Sports

NFL took small step in Week 9 toward recapturing its magic

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The smallest slate of Sunday games this season produced something the NFL was sorely lacking during the 2016 campaign: smiles.

There were LOL moments such as Pittsburgh’s Chris Boswell whiffing on a fancy onside kick attempt in horrific fashion, Oakland punter Marquette King imitating the dance moves of Denver all-star linebacker Von Miller and Lambeau Field being invaded by a squirrel that delayed action in the Indianapolis-Green Bay game.

Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce turned the tables on the referees in absurd fashion — and was subsequently ejected — by throwing his towel at an official after being flagged.

The only thing missing was Austin Powers and a shoe.

The viral crowd was amused when the Giants and Cowboys both did the “Mannequin Challenge” after winning their respective games.

And the best news of all — exciting football with eight of 11 games decided by eight points or fewer. No contest ended more spectacularly than when Detroit wide receiver Golden Tate flipped himself into the end zone for the game-winning touchdown against Minnesota in overtime.

Put all this together and Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman should be thrilled.

It was Sherman who blamed the NFL’s declining television ratings on a heavy-handed league that had cracked down on end-zone celebrations and other forms of originality and individualism among its players. Those comments came after Sherman’s teammate, Earl Thomas, was fined for jokingly hugging an official during a Week 8 game at New Orleans.

“The league isn’t fun anymore,” Sherman told Seahawks media last week. “Every other league, you see the players have a good time.

“It’s a game. This isn’t politics. This isn’t justice. This is entertainment. And they’re no longer allowing the players to entertain.”

Actually, it was politics that contributed to the NFL’s “No Fun League” vibe. San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s preseason decision to first sit and then kneel during the national anthem to protest social and racial injustice prompted other players to begin taking their own kind of stance toward those issues as well.

While a noble cause, the infusion of the real world into what was a non-political arena proved a turnoff to some fans. They began tuning out over perceived disrespect of the American flag by protesting players.

The same type of darkness that has enveloped the presidential race also manifested itself on the field through the officiating crews. Flags were being thrown and fines levied for such innocuous gestures as Washington cornerback Josh Norman’s bow-and-arrow after an interception. The high number of penalties being called and clunkiness of the NFL’s instant-replay system had slowed game action to a crawl.

Plus, there were more instances of the same problems that have caused a growing backlash against the sport.

The questionable handling of head injuries — most notably in instances involving two top quarterbacks in Carolina’s Cam Newton and Kansas City’s Alex Smith — were a reminder of how much further the league must go in addressing the concussion problems that are having a trickle-down effect on youth football participation and interest.

There was another occurrence of repulsive off-field behavior — the sordid history of domestic violence by kicker Josh Brown — and repeat of the tone-deaf stance of both the NFL and Giants toward initially investigating and disciplining Brown a la the Ray Rice scandal that clearly neither party learned from.

Injuries and suspension also have kept some of the NFL’s best players, such as New England quarterback Tom Brady, Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson and Houston defensive end J.J. Watt, on the sideline for parts of the season, which has watered down the product even more.

League executives have contended television ratings will rise once the Donald Trump-Hillary Clinton battle for the White House has ended and viewers enthralled by election coverage come streaming back. We’ll find out soon enough whether that proves true or is simply political-style spin.

Either way, at least what transpired in Week 9 was a step in the right direction toward the NFL recapturing the magic it lost somewhere along the way in 2016.

Alex Marvez can be heard on SiriusXM NFL Radio from 7 to 11 p.m. ET Tuesday and Wednesday.

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