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Is 2022 a Watershed Year for the Steelers and the NFL?

Tom Brady might be coming back, but he’ll be playing in a fundamentally changed league.

NFL: Super Bowl LVI-SoFi Stadium Views Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

News of Tom Brady’s brief retirement from the NFL might be welcomed by many sports fans, if only because it seems to restore some continuity to a league which generally appears unhinged. Everyone has their preferred explanation for the middling brand of pro football we’ve been watching the past few years, but it’s difficult to avoid the impression the NFL is trending in the wrong direction.

Head coaches absorb most of the blame when the home team doesn’t win but, in reality, they enjoy far less control of circumstances today than ever before in NFL history. Conversely, marquee players like Brady, Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers and Matthew Stafford exert more influence over their teams’ year-to-year fortunes than any head coach. Many in Steelers Nation criticized the team for allowing Ben Roethlisberger to extend his career at the beginning of last season. But that decision was indicative chiefly of the outsized clout which franchise players possess these days. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers weren’t going anywhere near another Super Bowl next season without No. 12 at quarterback, and you can bet Tom Terrific will squeeze every ounce of advantage from his indispensable status.

Today, an NFL front office faces nearly insurmountable barriers in building a team capable of contending for longer than a year or two. Nowhere was the crapshoot nature of today’s NFL better represented than in a lackluster Super Bowl between the Los Angeles Rams and Cincinnati Bengals. If these two teams truly represent the cream of today’s NFL crop, it doesn’t speak too highly about the league’s overall direction.

Of course, we’ll never get an honest assessment of the current state of the NFL through the filter of the league’s vast promotional apparatus. This includes head coaches whose jobs often depend on their abilities to spin failure on the gridiron into the fine cloth of hopeful expectation for next season and beyond. Likewise, don’t expect objectivity from highly paid network broadcasters who understand the importance of their ability to portray even the most dismal gridiron performances as being somehow imbued with redeeming qualities.

But the Pittsburgh Steelers might have achieved a public relations coup when they hired Brian Flores as their new senior defensive assistant. Personifying the Rooney Rule in Pittsburgh is remarkable, though, only because the NFL generally has failed to live up to its professed commitment to racial equality. This is only the most glaring example of many instances where the league continues to misrepresent its true motives.

The fundamental disconnect between a collision-oriented sport and the serious risk of players suffering debilitating injuries from CTE cannot be resolved without substantial changes in the rules and essential nature of pro football. It’s impossible to design a football helmet which protects the human brain from repeated jarring injuries that lead to CTE. For this reason — and particularly because the risks have become more evident with each new medical study — more NFL players are choosing to retire early and, more often, in the prime of their careers. As with equality in the coaching ranks, however, the NFL has opted to punt the ball on CTE, substituting the pretense they’re dealing effectively with the issue.

The league’s failure to appropriately address requirements of the Rooney Rule and player safety represent burgeoning threats to the sport’s long-term viability. But perhaps the most corrosive and immediate factor impacting what we see on the field is the overbearing weight of player celebrity. To cite some examples, Patrick Mahomes, Joe Burrow, Josh Allen, Kyler Murray, Justin Herbert and Lamar Jackson are among the quarterbacks widely considered to represent poster boys for the new NFL. What remains unclear is how the pervasive marketing of these players’ personal brands ultimately will impact their football careers. The same applies equally to marquee players at other positions.

For example, how likely are we to see any of those talented quarterbacks retire from the game at the age of 38 or older? These days, a highly-drafted college quarterback signs a guaranteed contract that makes him a multi-millionaire before ever taking his first NFL snap. What impact does this non-delayed gratification have on the mentality of players and their commitment to being Hall of Famers? Having earned more money in the first few years of their careers than anyone can spend in a lifetime, where is the motivation to reach the level of excellence represented by older-school players such as Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady, Drew Brees or Brett Favre?

Not surprisingly, sports pundits these days focus more on celebrity rumors and the financial angles of pro football than on the end product. In reality, these factors have become more crucial than coaching, officiating or any other rationale fans may cite for the success or failure of their home team. Many fans appear oblivious to the ongoing decline in the overall quality of NFL games because they’re too personally invested in the entertainment “fix” they receive each week during football season. Ironically though, a definite and noticeable uptick has occurred in the use of “unwatchable” as a common descriptor for what fans are witnessing on the field.

The league’s top brass apparently is betting that, no matter what the games look like, fans’ rabid support will overwhelm any sense the customer is getting less and less quality for their time and money. So far at least, the bet is paying off. NFL players and their agents, of course, also understand how the league has changed and their dominant strategy today appears to be getting the greatest possible financial advantage in exchange for the lowest possible production on the playing field. This has become a race to the bottom.

Fans should recognize that, due to the impact of big money, the celebrity it brings, plus other changes implemented during the past decade or more, success on the field no longer represents the long-term, methodical project it was when Chuck Noll (or even Bill Cowher) paced the sidelines. More than ever before, the Super Bowl quest has become a year-to-year game of chance — an annual roll-of-the-dice replete with incalculable personnel shifts and substantial uncertainty about factors as basic as the core commitment of marquee players. While it’s true that reaching the Super Bowl always has been an uncertain quest, these days the quest depends far more on random, uncontrollable factors.

As for the end product, the “Hershey-bar” analogy applies because the end product keeps getting smaller and less satisfying while the marketing keeps insisting it’s a new and improved version. But as consumers of pro sports, we don’t have to keep buying that puny candy bar. If pro football is to survive and continue to flourish, the NFL needs to return to the core principle that a football stadium fundamentally is an arena for sport rather than business competition.

But if we truly prefer watching “moneyball” instead of football, then we should build bleachers at the New York Stock Exchange and start selling jerseys embossed with the names of top hedge-fund managers. To the degree that the NFL operates first as a business and secondarily as a sport, fans invariably will be shortchanged while the overall quality of the game continues to decline — even given the availability of bigger, stronger and faster athletes.

Despite their commitment to equality in hiring coaches, the Steelers suffer equally from the impacts of dominant trends in the league today. Hence, besides the troubling absence of a franchise quarterback, the faithful of Steelers Nation shouldn’t be at all surprised if the Black-and-Gold’s 2022 regular season winds up looking somewhat aimless and disjointed. In reality, that has now become a characteristic of the entire league. Having placed greater emphasis each year on factors superfluous to the game itself, the NFL is trivializing the sport which it supposedly exists to strengthen. Time will tell whether the pendulum begins to swing back in the opposite direction.