If NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was running for political office, his spin doctors behind the scenes might have won the war this week.
Over the course of the last week, in a Wag the Dog style of media manipulation, Goodell turned what should have been egg on his face into eggs Benedict. Illusionist David Blaine would be jealous at the mastery of Goodell's team.
It was clear that former Commissioner Paul Tagliabue was going to rule on the Goodell-imposed suspensions this week. In a brilliantly scripted move, Goodell deflected the apparent exoneration of the Saints players – Tagliabue took the "they were just taking orders" approach – in a pre-emptive strike mode. In a Time interview, Goodell threw out the potential of eliminating kickoffs and, in the process, allowing teams down by 23 points late in the fourth quarter to win a game without the opposing offense ever getting back on the field. That got players and fans alike asking, "What the…?"
A day after being rebuked by Drew Brees, the primary apologist for the Bountygate scandal, Goodell proposed increasing the playoff pool to potentially 16 teams – half the NFL field.
As expected, players and fans alike responded negatively. Of 40,000 people who chose to vote on an ESPN television poll about the proposed switch, 72 percent (a total that voted the same way in all 50 states) claimed to be in favor of keeping the current playoff system. So did the players surveyed. Therein lies the Goodell spin team genius.
Considering that the Vikings were at the heart of the Bountygate scandal – nobody heard about a price placed on Peyton Manning's head in the Super Bowl, just Brett Favre – it would be natural to think that the Vikings would have pointed opinions on the Tagliabue verdict. Instead, less than 24 hours later, the behind-the-curtain string-pullers were gleeful because the thunder that was supposed to follow the Bountygate lightning didn't happen. Goodell announced a plan to potentially/maybe/possibly extend the playoff field. It grabbed the attention of the nation, including Pro Bowler Jared Allen.
"That's stupid," Allen said. "I think it's a dumb idea. The reason our league is so much better than other leagues is that competition. Every game means something. You have 162 games in baseball. Nobody really watches until the end. Basketball (is) the same way. There's no real significance on every game. I think you damage the sport if an 8-8 team (makes the playoffs). Now our games are less significant if you know, hey, I can still lose half my games and make the playoffs. Now your division becomes not as important. I think the way our system is (now) is great. I honestly think we should get back toward more what the fundamental basis of what football was. With all these changes, it's not necessarily always a good thing."
Erin Henderson had a similar take on the potential fattening of the playoff pool. If the proposed system was in place, the Vikings would be entrenched in the playoff chase, as opposed to the "run the table" long shot. Even as such, the team would rather earn their way in under the current system than back in under a homogenized system.
"I kind of like the system the way it is," Henderson said. "You have to fight every week in order to have a chance at the end of season to make the playoffs. If you expand it, it becomes a little easier and the games may not mean as much to people week in and week out."
The change in kickoffs and expanded playoff schedule may never happen. But both have become "talkers" among the national media. Along the way, the "resolution" to the Bountygate scandal – an unqualified loss of commissioner's position of power – was buried in the consciousness of NFL fans.
48 hours ago, there was outrage at the NFL's rush to judgment on Saints players. 24 hours ago, that story got buried by the thought of a 7-9 team making the playoffs.
It worked. It was brilliant.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.