Was the NFL’s Success This Season Just a ‘Dead Cat Bounce’?

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell with fans in 2018. Photo: Keith Birmingham/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images

This Sunday’s Super Bowl will be the sixth consecutive Super Bowl I’ve attended, along with seven of the last eight (I skipped the Harbaugh Bowl in 2013 because of a khaki allergy), and I’ll confess, they all sort of run together after a while. But the one day I look forward to every Super Bowl week is Roger Goodell’s annual State of the NFL press conference, usually the Wednesday before the game.

Goodell, the league’s perpetually beleaguered commissioner, is as press-phobic as any commissioner in recent memory, and with good reason: There has never been a commissioner with as many people firing rhetorical bullets at him from every direction, all of the time. Goodell’s weaknesses and status as the most universally loathed executive in professional sports are so well-documented at this point that they’re essentially stitched into his suit, and they’ve become the job description: Get punched in the face by media and fans every day so the owners, the only 32 people Goodell has to keep happy, may carry on unabated. You’d sit through worse for $31.7 million a year. If that were my life, I wouldn’t give very many press conferences either.

But once a year, Goodell, who has been conspicuously quieter this year, has to face the music, with every gathered reporter crammed into an exhibition hall to lob grenades his way. The press conference always lasts about an hour, and you can always count on Goodell tossing in some time-wasters to run out the clock; my favorite is the annual question from the planted “NFL kid,” in which a smiling cherub asks a question that’s always some variation on “With all the work you do, Mr. Goodell, how do you stay so fit?” Otherwise, it’s a way for everybody to take their free shots at the guy, the one day NFL media gets its Jim Acosta on. The most notorious one of these was the infamous press conference in September 2015, when the Ray Rice story was all anyone wanted to talk about, when Goodell looked terrified for an hour and seemed to take a man who interrupted to scream about elevators as a welcome relief. There’s a reason most CEOs don’t just sit and answer questions from whomever for an hour. It’s target practice.

But the strangest thing has happened this year: No one seems all that fired up about Goodell’s press conference. I haven’t seen the usual bloodlust in the eyes of the reporters. There will be a few tough questions, mostly about the horrible call in the NFC Championship Game that cost the Saints a trip to the Super Bowl, but compared to past years, with domestic violence and Deflategate and Trump and CTE, well, let’s just say Goodell will happily focus just on questions about actual football-related controversies. It’s gonna be a breeze for him. This year, the press conference feels less like Whack-a-Roger and more and more like … a victory lap.

After a few of the most tumultuous years the league has ever had, and the closest Goodell ever came to losing his job (which in retrospect probably wasn’t very close at all), 2018 was the calmest, happiest season the NFL has had in nearly a decade, at least. Television ratings, after a heavily debated downturn in 2017 that even led to Tom freaking Brady admitting he was paying less attention to the league than he used to, were back up this year. This has been the quietest CTE year since the league’s concussion crisis first broke through into the public consciousness, and, for the first time, the NFL’s sometimes laughably transparent defenses that the game is somehow “safer” now are being taken by many at face value. (The league claimed that documented concussions were “down 29 percent,” though of course doctors say the primary driving force behind CTE is continued subconcussive impacts rather than documented concussions.) The lone high-profile domestic violence incident, involving the Chiefs’ Kareem Hunt, faded quickly after the Chiefs cut him immediately when video of him pushing and kicking a woman hit TMZ. And, perhaps of most relief for Goodell and the owners, the president has left the league alone, not using the anthem-kneeling protests as his wedge issue this year, having moved on to focus on immigrants, the media, and the English language.

Combine that with some truly compelling on-field product this year — thanks largely to innovations from the college game, offenses are running a more spread-out style, leading to higher scoring and more viscerally entertaining games — and it has been a dream season for the NFL. (Even Mark Leibovich’s infamous book Big Game, released at the beginning of the season and featuring an immortal anecdote involving Cowboys owner Jerry Jones masturbating into a shoe, couldn’t leave a mark.) It’s even an ideal Super Bowl matchup, with the unquestionably fun Rams, led by an innovative head coach who’s eight years younger than Tom Brady, against those hated Patriots, a team we have such a national antipathy for that they might be the one thing everyone in this country can all agree on. Goodell, for the first time in years, can stroll up to that podium with a little swagger rather than the usual dodging of tomatoes. Fans angry at the refs? That’s the sort of “problem” Goodell will happily hold court on. It sure beats having Trump in his face all year, or facing existential threats to his game.

The question is whether this is a corner turned for Goodell and the NFL, or a dead-cat bounce — a confluence of happy circumstances that are unlikely to be repeated. The ratings, while up, still haven’t returned to the levels they were at before the initial 2016 slide, and ad revenue is in fact down for the league, largely because of those recent dips. Having Brady and the Patriots as everyone’s firing range, the most popular and hated team right at the center of everything, has to end sometime, and there are no obvious replacements in the wings. (Patrick Mahomes is the next hot thing at quarterback, but when does anyone ever get angry about Kansas City?) The avoidance of hot-button political issues this year seems more a lucky break than a sustained, repeatable strategy, and while Goodell caught a break when the Chiefs dropped Hunt immediately rather than trying to keep him for their playoff run, there were still plenty of questions about how the NFL handled the whole investigation. And it’s not like CTE is going to stop becoming a problem.

But the improvement in play is real, and, as always, when the NFL can focus solely on what happens on the field, it thrives. That strategy paid off this year. The NFL is nowhere near death’s door. But the league’s problems aren’t going away, and the ax will inevitably swing again. Until then: How do you stay so fit?

Was the NFL’s Success This Season Just a ‘Dead Cat Bounce’?