I came out of this past weekend feeling a bit like I did after viewing the Red Wedding on Game of Thrones. It all struck me as being more fascinating than depressing. It unfolded differently for me and though I didn't exactly end up in Red Lobster like Homer J, I came away with a perspective that would suggest that we may need to engage in a difficult conversation about the direction of professional football.
My great nephew was being baptized Sunday morning, in Baltimore of all places. I could have stayed in Charm City and watched the game there, but I had made arrangements to join my friend Sarah at a sports bar in Virginia. So, as I'm racing past Ravens Stadium about an hour away from my destination but a half hour before kickoff I decide to tune into Espn Radio so I can at least keep abreast of what's going on. I remember three things that I heard during my mad dash down I-95:
A report that in spite of all the changes made through the new CBA that season ending injuries in the NFL were up by over 29 percent. As we all now know, this little factoid would prove to be grimly prescient.
The first points of the first NFL Sunday was a safety by Tennessee. Good news.
Maurkice Pouncey was carted off the field. Worse case scenario.
This news prepared me for what I witnessed once I arrived at the bar. It was still the first quarter, but the Steelers contingent was subdued. It wasn't a particularly happy afternoon for anyone. Sarah's boyfriend is a Ravens' fan, so he was, shall we say, humbled. The folks at the table besides us were Patriots fans who watching their team do everything they could to screw the pooch against the Bills. The response after New England kicked a last second field goal to win the game was "Thanks for not choking!" Ohio was losing to the Bears and Dolphins respectively.
Didn't think of going to Red Lobster afterwards. That would have been a good idea. I was probably distracted by the fact that I had been gifted a ticket to following evening's game between the Eagles and the Redskins, so my football weekend was far from over.
A lot of interesting things happened Monday evening. We had very good seats, plus there was this woman who was seated directly behind me who was a Federal employee but she moonlighted as a stripper. She was really into the game, very excitable, so much so that she kept bumping into me. She felt bad about this and apologized by rubbing my shoulders, kissing me on the cheek any number of times, and whispering some provocative suggestions in my ear. There also was some conversation about sliding down banisters and why someone who had lived in Marlboro, Maryland her entire life was an Eagles fan, but this is another story for another time. I merely mention it to give a flavor for the in stadium experience in Washington. The observations that are more relevant for this piece (and a football site) are these.
On the field:
The Chip Kelly offense had its impressive moments, but it soon seemed clear to me that over time having a 53 man roster to run this thing as opposed to an 80+ roster will make a difference over time. I also think its a good bet that Michael Vick will not get through the season unscathed. (Side note. Philly's good fortune was too great a temptation for some of the Eagle fans who don't need much motivation to act like jerks as it is. As one guy who was sitting next to me could not resist taunting the Skins fans, the response was the 'D' word; dog killer, in reference to Vick. Figured if it had been the Steelers we would have been treated to the 'R' word; rapist)
RG III didn't just look rusty, he also didn't appear to be particularly healthy. Something about his leg...
Washington fans were also not enamored by the play calling of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. "They keep throwing that damn bubble screen!" Sound familiar?
Off the field:
Sticker shock. The face value of our tickets was $109 dollars. The parking pass was $75. A beer was $9.50, chicken strips and fries were $12. Dan Snyder was this unseen presence that invoked disgust.
So what is the point of these disjointed observations? Let me suggest that what we are facing here is more than just about the sorrows of the Steelers.
Why are there so many injuries? There is a lot of conversation about this and I don't have any earthly idea about why, but I am willing to entertain the possibility that in certain aspects of their preparation, particularly with weights that players may be over trained. I think something can be said in terms of the arms race that requires that players never take a significant break from training least they fall behind their competitors, and, just as importantly, be perceived as being less committed.
The related issue is, why the 53 man roster? What does that serve other than the greed of the league and its owners. I don't believe for a moment that a 70+ roster would in any way threaten the profitability of any of the teams. Obviously the salary cap is part of that discussion as well. The Steelers were compelled to bring back Jonathan Dwyer. Maybe its time to ask why they had to part ways with him in the first place.
The reasons for setting the roster sizes and salary cap at the current levels has nothing to do with the competitive logic of the product that is on the field. Indeed, it is becoming clear to me that it is becoming less sustainable before our eyes. How does any of this benefit the fans? In fact, it is becoming increasingly apparent that both fans and players are being ripped off to facilitate an obscene level of profitability for the league. Its called killing the goose.
Lets start with the fans. Its one thing to charge whatever the market will bear as far as tickets, concessions and the like. But to me it takes a certain amount of cheek to have the public, in most cases, subsidize your ability to conduct your business in the form of providing a venue for your team to perform (the stadium), and then show your gratitude in the form of seat licenses, grossly over priced concessions, and in the case of Washington, discouraging access to the stadium via public transportation in order to realize additional profits from parking costs.
On the other side of the equation the combination of the cap, small roster sizes and non guaranteed contracts insures the suppression of labor costs increasingly at the price of being subject to an inferior product. Veteran players find themselves out of the league not because they can no longer contribute on a performance level, but because they have become too 'expensive' in an industry that realizes billions of dollars in profits. Small roster sizes and the lack of guaranteed contracts also insures that players and their teams will feel pressure to ignore or play through injuries which often result in sustaining greater, more debilitating injuries. They then feel compelled to rush back from these injuries and perform, perhaps safely, perhaps not, but often at reduced capacity. RG III? Heath Miller?
I'm not so concerned about wins and losses during the first week of the season. Two factors effect our perceptions of the first week. We base our assumptions on what happened last year. The Patriots were predicted to win the Super Bowl this year by some, the Titans are supposed to be a bad team. If true then the Bills must be world beaters and the Steelers must really suck. And what about the Bengals? Or the Ravens? There is also the fact that teams have months to prepare for the opening game, but also have very unreliable information about what their opponents might actually be capable of given what is known. Its simply too early to tell. Even the Eagles fans were, at best, cautiously optimistic based upon the results of Monday night.
But regardless of what transpires over the course of the remainder of the season, we already know that the injuries that have occurred and those that are certain to follow has degraded the product.
More from Behind the Steel Curtain:
- Steelers Film Room: Fernando Velasco broken down
- NFL Week 1 recap: More fascinating than depressing
- It's time for the Steelers offense to lead
- Jarvis Jones expects to start, if not in Week 2, then soon
- Steelers secondary faces tough Bengals passing game
- Steelers had several moves in restricted free agency of 2013
- Week 2 NFL picks
- Which Bengals player would you want on the Steelers?
- It's quite easy to go from king to jester in the NFL