The National Football League and its players association made one colossal goof in their collective bargaining agreement that finally ended the lockout last week.
They shortened the offseason requirements of the players.
Part of what has helped make the NFL this country’s premier sports obsession is that over the past generation or two, it found ways to stay in the news virtually year-round. Now that public relations train is at risk of being derailed.
They ought to do more. If the lockout taught us anything, it’s that people want their football regardless of what the calendar says. No one is interested in any kind of dead period from late January until early August.
Take the Pro Bowl. The league has tried various gimmicks in recent years to inject new life into and spur more interest in the Pro Bowl. Why not move the game from the week after the Super Bowl (or the week before, as was tried a couple years ago) to Feb. 28, the day before the start of free agency? Rather than pick the best players from the season to participate, choose the best players who are about to become free agents and make the game a showcase for them?
Think guys still will decide to stay at home or won’t play at least hard enough to make it interesting when millions of dollars potentially are at stake?
Beyond the game, put them through a combine-style evaluation in the days preceding the game to lengthen the news value of the event.
From there, the NFL should take a page from high school football. We’re talking a seven-on-seven passing tournament here. In the first round, the four teams in each division meet in a round-robin format, and only the winner advances. The next day it’s the same thing between the four division winners in each conference. Finally, the top two meet in a best-of-seven series on the third day.
Absent the possibility of ever being hit, Peyton Manning might put off retirement until his 50s just to have the opportunity to take part in such an event.
Do it Memorial Day weekend. No one cares about the Indianapolis 500 anymore anyway.
Fast-forward to July 4. The Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest in New York holds center stage on that day. Not if the NFL stages a similar event that features all offensive and defensive linemen under contract. And it can be more than hot dogs. Have a pizza division, a wings division and a 72-ounce steak division.
Imagine one guy who wins all four during the course of his career. Talk about a grand slam. And the possibilities for ESPN analysis in terms of before-and-after weights and stomach X-rays boggle the mind.
Obviously, all of this is in good fun. But the decision to shorten the offseason is a curious one.
The thinking behind the change was that the modern athlete is much better conditioned than his predecessors and does not need all that work.
Plus, it was not that long ago when players were completely on their own between their final game and the start of training camp. Then again, those also were the days when players were paid such a pittance that most needed to sell insurance or cars, paint homes or do whatever else to supplement their
income during the offseason.
Given the financial security most enjoy — keep in mind, the lockout was one long debate over how the owners and players ought to divide $9 billion — the least the players could do is be available to their employers for the full 12 months of the year. That will maximize exposure, both individually and collectively.