Too many of the NFL's headline grabbers aren't in the news
In case you haven't noticed, which is virtually impossible, Peyton Manning has gone to TV commercials full time.
Adrian Peterson and J.J. Watt are injured. Aaron Rodgers is struggling. Todd Gurley's breakout rookie season looks like a mirage. Megatron is gone.
Russell Wilson has been gimpy. Darrelle Revis has been mediocre. Tony Romo has been invisible.
Too many of the NFL's headline grabbers aren't in the news, or aren't producing the kind of plays and drama football fans crave. With all the consternation about TV ratings for NFL games being down, with everything from the presidential election to the Colin Kaepernick-inspired anthem protests being blamed, maybe pro football is a bit star-crossed because it doesn't have a lot of its stars being, well, stars.
NFL supporters like to say it's the uniform and the tradition and history of teams that make the game such a slam-dunk attraction. The counter-argument is simply that with such national teams as the Raiders, Giants and Dolphins being non-contenders so often in recent years, why didn't viewership disappear then?
No, it's about the stars.
Arguably the biggest luminary in Roger Goodell's league is Tom Brady. He sat out the first four weeks thanks to Goodell's suspension of the Patriots quarterback in the deflated footballs saga. Watching Brady take vengeance on the league office by way of New England's opponents has been one of the few compelling plots thus far.
Sure, there are others. The way Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott have taken hold in Dallas has been front-page worthy.
"There is no question that Dak and Zeke, there is no question they're inspiring the rest of the team," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. "This game is a lot about that."
How about Lorenzo Alexander's career year in Buffalo after nine seasons as an NFL journeyman?
"I thought he could do a lot of roles for us," Bills coach Rex Ryan says. "But I had no idea that he was still the same player, but he might be a better player. How it happens, I'm not sure.
"I know one thing, it's hard work and his dedication and all that. He's an outstanding teammate, too. He serves all the credit."
Great story, yes. SportsCenter material in this age of glitz and memes? Probably not.
It's unfortunate that as the sports world has become a major part of the instant-gratification, 24/7/365 social media environment, what is happening with the big names is of primary interest. Almost exclusively.
So heading into a weekend of games, there's more focus on Ben Roethlisberger's rehab and LeSean McCoy's potential absence than on the emergence of Vic Beasley Jr. as a sacks threat, or Dennis Pitta's valiant return to the field.
That way of thinking spreads to the guys with the headsets, too. Mike Zimmer isn't a star coach the way Ryan or Bill Belichick or Pete Carroll are. Had any of those three done the job Zimmer has without his starting quarterback (Teddy Bridgewater) and left tackle (Matt Kalil) and Hall of Fame-caliber runner (Peterson), he'd be in line for a statue outside the stadium.
Zimmer? Oh yeah, his Vikings are 5-1, the cognoscenti say, but their chatter is about Chip Kelly being 1-5.
Anyone in the NFL -- well, maybe not some of the diva receivers -- will tell you how football is the most team-oriented sport. Unlike in hockey or soccer, where a goalie can steal wins, or in baseball, with a pitcher dominating hitters, football depends on three units working as much in tandem as possible. It relies on everyone doing his job on the field; a right fielder could be asleep, but if the pitcher strikes out the batter, so what. Try having the center not paying attention when the ball needs to be snapped. Or a safety charging in when two wideouts are running fly patterns.
Yet, the NFL has become a star-driven league. Yes, most of those stars are quarterbacks, and when a Brady is suspended, a Manning is retired, the other Manning is floundering, it hurts the product. And the ratings.
Nor does it help when players with star power such as Cam Newton, Ndamukong Suh, Jason Pierre-Paul and Joe Flacco struggle.
The good news for the NFL is that new stars can develop as quickly as others fade. Goodell had better hope so, because the 2016 season could use a boost.