Where does the NFL rate in the eyes of former players?
The league’s television ratings are down. The refs can’t seem to make the correct calls. End zone celebrations have been cut back. And some believe they might as well put a skirt on the quarterback.
Bobby Butler, 57, played for the Falcons from 1981-1992 after being taken out of Florida State in the first round of the 1981 draft. His son, Brice Butler, is a wide receiver with the Dallas Cowboys. The father has some perspective on a game gone softer.
“It’s not the same league,” Butler said. “I’m just like any old vet. My period was the best period. But the game has evolved to what it is today.
“I’ve got a son playing and I love the way the game is going. We are trying to make it safer. Consciously make it safer, but it is still football. Things are going to happen. I love it. They are throwing the ball a lot more now.”
The assortment of offensive formations is dazzling, which Butler traces that trend back to Joe Gibbs’ Washington Redskins teams, who went to a one-back, two tight end set to feature running back John Riggins. When they wanted to pass, they slipped in a third wide receiver for the second tight end and the Smurfs were born.
Butler points out that the Houston Oilers’ run-and-shoot with quarterback Warren Moon and four wide receivers revolutionized the game.
“The game has never been the same ever since,” Butler said. “The game has evolved to where it is today.”
With liberalized passing rules, Butler said he would like to see how some of the former great quarterbacks would fare in today’s NFL.
“I’m kind of biased, but I think Johnny Unitas is the best quarterback of all time,” Butler said. “If Johnny Unitas or Joe Namath had the opportunity that these kids have now to throw the ball, what would that be like?”
Buddy Curry, who played linebacker for the Falcons from 1980-87, marvels at the contemporary NFL athlete.
“I’ll tell you what: today’s NFL is better than when we played,” Curry said. “The athletes are thoroughbreds. They treat them that way. They don’t beat them up. They don’t practice them, over-practice them like they did us. The game plans are unbelievable.
“It’s a matchup situation. You’ve got to be able to play in space. These athletes are so much faster, they are so much more explosive than we were. It’s just such an enjoyable game.”
The NFL, with the structure of the draft and scheduling, has gained a different parity than decades ago. There are no dominant teams that remain the same year after year in the modern free agency period.
“You have to have great chemistry, great leadership and great coaching,” Curry said. “The players are pretty much the same.”
Jeff Bostic, who played center for Washington from 1980-1993 after starring at Clemson, also likes the direction of the league.
“I think they’ve done a good job in protecting the players more,” Bostic said. “I think they might have gone a bit too far in protecting the quarterback. If you breathe on one real hard, you’re going to get a flag.”
Kevin Butler, who played from 1985-1997 with Chicago and Arizona after starring at Georgia, believes the league is trying to minimize kickers, starting with the longer PAT distance.
“We have to get the kickers more involved,” Butler said. “They keep taking them out.”
Butler has a suggestion for the league’s competition committee.
“They need some retractable goal posts,” Butler said. “If you need to score four points, you have the goals post moved in to about six feet (from the current rulebook standard 18-6) from 40 yards out. Then you can get some fun going.
“They are always trying to take away from kicking, but there are some ways to do some fun and crazy things with field goals.”
Former Georgia standout Scott Woerner, who played with the Falcons in 1981 and the Saints in 1987, has a major issue with watching contemporary game.
“I think if they don’t speed the game up and keep having so many time outs and reviews, it’s going to be like baseball and people are going to quit watching,” Woerner said. “They are going to switch the channel.”
Woerner would also like to see the pace of play improved.
“Especially when a team has the momentum and they call a timeout,” Woerner said. “It kind of kills the excitement of being at the game itself. You lose something. I don’t know what it is. They have to find some solution for it.”
There also seems to be a focus on style points that is too much for Woerner.
“Back when we played, we had one goal in mind: win the game,” Woerner said. “It didn’t matter how you did it. I think now we’ve lost focus with winning the game. We are too worried about how we win the game. Do we win it in spectacular fashion instead of three yards and cloud of dust.”
Woerner, still a defensive player at heart, said he enjoyed the Rams’ 9-6 win over the Jets on Nov. 13 and was elated with the 6-6 Seattle-Arizona tie on Oct. 23.
“What would make happy is a 3-0 football game,” Woerner said. “If they don’t score, they can’t win.”
Chuck Smith played for the Falcons from 1992-1999 and for Carolina in 2000.
“(The game) is in a good place,” Smith said. “But as far as what needs to be fixed, they need to back off on some of the rules. There are so many rules about targeting, to where you can hit them, how you can land on them or how you can throw them down. At some point, you’ve got to let the guys play a little bit.”
Smith wants the league to back off on celebration penalties, too.
“I want them to let those guys have fun, man,” Smith said. “It’s OK for a cat to dance around. It’s really entertainment. They are too strict on them. Let them young boys do what they want to do.”
Because of league’s current parity, how teams are constructed is vital. Turnover the an NFL fact of life.
“Now, what I really enjoy about the Falcons is how they built their team on high-character people,” Curry said. “The greatest example is the best player on the floor, Julio Jones. Julio Jones catches one pass and says, ‘They bracketed me.’ And (quarterback) Matt (Ryan) found somebody else and we won the game. What’s your problem?”
Curry believes New York’s Odell Beckham Jr. or Dallas’ Dez Bryant would handle similar situations differently.
“When you have great character guys like Julio who are great players, that brings the team together and gives them a sole purpose,” Curry said. “That, I think, builds you into Super Bowl champions.”