I attended the preseason game between the Denver Broncos and Chicago Bears mainly because it is my job, but also at least in some small part because even after all these years I still love the NFL, and it always feels great to get back to the ballpark after a long spring and summer away.
Or is it?
From the “it’s my job” perspective, certainly that particular game had as much focus on it as any of the NFL’s 2012 exhibition games. Arguably the biggest story in pro football right now is Peyton Manning’s return to the field after almost 20 months away and the Colts’ decision to send one of the greatest players in the history of the game off to finish his career elsewhere. Few teams in the league were more active than the Bears in the trade market and free agency, and more than a few experts believe they remade themselves into a legitimate Super Bowl contender. It sure seemed like a logical spot to start the year and hopefully get a few questions answered.
The most important question was answered quickly. Peyton Manning is just fine. Whether he remains healthy or not is left to the same odds as those faced by every other player in the NFL every time they take the field. But no more than a handful of plays into the game, facing a 3rd-and-17 in Bears territory, Manning zipped a ball down the middle and into coverage to Eric Decker for a 19-yard gain, and all was right again in the world of elite NFL quarterbacks. It was all we needed to — and were going to — see, as Manning got the rest of the night off after just a few more plays.
The evening as a whole was a study in the good, the bad and the ugly. The good was seeing Manning where he belonged and ready to take on the NFL again. The bad was that absolutely nothing was learned about the Bears in large part because they chose to give their four best players (Julius Peppers, Brian Urlacher, Jay Cutler and Matt Forté) the night off. The ugly was the quality of play from those who did dress in a game that was so bad it was actually painful to watch. It all left me with the question: How much longer are NFL fans going to accept being literally stolen from by the NFL’s team owners in this fashion?
My anger is not aimed at the Bears or Broncos. Exhibitions around the league, including the Packers vs. Chargers in San Diego and Saints vs. Patriots at Foxborough, were just as bad. It is simply the nature of these games that they serve no other purpose than to steal from paying customers who are forced to buy these tickets at regular-season prices if they wish to keep their season seats.
I don’t fault the Bears for not exposing their stars to potential injury in a game that served absolutely no purpose. In fact, I applaud their good sense. But how can they charge their loyal fans between $80 and $350 a seat to watch a bunch of guys who will be cut in three weeks play a game that was less entertaining than a neighborhood flag football game? At some point, someone has to say, “NO!”
A year ago there was hope. The owners were talking about an 18-game regular season and just two exhibitions, and building a vehicle into the new CBA to make it happen, possibly as soon as 2013. Now that hope is all but gone as the players insist two more regular-season games would be cruel and unusual punishment in terms of the toll they would take on their bodies, and at least some owners have indicated a willingness to agree.
Perhaps they are right? As one who will never be exposed to the physical toll, I am probably not due a vote.
I do know, however, that four exhibition games per team — which are a complete bore at best and too often unwatchable at worst — two of which season-ticket holders are forced to pay for at regular-season rates or risk losing their regular-season seats, is flat-out blackmail and larceny against the NFL’s most loyal customers who are forced to support its folly.