NFL ratings are down. Not just in one market or for one particular program such as Monday Night Football, but across the board. Numbers are off up to 20%, according to some reports. Worryingly, the viewership for yesterday’s Sunday night showdown between the Broncos and Raiders — two teams with great W/L records in a divisional matchup with major playoff implications — was actually down from last week’s Sunday night game, which had to compete with the World Series. The NFL and various football pundits tend to throw out the same reasons to explain this slide away. The election. Colin Kaepernick. Poor matchups in nationally televised game overall, with the miserable Bears somehow showing up in four and counting. Too many flags for too many yards. Poor quality on the field.
The too-many-flags thing is a factor, although probably not a huge one. One of football’s historic disadvantages is seeing, for instance, a beautiful pass reception for a TD get called back just because some asshole was holding on the other side of the field. But that’s nothing new. It’s the sheer quantity of yellow raining down on the field — for such frivolities as excessive celebration (seriously) and taunting (which is an NFL tradition older than the West Coast Offense). No surprise that the NFL record for penalties in one game was broken this year — and, no surprise, by the Raiders. Back in the day, the penalties of “personal foul” and “unsportsmanlike conduct” were enough to punish serious transgressions, while allowing enough leeway for the normal endzone dances and trash talking that fans expect to see. Nowadays? The PGA insists on less decorum, it seems.
But flags are just one issue that can easily get rolled back in time for next season. The issue of too much parity, however, offers no easy solution in sight. There are too few dominant teams, too few absolutely hopeless teams, and too many in the mushy, Tennessee Titans middle. Way, way too many.
By what I mean by “too much parity” is this. Fans in sports accept, even expect, the presence of a certain number dynasty teams on one hand, and perennial loser squads on the other. Alabama reigns as a dominant college football team year-in-year-out, as is right and proper, and fans expect nothing less. Nationwide, and not just among fans of the Tide, either. It makes it that much more exciting when ‘Bama visits your neck of the woods, and it makes it that much more of a campus-riot situation if your local team can pull off the huge upset. Auburn fans would be sorely disappointed (even if they refuse to admit it) if their longtime foes imploded. Conversely, Kansas football is gifted a Bowl season perhaps once a generation, which makes it that much more exciting; the rest of the time, their official football fight song is, “Just You Wait ‘Til Basketball Season!”
And on that note, Kansas, Duke and Kentucky have near-guaranteed berths in March Madness due to their decades-long reputations. The women’s side can be renamed UConn vs. Whoever Gets to Lose to UConn This Year. Other pro sports’ dynasties are more fluid, but teams often enjoy several years of uninterrupted excellence before retirements, injuries and free agency take their toll. Squads like the Red Sox, Cardinals, Giants, and Nationals can all be assumed to have a reasonable shot at the 2017 playoffs, sight unseen. Meanwhile, the Padres and Reds organizations can guarantee Octobers off for their staffs for the foreseeable future. This may suck for baseball fans in San Diego and Cincy, but overall, having organizational strength — or weakness — that lasts beyond one year is healthy indeed for these sports.
Now take the NFL. How many teams would you call “dynasty” this year? The Patriots, of course, the final holdouts of the old ways, and… who else? Anyone?
I put NFL teams in six power “tiers” instead of the traditional 32-team ranking. Differentiating between, say, #19 and #20 is usually a mug’s game anyway; doing groupings instead of individual ranks gives a better, more season-long view of where each team stands as opposed to relying too much on week-to-week wins and losses.
At around this point in 2013, I had four squads in the top tier. As in, glory squads with unquestioned Super Bowl competitiveness. Guess how many I have now? If Brady hadn’t ever returned, that tier might have remained empty. The Raiders are still too unproven with too many holes on defense to qualify. The Cowboys have enjoyed an unusually soft schedule, running up the score on such sad sacks as the Bears, Niners and Browns; just barely squeaking by an Eagles squad currently in the process of imploding. The Chiefs, as usual, remain solid second-tier contenders without yet finding the magic of a destiny team.
As for tier 6? 2013’s manure pile of 4 teams is down to just 2. The aforementioned Niners and Browns, the latter of which has an owner doing what he can to fight parity in his own way.
Meanwhile, tiers 3, 4, and 5 — Titans turf — are getting so overpopulated, they’ll need rent control. Teams like the Eagles that started out strong are getting sucked down by the gravitational pull of mediocrity, while teams like the Bengals that are trying to break out can never reach escape velocity. This morass of the mundane has few stars and little breakout talent. Potential star RBs are failed by bad QBs and worse O-lines. Top-flight QBs like Rivers and Brees are marooned on subpar offenses, struggling to find talent to work with, let alone offensive coordinators who can truly utilize them. Pro Bowl cornerbacks often just watch the QB avoid them and instead find holes left open by their undertrained, disorganized teammates. And so forth.
The problem is, due to the NFL’s pro-parity forces of profit sharing and free agency rules that reward mercenary attitudes and punish loyalty, it’s become damn hard to not only put the pieces together, but also hold them together for the multiple seasons it takes to build into a contender, let alone a dynasty. The Patriots, for instance, would have never become the force they are if it weren’t for Brady’s fanatical loyalty, to the point where he actually accepts pay cuts in order to provide cap space for other positions. Can you think of any other player in the league who would do the same? The Chiefs rely on paying for “solid-enough” in most positions, especially in defense where cap space can stretch longer, with the downside that breakouts like Eric Berry will get lost to free agency. The Broncos relied on the magic of #18 and the eyeballs he drew, but with Peyton retired, analysts generally say the Donkeys’ days of regarding the AFC West championship as an entitlement are over.
Which means even teams with bad coaching and worse management can string along the occasional win and a middling record simply by picking up players capped out of better teams. This is why the Rams manage to win 7 games a season, when based on their coach and owner alone, they deserve 3 at most. Only the Browns have found the formula to become the anti-Patriots, with bad draft picks (Johnny Football anyone?) and worse free-agency moves (the one exception being the inexplicable trade of Jamie Collins from the latter to the former; either Collins got too greedy or Belichick had a brain fart).
Which means, instead of a broad spectrum of team quality, we now have a bell curve full of Tennessee Titans. Teams with few notable names, playing in anonymous corporate-branded McStadiums, seemingly clawed back down by the others if they try to break out, with any potential drama intentionally snuffed out by the NFL’s draconian rules, with forgettable offenses all fighting for an 8-8 finish. (Will this year see a record in 8-8, 7-9, and 7-8-1 finishes?)
Roger Goddell can scapegoat Colin Kaepernick all he wants, but at least Kaepernick is doing the league an unintentional service by providing a truly pathetic team that makes everyone else look good by comparison — which is, in a way, almost as important as having the Patriots around. And in the end, viewers and advertisers will see through the excuses. They can turn off any long-running TV series with no problem once the plotline gets too boring and the characters too predictable, despite the marketing, and what Gooddell failed to grasp was, a TV series is largely what the NFL is.
If 2016’s NFL were on HBO, it would be a series where Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow have been replaced by Stannis Baratheon and Allister Thorne. If today’s NFL were a temperature, it would be 40 degrees. If it were a villain, it would be the Diet Coke of evil. It’s VH1, Robocop 2 and Back to the Future 3. It’s got to reinvigorate. It has to roll back parity to once again become a league of winners and of losers.