The Golden Years



A month into the ’05-’06 NFL season and this is the first word that comes to mind. Out of the 32 teams in the league, all but three still have a shot to put together a run and make the playoffs. Certainty is a forgotten, useless word. Predictability has been sent down the river.


Thanks to revenue-sharing, free agency, injuries and a nearly overwhelming amount of raw talent, no team is safe from the constant upheaval that the NFL has now become. And you know what? It’s a great, great thing to watch.


Four weeks in and you can’t predict anything.


The Cincinnati Bengals, who over the last decade had become a bad joke, are 4-0 and feature an offense that sings and a defense that ranks among the fiercest in the game. The New England Patriots, coming off of two straight Super Bowl wins, were supposed to be adding the final touches to a dynasty that would make Joan Collins jealous. Instead, they are 2-2, wavering on their hind legs and looking like a nightmare that Coach Bill Belichik can’t wake up from.


Four weeks in and a running back with the nickname of “Cadillac” is putting up numbers worthy of his name.


Four weeks in and Peyton Manning is just beginning to hit his groove.


Four weeks in and T.O. is proving, again, that he’s actually worth all of his annoying self-hype.

It’s scary because the year has only just begun, only just gotten started, and it’s already becoming a classic. In fact, if the competition and the games can stay this sharp, the ’05-’06 NFL season will prove what many have been saying since Peyton, T.O., Donovan, LaDainian and so many others entered the league: This is a golden era.


This will be a time that in 20 years fans, critics and historians will look back at in awe, in wonder. How crazy was Ray Lewis? they’ll ask. Did Peyton really throw 49 touchdowns in one year? Did McNabb really play a game with three separate, significant injuries, throw for 369 yards and three touchdowns and lead his team to a come-from-behind win?


The current pool of talent in the NFL is now so deep, so stocked, that nearly every weekend longstanding records are broken and legends are created. One weekend Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is having his name etched into the book; the next, it’s Carnell Williams or Ladainian Tomlinson.


Which, in itself, is remarkable. But how, exactly, has the NFL done it? How has a league, a business that only 40 short years ago was seen by many in the sports industry as a novelty, a long shot, gotten this close to competitive athletic perfection?


Three ways: evolution, promotion and innovation.


The NFL has become a science. Players are scouted from junior high, built up and weeded out in high school, allowed to sink or swim in college and then, if they are deemed worthy, drafted into the professional game. The modern-day NFL player is cultivated, studied and tested. They are then used by coaches and their respective teams to fill holes, plug gaps and reinforce weaknesses and liabilities.


As the science has become tighter, so has the marketing. The NFL is now one of the most profitable organizations in the business world. Its name is recognized across the globe. Last Sunday night a game was played in Mexico City with an attendance of 105,000.

For the millions that now avidly follow the game, it has become next to impossible to miss a weekend. The games are both played and marketed at such a high level that to skip out on a Sunday is to risk social peril.


And really, how can one? From 10 a.m. until 9 p.m., every Sunday, for five straight months, 28 teams slug it out on an ever-increasing array of television channels and highlight programs. The merchandise is ubiquitous; the pre-game analysis runs ad nauseam, the online and print newspaper coverage is nonstop.


But this is the golden age and it’s worth it. It’s part of the game. The science that the NFL utilizes, in the end, only promotes and perfects its art. And when you’ve got athletic geniuses like Peyton Manning or T.O. or Shaun Alexander roaming the gridiron every Sunday, when you’ve got a sport whose play has become this exciting, this inspiring, how could a sports fan ask for more?


The talent, as this season has proven, is so abundant, and has become so refined and specialized, that every game is up for grabs. Nothing is predictable. Nothing, in the NFL, is certain. Parity: it creates excellent entertainment.