25 Things We Miss About the NFL
Some people don’t like to talk about the past.
One of the more notable quotes from the last season of "The Sopranos" — the crime drama television series — dealt with this in kind of a famous way. In an episode titled "Remember When," mob boss Tony Soprano and his "associate" Paulie Gualtieri flee to South Florida to lay low for a while. At dinner, Tony admonishes his friends for talking about the past.
"I was always told that 'remember when' was the lowest form of conversation," Tony says, getting up and walking away from the table.
We respectfully disagree with Mr. Soprano. No disrespect intended.
When it comes to the NFL and talking about "Remember When," even the bad memories can take on a certain, special shine.
Here are 25 things we miss about the NFL as the league turns the corner into a second century.
Bonding Over 'Monday Night Football'
For more than sentimental reasons, it’s easy to miss the days when "Monday Night Football" seemed like a tangible part of American households.
A lot of that comes from the legendary names that manned the booth — mainly Howard Cosell, Don Meredith, Frank Gifford, Al Michaels and Dan Dierdorf. The various combinations of voices are the most legendary in sports broadcasting history.
The play-by-play portion of MNF’s broadcast since it moved to ESPN has been as solid as any part of the show’s history, with Mike Tirico’s run from 2006 to 2015 standing out in particular.
The same cannot be said for most of the network’s choices to fill the role of color commentator.
Running Backs As Franchise Saviors
In the first 31 years of the Super Bowl, there were six running backs named Super Bowl MVP. In the last 21 years, there have been none.
There hasn’t been an NFL MVP running back since Minnesota’s Adrian Petersen in 2012. There hasn’t been a Super Bowl-winning team with the NFL’s leading rusher since Denver’s Terrell Davis in 1998, which was the same year he was named Super Bowl MVP.
Common sense says this is because of the way offenses have evolved, and that running backs are as important as ever because they catch the ball so much more.
Another way to look at this? Withstanding the amount of contact to dominate like Davis, John Riggins or Marcus Allen did in their heyday is something today’s elite athlete likely would never subject themselves to.
Unique Super Bowl Locations
There’s something cool about getting to witness a city’s run-up to hosting the Super Bowl for the first time. Indianapolis, Dallas and New York all got that chance in the last decade.
It might be a while before we see something like that happen again. Longtime Super Bowl hosts Miami, Tampa, Los Angeles, Phoenix and New Orleans are hosting the next five years.
The NFL almost struck a deal with Kansas City to host the Super Bowl until the installation of a retractable roof ended up being the sticking point.
The league should either revisit the idea again with Kansas City or extend that same offer to other cities where a retractable roof might be a long-term benefit.
John Facenda’s Voice
The NFL’s "Voice of God" was Philadelphia native John Thomas Ralph Augustine James Facenda — a man with a name truly worthy of his station in life.
Facenda, a longtime sports announcer and broadcaster, shot to fame as the longtime narrator for NFL Films after Facenda went to his local bar one night in 1965 and, while watching slow-motion NFL highlights on the TV, rhapsodized to friends about how beautiful he thought the images were.
Sitting at the same bar? NFL Films president Ed Sabol, who asked Facenda if he could do that again, on script. He could. Bob Costas once called Facenda’s voice "one of the most remarkable instruments in the history of broadcasting."
Facenda died of lung cancer in 1984 at 71 years old.
Coaches Who Dressed Classy
How is it that NFL head coaches can, with the right amount of success, become some of the most powerful people in sports, yet they can’t pick the clothes they wear on game day? Hockey? Basketball? They can wear what they want.
But since 1993, the NFL has mandated that all head coaches wear team-branded gear. And it’s been a bland, fashionless slough of head coaches patrolling NFL sidelines ever since.
The NFL should loosen its stance on head coaches and what they wear, even if that’s the only position that becomes exempt.
Why is this so important? Tom Landry’s fedora, Tom Flores' sweater vest/dress shirt combo, Vince Lombardi’s winter coats and Hank Stram’s black tie are all things we need in our lives.
