that guarantee a more honest approach to the rule? Perhaps not. But it will make it more legitimate than a team merely going the easy route and seeking out a candidate who's down the hall.
Resolving to create a veteran symposium
The league already institutes an extremely interesting and wide-ranging symposium for rookies, dealing with the larger world that will be opening to them as an NFL player. But I have always wondered why the league didn't take a moment down the line to reconvene with some of those players and take the development one more step. In that vein, the NFL should create a veteran symposium, mandatory for players who are under contract and in between their third and fourth year in the league.
Such a symposium could take the tenets of the rookie symposium a step farther. Since the group of players would be considered veterans who have their feet planted firmly beneath them, the NFL could focus on helping players develop a wider array of skills: leadership, financial planning, business development, community involvement, coaching skills, postcareer planning, etc. For many veterans, it's the prime part of their careers, and there is simply a greater understanding of their environment than when they are 20, 21 or 22 and just entering professional football. That wisdom should be seized and developed.
Resolving to repair the NFL's stake in California
There are just too many pressing problems with stadium issues in the Golden State. Not only do all three of the league's teams need new stadiums (or at the very least, massive renovations), there is still the issue of Los Angeles. That's a troubling reality for a state that has contributed so much to the NFL. Some legitimate progress, not talk, needs to be made with infrastructure – not only for the fate of the San Diego Chargers, San Francisco 49ers and Oakland Raiders but for the Super Bowl, which should regularly rotate to the West Coast.
Getting a team into Los Angeles is less vital, which is why the push has largely been tabled since the retirement of former commissioner Paul Tagliabue. But real-estate billionaire Ed Roski is clearly motivated to get a team into L.A., and that should be embraced – particularly in an environment where some NFL cities (such as Jacksonville) are having difficulty supporting their teams at the gate or getting a new stadium built (such as the Minnesota Vikings and every team in California).
Resolving to stop tinkering with offensive rule changes
This is a simple one. The protection of quarterbacks has gotten to the tipping point of consistently altering games. The interference rules are fostering wide-open passing games. Receivers are more protected than ever. Eight quarterbacks have surpassed 4,000 passing yards this season, and that number could easily swell to 11 – more than one third of the league – after the season finale. Clearly there is no need to make it any easier for offenses. Just leave it be. Let defensive coordinators catch up, and if need be, adjust in 10 years.