DALLAS – (Special to Digital Sports Desk) – Let’s see if we have this right.
A week ago, the NFL’s world was in crisis, with declining television ratings, officiating controversies and a lack of new stars.
Then, in an instant, the Cowboys, fueled by two rookies, edged the Steelers, followed by the Seahawks surviving against the Patriots, Sunday late-afternoon and evening classics that drew boffo ratings, New England beaten with the help of a controversial non-call that head coach Bill Belichick said was OK, and the two young quarterbacks drafted at the top of the class a year ago producing absolutely brilliant performances and victories.
In other words, most everything we thought last week is inoperative. What the heck. Why should analysis about the NFL be any more prescient than all that wildly wrong political punditry we saw for the last 18 months?
It doesn’t necessarily mean that all is well with the NFL, but it’s a clear sign the league is hardly in its death throes, either. If it seems like just about every headline in the last 22 months, since the Deflategate saga, has been about something that has nothing to do with football, that’s the fault of NFL suits, led by their commissioner, who can’t seem to get out of the way and let the game take over.
Last weekend proved the game was still the thing, when they let it be.
We’ll start with Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota, the quarterbacks drafted 1-2 in 2015 by Tampa Bay and Tennessee. Remember the old days, when quarterbacks had to serve an apprenticeship, learn by watching, break in slowly? Isn’t it interesting how, as the NFL has become more of a passing league, quarterbacks arrive more ready to play than ever before?
Winston (23 of 33, 312 yards, two touchdowns, 107.1 rating) and Mariota (19 of 26, 295 yards, four touchdowns, 149.8 rating) were brilliant in victories over Chicago and Green Bay, respectively. It was only the second time in their nascent careers that both quarterbacks led victories on the same day, but, just a hunch here, this will happen a lot more before they are done.
It was Mariota’s fifth game this season with a passer rating above 100, Winston’s fourth.
Of course, you need more than just two terrific youngsters to start a trend, and Dallas rookies Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott, the NFL’s leading rusher, look like they could have the Cowboys primed for a nice post-season run.
Dallas’ victory at Pittsburgh brought back memories of another bunch of rookies leading a team out of the wilderness in the Steel City, 35 years ago, when the 1981 San Francisco 49ers announced their arrival by out-toughing the four-time Super Bowl champ Steelers. It wasn’t long after that the 49ers were four-time champions themselves.
Then there is Belichick, whose name rarely appears in the same sentence as words like classy and understanding, but who said he had no problem with the non-call on the final meaningful play of his team’s loss at home to Seattle, when Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski and Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor collided in the end zone and Tom Brady’s pass fell incomplete.
“It was a really competitive play,” Belichick said. “I thought the game was well-officiated. They did a good job of letting the players play. I mean they called some things they had to call. I focus really on our team, what we can do. That’s what we need to do.”
Belichick’s words – focus on his own team – gave a hint to the real issue troubling the NFL. In big cities like San Francisco and Chicago, not to forget Los Angeles, which hadn’t even had a team for two decades until now, you must be of a certain age to remember the glory days. It’s hard to attract new fans or even retain old ones when your team stinks the way the 49ers and Bears do, and in both cases, suffer from significant, self-inflicted wounds.
That would start with the firing of successful coaches.
The 49ers are 6-19 since they fired Jim Harbaugh, who reversed a decade of losing before management decided he was too much of a pain to keep on the payroll. Wonder how they feel now about those empty red chairs in Santa Clara?
And the Bears are 21-36 since deciding that keeping the team highly competitive was not enough for Lovie Smith to keep his job. Between them, Harbaugh and Smith took five teams to conference championship games, and they both led a team to the Super Bowl, a destination these 49ers and Bears look likely to reach in the near future only by buying tickets.
Meanwhile, the Patriots-Seahawks game had the highest Sunday night TV rating in five years and the Cowboys-Steelers game had the highest overnight rating of any NFL game this year on any network.
As always, however, there is still a warning sign before the league can get too euphoric over those ratings. Glamorous matchups getting terrific ratings only means the league is not comatose; it does not mean all the troubles are in the past. But at least, it was a dose of positive news for a league that recently has needed some.
–Ira Miller is an award-winning sportswriter who has covered the National Football League for more than five decades and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee. He is a national columnist for The Sports Xchange, the wire service for Digital Sports Desk and Sports Direct Inc.