We're approaching my favorite time of year on the calendar. Summer slowly giving way to sporadic hints of fall...the unmistakable chill in the morning, the green on some of the leaves on the trees looking slightly less vibrant. More than the four seasons themselves, I embrace the transitions between them.
And football. Pro football is back. College football is back. Fantasy football is back.
And, yet, this particular August, I am the male version of Debbie Downer. Anytime my sons or my friends or my work colleagues are partaking in an enthusiastic discussion about the upcoming National Football League season and they can barely contain their excitement, when I stroll into the room, the scene's soundtrack turns to those famous three depressing notes: Wuh, wuh...WU-UUUUH.
It's going to be a dreadful NFL season. I don't make that proclamation because I think our beloved Purple is going to once again break our hearts, although if you base strength of schedule on last season's records, they have a difficult schedule that could make reaching 11 or even 10 wins a major challenge. The Vikings will be fine. They will make the playoffs. But, oh, that offensive line...
I’m channeling Debbie Downer, though, because of the NFL’s rules. And yellow flags. And referees getting more time on camera than players on the field.
It's agonizing for fans. We're already trained now, when someone catches a pass, to hold our breath and stare in suspended silence as the player secures the ball, makes a “football move,” starts to get tackled and falls to the ground, all part of completing "the process." If the ball moves 1/100th of a millimeter, it's no catch. Apparently, the "completing the process" rule has been tweaked after several debacles over the past few seasons over catches that look like obvious catches to the naked eye being ruled incomplete passes. But the NFL being the NFL, any improvements to rules relating to the proper reception of a pass will be outweighed by what is to come this season when teams receive a 15-yard personal foul when their players lower their helmet while making a tackle.
This is going to be ugly. And don't tell me that the referees are simply enforcing the rule in overdrive fashion during the preseason to send teams, players and coaches a message, in advance of the games counting in the standings. That’s a nonsensical strategy. A play results in a penalty or it doesn’t, whether or not it's the exhibition season, the regular season, or the playoffs.
Now, whenever our favorite Vikings defender makes a key tackle or sack that involves an actual hit and not simply wrapping up the running back, receiver or quarterback, fans are going to once again stare in suspended silence, waiting to see if yellow flags fly, or not.
Last Saturday's preseason contest between the Vikings and Jacksonville Jaguars served as a primer for the looming abyss. Yes, Vikings fans and a whole bunch of other football fans are up in arms about the seemingly innocent sack by a Vikings linebacker resulting in a roughing-the-passer penalty. But, after the Vikes' Anthony Barr ended the season of beloved Aaron Rodgers on a hit last year that didn't trigger a flag, the NFL is going to protect quarterbacks at all costs this season. And if you closely examine last Saturday's sack, the linebacker, even though he's not on top of the quarterback and pile-driving him into the turf, does give him a little extra thrust as they hit the ground, and if a referee has a sliver of an opportunity to call roughing the passer, he's going to call it.
The new lowering-the-helmet rules are what will have NFL fans stroking out this season. In last Saturday's tilt against the Jags, Vikings fullback C.J. Ham caught a short pass, turned up field, lowered his helmet in obvious fashion and steamrolled into a Jags cornerback, who also lowered his helmet in response to Ham's actions. Flags flew, and the cornerback was called for a 15-yard personal foul. Three other flags were thrown in the game for similar violations, and upon second glance, the three tackles seemed to be run-of-the-mill football plays. In the midst of scrum-like activity, you could see a helmet being lowered, but you certainly never thought someone’s health or, more specific, their brain was in danger.
The NFL brass is faced with the impossible task of reducing violence in a game that is based on bodies colliding with each other. With fewer parents letting their sons play youth football out of concern for their safety and long-term health, the viable, long-term future of the NFL is at stake, so the people made ultra-rich by its long-term run of astounding success know they have to do something. As a result, the NFL brass and its team owners say they are committed to a several-years-long process of making the game safer.
But in the process of getting from here to there? As a fan, prepare to lower your head...and bury it in your hands.