NFL Season Examined

Sportswriter Stefan Fatsis talks about the National Football League as teams approach the halfway mark in the regular season. Last season's standouts, the New England Patriots and the Indianapolis Colts, are struggling to recapture their dominance.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

The National Football League likes to schedule a primetime game between marquee teams right around the middle of the season. Last year, two unbeaten teams faced off, the New England Patriots and the Indianapolis Colts. This year's game is a repeat with a big difference. Neither has been very good this season. And for more on the NFL, sportswriter Stefan Fatsis joins us, as he does most Fridays. Hi, Stefan.

STEFAN FATSIS: Hey, Robert.

SIEGEL: I understand some of what's wrong with the Patriots. Their quarterback, Tom Brady, has been injured almost all season. The Colts, though, have lost four of seven games already. What's happened to these two teams?

FATSIS: The Patriots have looked terrific one week and awful another. Brady's replacement is a guy named Matt Castle. He hadn't started a football game since high school. He was a back up for four years at Southern Cal. Indianapolis has a more conventional story. They've had a lot of injuries. Their star quarterback, Peyton Manning, was hurt over the summer. He's having a drastically sub-par season. And yet, New England is five and two. Indies, in a slightly tougher place with a three and four record, but they still could make the playoffs. And the message in all this, I think, is that you should appreciate what these teams have done in the last decade. It is extremely hard to dominate year in and year out in the NFL.

SIEGEL: Now like other pro leagues, the NFL is staging regular season overseas. Last weekend, the New Orleans Saints and San Diego Chargers played at Wembley Stadium in London. How did it go?

FATSIS: I don't think the coaches liked it very much. There were complaints about travel and logistics. But the game itself was a hit, especially compared to last year's first overseas game in London. That was in a driving rain on a muddy field. This time, the Chargers and the Saints put up 69 points, very entertaining, 83,000 fans.

SIEGEL: So might we see an NFL franchise in Europe someday?

FATSIS: Not anytime soon. The NFL did have this European League for more than a decade. They had to fold that last year. I don't think there's a sustained interest, week to week, in American football in Europe to support that, but I think we will get more games overseas. The NFL is thinking about expanding from 16 to 17 or 18 regular season games. One of those a year, every team, they could fan out around the globe and play football, Hawaii, Beijing, Mexico City, Berlin. There is interest to do that.

SIEGEL: Let's move on to the National Football League and the state of the economy. You've written an article, I know it will appear in the New York Times' Play magazine this Sunday about the ongoing efforts to sell the Pittsburgh Steelers. Why is the Rooney family, which has owned the franchise forever, why do they want to sell?

FATSIS: For one thing, they've been out of compliance with NFL ownership rules for a year. They don't have a single owner who has at least 30 percent stake in the team. And the second issue was that the owners, Dan Rooney, 76 years old, and his four brothers, need to settle some state tax issues or the tax is just going to be enormous going forward for their heirs. So they went out, they did get an offer from a billionaire financier to buy the team out right, but they turned it down. Dan Rooney wants to keep the Steelers in his immediate family. So he's trying to line up investors and financing to buy out his brothers and this of course, in this economic climate, is not proving easy. And this is a real perfect storm for the NFL. You got this old line family that's been so important to the history of the league. But candidly, they just don't have the money, the independent wealth that other owners who come into the league today do.

SIEGEL: And now quickly, on to sportscasters' envy, Stefan. Monday night football, ESPN, Chris Berman will be doing the Redskins-Steelers game. And I guess that it's quite a half-time show.

FATSIS: Yeah, he's going to be interviewing Barack Obama and John McCain, and it's not about audience. Monday football has averaged 12.2 million viewers per game so far this season. My only prayer is that Chris Berman doesn't unleash one of his trademark nicknames for athletes in this case for the presidential candidates because if he says Barack in a hard place Obama, I'm going to turn off the TV.

SIEGEL: OK. I'll hold you to it. It's Stefan Fatsis, who talks with us most Fridays about sports and the business of sports. Stefan, thanks a lot.

FATSIS: Thanks, Robert.

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