I couldn’t help but sit back and think about just how boring Thursday night’s game between the Houston Texans and Cincinnati Bengals might have been for the casual NFL fan.
As a sports journalist, it was my job to cover the game. It was in many ways work. I was being paid to write about the game in front of me. I love it.
But what if I were a casual fan? Someone that tuned into football to relax after a long day. To clear my head of what’s happening in the world today.
Would this game have been relaxing? Might I have even fallen asleep in my recliner, only to wake with water spilled on my lap?
Houston and Cincinnati scored a combined seven points in Week 1. Their quarterbacks were sacked 15 times. Heck, the teams had two more turnovers than points scored in the first week of the season.
Sure, this is likely something the NFL couldn’t have foreseen. Houston is coming off two consecutive AFC South titles. The Bengals have earned a playoff spot in five of the past six seasons. For all intents and purposes, it should have been a highly entertaining game.
That’s before Texans starting quarterback Tom Savage was benched at halftime in Week 1 and Andy Dalton of the Bengals turned the ball over five times in an embarrassing shutout loss to Baltimore in his team’s season opener.
It’s not as much that the schedule makers couldn’t foresee a bad game here. Instead, it’s simply been par for the course for the NFL.
Consider this: Outside of the opening-week Thursday night game and Thanksgiving slate, neither of which should count, only two of the 16 Thursday Night Football games last season featured two teams that earned a playoff spot. Of those 16 games, 10 total playoffs teams played and six games ended in one-score affairs.
In no way should it be a surprise, then, that ratings for these mid-week games have been near disastrous for the league. Last season was a prime example.
Obviously, there are a few different issues that arise here. First off, early-season games themselves tend to be clunkers when it comes to offensive performances. The other side of the ball is much further along in these matchups, as pointed out by Hall of Fame former NFL head coach Tony Dungy.
This is taken to the next level when offenses have only a few days of practices during a short week. For example, both Cincinnati and Houston played on Sunday.
The second issue here is that the NFL isn’t going up against mid-afternoon Sunday programming. It’s mid-week prime-time broadcasts the league is taking on.
Those who are tuning in on Thursday night might not be the diehards, who were aching for ugly preseason football back in June. Again, this definitely plays a role.
But the overriding point here is rather clear. Having NFL games on three nights a week is already a bit of a stretch. Couple in college games now being played on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, and that’s a bit of football overkill for the average consumer.
Then, when we factor in the lackluster on-field product, the issue is magnified even further.
Houston’s 13-9 win over Cincinnati was absolutely brutal for the die-hard fan. After nearly 10 minutes had passed in the first quarter, the two teams had combined for 31 yards and one first down on 18 plays.
Sure Texans rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson’s 49-yard touchdown run late in the second quarter livened things up a bit. But how many consumers had already tuned the game out?
Heck, this one scribe was openly wondering how he was going to get through the duration of the game. Would my time be better served watching All-22 tape of the Week 1 games? Maybe I could get started on projects I had kicked down the road earlier in the week.
If someone tasked with covering the game is having this run through his mind, what about the casual consumer? Early-morning alarm clock, kids needing to have lunch packed for the next day.
Moving forward this season, it doesn’t promise to get better. Next week, the Los Angeles Rams travel north to take on the San Francisco 49ers in a game that featured the two worst offenses in the NFL last season and two teams that won a combined six games.
In Week 4, the Chicago Bears head to Lambeau to take on the defending NFC North champion Green Bay Packers. These two played on Thursday Night Football last season, with the Pack winning by 16 points. It was most definitely a scarcely watched outing.
After a brief reprieve with Tom Brady and the New England Patriots starting out October against an upstart Buccaneers team, it gets really bad.
Two of the next four mid-week games feature teams that didn’t make the playoffs last season. One of them, a Week 8 tilt, pits the Buffalo Bills against the New York Jets. Two teams many expect to be among the worst in the NFL this season.
The list goes on and on.
It’s definitely not for a lack of effort on the NFL’s part. Their “color rush” scheme has proven to be an utter failure. The onfield product has lagged behind what we see Sunday afternoon. The players aren’t happy about a short week of practice. Injuries are seemingly more prevalent on Thursday Night Football games. Again, the losses go on and on.
But the almighty dollar speaks louder than fielding a horrendous product.
Back in February of 2016, the NFL signed a huge television contract with NBC and CBS that will pay out $450 million per season up until the end of the 2017 campaign (via CNN).
Even for a multi-billion dollar industry, that’s a lot of cash. It’s especially a lot of cash when we consider the contract includes less than two dozen total games.
By now it’s well-known that the NFL is about profit. And in reality, that’s not a bad thing in a free-market system. The issue here is that it’s impacting the brand when it comes to a casual consumer base.
Those reading this article will still likely watch football on a regular basis. For other reasons, this scribe will as well. But in an attempt to expand its audience, the NFL has taken a step back.
Thursday’s game between Cincinnati and Houston is the latest example of this. But it most definitely won’t be the last.
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