Opening Thought

The NFL got exactly what it needed Thursday night, a thrilling game in Oakland between the Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs with a crazy finish that will be a topic of discussion Friday.

Now all it needs is more of the same.

“It’s awesome,” Raiders Coach Jack Del Rio said in a postgame interview with CBS, which carried the game.

Indeed it was. It was a game with a little bit of everything. There were officiating controversies. There was Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch being ejected for running on the field from the sideline during a scuffle between the teams and making contact with an official.

There was an ending that included the Raiders having one touchdown overturned by an instant replay review that put the ball down inside the 1-yard line; then having another touchdown negated by an offensive pass interference penalty; then having the game extended by two defensive penalties on the Chiefs; then winning, 31-30, on quarterback Derek Carr’s touchdown pass to wide receiver Michael Crabtree and the ensuing extra point.

The Raiders probably saved their season, ending a three-game losing streak and upping their record to 3-4.

“Two and five didn’t sound good,” Carr said on the set of the league-owned NFL Network. “That didn’t sit well with us.”

The game also might have been a first step toward the NFL saving its season. Those in the NFL keep talking about getting the public’s attention back to what happens following the opening kickoff instead of what transpires before it.

“What we’re trying to do is stay out of politics,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said at the conclusion of this week’s two-day owners’ meeting in New York. “We’re not looking to get into politics. What we’re looking to do is continue to keep people focused on football.”

One thing that would help in that regard is a team or two and a few players emerging to make this season considerably more captivating. Thursday night’s game was only a start.

Think about it. What are the most compelling on-field story lines so far of the 2017 season?

The Los Angeles Rams are a first-place team as their youthful head coach, Sean McVay, turns second-year quarterback Jared Goff into a player worthy of last year’s No. 1 overall selection. The Philadelphia Eagles are off to a 5-1 start behind the quarterback drafted last year immediately after Goff, Carson Wentz. The New York Jets are not tanking the season. Rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson looks like a star in the making in Houston. The Chiefs were the final team to suffer a loss.

Okay, fine. Those are all nice. But none of that has created all that much buzz.

The New England Patriots have not been themselves. After talk of them chasing an unbeaten season, they lost their first game and little has come easily for them since then.

The Dallas Cowboys regained “America’s Team” stature last season behind two rookies, quarterback Dak Prescott and tailback Ezekiel Elliott, as they provided a post-presidential-election boost to the sport’s sagging TV ratings. But with expectations even higher this season, the Cowboys are 2-3 and they could lose Elliott at any time if the NFL regains the right in court to enforce its six-game suspension of him under the personal conduct policy.

Aaron Rodgers suffered a broken collarbone last weekend, potentially ending his season, a week after Odell Beckham Jr. and J.J. Watt suffered season-ending injuries. Andrew Luck hasn’t played all season.

Who’s the MVP of the league? There’s Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith and there’s Tom Brady and there’s … who? Maybe Kansas City’s Kareem Hunt or Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown?

Who’s the best team in the NFC? There’s the Eagles and … who?  Perhaps the Seahawks or Rams or Panthers?

No one, it seems, is talking about a dominant NFL team. No player is performing feats that have made for can’t-miss viewing.

The best game of the season before Thursday’s probably came when Rodgers, in his final game before getting hurt, took the Green Bay Packers to a game-winning touchdown in the final seconds at Dallas, just as he’d ousted the Cowboys from the NFC playoffs in the same building last season with crunchtime quarterbacking magic. But Rodgers’s late-game sleight of hand immediately was overshadowed by Cowboys owner Jerry Jones saying afterward that he’d bench any player on his team who protested during the national anthem.

As long as the most-talked-about NFL player is Colin Kaepernick, who isn’t even on a roster, the league will have an issue and there will be questions about whether it can maintain its popularity and prosperity. As long as the most passionately debated NFL topic is the players’ protests during the anthem, the league is not succeeding in getting the focus back to the football being played.

Owners left the meeting in New York without requiring players to stand for the anthem, refusing to give in to the pressure being exerted by President Trump. But Trump shows no signs of abandoning the topic. It remains to be seen if that will keep the national controversy raging.

The Patriots and Atlanta Falcons play a rematch Sunday night of a memorably great Super Bowl. By Monday morning, that’s what the NFL hopes fans are discussing. Will that be the case?

