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Eric Wilbur's Sports Blog

RIP, NFL

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I’m going to miss football.

Whatever it is we’re watching this month sure as hell isn’t football.

The game that the NFL has delivered into our homes during this preseason is indeed a thoroughly unwatchable product, bereft of the sport we used to know. Instead, this version of football has turned into its arena cousin on a much larger scale, a flag-tossing headache suddenly so aimed at the fantasy market that it threatens to make the NFL the first professional sports league in America to truly embrace the concepts behind “The Running Man.”

The NFL wants to score, score, score, eschewing defensive responsibilities in the name of weekly shootouts. Embarrass Peyton Manning in the Super Bowl, will you? Well, the NFL will just threaten to enforce the rules it put in place a decade ago when Manning was rendered useless in the playoffs by the New England Patriots. Make no mistake, this preseason flag-fest is partly aimed at making guys like Manning, Tom Brady, and Aaron Rodgers become record-setting monsters. The NFL insists it’s a safety issue. Please. What’s good for the fantasy roster is good for NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. That’s just pathetic.

But here we are, watching the dreadful implementation of the illegal contact rule take place. Having fun yet? NFL referees have thrown more flags this preseason than Johnny Manziel name-drops on ESPN. There were 21 accepted penalties in last Friday’s Eagles-Patriots game at Gillette Stadium, 28 overall. According to ESPN, there has been an average of 23.4 penalties per game this preseason. Twenty-three-point-four. That is nearly double the average of 12.7 penalties per game that were enforced last year. Hell, the New Orleans Saints have drawn an NFL-high 42 penalties (293 yards worth) alone through two preseason games. The Patriots have seen 26 through two games for 164 yards.

Is it a matter of teams pushing the boundaries so they can get a grip on the new realities of the game, or is the NFL truly going to be this vigilant with its calls? Last season saw an average of 46.8 points per game in the NFL, a league record. Who exactly was clamoring for more offense?

What is going on here, and when should I call my senator?

In a perfect world, we can all just assume that this plague is simply the result of the refs going overboard to prove their point as to what might be called during the regular season. It’s not like we haven’t seen that before in meaningless games. But as BostonGlobe.com’s Sean Leahy noted yesterday, NFL officiating boss Dean Blandino told Sports Illustrated, “We’re not going to change how we’re calling the games once the regular season starts ... The way the game’s being officiated now is the way it’s going to be officiated when the season begins.”

Oh. Joy.

“It’s one of things that we don’t really have any control over,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said on Monday. “We just need to try to do a better job of what we’re doing and let them do their job. Whatever it is, we have to play within the rules and understand them and play within them. That’s our job. We have to do a better job of that. I’m just worried about trying to get our team better and coach our team. Let Dean and whoever else handle the officials.”

That’s not reassuring. If Blandino is hell-bent on having his team call the game the way we’ve seen it officiated in the preseason, we’re in for one painful season of penalties, aimed at maximizing a product already bloated with popularity. If a preseason game normally has the flow of a clogged pipe, this year it has the feel of a sputtering Pinto trying to break the speed limit. The game has become so flag-prevalent, played to penalties, that we might as well just dedicate our time to the NBA or the Canadiens.

Roger Goodell may fancy himself a deity, but even God kicked up his heels on the seventh day and deemed all he had created good. It’s not enough to be czar of an empire achieving $10 billion in revenue, on its way to $25 billion by 2027. Somehow the NFL commissioner and his merry band of "yes, sir" owners won’t be satisfied until they’ve thoroughly ruined the product. After all, isn’t the NFL’s keen interest in making the league the ultimate fantasy destination really a slick admission of legalized gambling? Why let the underworld make all the cash on your game?

If that is indeed the way we’re headed, how long until the NFL has a Tim Donaghy on its hands?

Ludicrous? Nope. Consider that about $11 billion is spent annually on fantasy football, the bulk of the $15 billion estimated that Americans spend on fantasy games in general. As Forbes phrases it, “the ‘derivative’ market has grown larger than the foundational market.” In essence, fantasy football makes more money than any chase for the Lombardi Trophy. It’s no coincidence which audience the NFL is choosing to cater with its new enforcements.

Get used to it. Football as you knew it is dead. And as the fantasy game grows in popularity – and cash – all that will be left behind of the old NFL will be reminders of what defense used to be. It sure doesn’t exist in today’s league.

After all, there’s only so much money you can make on a shutdown unit. Touchdowns are money.

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