After an offseason of playing defense, the NFL returns to action Thursday night, the bright stadium lights in Denver illuminating a sport in the midst of change, both on and off the field.
While the year-to-year parity and evolving style of play underscore the NFL’s constant state of commotion, the league emerges from an especially tumultuous offseason, one in which the very nature of the game was scrutinized daily.
The NFL is trying to emerge from a dark cloud of player health and safety concerns and last week reached a proposed settlement with about 4,500 former players who were suing over concussions. The league has also instituted new rules this season that will bar runners and tacklers from initiating contact with the crowns of their helmets and has stepped up its efforts to educate youth players on proper techniques. In Baltimore to announce a new initiative related to concussion research along with Under Armour and GE, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell proclaimed, “There’s never been a better time to play the game of football or be a fan of the game of football. I couldn’t be more optimistic about the future.”
Of the lawsuit settlement, Goodell said, “I don’t know how it’s going to be remembered. I know what its effect is going to be, which is going to provide help for the players and the families that have cognitive issues. . . . Rather than litigating for years, the owners, the NFL and frankly, the plaintiffs, all said let’s go do something that’s great for the game and great for the people and get help to the people that need it. And that’s a good thing.”
Meantime, offseason headlines were dominated by less-than-flattering football news: former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez was arrested on murder charges, and armchair orthopedists monitored daily the rehabilitation of Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III, a rising star who injured himself in the playoffs and needed a total reconstruction of his knee.
On the field, defenses have never been more complex, and offenses never so versatile. Pocket passers such as Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady are still effective, but a new generation of athletic quarterbacks — Griffin, Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick — have sent ripples of change across the league. The addition of former Oregon coach Chip Kelly in Philadelphia leaves few doubts: This isn’t your granddaddy’s NFL.
Former coach Jon Gruden says the style of play in 2013 is similar to what fans would see at a college or high school game.
“Players are playing it differently, wide open, no-huddle, spread systems, and that’s what’s in college football. That’s how we’re training coaches and players,” said Gruden, now an analyst for ESPN’s “Monday Night Football.” “It’s a big part of the National Football League.
“I think it’s here to stay. I’m not saying it really excites me as much as maybe it does some other people because I like the conventional way of moving the football, throwing it in a traditional style of offense. But some of these quarterbacks can really make it happen, and it'll be fun to watch.”