So here’s the real problem the National Football League is facing – and it’s similar to the problem dragging down ESPN. It isn’t the politics. It’s the lousy content, content which disrespects fans, and not just because those fans are more conservative than the players and the reporters who cover them.
Take a hard look at the league as currently set up. They have 15 starting Quarterbacks who shouldn’t be starting. They have predictable cookie-cutter offenses, and too many advertisements between plays. Politics is just reason 7 or 8 not to watch – the top 5 or 6 all have to do with a product that simply isn’t as compelling or good as it was a decade ago.
Part of this is thanks to the most recent collective bargaining deal, which cut back significantly on practice time and on pad-wearing game-speed practices and scrimmages in the summer. That might be good for player careers – though they seem to remain very short, depending on position, and there’s no real proof less practice equates to fewer injuries – but it is definitely not good for the product. Weeks one and two of this NFL season are a perfect example of why less practice makes for lousier play – the league didn’t really get going until this weekend, and then fewer people saw it thanks to a roughly ten percent decline in viewership from last year (which accounts for scads of money in ad dollars).
Don’t get me wrong: the NFL remains the best televised sports experience we have in America (the best sport in real life is hockey, which is also the worst TV sport out of the big four). But the dip we’re seeing right now is indicative of a lull the NFL is entering in quality, particularly driven by a lack of good quarterback play. Trevor Siemien, Jay Cutler, Carson Palmer, Tyrod Taylor, Jared Goff, Deshone Kizer, Case Keenum, Josh McCown, Blake Bortles, Deshaun Watson, Jacoby Brissett, Brian Hoyer, and Mike Glennon all started games this weekend – and some of them won. But in a healthy league, every single one of these guys would be backups, rookie projects behind veterans, or helping call the game on the field. The luxury of Matt Hasselbeck or Aaron Rodgers spending years backing up Brett Favre is long gone – now you have a league where the top five quarterbacks by current salary have exactly one Super Bowl win between them.
I’ve rooted all my life for a marginal team. It would go from 8-8 to 9-7 to 6-10. If they were good, I’d care about missing some of those. A decade ago, I watched every game I could, even ones in which I had no rooting interest. Today it’s easier to skip every game other than your favored team, and if your team is lousy, it’s easy to skip all of them. If your team is good, you watch all the games – but if they’re no fun to watch? You have a plethora of options. Just switch to Netflix.
Look, I love football. But it goes through periods of poor play. We had a golden age with Brady, Manning, and Rodgers all playing at the same time. Now it’s on the decline, and the best qbs when those three (plus Big Ben) retire will be Stafford, Wilson, Ryan, and… Cousins? Carr? Luck, if he can walk? This is a decided decline in the quality of the biggest position in sports.
But part of this is a failure of imagination on the part of NFL offensive coordinators, who don’t want to risk their jobs by doing something crazy. We need a Moneyball revolution in the NFL. We need Spread teams and Run and Shoot teams and Option teams. Let’s have teams that run an offense other than one that requires a tall dude with quick release. Would Drew Brees be running an NFL offense if not for Sean Payton today? Probably not. But there isn’t another short guy starting in the league right now in a similar situation. Instead when your QB goes down, you look up Jay Cutler’s number – as if he’s going to take you anywhere.
You know what’s a bigger problem for the NFL than politics? This. Los Angeles was supposed to have a quarter of the NFL fans in the second biggest market in the country, and they can’t get 30,000 people to go to a stadium to see a team that isn’t even terrible, just average. No one wants to pay to see them when they’re average. That’s a much bigger problem than people taking a knee.
When he was dying in Georgetown, Vince Lombardi would talk in his sleep. One night, according to David Maraniss’s biography, he yelled out: “Namath!” Lombardi shouted. “You’re not bigger than football! Remember that!” Forget the celebrity. Forget the politics. They don’t help. But the real problem is the damn game. It’s just not good right now. Let’s demand a better one, one where we actually want to see the highlights, instead of listening to overpaid commentators yell at each other all day about ephemeral political fights.