The ratings for the National Football League are down, and the reason is subject to a great deal of debate, particularly about the role players protesting over the American flag and anthem might play in such a development. For years, the NFL was the one league apparently immune from ratings downturns of any significance. That ended last year, when most analysts believe ratings dipped because of competition with the 2016 election coverage. Now that the problem is repeating itself, politics is again being used as an explanation.
Except that’s not the whole story, really. While politicization does explain some viewers tuning out, a better way to understand the NFL’s problem is that politics are only a challenge when the product isn’t good enough to withstand its injection.
Conservative voters will put up with a lot of things in the culture that disagree with their views. They have proven time and again they will roll their eyes at actors and musicians saying negative things about the presidents and candidates they vote for and still consume their product. (As a ready example, Mark Hamill’s obvious politics will not prevent millions of Trump voters from taking their children to see the next Star Wars film.) But the product must be good enough to justify putting up with the contempt. If the movie is marginal, consumers will stay home.
The same is true of sports, and in this the NFL is approaching a crisis. Roger Goodell is now the commissioner of a league that has lost several of its most prominent stars to injury and retirement. The quarterback play is going through one of its worst valleys, the players are less prepared in the early weeks thanks to agreed-upon limitations of offseason practices, and as a result the games themselves are less entertaining. All of this is true apart from the politics, with the political justification giving viewers the last excuse they need to turn away.
Consider the Degradation of Quarterback Play
There are many developments to blame for this diminished quality, but more than anything else, the degradation of quality quarterback play has to be the focus of those seeking to improve the game. To do so, NFL front offices should consider whether they have been too limited in their approach to analyzing signal-callers before the draft and to the style of offense nearly every team runs.
Consider just the degraded offensive output from the past weekend, as noted by one NFL reporter: “Six teams from the 1 PM games failed to score an offensive TD today: the Bears, Browns, Cardinals, Colts, Panthers and Titans.”
Six teams from the 1 PM games failed to score an offensive TD today: the Bears, Browns, Cardinals, Colts, Panthers and Titans.
— Field Yates (@FieldYates) October 22, 2017
For the Bears, this poor offensive showing included a particularly astonishing stat in the modern pass-happy league: starting quarterback Mitch Trubisky, the rookie Chicago traded up for even after paying Mike Glennon $19 million guaranteed, threw just seven passes in the entire game, and completed just four. The problem for the league? He still won the game.
The Baltimore Ravens offense, headed by “but is he elite?” Super Bowl-winning quarterback Joe Flacco, has been painfully unproductive. Before the meaningless final play of Sunday’s game against the Minnesota Vikings, Baltimore went nine quarters plus an overtime period without scoring a single offensive touchdown. The Vikings have their own offensive challenges. For the tenth time, they are about to start three different quarterbacks in a season.
And the Vikings are not likely to be alone. Multiple NFL teams in 2017 have already trotted out three quarterbacks or are likely to do so before the end of the season due to injury or quality of play. Quarterbacks who took snaps on Sunday included Trevor Simien, DeShone Kizer, C.J. Beathard, Cody Kessler, Drew Stanton, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Matt Moore, Jacoby Brissett, and Brett Hundley. These are not quarterbacks who give viewers must-see TV.
The top tier of quarterbacks looks shaky as well. Looking at current or formerly elite quarterbacks remaining in the league following the injury to Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers is a list that looks ripe for retirement. Tom Brady and Drew Brees are 40 and 38, respectively. Ben Roethlisberger has openly talked about retiring due to injury. Veterans like Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, Carson Palmer, and Jay Cutler have looked like shells of their former selves.
It’s not an exaggeration to say the Jets’ Josh McCown, a 38-year-old journeyman, is currently playing like one of the top ten quarterbacks in the league. When that’s true, it indicates a soft underbelly for quarterback play. Can these franchises sustain a league in which the quarterback talent with the best potential—the likes of Jameis Winston, Derek Carr, and Marcus Mariota—all seemed to be regressing, and where quarterbacks like Matthew Stafford and Kirk Cousins must be paid the most money in the league, only to repeatedly lose in the first round of the playoffs?
Where Have All the Good Quarterbacks Gone?
