You're not alone in thinking the start of the NFL season has felt a bit off. Good teams are bad, bad teams are good and a list of the top-10 quarterbacks in the league includes: Matt Ryan, Sam Bradford, Matthew Stafford, Phillip Rivers, Dak Prescott, Brian Hoyer, Carson Wentz and Derek Carr. The NFL media is hyper-focused on declining television ratings, and TV writers are asking whether a rough six weeks signals the end of the medium as we know it. (Seriously.) Are things really that bad or is the NFL just going through a brief downturn? Whatever the answer (and we're inclined to think this is a dip) here are five reasons the 2016 NFL season has underwhelmed:
The first game of the season was a Super Bowl rematch featuring a former Northwestern quarterback in his first NFL start. The Bears were placed in back-to-back primetime games early in the season (and will be again starting this week). Indianapolis vs. Houston was a Sunday Night Football game instead of a 1 p.m. regional game that should have gone out to 14 percent of the country. There were some avoidable potholes here - the league should have forgotten about its decade-old tradition of having the Super Bowl champs host the first game the instant Peyton Manning retired. (While the game was great, there's no reason to kick off everybody's favorite 256-game schedule with Trevor Siemian.) Nobody should have expected the Bears to be good enough to have four primetime games by Halloween. And putting Houston in primetime is just playing with fire.
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Good teams have been bad (or not very compelling)
But before you just rip the schedule, take a look at it. You'll see that the NFL's national slate has been much better than you think. It's simply been a victim of unfortunate circumstance. Here are a few of the solid games on the national TV lineup thus far: Giants at Cowboys, Patriots at Cardinals, Packers at Vikings. Steelers at Eagles. Giants at Vikings. Giants at Packers. Dallas at Packers. Those are great games. Most involve the NFC East, sure, but they're games any football fan would want to watch.
The problem comes in a few forms. The reigning Super Bowl champions are boring to watch. (Sorry, it's true. Defense wins but it doesn't sell.) The most famous player in the game wasn't around for a month. Thursday Night Football hasn't caught on as big as anyone had hoped and maybe waters down the product. And there are very few great teams in the league (if any). When teams such as the Rams, Bills, Raiders, Texans and Falcons are 4-2, it means parity has taken over, which doesn't sell. People want the hits.
How much can the schedule makers be blamed? Not as much as you think. Sure, sometimes there's just a dog game that never should have been on the schedule (Colts at Texans for Sunday Night Football?). Most of the time though, a bad national game happens because a team expected to be good has been playing poorly. The Bengals, Bears, Cardinals and Panthers have all been major disappointments, which affects the quality of games. Who would have seen Carolina's collapse coming or the Cardinals' struggle? For as boring as they are, the Bengals are consistently good and play in interesting games, for the most part? And though the Bears stinking was a bit more predictable, they're a team that's always going to get primetime games because they have national interest. As a schedule geek, I can find only two egregious mistakes thus far: No Seattle games and only one NFC East game on national TV. (That'll change soon enough.) But other than that, what's the NFL supposed to do? Make the Panthers un-suck? It's a weird season and with that comes weird games.
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Next week's Patriots at Steelers game was to be one of the highlights of the first half of the NFL season. Then Ben Roethlisberger got hurt. The Pats had two primetime games without Tom Brady. Because Teddy Bridgewater and Adrian Peterson were out, it took everybody some time to realize the Vikings were actually good. And Dak Prescott is the real deal but he's not exactly a known entity like Tony Romo. This falls under the same category as the last one: The game is unpredictable and with so few dominant teams in 2016, this year feels more unpredictable than most.
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It hasn't been as bad as you think
Bill Barnwell noted that 50 NFL games have been decided by one score or less this year, the most in any season since 1990. The sky-is-falling fear about TV ratings is only partially true. Fewer people are watching primetime games, yes. Some of the reasons are listed above. Others, like the one brought forth by MNF broadcaster Sean McDonough during the woeful Cardinals-Jets game, blame some awful play. And, perhaps, outside interests such as the election (which tends to bring temporary dips in TV ratings every four years) or distaste over anthem protests (a theory I reject but have no way of proving either way) have an effect. But the Sunday afternoon windows are doing just fine - the Cowboys/Packers game this Sunday was huge and the highest-rated television show of the week. The truth is, just as many people are watching football, they're simply watching less of it. You can write all the think-pieces as to why that is: Netflix, Amazon Prime, video games, Donald Trump, Billy Bush, Donald Trump and Billy Bush, the fact that it's currently 85 degrees in the Amtrak Corridor and people will start to hunker down with football once it's cold there's nothing to do outside. (Also, though the echo chamber of sports media is obsessed with overnights and shares, the common football fan doesn't know or care. This is inside baseball stuff, only in football.) But then there's one theory I haven't heard thrown around but I think has played the biggest role of all on the quality (real and perceived) of the NFL this season.
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Losing Peyton Manning hurt the NFL more than anyone could have imagined
Spend 20 minutes watching any NFL game and you're guaranteed to see the retired Manning once, and maybe twice, in a commercial. Though out of the game, Peyton Manning is still the most famous football player, by far.
So think about it: For the past 15 years, you could rely on Peyton's Colts or Broncos to play five primetime games plus five or six more nationally televised games on CBS or FOX. By my count, last year's Broncos were on the national broadcast 11 times in their 16 games, including in eight of the first 11 weeks. It was the same way every year. Late Sunday afternoon was Peyton's time. Now who steps up? Tom Brady, sure - he shared the 4:25 window with Peyton for more than a decade, but this year he was out the first four weeks. I can't remember why. Huh.
But who else? Who else moves the NFL needle? The simple answer is nobody. Stars like Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning are less famous than the logo on the helmets they wear. Those teams - the Packers, Steelers and Giants - move that needle but when three of them are mediocre-to-good, it's no shock at all people think this season's been bad. The Cowboys have been saving the day and with Romo back, expect it to get bigger.
When Peyton was around, you could pencil him in almost every week and count on seeing him, Brady or one of the teams with national followings every week. Now, you take out that key player, and suddenly you're stuck showing Texans games to large audiences.