There's a magic that happens during sufficiently shitty football games, and it is all around us. If a game is bad enough—picture a grunty punt-off in the rain, a constipated staredown between micromanaging coaches, a whistled-dead encroachment orgy, or a classic exchange of picks and fumbles and miscellaneous cock-ups—a door opens onto another experience. If a game is bad enough, even people that authentically enjoy watching football can see the game as it appears to people who don't like watching it. Lay enough of these games end to end over the course of a week or six, and you're just about caught up with this NFL season, and probably some way towards understanding why the ratings for the league's marquee Sunday and Monday night games are down markedly.
As someone who has always more or less enjoyed watching the NFL, despite or in some perverse way because of how ethically inexcusable it all is, I have learned to make the real-time edits necessary to make games watchable. Most of what happens during the three or so hours of the average NFL broadcast ranges from not good to actively bad, and the art of watching a football game is in tuning all that out however you can. I, myself, use the mute button pretty vigorously; maybe you flip or tweet or pace or find some other way to downshift into energy-saver mode, but you certainly do not sit there rapt, as dialed-in to every oafish attempt by a macro-brew to convince you that it Has Integrity as you are to the ostensibly fun stuff that brought you there in the first place. You couldn't. You would go insane, or anyway you would at least go for a walk.
This is not just a watching-football thing, either, although it is very much a watching-football thing. Being awake in a culture so saturated with shameless, shitty come-ons means learning not to notice, and to hear Peyton Manning's off-key renditions of the Nationwide Insurance jingle as nothing more than a breeze running through the leaves of some foul-smelling tree. Advertising loops and leers up at every pause, everywhere, and even when things are working more or less as they should, a televised NFL game is more pause than action. This makes the blips of football-related activities that periodically interrupt everything else that much more important; every awful grating money-making element of the broadcast is leveraged on the game itself.
And credit where it's due: when the football works, when it's left alone and given sufficient space to breathe, somehow everything else does, too. But it's never easier to see how narrow this margin is than when it doesn't work. A football game that is for one reason or another lifeless, either because it's officiated into inertia or over-coached or just poorly played, is a fucking atrocity.
The violence is still there, because the violence is always there, but it looks ugly and gratuitous—as ugly and gratuitous as it may in fact always be—without the usual enlightening context. The formal ambition of the plays boomerangs and looks fussy and ridiculous, and the whole thing slides fast into ruthless self-satire. The league's starchy officiating guidances are suddenly entirely too obvious, both as an insistent presence breaking up the action and as a manifestation of the league's signal failure of imagination, which boils down to the owners' belief that their discipline fetish makes for better television than the players' electric athleticism. This, it becomes suddenly and crushingly clear, is what football looks like to non-believers. It looks like a bunch of po-faced coaches in unconscionable windbreakers muttering into headsets while olympian physical specimens shrug and wait and a bunch of rich men seethe and pound scotch in their luxury boxes. It looks like something no one would choose to watch, provided there was anything else on or anything but a roiling hale storm going on outside.
In some ways, the NFL has gotten unlucky so far this season. Many of the league's best quarterbacks have underperformed this season, and the league's weird war against on-field expressiveness means that it's unable to market the wide receivers and pass rushers who are the league's most entertaining and endearingly overstated performers. There are some very obvious and very ugly latent prejudices to all that, but that specific idiocy can be folded into the broader embarrassment that is the NFL's stewardship of the game. The decline in ratings may be due to any number of external cultural or economic factors, none of which I find terribly interesting or am remotely qualified to address. It could be cord-cutters or millennials watching on their phones; it could be illegal streams or competition from baseball's postseason or the deferred hangover of years of richly deserved bad press. It could be that people are too distracted or dispirited by this endless, ulcerous presidential election to tune into Saints/Falcons or whatever. The NFL presumably has some of its, uh, best minds working on all this.
But the most obvious problem is also the biggest. That problem being that, for six weeks and for various reasons mostly within the league's control, the NFL has not really given us football that's worth watching. Once you see that, it's difficult to focus on anything else.