Like so many other American businesses, the NFL is suffering from inflation. Rising costs have led to a declining product. Think of the NFL as a national bakery. Supply chain issues have reduced the size and flavor of all the cakes and cookies. Right now, the goodies just don’t taste as good, and are much less filling.
This is new.
11-10. 12-9 (seven field goals). And, Thursday night, 12-7. Orange “alt” helmets could not salvage that Mistake by the Lake (Michigan, in this case). These are all scores from prime-time NFL games as we dive into Week Six of the regular season. The problem is not that the games are low-scoring. I don’t need basketball scores. The problem is that the games are bad.
The games are bad. It pains me to write that sentence. Despite its warts, I love the National Football League. It is not an exaggeration to say that I arrange my annual personal schedule around the National Football League. NFL football has been an abiding source of joy, comfort and familiarity for me. Right now I don’t recognize this product. And I am anything but comfortable.
The product. Yeah, as fans we go through all kinds of peripheral, off-field distractions and frustrations. But we wade through the muck because the product has always been so irresistible and even addictive. Just as an example, if you tell me you have ever seen a more compelling sporting event than last season’s Chiefs-Bills playoff game, you are either lying or you spent that weekend in a coma.
Fast-forward a mere nine months, and the on-field product now is too often coma-inducing. My wife, BB, suffers from frequent insomnia. I have recommended she drink a glass of warm milk and turn on a Broncos game—any Broncos game.
So, WTH happened? Let’s start with the CBA between the league and the players association. Look, I want the game to be as safe as possible. But restrictions placed on training camp schedules and in-season practices have left players and teams unprepared to start the season. No two-a-days. Limited contact. A reduced number of pre-season games and a reluctance to play starters in any of them. And do you realize that over the course of an 18-week schedule each team is limited to a TOTAL of fifteen padded practices?
This ain’t two-hand touch. And that’s no way to prepare to play boys tackle football. It’s mid-October. And the product too often looks like it’s still mid-August. I realize I run the risk of coming off like a “back in my day” codger. But I know what I’m seeing.
Then there’s the salary cap and the smoke-and-mirrors way it operates. Many teams have 30 percent or more of their cap space filled by about three players. Everybody else is scrapping for crumbs and are the equivalent of what LeBron has always condescendingly referred to as his “supporting cast.” Lotsa “JAGs”—Just a Guy(s). It’s impossible to develop continuity and quality depth, or even quality starters, at many positions.
Finally, let’s talk quarterbacks. NFL football is a quarterback-driven product. If your quarterback is a dud, your entire offense is shooting blanks. There is a paradox here. Because the league has never before had such a large collection of quality young QBs combined with sure-fire future HOF veterans. Think about it. Mahomes. Allen. Herbert. Burrow. Jackson. Hurts. Lawrence. And on the other end of the age/experience scale, Rodgers, Brady and maybe Stafford. That’s a constellation. But too many teams have a Black Hole behind center, and thus have dark prospects. This is why we can’t have nice things. This is why we get scores like 11-10, 12-9 and 12-7. And this is why my neck hurts like hell the morning after I fall asleep on the couch trying to watch the Bears and Commanders.
The product. If NFL football were a package of Oreos, the cookies are currently smaller, blander and more expensive.