Not Having Social Media
It might be hard to imagine for anyone under 25 years old, but there was a time when the only people who had to hear your NFL takes were those in your immediate, physical vicinity.
Something got really, really lost when we lost the step in sports discussion where we stopped and thought about things for more than 30 seconds.
Sports debate has always been very, very heated — that’s not up for debate. It’s also never been as dumb as its been for the last decade, where sometimes saying the most over-the-top thing has replaced relying on actual facts.
This is social media’s lasting impact on not just the NFL, but all of professional sports.
Understanding the Rules
A great argument can be made for a separate list of rule-specific things we miss about the NFL. And that’s a fascinating debate.
If we want to look at refereeing in the bigger picture, we can make another argument that we seem to have collectively lost an understanding of what the rules actually are.
For a sport that’s been around as long as football has, to have the people in charge of officiating the games have such a fluid, loose understanding of the rules is disconcerting.
There are some times when it’s OK to be rigid and nonflexible about the rules. Professional football contests should be one of those times.
Running Backs as No. 1 Draft Picks
In a surprise to no one, more quarterbacks have been taken with the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft than any other position — 32 times, including four of the last five years.
The next position with the most No. 1 overall picks? That’s running back, with 23 picks. But no No. 1 overall selections since 1995, when the Cincinnati Bengals selected Penn State’s Ki-Jana Carter.
And maybe that’s where the problems started. Carter was historically bad, rushing for just 1,144 yards over eight seasons with four different teams.
With LSU quarterback Joe Burrow the likely No. 1 overall pick in 2020 and Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence looking like a solid bet for No. 1 overall in 2021, don’t expect this trend to change anytime soon.
Fans Being a Priority
There’s no city in the NFL where a working-class family — two parents, two kids — can attend a single NFL game without having to chip off around $1,000 for the experience.
It’s not breaking news that the NFL priced out the average fan over the last few decades. It’s also common sense that the NFL can’t put this particular genie back in the bottle. Barring a nationwide economic downturn, prices will never go back down.
What teams can do is create community outreach programs that include tickets for children from low-income and middle-class families on a regular basis.
At least that's a good place to start.
The last two decades have shown us that an NFL dynasty can be something different than what we may have thought at one time.
Thanks to the New England Patriots, we’ve seen a head coach, owner and star player be there every step of the way with Bill Belilchick, Robert Kraft and Tom Brady doing it for the last 20 years.
The thing, though, is that all of this has gotten a little old. In the last year, we’ve been treated to, thanks to the Patriots, the most tepid Super Bowl of all time and, somehow, another possible cheating scandal involving New England taping a team illegally.
Another thing the Pats did? Put every other "dynasty" into perspective, taking the shine off such NFL pantheons as the Pittsburgh Steelers, San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys.
Spontaneous Touchdown Celebrations
The joy that comes with scoring a touchdown in the NFL was negated somewhat, from 2006 to 2017. That's when the league cracked down on celebrations after several players began using props (cell phones, stuff thrown from the stands) and dunking on the goalpost after they scored.
Now, you can pretty much do whatever you want after you score as long as you don’t use a prop, the goalpost, or players not in the game at the time. What this did was create a string of pre-planned, mind-numbing celebrations largely drawn from memes or current hit songs.
Give us Ickey Woods and Deion Sanders showing us something new after scoring six points over today’s unoriginal mimicry any day of the week.
(Actual) Great Catches
In a January 2019 New York Times article about football gloves, David Waldstein wrote that "sticky, silicone gloves have transformed receivers’ mitts into virtual Spider-Man hands."
Truer words about the subject have never been written, and the polymer used to make today’s football gloves was determined to have made catching the ball 20 percent more likely than with bare hands in a recent study done by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
So while some fans have misty memories of Odell Beckham Jr.’s famous, one-handed catch in 2014, there’s still only one play that can call itself "The Catch" with a straight face. That catch was with two bare hands and made in the back of the end zone at Candlestick Park in the 1981 NFC championship game.
On that note, RIP, Dwight Clark.
