The Year The N.f.l. Bounced Back
It all came together in the conference championship games, which featured the four highest seeds and the four highest-scoring teams. Two veteran quarterbacks, Drew Brees and Brady, took on the best young quarterbacks, Jared Goff and Mahomes, in high-scoring shootouts that went to overtime.
David Berson, the president of CBS Sports, which will televise the Super Bowl on Sunday, said fewer off-the-field stories were getting attention “because the on-field product is so compelling.” Whether Berson is correct or whether the league simply had a year with fewer controversies ultimately does not matter all that much to the league’s media partners because, as Berson put it, “The focus is on the football, and the football is really exciting.”
There were blown calls and rules controversies, of course. The N.F.C. championship game hinged on an egregious no-call, and Brady and the Patriots also benefited from a questionable ruling and a rule that did not allow Mahomes — probably the league’s most valuable player — to get his hands on the football in overtime. But the arguments garnered more attention for the game, which was just what the league wanted.
The question now is whether this fundamentally violent sport can be made safer. Before the season, the N.F.L. introduced a rule barring players from using their helmets as weapons when tackling. Six weeks into the season, its enforcement was essentially abandoned, underscoring how difficult it is to legislate between acceptable and unacceptable levels of violence.
According to league statistics, concussions were down 29 percent in 2018, to 0.5 per game from 0.7. Jeff Miller, the N.F.L.’s executive vice president for health and safety, cautioned on a recent conference call that “there is no finishing line” when it comes to player safety, but touted the work being done to get players to wear better helmets and to present teams with targeted interventions to prevent concussions.
The league’s own concussion data show that the number of concussions each year fluctuates, and that previous reductions were reversed in following seasons. The N.F.L. has also not been able to reduce the instances of A.C.L. and M.C.L. tears, ligament injuries that commonly end players’ seasons.
The youth tackle football participation rate has been dropping for a decade, and now the high school tackle football participation rate is declining, too. Just one insurance company is willing to cover professional football leagues for head trauma, according to ESPN, and youth football leagues and school districts are facing insurance premiums that they are struggling to afford.