From the Couch: Long puts hurt on NFL

Football pregame shows aren’t usually a venue for thoughtful or hard-hitting commentaries, like you find in daily newspapers. Indeed, the chatter rarely delves much deeper than whether the Saints can shut down the Bears, garnished by the occasional heartwarming human-interest story.

So it was bracing to see Howie Long use the “Fired Up!” segment on “FOX NFL Sunday” (brought to you by Burger King!) to unleash a stinging rebuttal against expanding to an 18-game regular season, referencing his own NFL career and the grueling toll that exacted on his body.

Long’s plea on behalf of players comes at an interesting moment. The New York Times has published a series of reports on football concussions and their potential long-term effects, one of those efforts newspapers indulge in when chasing prizes and awards. The net effect has been to increase the focus on an aspect of football that’s not often discussed — namely, how many players amble around like old men only a few years after the roar of the crowd ceases.

The square-jawed former Oakland Raider framed his argument with clarity and passion, suggesting that fans go out and slam into a neighbor 70 straight times, then try replicating that experience for 16 weeks — approximating the bone-crushing impact of an NFL season.

“Eleven surgeries, multiple broken bones and 17 years away from the game have given me perspective on the price you will pay to play the game — a perspective some NFL owners might not have,” Long said. “If they did, they wouldn’t be pushing for an 18-game NFL season.”

Assuming such a shift is a foregone conclusion, Long detailed concessions he felt would be mandatory to protect players, including expanding team rosters from 45 to 55 and adding a second bye week — basically dividing the season into thirds — to provide more recovery time. But he closed with a harsh indictment of the owners — you know, the ones his bosses at FOX and other networks pay billions to over the course of their TV contracts.

“To hear some owners talk, the 18-game season is a win-win. For the doctors, maybe,” Long said pointedly, putting his experience to use — in an “I’ve played the game” kind of way — while taking a stand on behalf of players, who are preparing for what promises to be bruising upcoming labor negotiations.

Yes, Long said, players would likely share in revenue from extending the regular season. “I just want them to be healthy enough to enjoy it when they turn 50,” he said in closing.

Long’s monologue registered powerfully, for a variety of reasons. While nobody expects NFL analysts to pretend they’re Andy Rooney (“Why do they call it ‘the shotgun,’ anyway?”), except for limited venues like HBO’s “Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel,” there aren’t many havens for serious talk regarding sports on TV, as opposed to the customary who’s-up, who’s-down bloviating.

As a fan, moreover, I’m pretty capable of examining X’s and O’s or whether a team needs to adjust its offense. But I have no idea what it feels like to get chop-blocked at the knees by a 300-pound lineman, which is where all the players wearing suits and working as analysts have real insights to share.

By addressing the lingering impact of football injuries, Long also had the guts to tackle a topic that’s uncomfortable for the league and networks. After all, fans tune in to enjoy the afternoon. Thinking about favorite stars being effectively crippled while entertaining you is, at the very least, a big-time bummer.

Finally, it’s doubtful NFL owners or league brass that happened to watch were particularly thrilled about being called out and accused, in essence, of putting profits ahead of the players’ well-being.

In mounting his soapbox, Long sounded genuinely fired up, in a manner football announcers seldom do. And with apologies to the sponsor, amid the heat emanating from his remarks, it was only the owners who got flame-broiled.