Celebrating America’s Game (Part One)

By Lloyd Vance
Updated: September 5, 2008

NFLPHILADELPHIA — Since April 15th when the 2008 NFL regular season schedule was released one date has been circled by the football fans everywhere — No it was not Christmas, Thanksgiving, or any other holiday — it was September 4.

“What is the significance of that date?” someone who has had his or her head in the sand may ask. That day just happens to be the start of the 89th season of the NFL — or I like to say “America’s Passion” — with the catchy moniker “Believe In Now”.

As the season takes center stage, hope springs eternal in places like Jacksonville, Dallas, and Cleveland. Yes, I said Cleveland as even the Browns, who have never been to a Super Bowl have visions of dancing in the streets of Tampa, FL with the Lombardi Trophy in their hands at Super Bowl XLIII.

Sure the hope for the upcoming season could be washed away as quickly as October for some. But for now every NFL fan is anxiously awaiting NFL kickoff like kids racing down the steps on Christmas morning to see watch Santa brought them.

The season opened Thursday Night with the Super Bowl champion New York Giants defeating the upstart Washington Redskins 16-7. It is only fitting that the start of the United States’ most popular game for sure — In 2007, NFL games on broadcast TV (CBS, FOX and NBC) averaged 16.6 million viewers (up two percent from 2006). On cable, NFL games on ESPN averaged 11.2 million viewers and 4.6 million viewers on NFL Network – opened its season in the country’s largest metropolitan area of New York City.

The kickoff event is so grandiose that it is titled and sponsored “NFL Opening Kickoff 2008 presented by EA SPORTS” and a free concert in New York’s Columbus Circle featuring Grammy Award-winning artists Keith Urban, Natasha Bedingfield, and Usher is the first thing on curtain rising playbill — All of the hype makes you wonder how pioneers Jim Thorpe, Fritz Pollard, Francis Bacon and others ever got the NFL off the ground in 1920 when times were tough and professional football was considered a renegade sport.

Though the NFL is now a year round league with Training Camp, Pre-season Games, OTA’s, the NFL Draft, Rookie Symposium, Owner Meetings, and so many other activities on the NFL Calendar that this page it too small to list – nothing gets fans going to the point of delirium except NFL game day.

Bigger than any holiday, NFL game day is a once a week fan fest (this week there are three NFL game days, but who cares). People always ask me “How does the NFL always get people wanting more?” I am not sure if it is the quick five month schedule where the games come and go before we know it, the long arduous seven month wait for real games after the Super Bowl, the once a week high, the “every game counts” subplots unlike the other leagues’ (MLB, NBA, and NHL) regular season where you can take a night off, the hometown feel of the NFL where everyone saw a future NFL player in high school or Pop Warner, the talented athletes that always amaze you with their toughness and ability to perform under mental and physical stress, , the autumn weather, team allegiance, trash-talking, the dreaded g-word (gambling), fantasy football, or any other thing.

But we all know that the NFL is everyone’s sports obsession like none other. Honestly, my mother who never watches sports and doesn’t know a Touchdown from a Homerun even said to me the other day “Who are the Eagles playing this Sunday?”

I can just smell tailgate barbecues, taste an icy cold pre-game beer, see high definition flat screen and plasma televisions coming out of boxes, Direct TV NFL Sunday Ticket subscriptions flying in by the hundreds of thousands, and bars filling up everywhere as fans finally have their beloved “NFL” back.

I have to agree with the executives at Fox, NBC, ESPN, CBS, and the NFL Network that pay billions for the rights to broadcast NFL games that everyone is watching from the grocery store bag boy to celebrities like Playboy’s Girl Next Door Kendra Wilkinson (San Diego Chargers fan). You can also count me among the millions and soon to billions of NFL fans around the world are singing “Hallelujah, Hallelujah, The NFL is back”.

Pittsburgh Steelers running back Willie Parker said of the upcoming season, “We feel ready. It’s time to put what we’ve been practicing to work”…. You are right Willie and the fans are ready too. Super Bowl XLIII on February 3, 2008 will be here before we know it, so enjoy the games because every week in the NFL is truly special !!!

To celebrate the NFL returning, I have compiled a list of tidbits surrounding the start of the NFL regular season.

New Logo -. The NFL’s new logo was officially unveiled at the 2008 NFL draft, featuring eight stars (one for each division), a football resembling the one on top of the Vince Lombardi Trophy, and modified lettering.

NFL to honor cornerstone contributor Gene Upshaw – All NFL players this season will wear a jersey patch in honor of former NFL President Gene Upshaw who recently suddenly died on August 20 at the age of 63. The round patch will contain the letters “GU” and the number “63″ in white on a black background. It will be positioned on the left chest of players’ jerseys.

