People are staying away from the NFL. Viewership is down and empty seats are up compared to the record ratings of a few years ago. It's hard to argue that fact.
Any camera angle that panned across the upper deck in any number of stadiums Sunday confirmed that fact. The issues with ratings are well-documented. It has become convenient to blame that phenomenon, at least in part, on the ongoing issues of player demonstrations but now, nearly a season-and-a-half since Colin Kaepernick first took a knee, I'm not buying it. There's some protesting going on, without a doubt, but it's fans protesting the product being put on the field, I believe, more than any pronounced reaction to a handful of players displaying their Constitutional rights before kickoff.
This downturn in the number of eyeballs watching closely every Sunday and Monday and Thursday is more directly related, in my opinion, to the fact that the number of quarterbacks you would pay big bucks to see in a game with no rooting interest seems to be shrinking by the week. It's a byproduct of the number of teams who fail to play anything close to attractive football, and who haven't found or developed a skill player who would garner a second look. It's a factor of yet another weekend when injuries ravaged the already-depleted QB position, and America was treated to the likes of guys like Matt Moore, Drew Stanton and Cody Kessler playing in games that count in the standings, to go with the likes of Brett Hundley and Case Keenum and Mitchell Trubisky and C.J. Beathard who have already been thrust into action due to injury or the ineffectiveness of others.
The NFL has altered the rules and tilted the field for the offense over the past few decades. There's nothing more it can do to subsidize scoring. Problem is, the way some of these teams have been constructed and coached, it really doesn't matter. Far too many teams and far too many quarterbacks are simply too hard to watch -- or at least watch regularly -- and it says here that has more to do with the sustained ratings dip than people boycotting because of anthem demonstrations or anything else.
Peyton Manning and Tony Romo are retired and not coming back. Andrew Luck and Aaron Rodgers won't be throwing a football in a game that matters for a long time. Besides the brilliance of Deshaun Watson, this rookie class isn't creating buzz (Trubisky has plenty of promise, but he and that Bears offense are raw and DeShone Kizer has somehow managed to lose his job to Kevin Hogan and Kessler in successive weeks). Recent MVPs Cam Newton and Matt Ryan, entering play Sunday night, had combined for 15 touchdowns and 16 interceptions in 12 games.
If you have spent considerable time watching Eli Manning, Philip Rivers or Ben Roethlisberger, you have seen quarterbacks appearing to be in decline, who look every bit the part of 36 years old. Carson Palmer's demise looks even considerably more hastened and now he will be out with a while with a broken left arm. Joe Flacco won a Super Bowl MVP not that long ago, but now commands a complete failure of an offense that gets booed lustily at home.
If you've spent much time watching Jameis Winston or Marcus Mariota, you've seen recent top overall picks who have, at best, plateaued (I won't say regressed, yet), but certainly neither has taken off (and Derek Carr only finally looked like himself on Thursday night). Even the magic of Dak Prescott from a year ago has been largely muted with more talk about the anti-protest comments of the Cowboys owner, or the on-again-off again suspension of Ezekiel Elliott, than any hype about this year's version of their offense.
Guys like Brock Osweiler and Mike Glennon got paid huge money in free agency to be starters and neither one could hold his job for anything close to a full season despite having no other proven option on the roster. Young guys like Trevor Siemian and Blake Bortles start every week because when the Broncos and Jaguars win, it's because of their defense, but there are no shortage of young place-holders who will be making way for someone else sooner rather than later.
It's not a pretty picture. Thank goodness Tom Brady and Drew Brees are still getting it done at, or pushing, 40. Thank goodness for Watson, and for Jared Goff and Carson Wentz developing in fine fashion. Amen for Alex Smith cutting loose with big throws, and for Russell Wilson managing to perform at such a high level despite that offensive line (not that Seattle's offense is easy to digest, either).
In the 1 p.m. ET window alone Sunday, Arizona and Indianapolis were shut out, the Browns and Titans conspired to play a game with no touchdowns scored, Baltimore scored its first offensive touchdown in garbage time as time expired and the Panthers were held without an offensive touchdown for the second time this season; they scored seven TDs in consecutive weeks against the Patriots and Lions but have just five offensive TDs in their other five games.
