Full credit to the NFL, still the greatest show on Earth

It appears that Tom Brady has played his last game. Ben Roethlisberger has played his last game. Aaron Rodgers might have played his last game for Green Bay. Jerry Glanville once said that N-F-L meant “not for long,” but that’s not quite true. Rodgers entered the NFL in 2005, one year after Roethlisberger became a Steeler. Brady was drafted – 199th overall! – in 2000.

The youngest of the three is Rodgers, who’s 38. The oldest is Brady, who’s 97. (Joke!) The three have graced 14 Super Bowls, 10 of which their teams won. That’s three Hall of Fame quarterbacks we mightn’t be seeing in a familiar uniform – or any uniform – next season. Drew Brees, a fourth HOF lock, retired last year. Quarterback being the position that most matters, this would seem a time of uncertainty for any industry.

The NFL, as we’ve known for some time, isn’t any industry.

I don’t love everything about the NFL. It’s still trying to define a catch. Its commissioner is a bozo. It’s more pompous than Louis XV, who said, “Apres moi, le deluge,” which is French for, “After me, the flood.” Minus Roethlisberger and Brees and soon surely Brady and eventually Rodgers, will the snootiest league be brought low?

Let’s see. There’s Patrick Mahomes. There’s Joe Burrow. Their teams will play for the AFC title. There’s Josh Allen. If his team hadn’t been playing Mahomes’ team, he’d be in the AFC Championship game. Mahomes is 26. Burrow and Allen are 25. Here I venture onto the proverbial limb by saying …

The NFL will be fine.

Last weekend was an anomaly. Not every NFL game is decided in the last second of regulation or, in the case of Mahomes/Chiefs versus Allen/Bills, afterward. But the league is geared to comebacks, and comebacks make for great TV, and isn’t TV all that matters?

Pete Rozelle was the first sports commissioner to grasp the power of television. He turned his league into a collective. Every team got an equal share of TV money. Trying to get the owners of baseball teams to work for the common good is akin to herding cats. (The Yankees have little in common with the Rays.) NFL owners have marched in lockstep for 60 years. Owing to TV, even the worst franchise can never lose money. And now, with a hard salary cap, there can never be much difference between the talent on the league’s worst team and its best.

We know that playing football can be injurious to someone’s health. We know that the big hit that makes us go “wow” today might, 20 years from now, have reduced the quality of life for the hitter/hittee. There are times when watching an NFL game can makes us feel like Romans observing gladiators. But how many of us stop watching?

Rozelle’s genius was in realizing his sport was perfect for the TV audience. Something happens. The teams spend 30 seconds discussing what should happen next. The announcers spend those 30 seconds showing us why what just happened, happened. Then something else happens, and on we go.

It’s not baseball, where nothing can happen for a very long time, especially in an era of more strikeouts than hits. (In 2021, MLB’s season saw 42,145 Ks against 39,484 hits.) It’s not the NHL, which is far better in person than on TV. The NFL is the other way around: It’s better on television. Even when we go to games, what’s the first thing we do after every play? We gaze up at a massive screen to watch it again.

The NFL has made it so there are no small markets. The Chiefs went from 1969, the final year of the AFL, until the second decade of the next century without reaching a Super Bowl. Barring a major upset, they’ll play in the game bearing Roman numerals – yes, a second reference to Rome – for a third consecutive season. The Big Apple Jets haven’t made a Super Bowl since Broadway Joe guaranteed his team, a 19-point underdog, would win. It did.

The Rams’ new stadium – the Chargers play there, too – cost $5.5 billion. That’s 3-1/2 times more than Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which opened its gates and sometimes its roof in 2017. By way of contrast, the Packers’ Lambeau Field sits in a residential area in a town with a smaller population than Athens. The team based in Green Bay has won three more Super Bowls than the Rams and Chargers combined.

The NFL isn’t the NBA, where stars are 95% of the show. Mahomes took the Chiefs 44 yards in 10 seconds Sunday, but the Chiefs still needed Harrison Butker of Decatur to do as he did for Georgia Tech in Sanford Stadium – kick a long field goal at 0:00 to force overtime. Chiefs-Bills produced 78 points, 974 yards and no turnovers. Of the thousands of NFL games I’ve seen, it’s the best.