At Thursday night’s opener, Upshaw was honored as his wife Terri and his three sons – Eugene, Jr., Daniel and Justin — participated in the coin toss. The Raiders also will honor Upshaw in their opening game on Monday night when they host Denver. The cover of the game program for the night will feature Upshaw and the team will play a video tribute to him on its stadium screens. A replica of the uniform patch was painted on the field at Giants Stadium on Thursday night and at McAfee Coliseum in Oakland on Monday night.

A moment of silence in honor of Upshaw was observed at all 16 NFL games during the third weekend of the preseason. Commissioner Goodell said of the passed away leader, “Gene was a truly unique, one-of-a-kind contributor to the NFL,” said. “No one in our game has ever combined Gene’s level of achievement both as a Hall of Fame player and as an executive leader. No one did more for NFL players than Gene Upshaw. He deserves our everlasting respect and thanks.”

America’s Game is becoming the “World’s Game” – For the second year in a row the NFL invades Merry Ole England in the regular season as the San Diego Chargers face the New Orleans Saints on October 26th at Wembley Stadium in London, England. The game will be the second regular season game played abroad and with the growing popularity (Sold over 90,000 seats in minutes) expect to see more games outside of the United States.

The Buffalo Bills will play the Miami Dolphins on December 7th in Toronto at Rogers Centre as part of their eight-game series that runs through 2012 featuring five regular-season and three exhibition contests. Now that the NFL has invaded Europe and Canada, the next logical stop seems to be China (pre-season game scheduled for 2009). NFL owners have approved a plan to stage international regular season games through at least 2011.

A New Thanksgiving Day Tradition continued – The NFL will continue playing three football games on America’s holiday (November 27th). This year’s line-up features TEN @ DET, 12:30 PM (CBS), SEA @ DAL, 4:15 PM (FOX), and ARI @ PHI, 8:15 PM (NFL NETWORK)

NFL to honor a couple special golden anniversaries in 2008 – The 50th anniversary of the ’58 Championship Game (“The Best Game Ever” as some say with the Baltimore Colts producing a 23-17 overtime thrilling win over the New York Giants before a historic national television audience) and the 50th anniversary of the AFL (the innovative rival football league that made the NFL an ‘institution’ with their historic merger in 1969).

The Commish to make teams responsible for misconduct – We already knew NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell cracked down on malcontent players like Pacman Jones, Tank Johnson, and Chris Henry, but now teams — lookout Bengals – will also be held accountable for player offenses. The exact particulars need to be worked out, but look for fines and possibly draft picks to come into play. Goodell said about the new policy, “We want to continue to emphasize personal conduct and personal responsibility”. He added, “One way to do it is to hold teams responsible for the conduct of their players.

CBA Issues Lurking – At the 2008 Annual NFL Spring Meeting, NFL owners while crying broke over salaries that now encompass 60% of yearly revenues, exercised a clause (had until November 8, 2008 to do so) by a unanimous vote (32-0) to shorten the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) with the NFL Players Association (NFLPA). The vote means that the CBA that was originally signed in 1993 and was subsequently extended including the last time in 2006 will expire in 2011 instead of 2013.

And let’s not forget the Salary Cap, which is $116 million this year with a scheduled “uncapped” year in 2010. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said when making the announcement, “We don’t need further time to analyze whether this is working or not working. It’s not working”. The Commish added “It was the ownership’s view that it’s not a failure of the negotiations, it’s a failure of the deal.”…. It will be interesting to see how this issue is handled since the passing of former NFLPA head Gene Upshaw.

Behave yourselves at games fans – Though poor fan conduct is really an individual team/stadium issue, the NFL has issued a “Fan Code of Conduct”. The NFL will work teams to ensure that every fan enjoys games responsibly. I am sure there will not be a “jail” in each stadium as was the case in Philadelphia’s old Veteran’s Stadium. But look for a more family friendly environment.

Goodell said of fan conduct, “First of all, it’s very possible, and likely, that people can come to a game and enjoy alcoholic beverages or beer and do it very responsibly. What we don’t want is there to be abusive behavior. That includes foul language; that includes disrupting other people who are there to enjoy the game. We’re just saying, come and enjoy yourself, but don’t ruin it for others”.

BTW: Watch out for Commissioner Goodell at stadiums as he attended a game in Foxboro last year incognito with his 13-year-old niece.

Could the final week of pre-season games be in jeopardy, oh darn- With fans everywhere screaming about playing full price for players that will be cut the next day, the NFL is considering adding a 17th regular-season game in place of the fourth preseason game. The move would obviously help the “cash-strapped” owners coffers as regular season revenues (parking, game day promotions, television money, etc) are paramount.

