In a league that features big hits, big players, and a growing financial windfall for all involved, there is also one rather large loophole. It came to light in the wake of Patriots safety Rodney Harrison's four-game suspension.
When the NFL added human growth hormone to its list of banned substances in 1991, the league seemingly had good intentions - to protect the integrity of the game by ensuring that players couldn't gain an illegal advantage.
The issue, as Major League Baseball has also discovered, is in enforcement.
Because the NFL does not test for HGH, players are left to their own consciences. The temptation, especially for older players attempting to hang on, is great.
One player who requested anonymity explained the situation: "If you could rob a bank and take care of your family for the rest of your life - and knew you could get away with it - would you do it?"
The NFL has no shortage of hot-topic issues on its plate, but following the suspensions of
Harrison and Cowboys assistant Wade Wilson, more attention is being focused on HGH.
So, what are people saying?
League officials boast that they are aggressively contributing toward research on a test for HGH. The NFL has funded a $500,000 grant to Don Catlin's newly formed Anti-Doping Research Institute in Los Angeles, and has funded other studies addressing testing and detection issues. The NFL's Youth Football Fund, in partnership with the NFL Players Association, also recently provided a $1 million grant for a high school education program on performance-enhancing drugs.
Commissioner Roger Goodell has stated repeatedly that the issue comes down to testing.
"There is no test for HGH. We are investing to develop a test," Goodell told ESPN. "There is no such thing in the world right now. In the meantime, we will educate our players and we will work with law enforcement."
Yet critics believe the NFL isn't necessarily being forthright.
"They have twisted and distorted the facts," said Dr. Gary I. Wadler, a member of the World Anti-Doping Agency's Prohibited List and Methods Committee.
"They have reiterated their assertion that there is no test. That is just not the case. There is a test and it will be on line at the end of this year. Others have stated they will allow blood testing when the test is fully implemented. We don't hear from them. Instead, we hear that there is no test."
While Goodell says players want HGH out of the game, they don't feel strongly enough about it to allow blood testing to detect it. Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFL Players Association, has made reference to not wanting players to become pincushions.
Yet Wadler believes that is the only way the NFL can ensure that its players are not using HGH. While the league is funding research toward a urine test, Wadler is skeptical.
"The only way to catch HGH abusers by testing is to utilize the blood test," he said. "There are people who have spent as much as the last 10 years devoting their lives to HGH, and it is not in the cards in the foreseeable future. A urine test likely will never happen and there are a variety of reasons, one of which is that less than two-tenths of 1 percent of HGH ever shows up in urine. The vast majority remains in the blood and other body fluids."
Wadler said the final obstacle - the antibody necessary to perform the test - has almost been cleared. He added that all 34 world anti-doping agencies will be using the antibody to detect HGH abuse by the end of the year.
"So the assertion by the NFL and Major League Baseball that there is no blood test for HGH is without merit, and despite best efforts to inform them of the facts, they have steadfastly refused to accept the concept of blood testing for HGH," he said. "While awaiting adequate supplies of antibody, we suggested to the NFL that they freeze blood specimens and they have declined to do that as well."
So for now, the only way players can be caught is through stings and investigations. It ultimately comes down to players doing the right thing without the threat of a test.
"If there is no test, there is no disincentive," Wadler said. "If you don't test, it's an invitation to abuse."
Growing on NFL teams
How 'bout those Maine Black Bears?
With safety Daren Stone making the Falcons' 53-man roster and defensive lineman Mike DeVito a surprise keeper with the Jets, Maine has bolstered the ranks of players from New England colleges in the NFL.
"When you talk about Mike DeVito and Daren Stone, they are two guys that make you feel good inside," said Maine coach Jack Cosgrove. "Daren was a highly skilled athlete and we were fortunate that other colleges passed him by and he came to us.
"Mike is the epitome of what hard work can do for you. They had just started the football program at Nauset High when he was there, and he came here on a $1,000 scholarship."
In addition to Stone and DeVito, other rookies from New England colleges fared well as NFL clubs shaped their final rosters and practice squads.
Boston College's James Marten, a third-round draft choice of the Cowboys, is slated as a backup at right tackle to BC product Marc Colombo, and former Eagle Josh Beekman, a fourth-round draft choice by Chicago, opens the year as the backup right guard behind Roberto Garza.
Brown's Zak DeOssie is the primary long snapper for the Giants, and the third man on the depth chart at strong-side linebacker; Harvard's Clifton Dawson backs up running backs Rudi Johnson and Kenny Watson in Cincinnati; UConn's Deon Anderson is a backup fullback in Dallas; and New Hampshire cornerback Corey Graham is fourth or fifth on the Bears' depth chart.
Meanwhile, UNH receivers David Ball (Bears) and Aaron Brown (Colts), Northeastern tight end Kendrick Ballantyne (Ravens), UMass running back Steve Baylark (Cardinals), and UMass receiver Brandon London (Giants) all found homes on practice squads.
Said Cosgrove, "I think the fact a lot of New England guys are emerging speaks to the quality of football being played here, and it starts at the high school level."
Schaub is poised to lift Texans from throes of defeat
The start of the NFL season brings hope in most cities, but the buzz surrounding the Houston Texans has never been louder.
The main reason is quarterback Matt Schaub, acquired in an offseason trade from the Falcons.
"You just see the way the players have responded to him, and the leadership he's shown," said Texans assistant head coach/offensive coordinator Mike Sherman. "He has a way about him in which he stays the same whether things are going well or not."
