DRUNK WITH POWER: The NFL governance of its sport, at times, has been classified as even tyrannical. So how can it be that players like Josh Brent find the freedom to act so recklessly? Photo courtesy Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Week 14 is supposed to mark the fourth quarter of sorts of the NFL regular season. The stretch run.  The playoff push.

But instead of NFL headlines being lead by highlight reels and postseason scenarios, it is being dominated with mug shots and police file footage.

And murder.

20/20 HINDSIGHT: Belcher, seen here talking with police an hour before he murdered his girlfriend, was viewed originally viewed as an isolated tragedy. Josh Brent’s alleged manslaughter changes all that. Photo courtesy Kansas City Police Department

If every season has a zeitgeist, 2012 will be remembered as the year the league was chronically marred by distractions. What started with replacement refs way over their head in September has culminated in the death of two NFL players and countless more affected by off-field incidents.

The most recent of these happened Saturday. A week to the day after Kansas City linebacker Jovan Belcher murdered his girlfriend in cold blood before ultimately taking his own life, Dallas defensive tackle Josh Brent flipped his car while intoxicated, killing passenger and teammate Jerry Brown, Jr.

Also on Saturday, Kansas City Police released two dashboard camera videos in relation to the final 6 hours of Jovan Belcher’s life. The first, taken just after 3 A.M. on December 1st, show multiple officers responding to a report that Belcher was unconscious in his car. As it turned out, Belcher was just sleeping. And after doing their due diligence, the police let Belcher get on with his morning. Just over an hour later, he would kill the mother of his child.

The second video shows an officer responding to reports that Belcher was at the Chiefs’ training facility with a firearm. While it stops just as the police officer is heading on foot towards where Belcher was reported, the radio chatter on the drive over gives previously unseen insight into just how much the police knew about the call they were rolling up on.

So, with all that out there, what chance does the NFL really have at talking about football this Sunday morning.

STARS AND STRIPES: Cowboy DT Josh Brent is wearing a very different uniform this Sunday. Photo courtesy Associated Press

Don’t get me wrong, there’s PLENTY of great story lines out there. Washington, thought to be out of it just three weeks ago, will play beltway rival Baltimore in a game with enormous playoff  implications. Houston, who shares the best record in football, hosts a red-hot Patriots team whose slow start to the season feels like a lifetime ago. The Giants, once sitting pretty at 5-2, are now just a game up in their division and find themselves pitted against a New Orleans team that is locked in must-win mode seven losses on the year.

And yet, with all that going on, it seems everything we’re talking about in relation to the NFL  is miles away from the gridiron. Instead of man coverage, we’re talking about manslaughter. Instead of suicide blitzes, we’re talking about actual suicide.

The NFL has an image problem. They’ve had one pretty much since the season started. And while their actions would lead one to believe that the brand will nevertheless endure, these most recent development may seriously test that theory.

Any change ultimately rests with the fans. The NFL would obviously like bad PR to go away, but as long as the bottom line isn’t hurting they’ll only do so much. How long will it be before patrons of professional football demand better?

Think I’m being melodramatic? Think about this: a year ago the off-field issues began and ended with the increased awareness over head trauma. Everyone had an opinion on the  matter and no one was hesitant to share it.

STADIUM SECURITY: Police are a common sight at NFL venues. But players are not supposed to be the reason. Photo courtesy Kansas City Police Department

That problem, the so-called “concussion epidemic”, has gone nowhere. In fact, with recent damning articles like Sports Illustrated’s feature on former player Jim McMahon and reports that the league was paying players with mental illness while publicly denying any correlation between repeated concussions and post-career side effects, some might say the problem is as bad as it has ever been.

It has just simply been overshadowed by this wave of violence that has befallen the league. Everyone knows if it bleeds, it leads, and stuff like “shooter on the  loose” is a lot flashier than “chronic traumatic encephalopathy”.

And that’s where this recent rash of bad headlines is particularly detrimental to the NFL. Those who don’t understand football see it as nothing more than a conglomeration of meatheads bashing their heads into one another. Muscle-bound jocks with nothing more than physical force implanted in their minds.

Obviously, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. But when we hear stories about players shooting women in cold blood or making decisions as stupid as driving intoxicated with all the driving programs teams and the league have instituted, it ever so slightly provides validation to the stereotype.

SEEING RED: The recent flurry of violent incidents has done little to disprove the “meat head” stereotype of NFL athletes. Photo courtesy Jamie Squire/Getty Images

If the league is all about branding, they would be wise to be proactive here. The NFL can’t just say they won’t stand for this level of domestic violence and reckless behavior, they need to SHOW it. If they’re willing to take as drastic steps as doing away with the kickoff when it comes to player safety, the possibilities should be limitless with this new problem.

That’s what this recent string of incidents provides the NFL: an opportunity. An opportunity to show that they aren’t just about the money or how big they can make the sport. An opportunity to show that league can be business-wise while also carrying a moral compass.

An opportunity to show that football is about the greatness of man, not the evil that resides within them.

NOTE: This story was originally published on SportsHead. To read this article and others click here.
When Bryan isn’t writing, he is on Twitter! Make sure to give him a follow @bclienesch for NFL updates and other shenanigans.