Soon after the players' agreement and the $2.1-billion television contract had been signed back in 1982, Pete Rozelle, commissioner of the National Football League, looked around and sighed with relief.

"I thought we were going to have five years that included more peace than we have had," he remembered, laughing.

Peace? Have you heard the rumbling lately? NFL games are too long. The zebras are too involved. There are too many football games on TV. And they're boring. There is too much else to do on a Sunday afternoon. And, simply, it's just not like it used to be.

Is something wrong with the NFL?

"Yes," said Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFL Players Association. "We can't think the game will be here forever."

"No," said Jack Kent Cooke, owner of the Washington Redskins. "Is there anything in the world that's perfect?"

People around the league are lining up on both sides of the issue. Some even feel strongly both ways. But whether it's fine-tuning or a major overhaul, almost everyone wants to tinker with the NFL. This is nothing new. Rules changes are proposed and accepted nearly every year. But what is new this year is that the league has found itself at the confluence of several major issues -- television ratings, dilution of talent due to the U.S. Football League and overexposure of the sport -- that many believe must be addressed. And soon.

It's doubtful there would be a problem if TV ratings weren't down. Through 12 weeks of the regular season, NBC's average ratings are down 5 percent from a year ago, ABC's 7 percent and CBS's 13 percent. Worse, each network has increased its ratings in the last four weeks as some division races have heated up, yet each still shows this average decline.

The networks quickly point out that their overall viewing is down because of cable TV and the increasing use of video recorders. They also like to talk about "cyclical" changes. For ABC's "Monday Night Football," the ratings come back every four years. Because 1981 was a record-setting year, and 1977 was before that, ABC hopes 1985 will be a very good year.

"TV ratings really are the only main concern," Rozelle said. "I think ratings are cyclical. They've gone up and down over 25 years. The main reason they are going down now is the glut of football."

But if TV ratings mirror fan interest, then the NFL is in trouble.

"Evidently, TV ratings indicate fan interest is not as great," said Miami Coach Don Shula. "This, I would imagine, is the cause for concern."

But it doesn't worry Shula. He says he ascribes to the "fan in the stands" theory. Doomsayers, take note. Average paid attendance for the 1984 season, not including the two Thanksgiving Day games, is 60,138, according to the league. Only once has the NFL gone over 60,000 for an entire season and that was in 1981, when it averaged 60,745. This season, then, could be the second-best -- or even the best -- in NFL history.

These numbers gloss over an otherwise uniform picture. As Shula said, "Fans are picking and choosing, and we have to work harder." He is one of four members (soon to be five) of the NFL's competition committee, which meets each year before the league meetings in March to discuss suggestions and changes. Their meetings might run into overtime this year.

What they may find is that they can only propose minor changes for major problems. What can they do about the number of college football games on TV? That's for the NCAA or CFA or AB-Whomever to handle. But its effect on the NFL is potentially enormous.

"There's just so much football," said former Redskins quarterback Sonny Jurgensen, now of WDVM-TV-9. "We may have reached a saturation point."

Then, there is the USFL, splashing the game to the oversaturation point and stealing talent the NFL needs.

Rozelle is not alone when he says the USFL's proposed switch to the fall in 1986 is "healthy" because it will give all football fans six months off. Jack Donlan, executive director of the NFL Management Council, added, "There is no anticipation for the (NFL) season to start because, right now, there's always a season."

Could it be that the lack of anticipation comes from other sources? What of the talent in the league? Cooke says it's not an issue; it's all relative.

"Remove (Wayne) Gretzky from the NHL. Say he wasn't born. Is the NHL hurting? No, I think not. There are other players who are stars. Everything in this world is relative," he said.

Others aren't so sure. Jurgensen thinks NFL benches aren't nearly as deep as they once were, and O.J. Simpson agrees.

"Looking at it from a management point of view, I'd get rid of the USFL," Simpson said with a laugh. "What hurts even more than year-round football is that it has taken about five players away from each team -- not the last five, but the 16th through 21st players on teams. Losing those five players is like taking a line of vision from one eye. Instead of being a 20-20 league, it's 20-30 now. It's hurt the quality of play just that little bit."

Simpson, an analyst on "Monday Night Football," said the NFL cannot afford to lose stars to the USFL.

"Look at what Eric Dickerson and Dan Marino have done, the excitement they have generated around the league," Simpson said. "If we had Jim Kelly and Steve Young . . . those are the kids the NFL needs. If Kelly would have been in Buffalo (which drafted him in 1983), when they were playing on TV, you would have had some interest. Everyone wants to see the young star.

"The same would probably hold true for Herschel Walker," he continued. "Not having those guys around has hurt. It has hurt the league at all levels."

Until the USFL folds or merges with the NFL, this one will remain unsolved. But there are many others.

In Dan Jenkins' new book, "Life Its Ownself," Billy Clyde Puckett listens as his Uncle Kenneth tells him what's wrong with the pro game: "Everything."

Uncle Kenneth doesn't like the 16-game season, the rules changes that handcuff defenses, the no-name head coaches. Neither do some nonfictional characters.

Jurgensen, for one, dares fans to name the 28 head coaches. "A major problem is the fan identifying the players and coaches. It used to be so easy," he said.

He said rules changes that took away the bump-and-run and allowed offensive linemen to block with their hands open have forced officials into the game as never before.

This year has been especially bad because it takes several years for teams to work the changes into their systems, said Sam Huff, another former Redskin who now is a vice president of the Marriott Corp. and a radio commentator with Jurgensen for Redskins games.

"They have taken the defense out of the game and put all those track stars in," Huff said.

Cooke also would prefer to see the defense "defend itself." That way, he says, there will be lower-scoring, more interesting games. In 1977, according to the NFL, an average of 34.3 points was scored in every game. In 1983, the average was 43.7. Through Week 12 this season, it was 41.7.

"I'm sure many viewers have tuned out in disgust when they see these lopsided games," Cooke said.

If it's not boring because of the score, some say, it takes too long to finish.

"I think (that's) particularly valid," Rozelle said. "We will address that in the March meetings. They're running too long. When a Monday night game goes 3 hours and 20 minutes, that's way too long for people in the East, particularly for children. And we want to keep them into the game."

In 1979, the average time of the game was 3:01. This season, it's 3:09, league figures say. Cooke blames "those referees in committee.

"This (problem) could be eliminated by a master referee sitting before a series of cameras with the right to adjudicate decisions at once," he said.

Tex Schramm, president of the Dallas Cowboys and a member of the competition committee, wonders if officials couldn't "start the clock sooner after an incomplete pass." He added quickly, "You'd have to strike a balance. You don't want to sacrifice too much action."

Dick Vermeil coached the Eagles to the Super Bowl and now works for CBS. "There are too many rules that have been put into the game," he said. "There are too many things for the officials to officiate. You almost never see the kicking game without a flag nowadays."

It's possible some rules will be changed or modified before next season. One Cooke would like to see eliminated is the rule prohibiting taunting and prolonged celebrating. "That added a heck of a lot of fun," he said.

Conversation usually returns to nostalgia. The way it was. No artificial turf, no USFL, even Dick Butkus staying in on passing downs. Then there is Schramm, who talks about the day coaches will electronically transmit plays to quarterbacks, who will have wireless speakers in their helmets. Quarterback will have mouthpieces, too, to relay plays to receivers, who will have speakers in their helmets, too. So much for loud crowds.

So much for the good old days, too. Perhaps the NFL's future does not lie in its past.