Why is the NFL more unwatchable than ever? The ratings tell us fewer people are watching, but all the in-depth thinkpieces blaming it on a lack of stars, the pesky viewing patterns of millennials and attentions being diverted to a truly barbaric competition — the Presidential election — fail to identify the most obvious reason:
No one is watching the NFL because the NFL is more unwatchable than ever.
It’s objectively bad. Maybe ratings are dipping because more fans are having their eyes opened by the extra primetime games on Thursdays. You can only force people to watch Jaguars-Titans so many times before they get turned off to the sport altogether, sure, but why are there so many aesthetically displeasing matchups every week?
NFL purists will tell you what an amazing defensive display they saw on Sunday night between the Seahawks and Cardinals, a 6-6 tie for the ages that defined toughness and resiliency; regular people will tell you they turned it off after the third quarter to watch the fourth episode of WestWorld.
Let’s figure this out. Let’s figure out why the NFL is bad.
1. Teams don’t practice as much
One battle the players won when the new CBA was ratified in 2011 — practice time. Two-a-days, padded practice and contact have either been abolished or cut significantly during training camps, which means fewer injuries in August and September, but it also means fewer reps for players preparing for the upcoming season.
A 2015 Wall Street Journal story chronicled how certain teams have adjusted to these new rules.
“We got remote-control cars with little flags,” Raiders coach Jack Del Rio said with a laugh. “We can’t have receivers or running backs running for us, so we just needed something that moved. We needed defenses to react to it.”
So on practice fields in Oakland, a post-route or a down-and-in route that would normally feature a fast, actual-human such as Amari Cooper, the team’s first-round pick, might be run by a toy car. The technique has also been used by Philadelphia Eagles coach Chip Kelly.
This hurts both offenses and defenses. Sure, that’s not a receiver running a route he needs to perfect, but it’s also a linebacker dropping back in coverage to defend against a throw to a god damn remote control car.
There’s no way practicing less can help, which bleeds into the second point.
2. College systems aren’t compatible
The NFL doesn’t have a developmental league and relies on the NCAA to produce NFL-ready players immediately after their collegiate careers are over. There are still conventional offenses like Stanford out there but now it’s common to find spread and read-option offenses everywhere.
Those offenses pretty much don’t exist in the NFL, and that can lead to struggles for everyone. The adjustment to a primarily standard, power-based league can be difficult, more so if young players don’t get as many practice reps as players did in the past. And if the college trends continue, there’s reason to think the bad play in the NFL will as well.
The watchability of an NFL game is linked almost entirely to the quality of the quarterbacks on the field. This year, more than ever, the quarterbacks have been an atrocity on the same level as ranch dressing on buffalo wings.
This is subjective, but let’s break down all the league’s starting quarterbacks into categories.
Good quarterbacks (8): Matt Ryan, Matthew Stafford, Andrew Luck, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Philip Rivers, Andy Dalton, Derek Carr
Good quarterbacks playing hurt or who are hurt (4): Ben Roethlisberger, Russell Wilson, Carson Palmer, Jay Cutler
Good quarterbacks having bad years (3): Joe Flacco, Eli Manning, Cam Newton
Good quarterbacks that missed the first four games of the season due to a cheating suspension (1): Tom Brady
Perfectly fine game managers on teams with strong running games and/or good defenses (5): Sam Bradford, Dak Prescott, Alex Smith, Trevor Siemian, Tyrod Taylor
Meh quarterbacks you don’t care about (4): Kirk Cousins, Jameis Winston, Carson Wentz, Marcus Mariota
Bad quarterbacks (7): Case Keenum, Blake Bortles, Brock Osweiler, Blaine Gabbert, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Ryan Tannehill, Robert Griffin III
Backup quarterbacks that have started at least one game (11): Jimmy Garoppolo, Jacoby Brissett, Landry Jones, Josh McCown, Cody Kessler, Derek Anderson, Paxton Lynch, Brian Hoyer, Geno Smith, Shaun Hill, Drew Stanton
Depending on how you feel about the NFL’s quarterbacks, there are around eight good ones that are consistently whipping the ball around the field in a compelling fashion this season, and about 35 that will either dink and dunk or make you wonder how they made it this far. In that group of 35, there are also guys like Wilson and Palmer, who in other years would be MVP candidates but are clearly playing at less than 100 percent. Yes, each team has an incredible defense, but no one enjoys watching quick defensive linemen draw holding penalties for four hours. It makes for a bad product and people are starting to understand this.
It’s also a transition year for the star power of quarterbacks. Peyton Manning retired and Tony Romo might not take another snap for the Cowboys. However you feel about Romo’s current ability level and the dead-ass arm of Manning last season, they were name-brand products. Prescott and Siemian are better QBs right now, but you are way more likely to get excited about Romo-Manning than Prescott-Siemian. That’s partly our (my) fault for caring more about players we’ve known for a longer time, but then again, waiting for Romo and Manning to throw that soul-crushing pick is more fun than watching Prescott and Siemian hand off. I’m sure not everyone feels this way but I’d wager heavy money a lot of people do.
More than anyone on the field, the quarterback has the biggest say in a game’s enjoyability and there have never been fewer enjoyable quarterbacks in the NFL.
4. It’s all the little things adding up
Every freaking kickoff is a touchback. They made extra points more difficult when no one cared. The NFL has become the town from Footloose after touchdowns. You can’t taunt, ever. Nobody can define a catch. Nobody can define pass interference. You can’t review pass interference. They force teams to fly to London to play a game at somewhere between 6:30-9:30 a.m. according to their biological clock. Phil Simms calls two games per week. The DraftKings and FanDuel ads last season didn’t help. Seriously, they let Phil Simms call two games per week.
5. You are just old and miserable
Maybe the NFL has always been like this and in your old age, you can’t find joy in anything because the retirement of players from your childhood signals that you are getting closer to your inevitable death, and instead of accepting that and finding peace in your mortality, you lash out at the next generation of players and fans that love the game the way you did 20 years ago.
I mean, maybe.
The average points per game this season is 45.2; the average in seasons from 2004 to 2015 has always fallen between 41.4 and 46.8. It’s not like all these bad quarterbacks that are giving us all these three-and-outs aren’t eventually putting up the points we’ve come to expect over the past decade. Not every game is a 75-minute, 6-6 tie.
Think of the NFL as any TV show you’ve ever enjoyed. Seinfeld. Friends. The Big Bang Theory. As much you love them, at some point, you grow weary of watching the same thing over and over. You crave something new. You can only watch Jerry date a new woman every week or Joey say a dumb thing or Sheldon do a nerd equation about sex (I don’t watch The Big Bang Theory) so many times before you turn against it.
The Puerto Rican Day parade? Joey and Rachel are dating? Sheldon is going to Mars with a sex robot?
Seriously, I have no idea what happens on Big Bang.
Maybe you’ve grown out of it. Maybe you don’t like it anymore. That’s fine. You don’t have to watch it. You can go outside on Sundays. You can — and I can’t emphasize this enough — not watch a bad football game on Thursday and Monday. You can do anything else that brings you the joy football no longer does. It’s very possible it’s you that’s the problem.
Then again, a team that has used Sam Bradford and Shaun Hill at quarterback has the best record in the NFC, so maybe it’s the NFL after all.