Last October, Frontline ran its massive exposé of the NFL’s secret history with concussions. The film was a devastating account — as thorough a fisking as any professional sports league has received in my lifetime — and the reaction was overwhelming. Michael Humphrey of Forbes spoke for many when he wrote, “If I keep watching, it is at my own ethical risk. And I honestly don’t know what I’m going to do.”
I don’t know what Humphrey did, but I know what the rest of us did: We kept watching football. More than we ever had, in fact. Every single marker of NFL ratings was way up last year, from the regular season to the postseason to the Super Bowl. The wild-card game between Green Bay and San Francisco — one I doubt you even remember — had nearly five times as many viewers as the series finale of Breaking Bad. The Super Bowl, a terrible game that was essentially over after half an hour, was the most watched program in American television history with 111.5 million viewers. Earlier this month, a meaningless preseason game featuring Cleveland’s Johnny Manziel taking 27 snaps on the NFL Network — a station many cable providers still don’t carry — received a million more viewers than the half-season finale of Mad Men.
Every year around this time, pundits like me write these big, long NFL-preview pieces covering all the offseason problems. There are the new studies showing that CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) is more often caused not by one big hit — contrary to the PR focus on “safe tackling” — but by the continued pounding inherent to the sport. There is the ugliness of the official historical support for the Washington football team’s nickname. There is the bungled response to the domestic-violence episode of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, who knocked his then-fiancée out in an elevator and received a two-game suspension for it, half what a player gets the first time he is caught smoking weed. These controversies flood the NFL’s offseason — and commissioner Roger Goodell spends the spring and summer months batting them away with the league’s lawyers. Then the first kickoff comes, and everyone forgets every complaint they had and gets ready for some football.
This has happened every offseason in the NFL for a decade, and I have no doubt it will continue for decades to come. But the NFL isn’t shrinking in response to controversy. In fact, it wants to expand: Goodell has expressed a desire for an 18-game season, as brazen a move as a man with an injury crisis on his hands could possibly summon; would also like to add another playoff round or two; and has spoken of adding Friday games, something television networks would bid billions for. He may not be satisfied until the rest of the world starts calling their football soccer.
And why shouldn’t he be ambitious? I’ll be watching the first Thursday night, and most of the rest of the season, and oh, man, the Super Bowl—the Super Bowl is gonna be awesome. And you? You just want to know, this being Fall Preview week, what you need to know about the upcoming season. All told, I’d rather talk about that, too. So: your 2014 cheat-sheet fall-preview story lines.
Eli Manning. Can you believe that young Eli is starting his 11th season as the Giants’ starting quarterback? It feels like just yesterday that he was plucked from the fields of Mississippi as our G-Men’s own slack-jawed yokel. This is a critical year for Manning and the Giants. Tom Coughlin’s first year as Giants coach was Manning’s first year in the league, and even though that combination has given the Giants two wildly improbable, out-of-nowhere Super Bowl wins, it has also led to only one playoff appearance in the past five seasons. It’s particularly important for Manning, who, despite those two Super Bowl wins and his status as the Giants’ all-time leading passer, still doesn’t feel like a pantheon Giants star you’ll see on the side of MetLife Stadium someday. The fact that he’s led the NFL in interceptions three times might have something to do with that.
Michael Sam. The first openly gay player ever to be selected in the NFL draft has wowed scouts during the preseason, but he’s still facing an uphill climb to even make the St. Louis Rams’ roster thanks to a stacked defensive line. Will the Rams cut him? If they do, will there be a backlash? More important: Will other teams — whose scouts have been raving about Sam’s effort — leap to pick him up if they do? What happens if they don’t?
The NFC West. One could make a strong argument that four of the best five teams in the NFC are in the West. The defending-champion Seattle Seahawks, the model-franchise San Francisco 49ers, the up-and-coming Arizona Cardinals (who were probably the best team to miss the playoffs last season), and the St. Louis Rams, headed by renowned coach Jeff Fisher. The worst division five years ago is the best, by a long shot, today.
Chip Kelly and his supercharged game. The former Oregon head coach was expected, upon being hired by the Philadelphia Eagles, to have his “gimmicky” quick-fire offense crushed by the big bad defensive minds of the NFL. Nope! The Eagles ended up second in the NFL in total offense and turned journeyman Nick Foles into one of the most efficient quarterbacks in league history. The second year is always the real test: Is Kelly’s whip-fast offense the future of the NFL, or, if you’ll forgive me, a passing fancy?
Will Washington change the name? At this point, the U.S. Patent and Trademark office, the president, and Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman — who said the NFL wouldn’t act against a Donald Sterling type because it has let Washington keep its name — have all come out against the racially offensive Washington football-team logo and appellation. But Goodell has so far allowed the name to stay, and Washington owner Dan Snyder has dug in. Will Goodell finally take a stand? Or will Snyder’s stubbornness win out? And seriously: What year is it, anyway?
Jerry Jones and the death of the Cowboys. Just three years after Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis died, the imperialist Dallas owner is doing everything in his power to take his place as the league’s most interventionist, self-destructive owner. Jones, like every other guy holding the purse strings, fancies himself a football genius, but unlike his peers, he actually insists on absolute power over personnel moves and public relations. The result has been a disaster, an aging team hopelessly in salary-cap debt that hasn’t made the playoffs in four years. The Cowboys—once the league’s signature franchise—are the laughingstock of the NFL, the Knicks but worse, and the reason can be found in the owner’s box. Or in front of every camera within a 100-mile radius of Arlington, Texas.
Michael Vick. Speaking of letting things go when the games start … Michael Vick’s in town. The protests are difficult to locate; it has been a while since he was released from prison in 2009. The Jets brought in Vick ostensibly to back up starter Geno Smith, but this is still Michael Vick, and this is still the Jets, who never met a big name they didn’t want to throw out there for their fans to lustily boo. The story of the Jets may still be the ongoing survival of Rex Ryan, who has been on the hot seat for roughly his entire Jets career and yet is essentially the one Jet left standing. Maybe that’s because he’s possibly the most entertaining sports figure the city has had since Reggie Jackson.
Johnny Manziel. And then we have the Texan gunslinger, our generation’s Joe Namath, the most purely electrifying figure in the sport, both on and off the field. (He’s already been caught on camera in a preseason game flipping his opponents the bird.) The question as to whether Manziel will become a great quarterback for the Cleveland Browns is almost beside the point. What really matters is whether there’s even room for a shit-kicker like Manziel in today’s corporatized NFL. (Goodell would definitely insist Namath get a haircut.) Manziel doing anything is so inherently entertaining and individualistic that you wonder whether the NFL will even allow the show to go on. But, of course, they will.
*This article appears in the August 25, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.