Tracking 11 years of change in the NFL

Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III salutes the fans as he leaves the field with an injured left leg during the fourth quarter of their playoff football game against the Seahawks on Sunday, Jan. 6, 2012, in Landover, Md. (AP Photo/Richard Lipski)
Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III salutes the fans as he leaves the field with an injured left leg during the fourth quarter of their playoff football game against the Seahawks on Sunday, Jan. 6, 2012, in Landover, Md. (AP Photo/Richard Lipski)

Eleven years ago Sunday, Adam Vinatieri prevented the first overtime in Super Bowl history when his 48-yard field goal as time expired in the Superdome gave the New England Patriots a 20-17 victory against the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI.

At the time, nobody would have predicted that it would be more than a decade before the big game would return to the Crescent City, which had hosted eight of them between 1970 and 1997. But Hurricane Katrina and the construction of several new stadiums around the league intervened.

And that has meant a lot of time for change in the NFL, on and off the field. Some, like realignment, already were in the works back in 2002. Others, such as an emphasis on the passing game, were part of the sport’s evolution. And some, like the creation of the NFL Network, were a result of our increasingly digital world.

Here are 10 key developments in pro football since New Orleans’ previous Super Bowl:

Roger Goodell takes command on Park Avenue

He has been called the most powerful person in sports. The position alone makes that a de facto reality.

But in his six-plus years as commissioner of the NFL, Roger Goodell has used the bully pulpit of his office to “protect the shield,” as he puts it, emphasizing the integrity of the game with unprecedented sanctions in areas of player and team conduct.

Certainly the Saints have found that out in the past year.

“Roger is really trying to make things right,” Oakland Raiders General Manager Reggie McKenzie said. “And sometimes that means you have to be forceful. There’s no doubt he’s the man in charge.”

Perhaps that’s why, in 2006, the owners needed five ballots to select Goodell as the successor to the more compliant Paul Tagliabue, even though Goodell, the league’s COO since 2001, was a prohibitive favorite for the post.

Following a quiet first season, Goodell instituted a personal conduct policy for players, imposing severe penalties for infractions on and off the field. He also fined the New England Patriots $250,000 and docked them a first-round pick in the “Spygate” incident before handing out his harshest penalties to the Saints over what became known as ”Bountygate.” Overreaching in an attempt to punish the players was one of Goodell’s few failures.

In the meantime, Goodell has strengthened the financial product with new broadcast and sponsorship deals, secured another decade of labor peace after the 2011 lockout and resolved the 2012 officials lockout.

But, McKenzie said, Goodell is no dictator.

“Roger listens to players, he listens to management and he listened to the officials,” he said. “He wants to give them and the fans what they want. He doesn’t just say, ‘This is how we’ve done it, and this is how it’s always going to be.’ ”

Adding the Texans yields 32-team symmetry

For the past decade, there has been a perfect symmetry to the NFL alignment — 32 teams split into two 16-team conferences, each with four four-team divisions playing a schedule where 14 of the next season’s 16 games are predetermined.

When the Houston Texans became the league’s 32nd team in 2002, it caused 11 teams to shift divisions, and Seattle moved from the AFC to the NFC.

For the Saints, realignment meant a true regional division for the first time — the NFC South with Atlanta, Carolina and Tampa Bay.

“I think, more than anything else, it’s every team focuses on what they need to do to be better than the three other teams in their divisions, because that’s all you have to beat to make the playoffs,” said Kevin Demoff, the St. Louis Rams’ vice president of football operations.

“Making the divisions smaller has been a benefit for everyone.”

Realignment has caused a couple of embarrassing situations as well.

Last year, Denver won the AFC West with an 8-8 record, beating San Diego and Oakland in a tiebreaker. And in 2010, Demoff’s Rams and Seattle tied for the NFC West title at 7-9.

But, as Demoff pointed out, both the Broncos and Seahawks won their wild-card playoff games that season, with Seattle beating the Saints.

“That was a random occurrence and something we weren’t very excited about,” Demoff said of the Seattle/St. Louis situation. “But just look at how quickly things change. Now, the NFC West is one of the strongest divisions in the league.”

Demoff said he did not see any tinkering with current alignment unless a team were to relocate to Los Angeles or if the league opted to expand.

While the NFL has made several efforts to put a team in Los Angeles, nothing has come to fruition. And the list of teams that might move is small — Jacksonville, San Diego and the Rams.

“There’s always talk about tinkering with things,” Demoff said. “But I don’t see anything happening soon.”

NFL Network tackles the airwaves

In 2002, the NFL Network was still a gleam in Paul Tagliabue’s eye.

On Sunday, the network will cap a week of saturation Super Bowl programming in New Orleans with a 10½-hour pregame show with another 3½ hours afterward.

And it won’t be alone. ESPN, NBC and CBS Sports Network, whose parent organization is actually airing the game, have been providing multi-hour buildups as well, although none will match the NFL Network’s 140 hours.

