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Among NFL trends, finding rookie starters is growing tougher

Every NFL season has its own personality, and the 2009 campaign already features emerging issues that bear watching.

As more teams move to the 3-4 defense -- the Green Bay Packers, Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs are the latest to use the scheme -- will the experiment continue to work, or will there be diminishing returns as more organizations look for the same personnel?

Will the firing of three offensive coordinators in the preseason lead to similar moves going forward? If a coach can terminate an assistant 10 days before the season starts, will others do it, say, during a bye week?

Will we discover that Mike Smith, John Harbaugh and Tony Sparano's success last season is the exception, not the rule, as seven rookie coaches take charge of their teams?

There's lots to examine, but to kick off the season, let's explore one issue that happens every year and another that's troubling to the NFL.

Rookie starters

The NFL's 32 teams give 704 players, not counting kickers and punters, "starter" status every week. In a great year, 30 rookies (or 4.3 percent of starters) will make their way into Week 1 lineups. However, 2009 looks like lean times for first-year players.

As of Tuesday, just 23 starters (3.3 percent) are rookies -- a surprising number when you think about the amount of excitement and enthusiasm surrounding the draft. Fourteen first-round picks will open their careers as starters, meaning not even 50 percent of the top 32 players, who are given handsome contracts, are ready to go. That's a problem, and Michael Crabtree is refusing to sign with the San Francisco 49ers because he wants more money?

As one general manager said: "Our first-rounder isn't ready yet, but neither are some of the guys handed starting jobs. We prefer to continue training him before we send him out there. Other teams send them out, ready or not, and you know why."

Just seven second-rounders, one third-rounder and one fourth-rounder will start in Week 1. No one from the fifth, sixth or seventh rounds has earned starter status yet. Rest assured, as the season wears on, injuries will push rookies to the field. If things go as usual, close to 60 rookies will be starters.

Thirteen teams aren't set to start a rookie, which is understandable for playoff-caliber clubs, but struggling franchises need to be injecting youth into their lineups. No one has struggled as much the Detroit Lions in recent years, and they plan to start the most rookies of any team in the league with quarterback Matthew Stafford, tight end Brandon Pettigrew, defensive tackle Sammie Lee Hill, safety Louis Delmas all receiving on-the-job training this season.

Blacked-out games

Local television blackouts aren't a new issue, but it might be on the rise. There has been talk of as many as 12 teams potentially dealing with blackouts during the season. In surveying fans, both on my training-camp tour and my Sirius radio show, their responses revealed more than a bad economy as a potential reason for low ticket sales that cause blackouts.

I promised fans who responded to me about TV blackouts that I would publish the results. So, here the top reasons people may stay away from games.

1. Technology: Many fans said watching a game at home on a big-screen TV with friends and family was so enjoyable that it surpassed the stadium experience. I disagree because of the energy that a live performance delivers, but fans clearly said they enjoy the home experience.

2. Sports bars: Many fans like to dress up in their favorite team gear, gather at a sports bar and interact with fans from other teams. I couldn't believe how many places across the country have bars dedicated only to Pittsburgh Steelers fans. One fan e-mailed me to say: "I get offered tickets to games all the time but wouldn't miss Sunday at the sports tavern."

3. Fantasy football: As one young guy said, "I like football, and I love fantasy football. My dad and I did not renew our season tickets. I need to be sitting with my computer on next to me all day watching my fantasy team as I flip from game to game on Direct TV." I know millions of people play fantasy football, and I respect what this person wants from his NFL experience, but I never would have guessed it was an issue hurting ticket sales.

4. Personal-seat license and ticket costs: It amazed me that this didn't top the list, but it did surface after what I would call "social" reasons for a loss in attendance. One owner told me he raised his ticket prices this year because his team was scheduled to do so after a year of no increases and he sold out, but it was because his team is playing very well. I asked him if he would have done it had the team played poorly last season, and his response was, "I think so." One fan told me, "PSLs have knocked the blue-collar fan out of the market."

5. The game is changing: A few fans still are hung up on the volatility of roster changes and have less passion for what one fan called a "rental team." She said she purchased a player jersey because she absolutely loved a certain player, and he was released a year later because he wouldn't take a pay cut.

6. Fan behavior: Only a few people suggested that rowdy behavior was a problem. When I confronted them on the issue, they admitted that things had been better lately, but they said they still wouldn't bring young family members to games.

Some of the reasons that fans stay away can be fixed, while others might not have a solution. But as one fan said, "Show me a winner, and I'll be there."

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