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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Here are the big themes to look for in the next NFL season

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes holds up the Super Bowl trophy in Glendale, Ariz., on Sunday night, Feb. 12, 2023. With two league MVP Awards and two Super Bowl titles, Mahomes is one of the most recognizable players in the NFL. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

By Ken Belson

The NFL strives to be a 365-day-a-year showcase.

From the Super Bowl to the scouting combine in a few weeks to the start of free agency in March and the draft in April and the preparation for the new season a few months after that, the drumbeat of attraction and attention never seems to stop. With the 2022 season in the books, with a thrilling victory by the Kansas City Chiefs over the Philadelphia Eagles in the Super Bowl, here are some of the issues that will be the talk of the NFL even before the next season starts on Sept. 7.

The post-Brady, Mahomes era

Assuming Tom Brady really has retired after 23 seasons, Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes will be the most recognizable player in the league. His leading the Chiefs to a second-half, comeback win over the Eagles, 38-35, only cements his standing as the next big thing. Like Brady, he has piled up wins — Kansas City has the most wins in the league since Mahomes became a starter in 2018 — and his creativity and flair for dramatic plays make him the envy of fans, sponsors and broadcasters.

“A lot of what makes the game as exciting as it is are the dual threat quarterbacks” who can run as well as throw, said Mike Mulvihill, the executive vice president and head of strategy and analytics at Fox Sports, which, like all of the league’s broadcast partners, is eager to show Kansas City games. “Mahomes is probably the best representation of that.”

The toll of high-profile injuries

Injuries dominated the news last season, particularly to Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who sustained at least two concussions, and to Buffalo Bills defensive back Damar Hamlin, who went into cardiac arrest on the field after a routine tackle. Their scary episodes again highlighted the brutality of the sport, and how a lot of NFL players, despite the money made during their careers, can struggle to get help afterward.

Doctors have called on Tagovailoa to stop playing to avoid risking long-term brain damage, and last week, 10 former players sued Commissioner Roger Goodell and the league’s disability plan for, they claimed, systematically denying them health benefits.

The league “portrayed this image like, ‘we care about the players, we’re doing all this stuff for player safety,’” said one of the plaintiffs, Eric Smith, who played for the New York Jets for seven seasons and now has a host of physical and mental ailments. “And then as soon as you’re not on the roster making them any money playing out on the field, they’re like, ‘OK, we’ll give you five years of insurance, now go leave us alone.’”

Dearth of black coaches

At a season-ending news conference last week, Goodell was repeatedly asked about the lack of diversity at the league’s highest ranks, including among owners and head coaches. Goodell has promised to do better, but progress in many cases has been incremental at best. There are just three Black head coaches (a fourth, Mike McDaniel of the Dolphins, identifies as biracial) among the 32 teams in a league in which nearly 70% of the players are Black.

The league is battling a lawsuit brought by former head coaches of color who have accused the league of discriminatory hiring practices. Rod Graves, the executive director of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, which lobbies the NFL to increase diversity, said the way to get the owners — the ultimate decision-makers — to promote diversity on their teams is to show that it is good for their bottom lines.

“This is an area that is like a sore on one portion of your body, and we can do more in this area to make the game attractive to everyone who’s qualified,” Graves said. “We’ve been around for 104, 105 years, and it is concerning that we’re still having these conversations today that we only have a few head coaches rather than many head coaches of color.”

More games will be streamed

NFL games remain the most-watched programming on television partly because they are shown primarily on over-the-air networks like CBS and NBC, which starting this year will collectively pay the NFL roughly $10 billion a year for the next decade.

But the league knows that younger fans are more likely to stream games over the internet, so it’s tiptoeing into the streaming space. Thursday night games were shown exclusively on Amazon last season, and this year, the popular Sunday Ticket package will be on YouTube, which will pay the NFL at least $2 billion a year for the rights.

But NFL games won’t be disappearing from over-the-air channels anytime soon.

“We feel that for as much as the business is evolving, when it comes to live content and premium sports events, people are finding them on the traditional outlets just as they did 10, 20, 30 years ago,” Mulvihill from Fox Sports said.

Will the Washington Commanders be sold?

In November, Daniel Snyder, the embattled owner of the Washington Commanders, said he hired bankers to explore a sale of part or all of the team he has owned since 1999. That came several weeks after Jim Irsay, owner of the Indianapolis Colts, said Snyder might have to be removed for sullying the league’s reputation.

It is unclear whether Snyder will unload the team, but if he does, it will sell for more than the $4.65 billion the Denver Broncos fetched in 2022. Several billionaires have shown interest, but Jeff Bezos, executive chair of Amazon and one of the richest men in the world, could easily outbid them, something many league owners would welcome. His name keeps popping up in news reports, but he remains coy about his interest.

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