Yet another fantastic, record-setting NFL season is in the books, capped off by one more thrilling finish in the Super Bowl. In the blink of an eye, the NFL conversation will turn toward the business of the offseason, including the scouting combine, free agency and the draft. That's just fine because that is exactly the way the architect of the modern NFL, commissioner Roger Goodell, wants it.
Goodell has led the NFL's efforts to become the first professional sports league that feels truly year-round, despite having the shortest playing season of the four major pro sports in the United States. That's just one reason why Goodell -- in a move that flew under the radar during the two-week lead-up to the Super Bowl -- signed a five-year extension. The deal keeps him at the helm of the seemingly unstoppable machine that the league has become.
Some very vocal fans were none too pleased with Goodell's extension, although I believe they are in the minority. A few active players -- maybe more -- are not exactly Goodell supporters. (Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison comes to mind.) Some former players aren't big Goodell fans because they think he should do more for retired players.
His detractors all have their reasons for disliking Goodell. As a former player, current analyst and longtime fan of the league, I have my reasons, as well. But I am a supporter -- a huge one, in fact.
In his first year as commissioner, he set the tone for player behavior off the field by handing out significant discipline to chronic troublemakers Adam "Pacman" Jones (entire 2007 season), Chris Henry (eight games) and Tank Johnson (eight games). I was an active player at the time, and I loved it. Like the vast majority of players, I believed that there was no reason to allow a few rotten apples to spoil the bunch, the 95 percent of NFL players who are solid citizens. Even though some may have complained publicly about the harshness of the discipline, Goodell made a very favorable first impression on most players with those moves.
Since then, he has taken the NFL to previously unforeseen heights in television ratings, league revenue and virtually every other metric. Some may argue that the league sells itself, and I can buy that to some extent. But the three-day prime-time draft was Goodell's idea. It was his idea to play a Sunday night game opposite the World Series in the fall. The expansion of the Thursday night package to 13 games beginning with the 2012 season is largely his idea, too. Even if you don't want to give him credit for the meteoric rise in the league's popularity, you have to acknowledge that he at least hasn't messed it up.
There are no sacred cows under Goodell's leadership. He is willing to alter anything if he believes it can help the league improve. I like that. As the saying goes in the NFL, if you aren't getting better, you are getting worse. Nobody stays the same.
A common criticism of Goodell concerns his handling of the recent labor situation, including his trips to team facilities in which he talked with players without answering their questions directly. That may be a fair criticism, but I respect that he was willing to go in front of the players and take those bullets. That takes guts. He knew that he would be the bad guy in a lot of people's minds. Even though he was representing the people he works for -- the 32 team owners -- he became the fall guy, the face of the lockout. He sucked it up and did it even though it couldn't have been easy. I respect that.
The biggest criticism of Goodell by far, however, concerns the increased emphasis on player safety. Fans (somewhat understandably) and some players (harder to explain) believe that under his leadership, the league is losing some of the physicality that makes it so special. However, this has actually been a natural progression over the years and, given the most recent information regarding hits to the head, is the obvious choice.
Head slaps used to be allowed. Players used to clothesline tackle one another. Heck, guys used to be able to block low on kicks, which is probably the most dangerous thing I can imagine.
At some point, all of those techniques were outlawed because they were too dangerous. Everyone would agree that there's no place in the game for those violent moves. What the league is doing now to protect defenseless players is no different, and over time people will realize that. I don't like the fact that the officiating of such hits appears to be inconsistent and that the officials have apparently been told "when in doubt, throw the flag." But it is still the right way to go for a million different reasons, chief among them the fact that the lower levels of football take cues from what the pros do.
The NFL is in great hands with Goodell. His progressive approach has been a key factor in the league's explosive growth, and under his watch the league signed an unprecedented 10-year labor agreement. We won't have to go through what we went through last summer for a very long time.
From the inbox
Q: I listen to the ESPN.com Football Today podcast every day and LOVE IT. I use to think it was the WR, RB and QB that were the skill positions, Now I feel it is all about the OL and DL. Here is my question, how can I tell my OL is getting better year over year?
Todd from Scottsdale, Ariz.
A: Because there are so many moving parts, there are no hard-and-fast ways to identify how your offensive line is playing and whether the O-linemen are getting better, other than watching game film and looking at the production of the group. That said, the two statistics that offensive lines are judged on the most (and take the most pride in) are sacks allowed and yards per carry. Those numbers can be a pretty good indicator of offensive line play, but they are somewhat dependent on how quickly the quarterback gets rid of the football, how the rest of the pass protection unit functions, and how productive running backs are.
Q: I'm having difficulty defining what a false start penalty really is. Usually when the flag is thrown, the instant replay will show a slight twitch on the offending player after he has been set. Yet through the course of any game I see the center's head bob before the snap, I see guards and tackles communicating through touch in noisy crowd situations and I'll see receivers on the line turn their heads to watch the ball and this is never called. What am I missing?
Medwid from Vancouver
A: Excellent question. It is only a false start if it is an action that simulates the start of a play. In other words, a lineman turning his head, tapping a linemate or pointing does not simulate the start of a play. Those are all communication techniques but would never be a lineman's initial movement once the ball is snapped. Even a slight twitch is a false start, however, if the action is one that mimics what the start of a play would look like.
Q: Are game balls only given after a victory or will a player receive a game ball for an outstanding performance even after a loss?
Mike from New Orleans
A: Only after wins, Mike. That is part of the incentive and part of the "team concept" mindset. The point is, it doesn't really matter how well you play individually if it is in a losing effort. Game balls are one of the coolest things of being an NFL player. I recall injured guys making millions of dollars telling me that that was what they missed the most when they were unable to play was the chance to get a game ball and be part of a winning effort. Pretty cool.
Ross Tucker, who played on the offensive line for five teams in a seven-year NFL career, writes regularly for ESPN.com.