Wednesday, 4 a.m.
A touchdown still counted six points. A field goal still counted three. Peyton Manning still wanted to sell you a pizza.
Holding would cost you 15. A safety would cost you two. A concussion could cost you your career, but not as many players talked about them.
So when you get right down to it, was football more fun in years past than it is now?
For most of this season, it has appeared to be. The NFL's ratings plummeted like an unseen version of The Love Boat. No one wanted to watch. No one wanted to talk about it what they hadn't seen. Viewership was down by as much as 22 percent, and everyone had an opinion as to why. It was Trump vs. Clinton. It was Kaepernick's protests. It was the absence of stars. It was a bad menu. It was banned touchdown celebrations. It was concussion talk. It was horrid officiating. It was a new episode of Gotham. It was the softening of the athlete.
It was, in other words, whatever excuse you had. You know how everyone you know has an excuse not to see the Rays' play. It was like that, only on a national scale. The NFL just wasn't cool anymore.
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And so, across America, television sets turned off. And owners began to sweat.
This was unheard of, right? Since the blackout rule was challenged – and eventually, the NFL gave it up completely – fans couldn't see enough pro football. Heck, even the Browns were worth watching, right? The NFL owned the TV airwaves; every other sport was fighting to be the next choice. Football had it all: hulking linemen, receivers who were ballet dancers, quarterbacks who were surgeons, linebackers who were vicious, safeties who were ruthless.
And suddenly, everyone turned the channel. The same thing happened to Lost.
The thing is, the NFL has rebounded a tad. But this will not be the season that the NFL shops for new TV partners.
Some theories as to what the problem has been:
One. Fading Stars:
The same thing happened to the NBA when Michael Jordan left. Sometimes, the league has to reload.
I looked up the 2002 season, the last one that really mattered in Tampa Bay. That was a league worth watching, all right. You had Jerry Rice and Reggie White and Emmitt Smith and Derrick Brooks and Tom Brady and Peyton Manning and Ricky Williams and Ray Lewis and Warren Sapp. The Browns – the Browns – were in the playoffs. Jon Gruden was improving on what Tony Dungy started. Plaxico Burress had legs he hadn't even shot yet. The characters littered the league like comic book heroes.
This year? Manning has retired, and Tom Brady was suspended for the first month of the season, and J.J. Watt is gone and Adrian Peterson and Tony Romo.
Meanwhile, Roger Goodell still has his gray suit.
Also, Roger Goodell is his gray suit.
Two. Bad games:
The biggest argument against the NFL is the NFL on Thursday night. Ick. It's like a K-Mart version of the league. So far this year, Thursday night games have featured the Browns and 49ers and Titans and Jags. Better to watch Dancing with the Lochtes.
Hey, the NFL in prime time is supposed to be the best the league has to offer, not the worst. Showcasing bad quarterbacks leading bad teams is a good thing?
Three. The No-Fun League:
The NFL has, for a long time, been the grumpy Dean Wormer to the players of the NFL (who came straight from Animal House.) But it was only 12-14 years ago that the players pushed back. You had Terrell Owens autographing footballs and Joe Horne on his cell phone or Chad Ochocinco eating popcorn.
You know the thing here? Fans love hot-dogging after touchdowns. As long as they're not drawn out, what's the big deal? Shouldn't players be having fun? This year, even Richard Sherman suggested the No-Fun League played a part.
Here's a formula. Fans love it. It doesn't cause injuries. It's a hoot. I know: Let's ban it!
Four. The Player Protests:
There are a lot of pollsters who say, for some reason, this affects viewership. (Presumably, so did the song "Eve of Destruction".) That's hard to believe. Who of us really pays attention to the National Anthem? Besides, if it's such a big problem, all you have to do is play the anthem while players are still in their locker rooms (like fans in the soda line).
To repeat: The only problem I've ever had with the protests is urging the players to do more. Work with communities. Raise funds. Make a difference. It certainly isn't going to stop me from watching a ballgame.
Five. The softening of the league:
This one is difficult. The league, naturally, needs to do all it can do to preserve the health of its players. But after a while, a lot of fans seem to believe the reduction in practice times leaves us with two-hand touch. Was the game better or worse in 1980? In 1990? In 2000?
Six. Bad officiating:
I know, I know. The NFL says its officials get 96 percent of its calls right. But there seem to be a lot of calls where officials huddle, and watch replay, and still get it wrong. That's unforgivable.
There are a lot of incidents where you just roll your eyes at the bad guys in the game. Greg Hardy? Ray Rice? Aaron Hernandez? Darren Sharper? Are these really guys you want to see get rich off your ticket prices? When the league is good, there are a lot of guys you'd love to have a beer with (Joe Montana, Ronnie Lott, John Lynch, Dick Butkus, Michael Irvin). When things are dodgy, the players are shaky.
Eight. The strangers on the field:
Every year, there is less access to the players on your local team by the media. Time was, I'd get an hour with Sapp, or with Brooks, or with Lynch, and the result was a story that let the reader feel they knew more about the player. These days, you get a drive-by, gang-bang interview that lets you know very little about the player.
Nine. The presidential election:
Hey, everything else has been blamed on Trump. (Or Clinton). Why not this?
Ten. Fewer great teams.
The New England Patriots have been wonderful at resisting the NFL's pull toward an 8-8 season. But who else is there? Dallas? Maybe this year. Pittsburgh? Maybe most years.
This year? Who is must-see TV?