“If you want to judge the impact we’ve had, look at the other networks who are also going 24 hours a day from your city,” executive producer Eric Weinberger said. “The last time there was a Super Bowl in New Orleans, nobody was doing that. I think we’re setting a standard that others are trying to follow.”

When it was launched in 2003, there was concern that the public wouldn’t respond to 24/7/365 coverage of a single subject. But thanks to the vast library of NFL Films and ever-growing interest in the nation’s most popular sport, that hasn’t been the case.

And although owned by the league, the network has editorial freedom, an element Weinberger said was vital to its success.

“That was priority No. 1,” he said. “We had people coming over from Fox, CBS, CNN, ESPN and print media. We knew how important to our credibility it was to report things as they were.”

In 2009, NFL Network launched its addictive Red Zone product, featuring live coverage of every Sunday game — a magnet for fantasy football fans. This season, the network’s package of Thursday night games expanded from six to 13.

The next project, Weinberger said, is to “enhance” the draft-day experience.

“We’re still in a growth mode,” he said. “We are always looking for ways to best deliver our content.”

Running backs, linebackers fade out

In a season when Adrian Peterson came within 9 yards of setting the NFL’s single-season rushing record and Ray Lewis’ final game is one of the major storylines of the Super Bowl, their positions are in relative disrepute.

In the draft and most importantly at the pay window, running backs and linebackers have seen their value diminish in the past decade. It’s almost a vicious cycle: As the passing game becomes more dominant, the importance of the running game declines. And, in turn, run-stopping linebackers are needed less.

There are exceptions. The Cleveland Browns traded up to take running back Trent Richardson of Alabama with the third pick in last year’s draft. And linebacker Patrick Willis is the leader of the 49ers’ third-ranked defense.

But there are no running backs projected as first-round picks this season, and as few as two linebackers could go in the first round — depending on how Manti Te’o emerges from his fictional girlfriend melodrama.

“It’s like when you’re married and on a budget,” former Dallas Cowboys player personnel director Gil Brandt said. “You can’t have steak every night. In the NFL, we’ve got a salary cap, and teams just aren’t going to overcommit at positions where they get equal value for less money that can go elsewhere.”

Durability always will be regarded as a factor in judging running backs, which is why so many teams prefer a committee approach. On defense, pass-rushing ends and shutdown corners are the most valued players.

“The running game will never go away,” Brandt said. “It’s just being viewed differently.”

As health concerns mount, player safety becomes paramount

It’s a paradox.

In the most violent of sports with the shortest careers, some of those who would seemingly need protecting the most reject attempts to improve player safety as diminishing the game.

“Man, they’re getting ridiculous,” Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley said in 2011, when the league announced rules designed to cut down on concussions and other severe injuries. “Too many fines. Too many penalties protecting the quarterback. Defensive guys can’t be defensive guys no more.”

To NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock, while Woodley’s sentiments are not universal, it has become necessary for the players to be protected against themselves.

“If a player gets a concussion, he’s usually not worried about his future condition as he is about his present incoming and not losing his job,” Mayock said.

“Everybody wants to be a warrior. When you hear (the Redskins’ Robert Griffin III) talking about not wanting to come out of the game, it’s because he doesn’t want to let his teammates down.”

But ESPN analyst Merril Hoge, whose career ended in 1994 because of multiple concussions, said he sees attitudes changing, especially in light of last year’s suicide by six-time All-Pro linebacker Junior Seau — who was found to have a debilitating brain disease due to repeated head injuries.

“This kind of things does not change overnight,” Hoge said. “But remember when it became the law to wear seat belts. For 10 or 12 years, people went down fighting resisting it. A whole cycle of education has to take place for there to be acceptance.”

The game, Hoge added, will eventually become safer, or at least safer than it is today.

“But there’s no way,” he said, “we’ll ever quit hitting hard.”

Young QBs take the reins

From 1957, when the award was created, through 2003, no quarterback was named The Associated Press’ Offensive Rookie of the Year.

But in the past nine years, it has gone to a quarterback six times — including this season, when Andrew Luck of Indianapolis, Robert Griffin III of Washington and Russell Wilson of Seattle all proved themselves worthy after leading their teams to the playoffs, with Griffin getting the nod.

Three other playoff teams also had second-year starters at QB, meaning half of the playoff field was quarterbacked by players who came into the league in 2011 or ’12.

And that’s not to mention Ryan Tannehill of Miami and Brandon Weeden of Cleveland, who also became starters as rookies. Obviously quarterbacks are coming into the league both more prepared to play than in the past — and expected to as well.

The days of a team such as Green Bay drafting an Aaron Rodgers in the first round and then letting him apprentice for three seasons under a Brett Favre are fading away.

“Most people talk about how well these young guys can run, but these guys also can really throw the ball,” CBS analyst Phil Simms said. “They say arm strength isn’t important any more, but you’re seeing dynamic throws made every week.”

