If the 2011 NFL offseason is granted any sort of legacy, it could be remembered simply as the Year of Words.
Within the current NFL landscape, words -- and of course, litigation -- have become the only harbingers of change. While the language used in the context of the league's labor situation retains a more sinister tone, it will ultimately prove meaningless. It is similar to the terminology that is devoted to the NFL draft process.
Draft analysts try to define hundreds of 21-year old college football prospects through words such as "lock," "risk," "riser" and "faller." Or on a more personal level, such declarative phrases as "I'm in love with…" or "I'm not in love with…" exist to establish an arbitrary draft board as well as question the user's basic emotional connection to the world that exists outside of football.
My personal favorite has always been the term "value." Nearly every draft analyst who holds any type of profile — and those who don't — along with legions of NFL executives will exhaustively cite that phrase throughout the extended draft weekend. On the surface, "value" should refer to a team who selects a quality player who will directly benefit their Sunday product. However, in the lexicon of draft talk, the term more represents landing a player at a position that is divergent from the imaginary one created through mock drafts and simulated draft boards.
In that sense, "value" is determined solely through the use of words. In the long term, any player who can contribute to an NFL team, regardless of their draft position, is valuable. Five years from now, a fifth-round pick could regularly outperform a higher pick. Or, that same player may never see the field. Conversely, a player who "falls" throughout draft weekend may prove to be a "value." That is, at least until some on-field production could be actually measured and evaluated.
"Value," at least in its current construction, can be nothing more than a temporary definition. If a true argument can be made regarding a player's worth to an NFL franchise, then we need to project ahead at least 10 seasons into a football future that none us can accurately predict.
Outside of a full genetic scan, litany of invasive personality tests and some advancements in stem cell regeneration, it is anyone's guess which prospect from the upcoming draft will prove to be valuable in 2021. It is worth a venture into guessing what the NFL could look like at that time. After all, today's prize prospect could be deemed worthless simply based on what tomorrow's game will ultimately resemble.
In order to predict a future NFL landscape, let's first reach back into the league's regulatory past.
Starting in the early 1990s, the NFL was largely shaped by a conservative approach to offense. Or, perhaps more correctly, teams were still allowed to play the type of physical defense that had been a hallmark of the league for its previous 70 years of existence. While some teams were able to score points through early incarnations of the spread offense, or more modern versions of the single wing, points came at a premium. As a result, most Sundays were framed by a series of field goal contests.
The solution to the league's lack of offense, and subsequent decline in the casual fan's viewing interest, led to rule changes that favored offensive production. The kickoff line was pushed back, quarterbacks were deemed "hands-off" and league officials began to target more physical cornerbacks. By all accounts, the rule changes produced more scoring along with a wider viewing audience.
This shift continued into the next decade and evolved as the league's more progressive teams began to further exploit the system. The Colts, Steelers and Saints emerged as Super Bowl champions, despite fielding an offensive unit that featured flawed offensive lines and subpar rushing games. Along the way, the likes of NFL power players, such as Indianapolis GM Bill Polian, have further reduced the physical nature of defense to an afterthought.
Nearly two decades of a passing-dominated league have contributed to record-high TV ratings and advertising dollars, while garnering the interest of millions of casual fans. In theory, those rule changes were wildly successful. However, with so many balls being thrown around NFL fields on a given Sunday, some casualties would certainly occur.
A passing-driven league is now being met head on by medical advancements regarding the short and long-term effects of brain trauma – stemming largely (or at least most publicly) from prone receivers being blasted over the middle of the field by opposing defenders.
The NFL being what it is, which in this case is a billion-dollar corporation who suddenly and inconveniently has to deal with an issue that runs counter to the brutally physical nature of its product, has now begun another in a series of reflexive legislative changes. In an ill-fated attempt at grabbing some type of positive public relations momentum, the league recently declared that the kickoff line will be pushed back – or forward – to its pre-1990s mark. Allegedly, the rationale behind this move is to eliminate high-speed collisions on kickoffs by practically eliminating kickoff returns. Yet, in typical NFL fashion, the real problem behind the recent surge in concussions is not addressed.
After all, the casual fan doesn't really care about kickoffs. It's what happens after that defines the true value of the NFL viewing experience.
However, even the most of blind NFL followers have to realize that a seismic shift has already begun. Simply put, science, and a league concerned about its image and public perception, will dictate that the NFL cannot sustain its on-field product for the long term as it is currently constructed.
The sad truth is that the casual fan is just that — casual. Passing is more exciting than running and the overall evolution of most players suggests that there is no turning back. However, that nagging feeling of dread will continue to tug at the heart of the league office for the foreseeable future. Every time a quarterback leads a receiver into some human missile disguised as a strong safety, those in charge of governing it will lessen the physical integrity of the game.
Of course, considering the success of the league in its current form, those changes won't happen rapidly. A more logical projection could see the league slowly start to ban passes to certain areas of the field. Perhaps this legislation could come in the form of the gradual de-emphasis on defenses playing zone coverage. A future NFL could see the likes of James Harrison not allowed to drop into coverage, akin to some friendly, yet neutered sort of Pro Bowl game.
For football purists, any more changes to the physical nature of the game are not desirable. However, the NFL no longer needs to market its game to this type of fan. Instead, the NFL is now fully conscious of providing an entertaining contest that doesn't resemble what an enterprising journalist, medical professional or semi-human advertiser could characterize as involving brutality.
On a related note, the extreme end of my future vision would see the league completely ban tackling. In the realm of showing genuine concern for player safety, anything less would be completely hypocritical. Of course, no one with any connection to the game wants to entertain this possibility, despite the early indications that this could indeed happen one day.
Regardless, the signs are striking. The game is changing, which dictates that the value of players has to dramatically change. In an NFL universe where physical contact is being de-emphasized to the point of nothingness, the on-field product is shifting towards a game of flag football. Going back to my original idea of determining a future player's value, such factors have to be considered in the draft process — both now and in the future.
So again, if we project ahead at least a decade, then positions such as outside linebacker and safety will lose value over time regardless of the ability of a given player. In a future NFL world, premiums will be placed on quarterback, wide receiver, tackle and cornerback. Anything else is just filler, at least until my next scenario presents itself.
Although the NFL tries to regulate every aspect of its product, it simply cannot perform such a task. While the basis of rule changes serve to fill some alleged public need (i.e. fan entertainment or player safety) there are always going to be smart coaches working 20-hour days in an attempt to exploit whatever is forced upon them by the league offices.
Using my earlier prediction that the league will eventually ban zone defense, it is worth suggesting that the value of receivers who possess great straight-line speed will increase. In this future league scenario, man coverage can be exploited downfield. Defenses will naturally catch up, which could return to prevalence basic play-action football.
In this sense, a team's running game gains a level of importance not seen in more than a decade. Simply as a means to set up big plays downfield, that concept makes sense. In terms of value, another emphasis shifts back to teams fielding strong, athletic offensive lines. Running the ball to set up a pass that is anything but a 5-yard out could become in vogue.
A further complication could arise when a defensive player, hungry to perform what is in his nature, begins smashing running backs into their own sidelines. Another five years of brain trauma research effects more legislative changes and in another extreme scenario, running off tackle is eliminated in favor of the straight-ahead variety. Suddenly, the value of interior guards and defensive tackles dramatically increase.
Three yards and a cloud of dust returns to the vocabulary of NFL fans and analysts, at least until the league returns to its early 1990s roots, which produced the type of football that necessitated all these rule changes in the first place.
And then the cycle will begin again.
And no one will have any clue how to determine the value of a draft pick.