Commissioner Goodell said of the proposition, “We actually are looking at”. Strangely after meeting with the owners, Goodell came out talking about the “journey” in the NFL off-season and seemed to forget about just getting rid of the meaningless 4th week of pre-season games…. Stay tuned.

NFL trying to recoup signing bonuses – With all eyes on the upcoming appeal to the Michael Vick signing bonus case – the jailed former Falcons quarterback was allowed to keep $16.5 Million of his previously paid $20 Million signing bonus, with the NFL appealing – the league is looking to make changes in the CBA for this issue.

Goodell said, “It’s probably highlighted in a large part by the Michael Vick issue. There are other cases such as Ashley Lelie and others. In the Michael Vick case, he’s not able to play football and as such he got a significant signing bonus and we are not able to recover that. That’s money that could be going to players who are playing the game right now. So we think that there are some adjustments there that need to be made that are beneficial to the veteran players, frankly”.

Will there be a team in L.A anytime soon?? - During recent NFL meetings the new ownership group of the St. Louis Rams denied a report that the team was going back to Los Angeles. I am sure the NFL drools as it looks at the large television market just waiting to be filled. With the Colts getting their new stadium this year, you can cross them off the list leaving the Saints, Vikings, Bills, Rams, Chargers and Jaguars as possible target for the West Coast.

Goodell said of the idea of a team in L.A amidst the owners opting out of the CBA, “Uncertainty is never a great thing. So you have that and it could affect the potential for us to get a team in Los Angeles. It could affect the potential for additional revenue streams through television. It can have that impact. I hope it won’t. I hope that we’ll be able to reach that agreement. But there is that potential”.

What’s with the green stickers on helmets – For the second year in a row all players with radio sets in their helmets will have “green dot” stickers on the back of their helmets to identify them and to make sure two radio helmets are not on the same side of the ball at once. The fun part is now there will be players wearing the devices on offense and defense (see Competition rules below).

Flex scheduling is back- Make sure to check your team’s website because games can be re-scheduled due to year three of “Flex” scheduling. In the final weeks of the NFL season (Weeks 11 through 17), NBC’s Sunday Night football has the option of changing to a more “favorable” game. If NBC opts to change a game’s date/time the other networks can also make moves to their schedule. The whole process must by done up to 12 days prior to the game.

Hello, Lucas Oil Stadium – The Indianapolis Colts will be opening Lucas Oil Stadium at a cost of $800 Million Dollars. The new stadium was financed with no PSL’ needed. The stadium should pay dividends immediately, but especially in 2012 when the facility will host Super Bowl XLVI.

Bye, Bye Texas Stadium – Dallas Cowboys will play their final season at Texas Stadium (opened in October 1971 at a cost of $35 Million) as owner Jerry Jones will be opening his new yet un-named Dallas Cowboys stadium “palace” in Arlington, TX including Hall of Fame and shopping mall in 2009 at a cost of $1 Billion dollars. The cost is astronumical, but Jones doesn’t seem to mind as he has added state of the art high-definition scoreboards and ammenities like cable television and internet in each Cowboy players locker stall. No wonder Jones is charging from $2,000 to well over six-figures for PSL’s at the new stadium. Jones should get some of his investment back in 2011 as the new stadium will host Super Bowl XLV.

Rookie Salary Cap Probably Coming ?? – One of the bigger issues looming in the next CBA negotiations is whether the NFL and NFLPA will institute a rookie salary cap. With rookie guaranteed money reaching $30 Million dollars (Jake Long got from the Dolphins a 5-year, 57.75 Million Deal w/ 30 Million guaranteed), a rookie salary cap is in Commissioner Roger Goodell’s vocabulary.

The Commish said in a recent interview, “I’m a big fan of the rookie salary cap also. I think that it is very much in the best interest of our veteran players, being able to be rewarded for what they achieve on the NFL field, and to the kind of money that’s being guaranteed for rookies that have not played – there’s still a question of whether they can play at the NFL level. That’s something that I don’t think is appropriate, and I think it’s one of the things that we’ve already outlined with the union that we want to discuss and reevaluate it.”

Rookies learning about history — This off-season, the NFL instituted a great idea in my opinion by having rookies from all 32 NFL teams visit the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. The rookie tours were headed by team’s player development director and included speakers representing former NFL players, Pro Football Hall of Fame personnel and others. The move is an expansion on the annual orientation program that should give rookies a greater appreciation of the NFL.

