The NFL has major issues that seem to be converging at once to form a cesspool of negativity — including declining TV ratings, polarizing national-anthem demonstrations, head trauma and lower quality of play. That’s an extremely ominous sign for football’s future.
The NFL always has been the indestructible sport, a monolith of such overarching power and overwhelming appeal that nothing could topple it.
Not the greed of the owners, or the cluelessness of its commissioner, not the perceived decline in quality of its play, not even the growing realization of the long-term harm to the health of its players. The American public loved its football so much — and its attendant offshoots, gambling and fantasy, maybe even more — that it seemed oblivious to its flaws.
But could that be changing? Since the season began two weeks ago, the internet has been teeming with articles with headlines such as “How football stopped being fun,” “Inexperienced quarterbacks, porous lines are crippling scoring and crushing the NFL’s watchability,” “The NFL’s crisis on offense,” “The Football Industrial Complex is in big trouble” and “The NFL is being devoured by its own economic model.”
These things tend to take on a life of their own. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, who was at Safeco Field on Wednesday, can speak to that. He’s fighting hard to change the perception that young people are turning away from baseball because it is too slow-moving and boring for their video-game-addled minds. But it’s not easy to turn back the momentum of a thesis that is founded on reality.
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And the reality is, the NFL has major issues that seem to be converging at once to form a cesspool of negativity. Television ratings were down last season and to some extent have been this year. The polarizing national-anthem demonstrations certainly are a part of the mix, though you could debate all day how big of a part. So is the rising price of attending the game that serves to disenfranchise the average fan. And the growing debate over concussions and head trauma has cast a pall over the sport at all levels and led to a decline in youth participation by most analytics. That’s an extremely ominous sign for football’s future.
But really, it seems to come down to a gut feeling that the games themselves just aren’t as well-played or compelling or as aesthetically pleasing as they used to be. Everyone has a theory as to why. Too many interruptions — commercials, replay reviews, etc. —- that disrupt the flow. Too many rule changes designed to help the offense. Too much reliance on a short, risk-averse passing game, and too much conservative play-calling in general. Too few good quarterbacks. Too much restriction on padded practices, which is designed to protect players’ health but also has hampered the development of, in particular, offensive linemen, whose quality of play is widely agreed to be at an all-time low.
On the last point, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said Wednesday that the rule limiting teams to 14 padded practices a season — all of which must be in the first 11 weeks — unquestionably has had an impact.
“It just affects the game fundamentally,’’ he said. “It’s hard to hold on to the fundamentals of this game, which is blocking and tackling and leverage and pad level, the physical parts of the game, when you can’t do it.”
Not only that, Carroll said, but it has a cumulative negative effect as the season progresses.
“I think fundamentally it’s difficult to stay abreast,’’ he said. “I think you can tell. I totally feel like I can see it happen, you can see it coming … it deteriorates more.”
Cornerback Richard Sherman, not surprisingly, had plenty of thoughts about the state of the game when asked about its perceived decline — much of it coming from a defensive perspective, again not surprisingly.
“I think they say that just about every year. If they took some of the rules out, it would be a more exciting game,” he said. “Every year they put in more rules to help the offense score more points and limit the defense in another way. I think after a while it gets irritating to see. One side can basically go do whatever they want, and if they’re not efficient, when you know they can pretty much do whatever they want, then it’s not as fun to watch.
“It’s not like it used to be where it’s two hard-nosed football teams going at it, a physical battle, a mental chess game. A lot of times you’ll see a bad offense get away with egregious penalties and things that allow them to move the ball down the field and win ballgames they probably shouldn’t win because that’s the way the rules are designed, to give them a chance to win ballgames.
“At the end of the day, I think it’s on the league to figure it out. To figure out what they need to do to make the game more exciting and more watchable, because it’s frustrating as players, especially the defensive side. There are plays out there, they’re so complex, the officials have to confer with one another to make sure it’s a rule. Wait, what’s the rule? When your rule book is that thick, it’s ridiculous. It’s hard to play the game, it’s hard to watch it, it’s hard to officiate it. I think if they simplified it … it would be better.”
Writing for SBNation this week, Spencer Hall put forward the theory that the NFL has become such a financial boon for its owners that they have no motivation to work on changing these mounting issues. Its very success, he wrote, “made the ownership class in the NFL fat, lazy and locked into a business model they have no real reason or incentive to change, even with falling TV ratings.”
You can’t help but think back to the well-publicized rant of Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban in 2014, when he predicted the demise of the NFL over the next decade, victimized by its own greed. The impetus for his remarks was the expansion of Thursday Night Football, which he felt would saturate the sport.
“I think the NFL is 10 years away from an implosion,” Cuban said at the time. “I’m just telling you: Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered. And they’re getting hoggy.
“Just watch. Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered. When you try to take it too far, people turn the other way. I’m just telling you, when you’ve got a good thing and you get greedy, it always, always, always, always, always turns on you. That’s rule No. 1 of business.”
A lot of people thought then and still think the NFL is too vast, and too entrenched, to fail. But three years into Cuban’s timeline, the warning signs are mounting.