There are a litany of reasons as to why the first half of the 2009 NFL season has been a spectacular flop. Too many bad teams with bad coaches relying on too many young and inexperienced players: Those are the kinds of problems that shave fair-weather fans away from the turnstiles and NFLShop.com. Whereas speculation on a London Super Bowl, Michael Vick's reinstatement and Rush Limbaugh's futile attempt at owning the St. Louis Rams: Those are the kinds of public relations meltdowns that drive large segments of fans away their TV sets and out into the streets with placards and catchy slogans.
How did The League get into this mess? A breakdown...of the NFL's breakdown:
No. 1: There's no parity in the league this season: What we have are three legitimately good teams (New Orleans, Minnesota and Indianapolis), a couple of teams we think are good (Cincinnati and Denver) and a bunch of also-rans. It's as if the NFL has suddenly become the WNBA.
I'm convinced that there have never been as many bad teams in the league as there are this season. And by bad, I mean virtually unwatchable. There are the perennial cellar-dwellers, teams like the Lions, Rams, Chiefs and Raiders. Then are the relatively new cellar-dwellers, teams like the Jags, Bucs, Browns, 'Skins and Bills. And now there are the brand-new cellar dwellers, teams like the Titans and Panthers.
Now, it stands to reason that the NFL will always have a few bad teams season-to-season, but when a third of the league is playing unwatchable football... that's a big problem. In fact, those 11 teams are so bad, they're overshadowing the play of the three teams at the top.
No. 2: The NFL is full of awful coaches, which probably explains why a third of the league is playing unwatchable football.
Wade Phillips, Jack Del Rio, Jim Mora, Jr., Jim Zorn, Dick Jauron, Tom Cable, Todd Haley and Raheem Morris - eight NFL head coaches who have no business being NFL head coaches:
• We all assumed Wade Phillips was hired to do what Bill Parcells wouldn't - lug around Jerry Jones' chamber pot. He's fulfilled that role adequately enough, but has done little else to convince any Cowboys fan that his ship is sailing the correct course. And Jones, not at all famous for his patience, seems to be at the end of his tether.
• Alabama fans laughed out loud the day Jack Del Rio hired Mike Shula to be his quarterback coach. Since then, we've seen the careers of two successful Jaguars' quarterbacks (Byron Leftwich and David Garrard) circle the bowl and disappear.
• The disciplined approach that Dan Reeves employed as head coach of the Atlanta Falcons (you know, the same approach that got them to the Super Bowl in 1998) was tossed out the window the day Jim Mora Jr. succeeded him. Letting Michael Vick run wild on and off the field... that didn't work out, did it? The Seahawks giving Mora a second chance might have an even worse outcome.
• Notable old Redskin John Riggins learned how to use the YouTube machine just to convey this message to current Redskins' coach Jim Zorn: "I do wish you luck...but you are gone!" Ouch! Being the first team to lose to the Chiefs this year probably will serve to hasten the embattled coach's departure.
• Dick Jauron's Bills lost what could only be described as the worst game in the modern history of the league a couple of weeks ago, a 6-3 death march against the Browns. Buffalo lost despite giving up only two pass completions for 21 yards to the Browns offense. The one thing we'll credit Jauron with: He has effectively destroyed Terrell Owens' career. So, it's not all bad.
• Raiders' coach Tom Cable allegedly punched one of his assistants in the face and broke his jaw. He's currently under investigation for criminal assault. If only he had punched Al Davis in the face...
• Todd Haley and Raheem Morris... the former has not the temperament to be a head coach at this level, the latter has not the experience. Yes they are brand new at this head coaching thing, but both are equally awful at it.
No. 3: In the past year the NFL is has alienated - I assume unwittingly - two large segments of the American populace: Ideological conservatives and animal lovers.
First, the conservatives - Red State America, if you will. Do me a favor and type "red and blue counties 2008" into your Google machine and click on the first link that comes up. That's a county-by-county breakdown of the 2008 presidential election, one of the barometers that indicates how much of our country leans left and how much leans right. Although Barack Obama won the recent election by way of an electoral landslide, there's no fudging the fact that red vastly outnumbers blue on that map. Yet, the NFL seems almost insistent on rubbing Red Staters the wrong way.
Now, I'm not here to discuss politics. If you want to know what side of the political spectrum I'm on, you can go back to the election coverage archives from last year and piece it together for yourself. I know that I don't have to be a conservative to know how they think. A lifetime of living in the Deep South taught me that. Geopolitical alliances, immigration and attacks on conservative mouthpieces - three things that rile them up. Three issues the NFL has waded into within the past year.
Moving the Super Bowl to London? Expanding the game internationally? Outsourcing America's pastime to foreigners? Better know that's going to be the topic of conversation on local AM radio.
Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month by having the referee call out the first penalty in Spanish? Whoa! The NFL can't speak American during Monday Night Football? How many TV sets in Red State America clicked off immediately after that?
Rush Limbaugh is refused the opportunity to own a football team? Isn't that socialism? It's for sure not the American way!
Now, are some of those reactions a bit over the top? Of course. But when have you known the far-right (or the far-left) to operate on the plane of rational thought? Not in this day and age. If there's one thing that we've learned since Jan. 20, 2009, it's that conservatives love to protest and they do it well. They've already re-written the urban dictionary on "teabagging" - think of what they could accomplish if they turned at once on the NFL.
For others, their NFL experience has forever been soured by a certain third-string quarterback in Philadelphia. A girl I know well - beautiful, smart and a big football fan - hates (hates!) the NFL now. Why? Because Michael Vick is back. And not only is he back, he's recouping his fortune. And not only is he back and recouping his fortune - he's getting a reality TV show! She doesn't believe that anyone responsible for introducing the phrase "rape stand" into the lexicon should ever be granted a second chance at fame and fortune in the NFL. After months of internal debate, I'm inclined to agree with her.
What Vick did was despicable, borderline unforgivable. I've never been to a dog fight, but I've heard tales - none of them I feel comfortable repeating here. I also don't have a dog - but I do have a cat. And if anyone - even my favorite NFL player (the current starting quarterback in Philadelphia) - walked into my apartment and strapped my cat to a rape stand, I'd kill him where he stood. Because that cat's not my pet, she's my little girl. In the eyes of animal lovers, who see pets as members of the family, Michael Vick may as well have drowned a cousin or electrocuted an uncle.
Now Vick did his time and paid his debt to society. And that's good. He seems in some way contrite for his actions, which is also good. But during this whole ordeal with Rush Limbaugh (who, for the record, I find similarly despicable), we kept hearing the same thing: The NFL is not a right, it's a privilege. It's a country club. We can let whoever we want in, we can keep whoever we want out. Fine, that worked against Rush Limbaugh. Why couldn't it work against Vick?
Next Week: Is the NFL getting too dangerous?