Two of those young quarterbacks will be squaring off in Sunday’s Super Bowl.

Baltimore’s Joe Flacco, in his fifth year, has started every game since being drafted in the first round in 2008. His 60 regular-season victories in the span are the most for any quarterback in the league, and he has led his team to at least one playoff victory in all five seasons. And San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick, a second-year player, has been a sensation with both his passing and running.

“There’s just no limitations on the offenses you can design for these fellows,” Simms said. “They’re as good as I’ve seen.”

But don’t forget the older guys

The past decade has been a golden age for quarterbacks.

Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are at the top of their games while their careers wind down; Drew Brees and Eli Manning have plenty of tread on their tires; Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan are just reaching their primes; and rookies Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III more than justified going 1-2 in last year’s draft.

Whether any or all of them are better than Dan Marino, Joe Montana or Brett Favre is a matter of debate. What isn’t debatable is that the rules are much more conducive for the passing game, especially since 2004, when emphasis was placed on illegal contact and defensive holding. Add more protection to the quarterbacks and even in a time when mobile quarterbacks like Colin Kaepernick and Cam Newton are changing the game, they’re taking far less of a beating than their predecessors.

“Physically, it’s a much easier game to play now,” said ESPN analyst and former quarterback Trent Dilfer. “You can’t come in high at the quarterback, and safeties have been reduced to nothing.”

But, Dilfer added, the mental part of the game is more difficult because of the increasing sophistication of defenses.

“Steve Young and I will watch film together and see things on defense that make it 1,000 times harder than anything he and I faced,” he said.

And we’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg, Dilfer said.

“Right now, there are 12 high school juniors in Texas alone with NFL potential,” he said. “Kids are throwing year-round, and we’re seeing more of the biggest, baddest athletes playing the position. So we’re getting quarterbacks who can throw as well as they can run.

“The training they’re getting is phenomenal.”

Labor peace reigns

Nobody expected any actual games to be lost. And they weren’t.

On July 21, 2011, the league and players association announced a new collective bargaining agreement to run through the 2020 season, ending a 136-day lockout whose only casualty was the Hall of Fame game. The deal continued a streak of labor peace that stretches back to 1987, when replacement players were used for three games.

“The players made some important gains in health and safety issues,” said former Green Bay Packers vice president Andrew Brandt, now an analyst for ESPN. “But they were essentially playing defense because you never got the sense from their side they were actually willing to ride it out.”

The lockout occurred because in 2010 the owners exercised their option to shorten the CBA by two years. The deal increased the money earmarked for retired player benefits to $1 billion, reduced the offseason programs by five weeks with OTAs cut from 14 days to 10, gave players unrestricted free agency after four years and cut rookie contracts.

The main victory for the players, Brandt said, was that the salary cap wasn’t rolled back, an important element in a league without guaranteed contracts.

“(Protracted labor peace) enhances the creditably of the league so that you have people very comfortable about buying into it,” he said. “That means sponsors and more importantly the TV networks. They’re secure that there’s going to be a product out there, and they don’t have to worry about work stoppages and other uncertainties.”

Still dominant, the Patriots under Brady are a powerhouse

If the Patriots were unlikely winners of the previous Super Bowl played in New Orleans 11 years ago, they were unlikely losers in their bid to return this season.

But New England’s 28-13 loss to Baltimore in the AFC Championship game was largely the result of the sincerest form of flattery.

“I told him how much we pattern our organization around theirs, how much we study them,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh told Patriots counterpart Bill Belichick before the game.

For good reason. Starting with that 2001 championship season, the Patriots have won 11, nine, 14, 14, 10, 12, 16, 11, 10, 14, 13 and 12 regular-season games, making the playoffs 10 of 12 times, with seven AFC title-game appearances and five Super Bowl trips.

In contrast, only the New York Giants have represented the NFC in the Super Bowl more than once in that span. And unfortunately for the Patriots, thanks to some late heroics by the Giants, New England has only three Super Bowl titles.

The reason for the Patriots’ dominance, said Kevin Faulk, who retired last year after 13 seasons with the Patriots, is Belichick.

“Everybody buys into what Bill is selling,” said Faulk, who played at LSU. “Everybody understood what Bill’s vision was. And we had an owner (Robert Kraft) who was willing to do whatever it took to have a winning organization.”

It also helped to have a quarterback like future Hall of Famer Tom Brady (left).

“The No. 1 guy on your team is always the quarterback,” Faulk said. “He’s unbelievably competitive. He made you a better competitor.”

The Patriots may not have gotten to the Super Bowl this year and somewhat surprisingly haven’t won it all since the 2004 season, but Faulk said the dynasty isn’t showing any cracks.

“This year was supposed to be a rebuilding one with a lot of younger guys,” he said. “The Patriots may falter, but they always recover quickly.”