The NFL can hope that it is, buoyed by the elation over what unfolded Thursday night in Oakland.

Around the League

No Elliott settlement … There has been speculation about a potential settlement between the league and the players’ union of the case involving Elliott’s suspension. But multiple people familiar with the case said Thursday that there is, in their view, little to no chance of such a settlement.

There is little reason, it seems, for the NFL to settle the case. The union secured a temporary restraining order this week to put Elliott’s suspension back on hold, keeping him eligible to play this Sunday at San Francisco and perhaps the Cowboys’ following game against the Washington Redskins.

But the league already has managed to have a preliminary injunction granted by a federal judge in Texas lifted by an appeals court in New Orleans. And now the case has shifted to New York, where the case involving Brady’s Deflategate suspension played out. That precedent applies, and it stands to reason that the NFL is confident that it ultimately will prevail in this case.

Jones’s anthem policy … If Jones sticks to his policy that he would sit any Cowboys player who protests during the anthem, the NFL would have a situation in which one of its teams has a different anthem policy than that of the league and, presumably, every other team.

Could a player benched by the Cowboys file a grievance and have a chance of success? It’s an interesting question.

As long as that player is paid, he might not have any recourse. But if the Cowboys were to suspend the player without pay, that could be different. The collective bargaining agreement says that a team can suspend a player without pay for as many as four games for conduct detrimental to the club. But is that detrimental conduct, especially given that the league and other teams don’t define it as such? And who gets to determine that? And the suspension could not last beyond four games, even if the Cowboys were able to impose it.

Pace of play … The NFL made quickening the pace of games a priority this season, and Goodell said in New York he’s pleased with the results thus far.

“We said all along this wasn’t about reducing the length of games,” Goodell said. “It was the pace of the game. The 40-second clock is an example we put in after the point-after-touchdown and after the touchdowns and had a real impact. Centralizing replay and bringing the surface tablets to the sidelines so the official can see it, all that has sped up what we consider down time — time that’s not, we don’t believe, attractive to our fans. We’re happy with it. It’s only six weeks. We’ve got a long way to go. But we’re continuing to see what we can do to keep pushing that because we believe that’s good for the [fan] experience.”

Beckham’s contract … New York Giants co-owner John Mara said Wednesday, as owners left the meeting, that Beckham’s injury should not affect negotiations on a potential long-term contract. The Giants have Beckham under contract through next season after exercising the fifth-year option in his original rookie deal.

“I was obviously disappointed with his behavior in Philadelphia,” Mara said of Beckham’s illegal-celebration penalty for crawling along the turf like a dog and lifting his leg. “I spoke to him about that and he heard me. And unfortunately he got hurt. But he’s maturing. I think we had all hoped that maturity would have come a little faster than it has been. But I’ve spoken to him. I saw him in the hospital last week. He’s in a good place, I think, and I think he’ll come back stronger than ever. … I don’t think it will have any effect because I think he’s going to make a full recovery.”

Extra Points

It does not look particularly promising at this point that Luck will play this season. He had resumed practicing, but now the Colts have shut him down again because of soreness in his surgically repaired shoulder. Luck and the Colts might place some value on him making it back on the field at some point this season, even if it is only a brief appearance at or near the end of the season with little at stake competitively. But they would have to weigh the value of that against the prudence of keeping him on the shelf all season and making certain that his shoulder is fully healed before he takes the field again. …

The NFL is enamored with the idea of keeping the draft on the move. It is headed next year to Dallas, where it will be held at AT&T Stadium. So now it has gone from Chicago to Philadelphia to Dallas since being taken out of New York, and it seems likely that it will continue to move on an annual basis.

Games to Watch

Falcons at Patriots … The Falcons can’t hold a lead lately. Sound familiar?

Seahawks at Giants … Just when the Giants’ season seemed done, they beat the Broncos. Is there any way they can keep it going?

Redskins at Eagles … The winner emerges as the team to beat in the NFC East. Who knew?

Games to Miss

Titans at Browns … It’s back to DeShone Kizer at quarterback for the Browns. After that, maybe they’ll ask for volunteers.

Jaguars at Colts … No Luck, no reason to pay any attention to the Colts.

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