Pro Football in San Diego
"Well, football sucked in San Diego. That’s why it’s gone."
That’s pretty much the argument you’ll get from someone if you say you miss having pro football in San Diego. And while it’s not deep, it’s not totally wrong. Especially over the last decade or so.
But there was a time when the San Diego Chargers and having football in the city seemed like a really important part of the fabric of the NFL. Hall of Fame Chargers players span generations, including Lance Alworth, Dan Fouts, Kellen Winslow, Junior Seau and LaDainian Tomlinson.
And in its heyday, football in San Diego was cool. The uniforms were cool. The players were cool. And now it’s gone. And that really sucks.
Yes, we know that you can still see Peyton Manning talking football on a regular basis with his ESPN show, "Peyton’s Places," but there was a certain gravitas that Manning brought to the sideline during his career that is sorely missed.
He also was a great counterbalance to New England’s Tom Brady throughout his career — and not just on the field. Where Brady was uber-serious and guarded, Manning was joking and open and, at times, hilarious.
If you want to understand Manning’s appeal, the first piece of evidence should be his turn hosting "Saturday Night Live" in 2007, a rollicking 90 minutes that cemented his place as the greatest turn by an athlete hosting SNL of all time.
The fullback being the focus of the offense might seem like a myth for a new generation of football fans, but, believe us, it used to be a thing.
There was actually a time where Super Bowl MVPs (Larry Csonka, Jim Riggins) and NFL career leading rushers (Jim Brown) were fullbacks. The position changed through the 1980s and 1990s into a hybrid blocker/runner/pass catcher (Tom Rathman, Darryl Johnston), then became purely a blocking back (Lorenzo Neal) then, poof. Gone.
UCLA head coach Chip Kelly once posited that the change started on the college level, where it became harder and harder to recruit fullbacks. "How do you recruit a kid that’s 6-foot-1, then tell him he’ll be 6-foot when he graduates?" Kelly asked.
Well, when you put it that way.
Having a Real Commissioner
The NFL commissioner used to be omnipresent. He was at games. He was on the news. He interjected himself and his knowledge into the hotly debated NFL topics. Think Pete Rozelle or Paul Tagliabue.
For the last three or four years, we mostly see current commissioner Roger Goodell in live TV shots of various luxury suites. His position as the most powerful person in sports seems to have been negated after a decade-long, knockdown, drag-out battle with the NFLPA over player conduct, then multiple scandals involving the Patriots that wrecked his relationship with owner Robert Kraft.
While we’re being critical, we should also point out that Goodell might be a genius. He lays back in the cut, doesn’t draw attention to himself, and collects $44 million per year.
We Miss Cool Nicknames
What’s the most recognizable nickname in the NFL today? It seems like it’s probably "OBJ" — the nickname for All-Pro wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. And no offense, but that’s boring. It’s just the letters of his name.
Whatever happened to actual nicknames? Prime Time? The Playmaker? The Refrigerator? Sweetness?
The last few generations of football players largely have been devoid of cool nicknames. Only Marshawn Lynch (Beast Mode), Calvin Johnson (Megatron) and Jevon Kearse (The Freak) quickly come to mind, but they are all retired now.
Please remember there is only one really tried and true rule when it comes to nicknames. The great ones come from other people. You can’t have a great nickname if it’s one you gave to yourself.
It’s been almost a decade since Raiders owner Al Davis died, and his name has been mentioned not near enough in the NFL’s 100-year celebration. And that’s too bad.
Few figures in the history of the league created a legacy on Davis’ level, and his contributions to the game (and society) have been forgotten because of the image most people have of the cartoonish, Svengali-like figure he appeared to be in the latter part of his career.
But it was Davis who refused to let the Raiders play in cities with segregated hotels. It was Davis who hired the first black head coach in NFL history and just the second Latino head coach. It was Davis who hired the first female chief executive in NFL history.
He loomed as large as almost any figure in NFL history.
The NFL hasn’t had a true blockbuster trade for quite some time. As free agency became more lucrative, salary-cap rules became more restrictive, and teams became hesitant to part ways with players who got the bulk of their money upfront via a signing bonus.
