Pick up the NFL schedule for the last month of the season. Find a game that turns you on. We dare you. On Dec. 19 the Miami Dolphins will host the Buffalo Bills, and the AFC East title could be at stake—if backup quarterback Steve DeBerg and his dental floss arm can keep the Dolphins afloat. The Jan. 2 meeting of the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Giants could be a biggie, even though the Giants are in one of the worst offensive funks an 8-3 team has ever been in.
But come on now. Roll out the Big One. Where's the Monday-nighter that's going to blow Northern Exposure clear back to the Arctic Circle?
It's not there.
O.K., let's turn to the players. Who's the rascal that half of us love and the other half love to hate? That would be Deion Sanders, except that he spent the first six weeks of the football season riding the Atlanta Braves' bench. On top of that, his Atlanta Falcons are 5-6 and will appear on national television only once the rest of the season.
Who's the charismatic hero that we can't read enough about? That would be Kansas City Chief quarterback Joe Montana. He plays about once a month, when his hamstring wakes up on the right side of the bed. His heir to the NFL marketing throne, Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman, also hurt a hammy, and his final month of the season is touch and go. Four more of the game's brightest stars—Dolphin quarterback Dan Marino, Giant linebacker Lawrence Taylor, Detroit Lion running back Barry Sanders and Philadelphia Eagle quarterback Randall Cunningham—have all missed playing time with injuries, and Marino won't be back at all.
No question about it, a malaise has settled over the NFL because, very simply, the game is not as good as it used to be. "Is it just me, or is this the worst football we've ever seen?" says broadcaster Matt Millen, the former linebacker. No, Matt, it's not just you. We saw what a wonderful game pro football can be when Dallas and Miami played that nail-biter in a snowstorm on Thanksgiving Day. But for three months we have seen too many crummy field goal duels, too few big plays.
Yes, the games are as close as ever, and the Sunday-afternoon ratings are down only slightly from last year. But what are we watching? Games of skill or games of chance? You get the feeling that quite often it's not the ability of the players that decides these games. Instead, it's a silly mistake, like the officials' failure to properly operate the clock in the final minute of the Los Angeles Raiders' 24-20 win over the New York Jets on Oct. 10. Or it's a matter of who survives a war of attrition; injuries devastated two perennial playoff teams, Philadelphia and the Washington Redskins, by the middle of October. Or it's who has the hot kicker; the San Diego Chargers, still in the playoff hunt after Sunday's games with a 4-6 record, would be 2-8 if not for kicker John Carney.
Yes, the NFL is ailing, but solutions—none of them radical—are at hand.
1 The problem: Parity is a monster unleashed. Don't get us wrong; we are in favor of free agency, but just as the open marketplace can bring a bad team closer to contention, it can also drag a good one down to the middle of the pack by sapping it of its backup quarterbacks and overall depth. This is only the first season of free agency, and for the first time since the '50s, pro football has gone two straight years without a 9-1 or 10-0 team. Think about that. There are some very good teams right now—Dallas and the San Francisco 49ers seem to be the best—but no great team. Certainly nothing like the Dolphins of the early '70s or the Niners of the '80s. Says Millen, "Parity is fine, if we have good teams beating each other. But bad teams with good records are beating each other, and usually the games are full of sloppy play."
The solution: The NFL must reward, not punish, solid, long-term franchise-building by modifying the salary cap, which is set to begin in 1994. Teams with expensive, talent-laden rosters will soon be at a disadvantage in the battle to keep their free agents because they are either at or above the projected spending limit. For next year only, each team should be allowed to exempt its two highest-paid players from the total payroll. If not, the 49ers, with a payroll that is currently some $10 million over the projected cap, could lose three starting offensive linemen, wideout John Taylor or fullback Tom Rathman during the coming off-season. If the Niners decide to open the vault for those players, they would lose substantial depth because they would have spent so much to keep the stalwart starters. If they don't, one of the NFL's marquee players, quarterback Steve Young, could be rendered helpless behind a feeble offensive line. Either way, one of the league's flagship franchises will be weakened.