When Indianapolis Colts receiver Reggie Wayne caught his foot in the turf and ruptured his ACL on Sunday Night Football, he wasn't the only one crying.
For Colts fans, Wayne was the bridge between their glorious past and their glorious future. A six-time Pro Bowl wideout whose injury snapped a 189-game streak of showing up for work, Wayne was making a run at supplanting former teammate Marvin Harrison in the Colts' franchise record book.
Worse yet, the Colts were trying to make a run at the Super Bowl.
Wayne joined a slew of high-profile starters who went down in Week 7, bringing up an uncomfortable truth: As family-friendly and globally marketable as the NFL is, it's still an inherently violent game that puts players on the ground, on golf carts, on backboards and in hospitals.
It's hard to market friendly-faced players as crossover pop-culture celebrities when those same players are being ripped apart on the field of play.
If the NFL wants to maintain dominion over the American sports fan—and it does—what can league leadership do to protect the game from itself?
Protecting the Players
Well before we knew what we now know about concussions, brain injuries, dementia and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the NFL was taking steps to protect quarterbacks—and their heads.
The rule that outlaws hitting a quarterback or defenseless player with the crown of the helmet? It was adopted in 1982, per NFL Evolution, and expanded in 1995. The quarterback slide and kneel, which allows players to safely surrender on a play? Put in the rulebook in 1985. Blowing a play dead when an offside defender has an unabated path to the quarterback? Instituted in 1991.
Though it seems like a rolling group of aged veterans have continually declared the game "soft now" or "for sissies now" my entire conscious life, since its earliest days, the NFL has continually tried to eliminate the dirtiest plays, the most brutal hits, the most injurious techniques.
Chop blocks, peel-back blocks, crack-back blocks, horse-collar tackles and many other dangerous moves have been outlawed as a direct response to rashes of injuries, or highly visible injuries.
The rule outlawing the horse-collar tackle might never have come about if one of the league's most transcendent, marketable stars (Terrell Owens) hadn't been cut down in the midst of a historic season by one. The rule change made this Sports Illustrated list of revolutionary moments in sports.
Though the lawyerly fashion in which the game is currently officiated turns off many fans, there's a reason each and every one of those rules was written up: At some point, an important player, team or play was undone.
Growing the Game
The NFL might be vigilant about minimizing hits that cause the kind of shredded-joint, ambulance-ride carnage we saw in Week 7, but it's completely clueless about the fundamental rules of the game.
The NFL wants to make more money. Lots more money. It wants to increase annual revenue from about $10 billion last season to about $25 billion by 2027, according to Daniel Kaplan of SportsBusiness Journal.
As the home-TV experience gets better, attendance has been steadily declining since its 2007 peak, per Sports Business Now. With TV carriers already paying sky-high prices to carry live games (and DirecTV slashing prices on NFL Sunday Ticket packages, per Deadline Hollywood), the traditional streams of revenue are tapped out.
This is your crowd 30 mins before kickoff pic.twitter.com/hGpRPiRvPP— Andrew Abramson (@AbramsonPBP) October 20, 2013
The NFL is combating this by aggressively enhancing the game-day experience, with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell talking about free in-stadium Wi-Fi access, as well as live locker-room video and NFL RedZone-branded highlight packages on stadium video boards.
The league is trying to grow its audience overseas, with the International Series in London and talk of London as a possible expansion city. Los Angeles is still an option, too.
Ultimately, the NFL has only so much football to sell. Eventually, to grow revenues like it wants, it'll have to stop charging more for the same thing, and start selling more of it.
Killing the Golden Goose
The NFL can't charge broadcast carriers any more for the rights to NFL football unless there's more football. The NFL pushed for an 18-game regular-season schedule during the lockout, but was surprised to find the players adamantly opposed.
Goodell recently said the 18-game season is still not dead, per NFL.com, nor the idea that the NFL should expand its playoff field beyond the current 12 teams.
With two more regular-season games per team and at least two more playoff games (presuming seven teams and one bye per conference), the NFL can again justify hiking up broadcast prices.
Meanwhile, the number of scary, awful, season-ending injuries like the rash suffered in Week 7 will go up, not down.
With 18 regular-season games and a lower bar of entry for the playoffs, each individual game becomes less important. A loss becomes easier to overcome. Teams will clinch division titles and playoff races with two, three or four games left in the season; perhaps the league's extra two games will feature mostly backups against backups.
Instead, though, it's more likely that, like baseball and soccer, teams will begin scratching healthy starters to keep them fresh for later in the year, balancing out who's sitting and who's starting, depending on who's playing.
According to Joan Niesen of The Denver Post, sportsbooks were setting lines on how early the then-undefeated Denver Broncos would pull starting quarterback Peyton Manning in their Week 6 tilt against the winless Jacksonville Jaguars.
In an 18-game season, perhaps Manning doesn't start that game at all.
Football fans will not suffer this lightly; they're paying these ticket and TV prices to see the game's best. Who wants to pay full freight to see a superstar-laden visiting team put its superstars in sweatpants? Who wants to see their team's backup quarterback or fourth-string wide receiver run out there and lose a winnable game with the starter looking on from the sideline?
The only way the NFL can sell more football is to dilute the product it's trying to protect.
Spiking the Punch
Assuming the NFL's dead set on this and 18-game seasons, a bigger playoff field and even multiple expansion teams are questions of "when," not "if," there are a few things the NFL can do to enhance the product.
First, it can expand the rosters. Right now, teams may bring 90 players to camp, but only sign 53 to active roster spots and dress no more than 45. The Houston Texans struggled with this limit in Week 7, as top two tailbacks Arian Foster and Ben Tate suffered injuries, and third-stringer Cierre Wood was inactive.
Why must teams deactivate so many players?
Will the NFL implement an 18-game schedule in the next two years?
With today's increased specialization, nearly every player on the roster has their own niche. If one goes down, teams no longer simply insert the next guy in line on the depth chart; they likely reconfigure their scheme and play-calling to make up for the loss of one player's tools and addition of the other's.
Frequently, teams are rolling with only two active quarterbacks, and some choose not to even roster a third. That leads to a lot of crazy scrambling when injuries occur and retreads like Matt Flynn, Kevin Kolb and Brady Quinn hopping planes all over the country week after week.
By making all 53 players active, teams would have more flexibility and be able to keep players they camped with in the system. Play wouldn't suffer as much when injuries occur—or when teams rest starters.
Better yet, teams could expand the active roster beyond 53. If teams could fully roster the eight players on their practice squad, it would foster more depth, flexibility and consistency across the league—and eliminate the odd poaching and bidding-war shenanigans that currently occur with practice squadders.
The NFL has already pushed the trade deadline back once; with the extended season, it'll have to do it again. Again, like baseball and hockey, that deadline will stop being a random schedule curiosity and a major agent for roster change.
With more games, injuries and later blockbuster deals that tilt the balance of power in divisions and conferences will become much more commonplace.
If teams manage their rosters well, the overall quality of the league won't suffer too badly with a greatly expanded schedule.
The only problem with that? Well, the NFL will have to pay those players.
Ultimately, that's what it's all about: the players on the field, the teams they play for and the fans who passionately cheer them on. If the NFL wants to extract more money from those fans, it'll have to do what it takes to protect the integrity of the game.