But a good trade now and then shakes up the status quo, which is never bad. It’s hard to envision a world where we’ll ever see something as earth-shattering as the 1989 trade that sent running back Herschel Walker from the Dallas Cowboys to the Minnesota Vikings.
Nowadays, any trade needs to be fleshed out and agreed upon by 4,815 different people before it happens. Let’s all admit trades are much more exciting when no one sees them coming.
Los Angeles Not Having a Team
No, really, Los Angeles not having a professional football team was fine. Let alone the two of them they have now with the Los Angeles Rams and the Los Angeles Chargers.
The 21-year absence of pro football in the City of Angels did zero to slow down the league’s nonstop growth in that time. Commissioner Roger Goodell did a good job of not jumping right back into the idea of football in L.A., but when he did, it was clumsy.
The Rams have turned into an NFC power, but football fans in Los Angeles are fickle, and their following seems to vary week to week.
The Chargers have been a disaster so far, and spending the last three seasons watching visiting fans turn 30,000-seat StubHub Stadium into de facto home games has been, in a word, awkward.
So not everything the NFL attaches itself to makes money, as evidenced by NFL Europe (NFL Europa in its final year) ceasing operations in 2007 with reported losses of $30 million per year. But it was fun while it lasted. A lot of fun.
And it can also be pointed to as the only farm system that’s worked for football on the professional level, having produced stars like 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison, legendary kicker Adam Vinatieri, Jake Delhomme, Jon Kitna and Dante Hall.
Its most famous product was two-time NFL Most Valuable Player and Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner, who played for the Amsterdam Admirals in 1998, just one year before leading the St. Louis Rams to a Super Bowl win.
The Days Before Fantasy Football Took Over
In reality, we miss not having fantasy football be such a big part of the game itself. For years, fantasy football was relegated to a dedicated group of fans who did things like mail each other stats and standings every week and kept rosters on note cards.
Beginning in the early 2000s, fantasy football became everywhere on Sundays. And while fantasy football has had no real impact on the game, it’s made a certain group of fans almost intolerable — rooting interests directed toward players instead of outcomes of games and kicking off a million worthless conversations between strangers about their fantasy teams.
Don’t get us wrong. Stats are great. The final score should be the most important thing.
Getting to see Tony Dungy as an analyst on "Sunday Night Football" is great, obviously, because it keeps him in our lives as football fans. We just really miss him patrolling the sidelines as a coach.
There was something he brought to the profession that hasn’t been totally replicated since he stopped coaching after the 2008 seasons.
A lot of what we love about Dungy can be found in his book, "Quiet Strength," which was a No. 1 New York Times bestseller.
His philosophies about coaching and success were a breath of fresh air and backed up what we already thought we knew about Dungy.
The 5-Yard Battles
Playing defensive back and wide receiver used to be a very different (read: tougher) task when you made it to the NFL. That was because the five yards from the line of scrimmage were considered a "mutual combat" zone — essentially hand-to-hand battle that’s not allowed in the college game.
In the 1990s, cornerbacks became the most valued position on the defensive side of the ball and only behind quarterbacks in the game overall because of this fact.
While the rule still exists on paper that you can still have contact five yards off the ball, the expansion of what "illegal contact" means has made the old, 5-yard battles almost nonexistent.
And with that, cornerbacks have seen their value plummet.
There was just something cool and unique about Texas Stadium. It was home to the Dallas Cowboys for 38 seasons, until AT&T Stadium opened in 2009 and Texas Stadium was demolished in 2010.
The thing that stands out is the hole in the roof. It was meant to be retractable, but it was determined that the structure couldn’t support such an addition, so it was just left open. And it led to some cool televised games and infamous moments — mainly the Thanksgiving Day game against the Dolphins in 1993, with the field covered in snow.
Former Dallas linebacker D.D. Lewis’ quote about the stadium is perhaps what’s most associated with it: "Texas Stadium has a hole in its roof so God can watch His favorite team play."