Underdogs and villains: New storylines for today’s NFL

The National Football League is sporting a shiny gold shield logo this year. The reason for the logo change is to mark the occasion of the NFL’s 50th Super Bowl. I wonder if it’s also designed to shine so brightly the glare causes us to avert our eyes from the frequently troubling news about the NFL and their rich, egomaniacal combatants.

The NFL is going through a rough patch, PR-wise, if not monetarily. Deflategate. Ray Rice. Greg Hardy. Adrian Peterson. Aaron Kromer. Andrew Quarless. Google any of these and watch the NFL squirm.

It’s time for some different storylines.

AFC East

The AFC East has been the Patriots’ division for as long as anyone can remember. This year the three also-rans, the New York Jets, the Buffalo Bills and the Miami Dolphins, got better. Each has their pluses and minuses, but on paper it looks like this trio of perennial also-rans made moves to improve their fates significantly.

The Jets are starting over in many ways but are ready to feature the NFL’s second-best (behind the Seattle Seahawks) secondary. The Bills have added some tantalizing offensive talent to their already formidable defense. Plus, they’re in the honeymoon glow of new coach Rex Ryan’s bravado. The Miami Dolphins, in year four of the Joe Philbin era, revamped their wide receivers corps (again) and expect big things from steadily improving quarterback Ryan Tannehill. They also made the NFL’s biggest splash in free agency by landing Ndamukong Suh for their already potent defensive front.

The Patriots? It’s hard to make a case that they actually got better this offseason. The Super Bowl hangover is real. They suffered a major talent drain in their defensive backfield, losing all-world Darrelle Revis to the rival Jets (again) and Brandon Browner to the New Orleans Saints. They may be without their elite quarterback, Tom Brady, for the start of the season and they let go of a handful of other key role players. The NFL’s most one-sided division is ripe for change. The door may be cracked open wider than in any other in recent memory.

Could we have a new AFC East champion in 2015? It would be the first time since 2008, when the Dolphins won the division before exiting in the Wild Card round of the playoffs. Of course, that was the year Brady was lost for the season in the opening game. They still finished 11–5. If you don’t count this anomaly, you have to go back as far as 2002 to find a different AFC East champion (New York Jets). It’s been virtually all-Patriots since that time.

Right now, it looks like the New England Patriots will start the season without Brady. It’s not inconceivable that mastermind Bill Belichick will plug the holes and keep the Patriots winning. But for the first time in a long time, the other teams have tangible hope. This is a different AFC East division, folks.

Cincinnati Bengals

One of the NFL’s high water marks for playoff futility is the Detroit Lions’ record of having only won one playoff game since 1958. Why am I talking about the Lions? Because as scant as their playoff record is, they’ve still won a playoff game more recently (1991 season) than the Cincinnati Bengals.

The twice almost-champion (1981, 1988) Bengals have had a rough run in terms of playoff wins in the Marvin Lewis (2003–present) era. Rough as in zero. Zip. Lewis has managed to take his teams to the playoffs a total of six times, including the last four seasons, yet has never won an NFL playoff game. Even Marty Schottenheimer is laughing about that, and he lost his last five playoff games. Lewis has now joined Jim Mora as the only NFL coach with zero playoff victories in six attempts.

So why feel sorry about that? Well, if you’re an AFC North opponent, you won’t, but for the rest of us, maybe we can root for these oddly clad playoff underdogs. Give the Bengals credit for sticking with Lewis, particularly in this modern era of www.fire (insert coach’s name here).com. Most teams would have sent Lewis packing long ago. The Bengals have stuck with Lewis and have come tantalizingly close to ultimate success.

It should be noted that the 2014 Bengals were swept out of the playoffs in ugly fashion. It is also fair to note that they were out of star players at that time. Superstar wide receiver A.J. Green did not play due to injury. Also missing: tight end Jermaine Gresham, defensive tackle Devon Still, and linebacker Rey Mauluga departed shortly after the game commenced. The end result of a 26–10 defeat was entirely predictable for the sad sack Bengals.

Carson Palmer

The ever-so-promising 2014 season of the Arizona Cardinals was the stuff dreams are made of. Having jumped out to a 7–1 record to kick off the first half of the season, they were primed to take the reins of the NFC West away from the (at the time) stumbling Seahawks.

That ended quickly and definitively when Carson Palmer blew out his knee in week nine against the St. Louis Rams. The red birds did manage to eke out a couple more victories with backup QB Drew Stanton. Unfortunately, Stanton was also lost to injury and what was left of their 2014 hopes were in the hands of the underprepared and undertalented Ryan Lindley.

Combined with the losses of other key Cardinals like Daryl Washington (suspension), Darnell Dockett (training camp injury), Jonathan Dwyer (suspension) and John Abraham (injury) and the Cardinals were grounded.