Not that Sherman had doubts, but the Texans' third exhibition game solidified his thoughts on Schaub, a third-round draft choice in 2004 who played at the University of Virginia. One play, in particular, came as the Cowboys blanketed Texans receivers, forcing Schaub to buy extra time in the pocket until one of his targets came free. He calmly kept the play alive, made the hook-up, and ultimately finished 12 of 16 for 109 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions.
The Texans, who host the Chiefs in their season opener today, haven't done much right in their first five seasons. The team has finished last in the AFC South in four of those five seasons, hasn't posted a winning record, and is 24-56 overall.
The Texans' best season came in 2004, a 7-9 campaign.
Yet with Schaub replacing former No. 1 overall pick David Carr, optimism is at an all-time high. Under second-year head coach Gary Kubiak, the Texans will have nine different starters today than they had in their 2006 season finale, and 11 different starters from the team's 2006 opener.
"This season, when you mention Texans and the playoffs in the same sentence, it's not tongue-in-cheek," said defensive end N.D. Kalu.
Second thoughts on first pick
Jaguars owner Wayne Weaver is concerned about the future of his small-market club, and if you read the tea leaves and consider how the team is struggling to sell tickets, he appears to be regretting the decision to bypass Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn with the team's first-round draft choice (21st overall). Coach Jack Del Rio previously said he was willing to take Quinn, but general manager James "Shack" Harris opted for Florida safety Reggie Nelson. Asked about bypassing Quinn, Weaver told the Florida Times Union: "If I could look back on all the decisions I've made over the years and change those on 20-20 hindsight, I'd be a much wealthier man." Winning odds with victory
How important is a victory in the opening week of the season? Consider that since 1978, when the NFL went to the 16-game schedule, teams that won on opening weekend were twice as likely to reach the playoffs than losers. Not including the strike-shortened 1982 season, 216 of the 410 Week 1 winners went to the playoffs. Of the 410 teams that lost, only 96 went to the playoffs. Last year, nine of the 12 playoff teams won in the first week.
Rookie will be watched
The Colts lost run-stuffer Booger McFarland to a season-ending injury and they've seamlessly plugged rookie free agent Ed Johnson into his spot. Johnson, who had off-field problems at Penn State that contributed to him going undrafted, had three tackles in the team's 41-10 win over the Saints Thursday. It was yet another example of the Colts inserting a young player into a void and not missing a beat. Now we'll see whether Johnson can avoid self-destructing as he did at Penn State, where, among other things, he was suspended for the Outback Bowl last year.
Chance to earn his stripes
In trading a seventh-round draft choice to the Rams for former Harvard quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, the Bengals are banking on him becoming the backup to starter Carson Palmer. Fitzpatrick was the No. 3 quarterback in St. Louis behind Marc Bulger and Gus Frerotte, and is energized by the opportunity. "There are a lot of similar concepts in the offenses," said Fitzpatrick, who joins fellow Ivy Leaguers Clifton Dawson (Harvard) and tight end Nate Lawrie (Yale) on the roster.
This may become a fine mess
When Michael Strahan reported to the Giants after missing training camp, and the team agreed to reduce his fines from $500,000 to $200,000, one agent wondered how that might affect similar cases in the future. Teams often talk about the importance of players coming to camp, but with the Giants backing down, it could lead other veteran players to follow Strahan's lead. "It sets a bad precedent for NFL teams who are trying to enforce the CBA and fining players for not attending camp," the agent said.
Laboring in September
The Titans traditionally have started slowly under 13th-year coach Jeff Fisher. Consider that the club is 19-26 in September under Fisher, only three times posting a winning record in the month. "When we've had good teams, we've played well. When we've had either [salary] cap issues or injuries, we have not," Fisher said. "I'd like to think we're a better team, so we expect September to be better."
Bad development for Carolina
The Panthers, who hope to rebound from a disappointing 8-8 season, won't be counting much on their 2005 draft class. At the time when those players should be stepping into starting roles, they're instead walking out the door, with the team releasing running back Eric Shelton (second round) and having already parted with defensive lineman Atiyyah Ellison (third round) and quarterback Stefan LeFors (fourth round). For a comparison, that would be the equivalent of the Patriots missing on cornerback Ellis Hobbs (third round), offensive lineman Nick Kaczur (third round), and safety James Sanders (fourth round), all of whom are likely to start today.
The Bengals, who host the Ravens tomorrow night, hope to keep their strong streak of divisional play alive. The team is 9-3 in AFC North action the last two seasons . . . The Titans went with an unconventional approach on their final 53-man roster, keeping a whopping seven receivers. The big winner was Biren Ealy, a rookie free agent from the University of Houston . . . The Colts have won eight of their last nine openers . . . Former Boston College center Pat Ross, who spent 2006 on the Seahawks' practice squad, was waived Thursday. Ross was injured and received an injury settlement . . . Antonio Garay, the former BC defensive lineman who played four games for the Bears last season, was waived and then signed to the team's practice squad . . . Former BC defensive lineman Tim Bulman opens the season on the Texans' practice squad . . . Former Northeastern offensive tackle Ryan Gibbons was waived by the Jaguars and re-signed to their practice squad . . . Former Brown receiver Chas Gessner, attempting to hook on with the Buccaneers, was waived with an injury settlement . . . Former UMass linebacker Jeremy Cain had a tryout with the Giants last week, while former Patriots punter Josh Miller had a tryout with the Browns . . . Stoughton High graduate and former Syracuse linebacker/defensive end Ryan LaCasse, who appeared in 12 games for the Colts last season, didn't make the team.
Mike Reiss can be reached at email@example.com; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.