Cloudy future as NFL caps great year

The final images of Super Bowl Sunday have been processed with Aaron Rodgers ascendant, the Green Bay Packers' decision-makers vindicated and coated in confetti, Mike Tomlin and his Steelers stoic in defeat and the odd proclamation that Vince Lombardi was coming home (a new and tinny slogan). The NFL season is over, and Green Bay captured the Super Bowl stirringly, mimicking the surprising, dominant championship run of the San Francisco Giants just a few months earlier. The Packers, who had to play for their lives in the weeks leading up to the postseason, went on the road as the lower seed and handled all challengers without much suspense.

As the Packers celebrated not just a championship but a season in which they lost six times -- the grandest margin of defeat being four points (twice) -- an overheated narrative of Armageddon hovered over the NFL. A labor confrontation almost certainly will occur in the coming weeks, and 2010 was indeed pivotal as the "Year of the Concussion." But whether or not the players are locked out, strike or both, and whether or not football has reached its critical mass in terms of the amount of punishment the human body can take, there will be professional football again in September or at some more distant future date. The price remains to be negotiated.

From a macro and individual perspective, this NFL season was a rousing success. The real question might be less about what is happening in the boardrooms at the NFL offices in New York and the union headquarters in Washington and more about both sides fully appreciating that this past season solidified the NFL's hold on the public. Fans embraced the game, barely blinking at the checkered off-field records of some stars and the trauma-inducing violence on the field, and watched in record numbers.

The legends were legendary. The Packers and Steelers blended history with the contemporary. Perhaps the two most venerable and loyal fan bases showed no rust on the national stage, producing the highest-rated and richest Super Bowl ever. There have been 45 Super Bowls. The Packers have played in five, won four. The Steelers have played in eight, won six. The two have combined to appear in 27 percent of the modern championships played in the sport.

The showcase could have used some moderation. It appears that the Super Bowl as an event might have reached its saturation point of commercials, pyrotechnics and excess, but the game on the field was an extension of the regular season. The league has succeeded in creating parity, evidenced by the return of the Kansas City Chiefs and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. At the same time, big-time, big-market teams in Philadelphia, New England and Chicago have balanced the annual surprise playoff team, which just might be the Detroit Lions (gasp!) next season.

The league also can savor something it hasn't had much of in the past 45 years: simultaneous championship-level teams in New York. The Jets have played in the AFC title game the past two years, their rivalry with the Patriots heightened by the contrasts in style. If the Patriots do not fear the Jets, or respect their "Hard Knocks" ways, New England must respect them as an opponent on the field. The Giants, less than five years removed from a championship themselves, won 10 games this season and missed the playoffs on the season's final day.

The glamour and focus of the game is the quarterback, and Super Bowl week highlighted the many facets of that centerpiece position. As Rodgers made his star turn, Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger benefited from the unchanging predilection of fans and media to equate victory with morality (a phenomenon best challenged by a headline in The Onion last week that read, "Ben Roethlisberger One Win Away from Being Good Person.")

Meanwhile, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady won the NFL's Most Valuable Player Award, the first player ever to win the award unanimously. And Michael Vick, who enjoyed an electric comeback season with games at Washington and New York that won't be forgotten, was given the key to the city of Dallas for working with kids as he rebuilds his life. Brett Favre might be gone for good and Donovan McNabb might be declining, but Peyton Manning continued to accumulate prodigious offensive statistics, and a new generation of quarterbacks -- Philip Rivers, Joe Flacco, Matt Ryan and even Mark Sanchez -- has joined Rodgers as the faces of the league.

If there is to be Armageddon, it almost certainly will be self-imposed. There's nothing happening on the field -- safety issues notwithstanding -- that would suggest the NFL needs a labor stoppage to fix the problem.

When Major League Baseball was heading toward an explosion that canceled the 1994 postseason and delayed the start of the 1995 season, ownership did not present a united front. Large-market teams felt manipulated by small-market teams, which felt overwhelmed by the powerhouse franchises. Bud Selig had assumed power in nothing less than a coup. The two teams in New York were in trouble, the Mets faltering and the Yankees on the road to recovering from the George Steinbrenner/Howard Spira scandal. And the players had not forgiven the owners for the collusion of the 1980s. The nuclear showdown contributed to the death of the Baseball Network and the near-term annihilation of the corporate sponsorship and fan trust without adding a salary cap.

The NFL, meanwhile, seems to be heading for a prizefight with no prize. Its franchises are strong, and its product is compelling but in need of attainable safety changes. Yet the NFL allowed labor acrimony to cloud the majesty of two of its oldest franchises playing for a title. A lockout, or strike at worst, seems unnecessary and avoidable with the simple combination of less greed and more diplomacy. Insisting on an 18-game schedule does not seem worth the price.

Curiously, the NFL finds itself where major league baseball has been for nearly every November in the past decade: with off-field trouble obscuring on-field brilliance. Like baseball, the NFL proved this season that the game is powerful enough to save itself from the executives who run it and the players who play it. The question is whether either group has the sense to look back on the year and realize there is no reason for all the shouting.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com. He can be followed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/hbryant42.