All this recent history is only the latest chapter in the Palmer saga. There once was a time when Palmer was thought of as the next NFL golden boy. The first overall pick in the 2003 NFL Draft, his early Bengals career saw him ensconced as one of the more formidable young quarterbacks. A devastating knee injury in 2006 in a playoff game against the Pittsburgh Steelers changed both his and the Bengals’ fortunes.

After a few more up-and-down seasons in Cincinnati, Palmer imagined a rebirth in Oakland as the latest quarterback savior for that QB-starved franchise. Palmer led the Raiders to a 4–5 record in 2011 and a 4–11 record in 2012.

Few thought much of his chances to resume greatness when he got a fresh start with the Cardinals in 2013. However, playing quarterback for new Cardinals coach Bruce Arians proved to be just the tonic Palmer needed as he led the surprise Cardinals to a 10–6 record, starting all 16 games. The 2014 season seemed poised to be his best shot at NFL greatness.

Palmer is now rehabbed and ready to lead the 2015 Cardinals again. You may not be a Cardinals fan. However, let’s see what a once-again healthy and revived Palmer can do at age 35 with one last chance to win it all. His odyssey could lead to a remarkable finish. If you can put your own team allegiance aside, that would be a helluva story.

San Francisco 49ers

Has there ever been a worse offseason (and now preseason) for an NFL squad? The once formidable San Francisco 49ers have suffered so many losses — of their starting defense in the 2013 Super Bowl, only two players remain (NaVorro Bowman and Ahmad Brooks) — and they continue to lose talented players for reasons both involuntary and unimaginable.

Some coaches come across like megalomaniacs. Others, we haven’t gotten to know that well yet. (Hey-o!) Bill Belichick? Iron-willed genius, looking to exploit every facet (rule) for the winning edge. Rex Ryan? Blowhard in love with every idea he ever had about his own team. Chip Kelly? His way or the highway. Jim Harbaugh? Never met a human interaction he couldn’t turn sour. There are many more.

And then there’s the man charged with holding together the once-proud 49ers. Jim Tomsula? Nobody knows. “Gruff-looking, try-hard, good guy” is about as far as we can tell. The man was not meant to be the face of anything. The Pennsylvania-bred, Ditka-mustachioed former defensive line coach is as unassuming as a Cleveland Browns’ uniform. Odds are that’s where he’ll be headed next, by the way.

We can root for this guy. Partly because the 49ers are giving him a hug while craning their necks to look around the room for someone better. They did it once before. Few may remember that this is Tomsula’s second stint as head coach of the 49ers. He was named interim head coach at the end of the 2010 season, as the 49ers brain trust rushed to usher Mike Singletary out the door. He won his only game as head coach, for what it’s worth.

Face it, having waved goodbye to polarizing coach Harbaugh, the 49ers are now much less likely to be viewed unsympathetically. That may be damning by faint praise, but in the case of the 49ers, they will take it. This train wreck of a team isn’t even in rebuilding mode.

They need to stop leaking players to anticipated retirements (Justin Smith), unexpected retirements (Patrick Willis, Chris Borland, Anthony Davis) free agency (Frank Gore, Mike Iupati, Perrish Cox, Chris Culliver, Michael Crabtree), trades (Andy Lee), waivers (Johnathan Martin, Ray McDonald), and the big one: coaching changes (Jim Harbaugh and staff).

Don’t root for these guys

And then there are the other storylines and franchises that will be wearing black hats for the foreseeable future.

Oakland Raiders

Long-time owner / supreme ruler Al Davis passed away in 2011, handing the reins to his son, Moe Howard. His haircut alone is reason enough to not root for the Oakland (soon to be Los Angeles or San Antonio) Raiders. At the very least it’s evidence that the Raiders have banned mirrors in their facility.

Dysfunction reigns in Oakland, despite the very best efforts of General Manager Reggie McKenzie to cobble together a team with duct tape and baling wire. The dysfunction comes from the top down and existed since the latter years of the Al Davis reign, which saw head-scratching personnel / cap decisions doom the present and future Raiduhs, over and over again. Moe (Mark Davis) is following closely in his father’s footsteps. Like his father before him, he’s going to uproot the Raiders from Oakland and move the team while waving two middle fingers to the black-clad Oaklanders.

The faithful if maniacal Oakland fans are about to lose their team. Again. Efforts will be made to portray the bottom-feeding Raiders as a team on the rise (and they may be) but it hardly matters for their fan base. They’re about to get dumped.

St. Louis Rams

A case could be made that the St. Louis Rams should be viewed through the same softly lit, Vaseline-covered lens as the Cardinals, having seen their recent fortunes repeatedly ruined by broken quarterbacks. Nuh-uh.