Changing some scheduling trends, and getting some better games on early might be a smart idea. Creating an early buzz on social media, getting viewers engaged earlier, cultivating an audience through the day, FWIW. Seems like that is always the window most compromised by the need to fill other slots.
Regardless of all the reasons, there are too few quarterbacks who look the part playing far too many games, which is a major factor why so many of these teams are easier to ignore than to follow closely. And yet Kaepernick can't get a phone call for a workout, with no strings attached. Not up to this point, and, I figure, not even this week with the Cardinals and Dolphins and others now in need of an additional arm or two with injuries again cropping up. Got it. Meritocracy. Makes perfect sense. Hope someone proves me wrong.
So, yeah, I suppose you could say football has a protest problem (even when like 12 out of 1,700 players are doing something other than standing for the anthem). It's just much more likely that it's from people protesting the ability of most of these quarterbacks to change the game -- for the better -- rather than manage it, at best. It's protesting the quality of offensive play, which if anything seems to be on the decline this season.
Another new low for Browns
This Kizer situation has reached ridiculous proportions. It's almost impossible to be benched, for productivity reasons and not injury, to a quarterback who was basically considered third-string at best, in Hogan, and then immediately again for a quarterback who had been inactive every week despite being a part of the weakest quarterback roster in the NFL (Kessler). It doesn't happen in the big leagues, folks. Not when you have passed on Goff (coulda traded up) and Wentz and Prescott (they took Kessler over him) and then you pass on Watson to trade down with the Texans (who selected him in that spot) to end up with Kizer in the second round.
Yanking him again, albeit after two ugly picks, in a game you would lose at home 12-9 in overtime, is insane. I don't care that Kessler wasn't as bad -- you just benched Kessler for six straight weeks behind these other two bad quarterbacks. It makes zero sense from player development and basically puts the next Browns regime -- yeah, there ain't no way the current coaches and front office are surviving this -- on the clock to select a quarterback with a top-five pick in April. Whatever was left of Kizer feeling anyone there had his back is over, and the reality is he threw a ton of picks and made a lot of poor decisions at Notre Dame. That's what they drafted, yet the winless team wasn't willing to let him try to learn by playing anymore.
Even had the Browns won Sunday, given the way it went down, it's still a loss long-term. This might be a new low for them, which is truly saying something. Nobody does misery like them.
Around the league
- Not enough is made of how bad Jimmy Graham has been in Seattle. It's not like he has failed to meet expectations. Or been so-so. He has been a passenger at most and his inability to find any sustained role in the offense, to be any sort of factor in the red zone and to merely hold on to the football in key situations when it hits him directly in the hands is hard to fathom.
- With Palmer now joining David Johnson on the list of the long-term injured in Arizona, it won't be long until coach Bruce Arians will have to confront his future. That team is more in need of a rebuild than a minor tweak, and unless the Cardinals do something like sign Brees, some of Arians' peers doubt he would be too enthused about starting over with a rookie quarterback.
- Gotta love Le'Veon Bell's old-school stiff-arm. It's one thing to see them on the sidelines, but his open-field jab created a ton of extra yards against the Bengals.
- The Buffalo Bills are not going to go away. Tyrod Taylor remains incredibly difficult to defend, LeSean McCoy and Mike Tolbert are great complements in the run game and the defense never quits. Continue to be impressed with their spirit and fight and I wouldn't discount their postseason chances.
- If the Titans sneak into the playoffs on a common-opponent tiebreaker or via one AFC victory more than an opponent, remember them surviving this debacle in Cleveland. They played like a team scared to lose and without much tempo or belief, they got bowed up on a goal-line stand and Mariota has not been very good since coming back from his hamstring injury. Losing Delanie Walker for any period of time is big, and the offensive line there isn't nearly what it was a year ago. They got outplayed by the Browns -- but got the W.
- Brett Hundley has a lot of things going for him and the ability to throw on the move is one of them. But the Packers are going to have to live with some crushing mistakes, too, the likes of which Rodgers usually doesn't make. It's going to take some mental rewiring because the turnovers are going to be a factor on a weekly basis.
- Major props to Bengals offensive coordinator Bill Lazor. It's very difficult to take over an offense in-season and reshape it on the fly, but his presence has been huge from a play-calling standpoint, and in getting Andy Dalton back into good habits and form.