I’m back, baby! (And so is professional football)

The NFL might have been in its off season, but Commissioner Roger Goodell has been awfully busy. Since the Super Bowl, more than 30 NFL players have been arrested – with charges ranging from first degree murder to assault to DUI and drug possession charges. It probably seems like there has been more police blotter activity this off season, but when compared to last off season, there have only been a few more players arrested.

On the other hand, that’s not really something the NFL should brag about. The NFL is highly visible worldwide – the brand stands for something that many other sports strive to emulate. When players go running around all willy-nilly playing chicken with the long arm of the law, then everyone begins to question league discipline. That starts at the top with Goodell. Last season, when he was doling out penalties for the players and coaches involved in the Saints’ Bounty Gate, there seemed to be a lot of belly aching from the players (namely one big mouth involved in the scandal whose name begins with a Jonathan and ends with a Vilma) that this punishment was unfair. Vilma pressured Goodell so much that, instead of standing behind his punishment, Goodell went whining to former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue to make things better. When your league’s main disciplinarian can’t even stand behind his own punishments, what does that say about your league?

While the NFL has Goodell to thank for instituting the NFL’s personal code of conduct that results in harsh punishments for players who violate it, he’s now taking a back seat and letting the teams do the dirty work. Did you happen to notice that Goodell’s name wasn’t even mentioned when the Patriots released Aaron Hernandez? This can be both good and bad for the league. It’s good because teams can deal with problem players much more swiftly than waiting for the league to handle a situation. It’s bad because this shift in disciplinary power, even though it was part of Goodell’s planned infrastructure, sort of leaves the rats in charge of the cheese. And with so many player delinquencies in the spotlight this off season, it makes me wonder if the teams are really acting with the responsibility Goodell placed upon them.

Perhaps instead of focusing on punishment, teams – and Goodell – should return the focus to prevention. Dock paychecks, cut playing time, bust players down to the practice squad – whatever it takes, send the message that bad behavior will not be tolerated. Better yet, why not show players a photo of a small child wearing his jersey – that should hammer home the message that there are lots of kids who look up to these guys, and acting like a goon is not role model behavior.

In other news:

– Joe Flacco, public enemy number one.

You really have to hand it to those wily NFL marketing geniuses. Nobody was really talking about the season opening game of Baltimore at Denver, so what did the NFL do? They plastered a stadium-sized photo of Joe Flacco on Denver’s stadium. Broncos fans were up in arms, and they made enough noise to make the publicity poster big news and BOOM – everyone was talking about the season opener. See what they did there? Slick move! In all fairness, Peyton Manning was on the poster too, but since he wasn’t advertising for a car or a dish network, people didn’t know how to take it. I find it somewhat comical that Broncos fans have such an intense hate for Flacco. Yeah, I know the Ravens beat the Broncos in a divisional playoff game in January, but it wasn’t all Flacco. He wasn’t responsible for Denver’s defensive breakdown that led to his easy 70 yard touchdown pass to Jacoby Jones. He wasn’t the one who told Denver’s offense to take a knee with 30 seconds and two timeouts left in regulation. And Flacco certainly wasn’t responsible for that costly pick Manning threw in overtime. But yes, Flacco is the one to dislike here.

– Nothing says NFL fan like a plastic baggie.

Hey ladies – if you’re planning to head out to an NFL game this season, beware that purses are now banned. The NFL’s new stadium bag policy does not allow purses, diaper bags, computer bags, camera bags – pretty much bags of any kind – inside the stadium. Instead, the NFL suggests you carry your belongings into the stadium in a “one-gallon clear plastic freezer bag” or an official NFL team logo clear plastic tote bag. I touched on this ridiculous solution in my new NFL blog “Laces Out” (check it out on our website!), but it bears reiterating the stupidity of the NFL’s solution. I don’t know about anybody else, but I am not carrying a Ziploc bag to the stadium. In addition, I am not shelling out my hard-earned money on a plastic bag with a handle that has my team’s logo on it. I could make my own officially unofficial tote bag by drawing on a baggie with a Sharpie. I’m all for fan safety, but I highly doubt ladies carrying hairbrushes, bobby pins and lip gloss were holding up the lines outside the stadium. Here’s a suggestion – come to the stadium early enough to get in by kickoff, and don’t wait until they’re singing the National Anthem to try to weave your way through thousands of other fans.

– Let the season begin – and begin, and begin….

Nobody knows how to stretch out the first week of regular season play quite like the NFL. If they could somehow stretch out a week so it contained 14 days, they would. Once again, the season kicks off on Thursday night with the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens visiting the Broncos in Denver. Ravens fans should be a bit miffed that they have to start the season on the road (due to a scheduling snafu with the Baltimore Orioles), as each year the NFL season opens with the Super Bowl champ starting off at home. Sunday sees a full slate of games, including a boring sounding night game between the Giants and Cowboys. Seriously, the Giants could go 0-16 and still have a boatload of primetime games the following year. Maybe Eli Manning is contractually obligated to appear on television as often as his big brother, but he doesn’t have enough endorsements for the air time. Finally, week one concludes with two games on Monday night (note, there’s an early start time of 7:10 for game one and past my bedtime (officially 10:20) for game two. Couches across America are bracing their springs for the weekend onslaught.

And so, you’ve got one day left for that last bit of conjecture regarding how the 2013 NFL season will turn out, because the season train leaves the station tomorrow night at 8:30. All aboard!

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the games!

Hershberger can be reached at sdunder@timesleaderonline.com