The NFL is in a ratings slump, and everyone has a theory why. Perhaps it's because the pending election is drawing in casual viewers. Perhaps it's because the NFL has so many primetime games to showcase their product that we're watching more bad teams than ever. Perhaps it's because everybody is a little more inundated in information these days, and we notice all the injuries and slowdowns a little bit more when there's less football to choose from.
I personally believe the explanation boils down into three categories: penalties are up, egos are unchanged, and Thursday Night Football is harming the product.
The NFL has mistakenly conducted a crusade on their officials since the replacement ref saga of 2014. Now every year, they decide a new random point of emphasis. These past few weeks have been low-scoring, and that's what the hemming and hawing is about from Twitter-folk. But the real reason football seems bad is because the NFL is working with officials to make playing football a penalty.
In 2016, there have been 129 defensive pass interference calls, about 18.4 per week. In 2015, there were about 13.7 defensive pass interference calls per week. At the same time, there have been 332 offensive holding calls—47.4 per week, a sharp increase over 2015's 41.7 per week. That is about 10 extra penalties per week on just those two categories, and I'm not even getting into all the extra penalties for taunting and hurting players fee fees.
NFL defenses are getting their drive-killers converted directly into huge plays for the offense. Meanwhile, the NFL's head coaches are all egotists. That's the only way to explain how conservatively most of them play the field position game when they hit first-and-20. They're not playing to win, they're playing to not look stupid.
Throw this week's Thursday Night Football offering into this environment that is so hostile to good football, and it's a recipe for disaster. The NFL management that approved TNF continues to appease the egos of their owners, by putting teams on in prime time that don't deserve to be there. The Titans or Jaguars haven't merited a solo game since 2011. But because every team gets one now, and the NFL wants them to be close to pretend they're exciting, they've created a game that exists basically to be pissed all over by the snarks on the internet.
And what can really be said about this game, besides the fact that it's one giant ego stroke for mediocrity? The Jaguars have improved this year on defense, but it hasn't helped, because their head coach and quarterback do not play effective passing offense until they're down by 14 or more points. No, literally:
Gus Bradley is so worried about Blake Bortles making him look bad on throws that he won't throw it until he has no choice but to do so.
On the other sideline, the Titans probably have the most talented team in the AFC South in 2016. But instead of using it, they've regressed their quarterback into a shell of his college self. Marcus Mariota came out as one of the most accurate passers in NCAA history. Stuck on this run-first Exotic Smashmouth 1990s monstrosity, Mariota has regressed in every way as a passer. This team should be decent, but is too busy trying to be cute and contrarian to actually get there. The major story about them this year? That their head coach can't stop talking about how good they are in his head.
For years, the prevailing response to televised NFL games has been to laugh as bad games steamroll otherwise great events. MLB, for instance, scheduled the World Series so it wasn't on against Thursday Night Football this year.
Well here you go, NFL. Two of your most unwatchable teams, playing each other with flags flying like confetti. Let's see how these ratings turn out.