George Jones posed the question in song form, “Who is going to fill their shoes”? The Possum, as he is affectionately known, was a product of Beaumont, Texas, and Mr. Jones was asking who in country music would replace the aging and fading stars of yesteryear. The recent deaths of Alex Spanos and Bob McNair, two long-time owners in the NFL have brought me to the realization that the old guard in the NFL is slowing fading away.
In 2018 Dwight Clark, Chuck Knox, and broadcaster Keith Jackson, among several others, left us to go to the big locker room in the sky. In 2017, we lost Dick Enberg, Tommy Nobis, Terry Glenn, Y.A Tittle, Frank Deford, Cortez Kennedy, Dan Rooney, and still more players. 2018 and 2017 collectively have taken a ton of talent and experience from the NFL family. Several people in this group have busts located in Canton Ohio’s Pro Football Hall of Fame, as well as several award-winning journalists.
We have their stats, reports, and game films to remember them by, but gone is their firsthand experience from the days that led to the rise of the NFL as America’s Sport and their views on modern events going on in today’s NFL. With CTE, Bounty Gate, teams moving, and the controversy surrounding the National anthem, it is safe to say that the NFL is divided as much as our country currently is; the League is in a constant state of flux. Some blame the current leadership in today’s NFL and some blame the times in which we live. An unbiased answer as to the root causes of the problems facing the NFL today should be selection #4 on your multiple-choice test question: ” All of the Above.”
For the first time since the 1980s USFL, the league is facing some real competition from the Alliance of American Football. Not repeating the mistakes from the past is a major key to success going forward, a lesson that was not lost on the AAF’s founders, Dick Ebersole and NFL Hall of Fame GM Bill Polian when the pair formed the AAF. The USFL, although its existence was short lived, became a major thorn in the side of the NFL. The fledgling league was starting to draw major crowds and had stolen from the NFL’s draft rooms future Hall of Famer’s Reggie White, Jim Kelly, Steve Young, and future CFL Hall of Famer Doug Flutie, as well as players like Hershel Walker.
Part of the key to the quick rise of USFL was that the league operated during the NFL’s off season. Fans didn’t have to choose between watching the Houston Oilers or the Houston Gamblers game; they could watch them all. That all changed when Donald Trump acquired the New Jersey Generals. Mr. Trump put pressure on the USFL league office and his fellow owners to compete with the NFL directly every Sunday. And so it was done. The USFL began to compete directly with the NFL for viewers and butts in the seats every Sunday. Competing for fans was one thing, but here in Houston, the Gamblers and the Oilers shared the Astrodome: talk about making fans choose!
The AAF wisely decided to start play in 2019 one week after Superbowl LIII, and could be a major threat to the dominance the NFL has enjoyed for so many years. Ebersole, as you may recall, spent 36 years at NBC as the co-creator of the original Saturday Night Live: WWF’s (as it was known then) Saturday Night’s Main Event. These shows were hugely successful, and Ebersole was quickly promoted to the head of NBC Sports, a position he held until 2011. Ebersole also co-founded the original XFL with McMahon.
Polian started his Hall of Fame career as a scout in 1976 with the Kansas City Chiefs, and in his storied time in the sport, he has been one of top personnel directors/team president for teams in the NFL, CFL, and USFL. He collected multiple Grey Cup titles in Canada and sent six teams to the Superbowl; he won one with Peyton Manning and the Colts in 2006. Ebersole and Polian together are a great foundation for the new league, but they didn’t stop there. They also brought in several retired NFL players, such as Troy Polamalu, Justin Tuck, and Hines Ward. To make the talent pool for both the NFL and the AAF even more shallow, a revived XFL will begin play in 2020.
As it pertains to the NFL players, coaches, and front office individuals, the question remains: “Who will fill their shoes?” It’s not possible to see the future, but with the passing of these NFL greats and the addition of the AAF and XFL, the available options for replacements in the NFL are getting thin. Fan favorites and class acts cut in the molds of RGIII and Tim Tebow will not have to endure the NFL bench much longer, and unlike Warren Moon and Doug Flutie, with the advent of the AAF and XFL, they can remain state-side and won’t have playing in Canada as their only option.
As for replacing broadcasters like Keith Jackson and Dick Enberg, we can see a glimmer of hope with the broadcast team of Tony Romo and veteran broadcaster Jim Nantz at CBS, as well as with the team from ESPN’S Monday Night Football which includes Romo’s former Cowboys teammate, Jason Witten, who has teamed up with Joe Tessitore and Booger McFarland. Thus, there are two takeaways from all of this. First, the next few years in American football are going to be very exciting for super fans to watch; and second, you just gotta love a guy named Booger.