The Rams are about to hose their hosts. St. Louis sports fans … they’re leaving. They’re about to dump you. All efforts to try to keep your team, about whom you’ve become understandably ambivalent, are a waste of time, money, hope and effort. Start rooting for someone else. Someone that will treat you better. The Rams will be in Los Angeles in two years.

Face facts: Rams owner Stan Kroenke owns and is developing the parcel of land in Inglewood Calif. to build the next NFL super stadium. This isn’t leverage. He’s leaving. Your team is going with him. You can go ahead and put together a really compelling package to keep the Rams in St. Louis. It will amuse him.

Who else do we love to hate?

Tom Brady

God’s gift to quarterbacking (I mean that sincerely and sarcastically) has jumped the shark in terms of popular opinion. The New England Patriots won the Super Bowl. Again. He’s great. We get it. But if that weren’t reason enough to resent Brady, Deflategate certainly is.

NFL fans and observers outside of Washington state and the six states that comprise New England were rooting for both teams to lose Super Bowl XLIX. Without question, it was the Hater Bowl. They got 50 percent of their wish as the Seahawks managed to epically choke away a victory, handing another NFL title to the Patriots.

Since that moment, Brady has managed to sour all public opinion of all non-chowduh heads with the ongoing Deflategate debacle. Love him, hate him, agree/disagree with the rule or severity of the crime, agree/disagree with the cover-up attempts (texting the ball boys, destroying his phone, withholding evidence, claiming to have cooperated fully) or resent the endless legal maneuvering by all sides, we’ve had more than enough. Tom Brady is the face of this ugly chapter in NFL history.

Nonetheless, the chowduh heads are sticking by their beleaguered man. Predictably, Brady has now been converted from entitled rule flaunter to unwitting victim. Get your “Free Brady” t-shirt here.

Roger Goodell

Who’s come off worse than Brady throughout Deflategate? NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, that’s who. The now-exposed inner workings and thoughts of the Commissioner’s office have revealed a fair amount of bias, ignorance and treachery. We were better off not knowing.

It should be said that the NFL Commissioner is not meant to be an NFL storyline. And yet he is. Over and over again. Early in his tenure is was easier to nod or shrug at decisions that came down from 345 Park Avenue. Now, with every mention of Goodell’s heavy-handed (sometimes quite justifiably) actions on behalf of THE SHIELD, the ability to tolerate the ugly business of football continues to detract from the experience of admiring football.

It’s a shame. It’s also very tiresome. Stop fussin’ and fightin’ you rich, petulant children. Of course, they do it (players, the NFLPA, the owners, the Commish) because the stakes are very high. Also because they can get away with it. We’re hooked. We’re not going anywhere. The NFL is THE game in town and we’re suckers for it.

Slave masters

And another thing. It’s time to stop averting our eyes from the travesty that is NFL cheerleading compensation. None of these rich teams should be exempt from treating their employees fairly. And yes, they are employees, even if you’ve managed to create an arrangement to call them independent contractors. No matter how their employment is structured, they are the third-most visible humans within your organization (behind the team itself and the owner).

And no, they’re not bottom-rung, entry-level workers. As entertainers and ambassadors, they are highly skilled, dedicated professionals. I’m not even a big fan of cheerleaders, but it’s plain to see that what they do is difficult and requires a great deal of skill and dedication. Try just one of their routines, if you dare.

NFL teams require much from their cheerleaders and most pay them peanuts. If a team believes their cheerleaders are important not only for the game day experience, but also for numerous marketing and community-related events, then they should honor these women with fair compensation for performing their assigned duties.

As it stands now, the tide is turning — slowly. The courts have upheld recent lawsuits on behalf of women who had to fight for minimal pay. Want to be on the wrong side of history? Continue to mistreat your most visible female participants. Want to get out in front of this issue? Demand your teams pay cheerleaders fairly. Speaking of fairness, it’s important to note that six teams do not have cheerleaders: the Chicago Bears, the Cleveland Browns, the Detroit Lions, the Green Bay Packers, the New York Giants and the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The NFL office thinks they have an out from this ongoing workplace travesty: The teams hire their own cheer staff, or in several cases, the team hires another firm, which hires and manages cheerleaders as independent contractors, so the teams can point their fingers at them. But they don’t have an out. The public identifies each team’s cheerleaders as distinctly belonging to that team. And the NFL. It’s a punk move for the NFL to claim no responsibility toward paying employees fairly when you make more than $10 billion a year.

NFL owners: You use these women to create goodwill and to attract, entertain and retain fans. Pay them.

If you’re watching the NFL, you probably already have a strong rooting interest in a team. Remove your (insert your team’s colors here) –colored glasses, and keep an eye on these storylines throughout the 2015 season — and beyond. In the NFL, there will always be villains and underdogs. These are mine. What are yours?

© Julian Rogers | @thejujueye | Juju Eye Communications, LLC