With one week to go in the 2023 NFL Season, this will be more of a year-end edition of my weekly takeaways. This season is a microcosm of what is great about the sport, but also what is frankly terrible about it too.
A few years ago, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said the NFL could face diminished interest due to its efforts to completely saturate the market. He said, “Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered.”
This league has had an expanded 17-game schedule for a few years now, on its way to an 18th regular season game at the next bargaining agreement. They play more and more games overseas; Germany was added to the profile of games over the last two years, and Mexico is on the docket, too.
And there’s talk of further expansion, to go beyond 32 teams. Yet, for all of this growth and expansion, with literally billions of dollars of growth over the past two decades, the league can’t afford to pay for full-time referees. In 2002, the league was worth $ 4.94 billion. A decade later, the league doubled in value, to $9.17 billion … and it had doubled again by 2022, to a value of $18 billion. At this pace, the league will be worth $36 billion in 2032.
But, might it collapse on its own weight? Officiating has never been worse, with the last, most recent exclamation point being the fiasco that was the end of Cowboys/Lions this week. Make no mistake about it: The Lions were absolutely robbed. And now, with the added element of gambling, there are more than whispers going around social media that the games are rigged because of the sports betting factor. There was a bit of that with the Vegas element and illegal gambling, but now it’s a full roar with nationwide legal gambling.
And let’s not lose sight of the injury element of the game. Concussions are still occurring at too great a pace, and all of a sudden more and more players are going down with contactless leg injuries, specifically to the Achilles tendon. It is so prevalent that I would argue the players who keep getting hurt on turf should file a class action suit.
For all the things that need to be improved, the product is like crack for millions and millions of people. And there are plenty of great things about the game that make that the case. It’s a cliche, but when the season starts, every team truly has a shot to win it all. That’s not the case in every sport. With only one week to go in the regular season, three of last year’s playoff teams are already out. The Bengals, Chargers, and Giants will be home watching the playoff games on TV. And five other teams made the playoffs who may also be on the outside looking in. The Bills, Jaguars, Vikings, Buccaneers, and Seahawks could all miss the playoffs. This would account for over half of last season’s playoff teams.
But with such turnover year to year, it allows other teams and their fanbases to get a taste of the playoffs. The Browns are in the playoffs for only the second time in the last 21 seasons, and the Lions actually won the NFC North.
The last few seasons have seen some of the game’s greatest QBs retire, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, and the GOAT, Tom Brady … twice. And Aaron Rodgers isn’t far behind. Aside from Patrick Mahomes, the league is struggling to find that next group of historic QBs. With this season nearly in the books, rookie QB C.J. Stroud appears to be part of that next wave. There’s only a one-season sample size, but Stroud appears to be the class of last year’s QB class and ready to be a top-10 QB next season.
This week has a very real chance of being Bill Belichick’s last game coaching the New England Patriots, after over two decades of dominance. He’s sitting at 4-12, which is the most losses he’s ever had in a season. While he’s potentially on his way out of New England, Steelers’ HC Mike Tomlin has put up another season above .500. He’s never had a losing season in Pittsburgh.
There is definitely also a changing of the guard in the league in terms of the top teams. Nobody will accuse Patrick Mahomes of being old, but he is in his seventh season and will be entering the playoffs having to go on the road for the first time if he hopes to advance. He’ll have one game at Arrowhead, but after that, he’ll likely be headed to Miami or Buffalo.
And with the Eagles’ recent collapse, losing this week to the Cardinals, the Cowboys have appeared to have backed into the NFC East division title. This will mark over two decades since there has been a repeat NFC East champion. When the season began, I speculated that the Eagles may have a Super Bowl letdown, with the Cowboys ascending to the division title. They have already had back-to-back 12 win seasons. A win this week will give them three in a row … sooner or later they have to break through.