Part of this is a problem of scarcity. While quarterbacks in the ideal model for the position—someone like last year’s MVP, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan—are few and far between, a host of college quarterbacks break the traditional model of what NFL scouts look for in a draft pick. This leads to teams repeatedly reaching for quarterbacks who look more like they could be pros.
But perhaps this scarcity is self-imposed, backwards, and out of step with the times. Instead, perhaps teams should look for the right kind of quarterback who, while raw, can run a particular style of offense effectively, even if it’s not the same approach other teams use.
In the NFL, most modern offenses look very much the same—one that only perhaps a dozen men on earth at any given time are very good at running. Instead of adjusting their playbooks to the skills of their players—as the rare offensive innovators such as Rams’ head coach Sean McVay has, the youngest coach in the league at just 30—they keep trying to turn ill-suited quarterbacks into typical pocket passers. It’s a mold most college quarterbacks will never fit.
Part of this is to avoid the risk of catastrophic failure. Kyle Shanahan, currently the head coach of the woeful and winless 49ers, was an innovator with Washington who adapted his offensive scheme to the bootlegging talents of Robert Griffin III, winning a division and the rookie of the year award. But in the playoffs, this run-option scheme was blamed for a brutal injury that effectively ended Griffin’s career and the coaching career of Shanahan’s father.
The blame is largely undeserved. Griffin’s injuries came on passing plays, not run-option plays, and the quarterback who went a pick before him, Andrew Luck, has been repeatedly injured in a more traditional scheme in Indianapolis. Griffin is a free agent this season, and Luck has not yet seen the field. Sometimes, quarterbacks just get hurt. So do running backs, so do linemen, so do wide receivers. Blaming innovative schemes for these injuries is shortsighted. So is hoping that some tall pocket-passer from a pro-style scheme can turn into Tom Brady.
How About Shaking Up the QB Position
The typical objection to this is that the pro-style offense is designed to protect a team’s most valuable player. You protect the quarterback because that’s where the money is. But what if you have a quarterback who isn’t valued that highly in the marketplace—if a team were going to deliberately pick quarterbacks who weren’t going to be the highest-paid person on the team? And if those quarterbacks, while perhaps unconventional in skill, were all capable of giving you at least half a season?
Perhaps it wouldn’t work. But consider the experience of the NFL’s two Texas franchises. The Cowboys have one of the most promising young talents in the league, the Cowboys’ Dak Prescott, who was passed over in favor of seven other quarterbacks before being selected in the fifth round. His offensive prowess running the spread was devalued by many teams at the time, now to their chagrin.
A similar risk looks to have paid off for the Houston Texans, whose chose to trade up for DeShaun Watson, another spread quarterback deemed by some the most polarizing choice before the draft. Through seven weeks, Watson is a candidate for rookie of the year and has sparked a Texans offense that was previously the 29th-ranked offense in the league under more traditional quarterback Brock Osweiler. Osweiler, whom the Texans literally paid the Browns off with a draft pick to take, is currently riding the bench in Denver being paid $16 million guaranteed by Cleveland not to play football for them.
Scarcity of quarterback talent ought to inspire innovation in a sport that desperately needs it. Instead in the NFL, it has locked two-thirds of the teams in the league into a period of self-imposed offensive mediocrity, lumbering along and waiting for a franchise quarterback to fall into their laps. Expanding the talent pool of quarterbacks may require offensive coordinators to set aside league-wide assumptions about the right kind of offense to run, and talent evaluators to set aside league-wide assumptions about the right choice for the position.
Until that happens, while social media arguments may focus on ratings declines as a consequence of players’ protests and politics in football, the truth is that it has more to do with the product itself. A marked decline in the on-screen product of the NFL should lead to them considering radical possibilities about the approach they’ve used to rules for offensive play and the style of playcalling they deploy.
In an era of declining live entertainment, they are still the biggest beast in the room. The question is: how long will that last? People will still put up with being insulted by entertainers, athletes, and others if the entertainment value of their product is enough to offset the irritation. But if the contempt is paired with boring entertainment, one more attempt to make Osweiler happen, the viewers have hundreds of other things to entertain themselves, and a host of efforts to occupy their time. And they will turn away.