Hopefully by immersing themselves in the NFL’s over 88-year storied history — players and coaches like Jim Thorpe, Fritz Pollard, Red Grange, Jim Brown, George Halas, George Taliaferro, Earl Campbell and many other legends — the rookies will understand that the game is greater than themselves. There is even talk of moving the entire Rookie Symposium to Canton and the NFL is exploring the feasibility. Surprisingly the rookies visit to the PHOF is the brainchild of Dallas Cowboys receiver Michael Irvin, a 2007 Hall of Fame Inductee.

A Brief Look at the ’09 NFL Draft - It is never too early for some research for the 2009 NFL Draft including: Ohio State quartet CB Malcolm Jenkins, RB Beanie Wells, LB Jim “the Animal” Laurinaitis, and offensive tackle Alex Boone; LSU pass rusher Tyson Jackson, Virginia Tech DB Victor Harris, USC playmaking LB Rey Maualuga , West Virginia speedster quarterback QB Pat White, Texas Tech redshirt sophomore explosive receiver Michael Crabtree and my sleeper pick Virginia Union quarterback Lamar Little (DII lefty dual-threat signal-caller that reminds me of a young Michael Vick during his Virginia Tech days). But we have until April 2009 to bring you information and draft news about these guys.

Competition Changes

Good Bye Force Out – NFL receivers will no longer be credited with a catch if they are forced out of bounds. Under the new rule, game officials will not have to determine if a receiver was forced out on a reception. The receiver will have to have both feet inbounds for a legal catch – LV’s take: I say good riddance to the “force out” rule as too often officials (part-time older guys with some having problems keeping up with the fast pace of the NFL game) miss the call or didn’t apply the “true” interpretation of rule – Remember the bad call in Week 13 by Side judge Joe Larrew where he ruled Browns TE Kellen Winslow’s 37-yard apparent game-winning touchdown catch on the last play of the game was not a “force out” even though Cardinals Oliver Celestin and Antrel Rolle pushed him out before he could get his second foot down.

Defense Gets Their Radio Too – In move that everyone hopes will stop the problem stealing defensive signals, the league approved a communication device for defenses. Now like quarterbacks the defensive signal caller can have contact with their coach. Only one player on the field of play for the defense can have the device and the radio helmet is not to be used on special teams. LV’s Take: I really like that the NFL finally is giving the same communication advantages to the defense and I will not even go into the whole Spygate thing.

Big Brother can now look at Field Goals and Extra Points – Now officials can use replay to look at whether a field goal or extra point or was good or not. Thank Goodness in week 11 the officials correctly called Browns Kicker Phil Dawson’s 51-yard game-tying field goal versus the Ravens correctly without replay even though it hit the pole behind the cross bar and went back in the field of play. LV’s Take: Short and Simple, I like that the officials can be assisted further since you know “how” confident I am in their abilities.

All Facemask Penalties are Big Ones – The league eliminated the 5-yard penalty for incidental contact with a facemask. This was another ambiguous call that too often left it up to the referee to judge intent. LV’s Take: I know defensive guys will not be happy about this rule and I am going to take a wait and see approach. However I am leery since too often I have seen runners turn their head and a defender’s finger gets caught in an offensive player’s cage not on purpose. With all facemask calls being 15-yarders look for some controversial calls. Also please call this on offensive players as well as too often stiff arms turn into grasping the face mask (see old tapes of Emmitt Smith)

The Coin Flip Goes Back to College - The league decided to follow the suit of college football in allowing teams winning the opening coin toss to have the ability to defer their decision until the second half. LV’s Take: I like that now coin-toss can be a more strategic event and I can’t wait to see a rogue coach like Tampa Bay Bucs head man Jon Gruden steely telling his captain “Wait until the second half”.

A Roller from the Center is Now a “Live Ball” – The ball will be ‘live’ any time it is snapped by the center without touching the quarterback instead of the team being assessed a false-start penalty. This rule stems from this year’s Eagles-Bears game where Bears Center Olin Kreutz flubbed a snap to quarterback Brian Griese and the Eagles recovered on an apparent game-changing play. Unfortunately to the Birds’ fans dismay the ball went back to Bears on a “false start”. I can still see the bewilderment amongst all of us in the pressbox as the referee explained the play. LV’s Take: Good as I thought it was ridiculous that a ball could be basically fumbled and given back to the offense.

Hey NFL You Forgot Something – Can someone please tell me how in the world the NFL will allow my biggest pet peeve from the 2007 season to continue. I am talking about the bleeping TIMEOUT right as a kicker is about to kick the ball causing the kick to not count. I am sure the NFL’s biggest offender, Denver Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan will be waiting with timeouts in hand to annoy us all by calling

NEXT: Coaches on the hot seat and impact rookies.