There's no question that football is the most popular sport in America today. Every year, the Super Bowl is one of the most watched programs on television. The league revenue currently exceeds $9B and continues to grow along with the game's popularity. This website was created for the purpose of discussing football on a daily basis, as an effort to explain the game to the average fan. Even with the sports growing popularity, there are issues with the NFL that could eventually ruin the popularity of the sport. Those issues include sloppy games that results from the shortening of offseason, shady activity in the NFL Front Office, and an over-complication of the NFL rulebook that makes the game difficult to understand.
Point #1: Quality of the Game Has Lessened Due to Shorter Offseason Workouts and Shorter Training Camp Schedules
In the 2011 CBA negotiation, the players asked that NFL practices in the offseason and training camp be more regulated. That means shortening the schedule in the offseason and no more 2-A-Days in training camp. The owners accepted that without hesitation because it doesn't affect their bottom line. It sounds like a great idea on paper, but like with most great ideas on paper the execution of that idea wound up going in a completely different direction. Since there are less padded practices, that means less time for offensive lines to gel and now teams essentially treat preseason games as glorified practices and the first month of the season as preseason. For a lot of teams, they could be out of the playoff race before they have any remote clue to how good their team might be.
The domino effect of this has also applied to the offensive line. Most college teams run some sort of spread offense with a Zone Blocking Scheme where the objective is to deter linemen from penetrating the line instead of driving them off the ball. Very few teams in college run anything similar to NFL blocking schemes, with Florida State being one of those teams, which means there is an obvious learning curve for when a player transitions to the NFL. In an ideal world, you would prefer to not need your rookies to have to contribute, but nothing is ever ideal. You have limited offseason time to try to teach the techniques and how you want them done to your players, which places undue stress on the coaching staff. It gives an unfair advantage to top coaching staffs like the Patriots and also puts teams behind the 8-ball if they are installing anything new.
As we saw last year, the offensive line did not quite gel until the 5th week of the season when the Patriots opted to go with veteran players on the interior over more talented young players. Dan Connolly and Ryan Wendell wound up sticking at the position not because they were the most talented players but because they knew exactly how Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels wanted things done upfront. Bryan Stork stuck at center because he had a ton of experience at the position for a Pro Style blocking scheme and also because he was the best center in college football the year before. In the draft, the Patriots picked up another Florida State linemen in Tre Jackson. Jackson has been kind of meh so far this year, he's flashed the ability to be a solid guard but also makes the obvious rookie mistake at times where he's overthinking instead of focusing on his job. Even Shaq Mason has a smaller learning curve than most spread OL prospects because he came from a system that focused on driving off the ball instead of moving the line to create a crease.
The deterioration of offensive line play across the league, chronicled by Sports Illustrated (must read), has resulted in star QBs getting injured. Ben Roethlisberger, Drew Brees, and Tony Romo are all on the shelf because of injuries. Yards per carry before contact has dropped below 4.00. The 3.96 YPC average is the lowest number since 1990. Since there is less time in the offseason and training camp programs, there is less time for coaches to correct mistakes. Those mistakes lead to more penalties since players haven't had enough practice with the proper technique. Penalties are at an all-time high and while the early part of the season generally yields more flags as referees try to get across the points of emphasis from the league, the penalties are a likely result of bad technique.
The deterioration of OL play has nothing to do with the talent level. In fact, the talent level couldn't be any better now than ever before thanks to advances in nutrition, dieting, and strength and conditioning programs. The problem is the less amount of time of interaction between coaches and players really hurts the development of young players. This is also probably part of the reason why Bill Belichick rotates in offensive linemen during the early portion of the season. The only way to get better at football is to practice football things and play football games. With the shortened offseason and training camps, there are less opportunities to do those activities. The fault of this lies more on the Players Association than the league itself.
Part 2 will deal with the NFL Front Offices and their enforcement of parity and "integrity"