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Bad Football? It May Be (Mostly) an Optical Illusion

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterOctober 25, 2016

GLENDALE, AZ - OCTOBER 23:  Kicker Stephen Hauschka #4 of the Seattle Seahawks reacts after missing a field goal attempt during overtime against the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium on October 23, 2016 in Glendale, Arizona.  The Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals tie 6-6.  (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)
Norm Hall/Getty Images

Sunday's slate of NFL games sure looked ugly. They were ugly before breakfast, ugly after midnight, ugly in the city, ugly in the desert, ugly on two continents. It looked like the ugliest week of football to ever come at the end of a stretch of ugly weeks of football. 

But was it really that bad? Or is the current "NFL stinks" storyline an optical illusion?

There has been lots of talk over the past month about bad television ratings, a saturated market and an inferior NFL product. And yes, 6-6 ties belong in 1930s football history archives, not on prime-time television in 2016. But as Jason Lisk pointed out last week at The Big Lead, columnists have been complaining about the decline in NFL quality for at least 25 years. Read Lisk's quotes from yesteryear and you will find the same familiar themes you have heard in recent weeks: There aren't enough good quarterbacks to go around, teams don't stay together or practice long enough, and so forth.

I love debunking old sportswriter tropes as much as anyone else. But heavens, Sunday was excruciating, and there have been a few others like it this year. Surely this is the real decline and fall of NFL civilization, not one of the many false alarms Lisk documented. Right?

    

Holding Steady

Seeking hard evidence that NFL games really have gotten worse, I combed through the Pro Football Reference database for statistical indicators of "bad football," including:

  • Increased turnover rates: Bad games generally have more interceptions and fumbles.
  • Increased penalty rates: More flags equal a slow, sloppy, poorly executed (and/or officiated) game.
  • Lower completion percentages: No one likes to watch a bunch of incomplete passes.
  • Lower yards per rush: Bad games generally feature lots of futile plunges into the line.
  • Higher sack rates: If they are up leaguewide, it means offensive line play is probably down.
  • Lower field-goal percentages: Nothing says "ugly game" like a bunch of missed figgies…
  • Increased punt rates: …Except perhaps an epic 15-punt duel between Johnny Hekker and Brad Wing.

Scoring rates have held steady at 22.7 points per team per game for several years, but scoring rates don't tell a complete story of how compelling the games are. I collated the data expecting to see a collapse akin to what happened circa 1977: rising punt and turnover levels, sharply declining offensive rates, a general decrease in the things that make football fun.

But as the table shows, rumors of the death of fun in the NFL are greatly exaggerated.

YearTurnover %Penalties per Team/GameCompletion %Yards/RushPunts per Team/GameField Goal %Sack Rate
201212.56.2760.94.34.883.92.3
201312.56.1261.24.24.986.52.5
201412.16.6162.64.24.784.02.4
201511.76.9263.04.14.884.52.3
201611.37.0063.64.24.583.72.2
Pro Football Reference

Despite Case Keenum tossing air balls to Giants defenders and the Eagles and Vikings playing turnover pingpong on Sunday, turnover rates are actually down this year. Completion rates are up, sack totals and rushing averages are steady, and punt rates are at their lowest mark since 2008. The typical team scores 2.51 touchdowns per game, down from 2.56 last year. But no one is really missing five-hundredths of a touchdown each week. Teams are moving the ball and scoring as well as ever.

There are a few indicators of poor leaguewide play in the tables. Field-goal rates are down, though the tiny dip (essentially one or two misses) would not be noticeable if the Seahawks and Cardinals didn't shine a Sunday night flashlight on it.

More intriguingly, penalty rates are at an all-time high. Some of those penalties are the result of important safety-oriented rule changes. Some are just sloppy holding/offsides/contact fouls. Too many involve someone imitating Robin Hood or Steph Curry in the end zone. The penalty rate suggests there is something to our perception of bad football. But a slight increase in penalties from last year isn't enough to cause Twitter to spend Sunday nights wailing and gnashing its teeth.

      

A League Half Full

So the numbers suggest we have been watching perfectly acceptable NFL games all year. Why doesn't it feel that way? I highlighted some of the obvious reasons last week: bad Thursday night matchups, for example. But others are the result of some complex forces that are reshaping the NFL.

   

The Great Defense/Bad Offensive Line Contenders: What do the Seahawks, Cardinals, Vikings and Broncos have in common?

They entered the season playoff contenders and are still at or near the top of the standings, earning them many national telecasts.

They have great defenses.

They have shaky-to-horrendous offensive lines, and those lines or other factors have destabilized their quarterback situations.

Michael Perez/Associated Press

The Panthers can also be placed in this category, though their pass defense has also fallen apart. Bad offensive line play has hampered the effectiveness of Russell Wilson, Carson Palmer and Cam Newton. Injuries and retirements have forced the Vikings and Broncos to shuffle and adapt at quarterback.

All of these teams except the Panthers are good enough defensively to make their opponents look foolish, but all are so inconsistent offensively that they make themselves look foolish. Win, lose or (ugh) tie, these are important teams that make news and attract an audience.

The NFL didn't have many contenders like these five to 10 years ago. Great teams were led by Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers or Ben Roethlisberger, flanked by swarms of offensive weapons. We got used to quarterback duels with Roman numerals attached to them. Then the Seahawks and Jim Harbaugh-led 49ers blazed a new defense-oriented path. Suddenly, the Game of the Week is as likely to be a defensive showdown as a quarterback shootout. Which is fine, as long as the opposing offensive lines can hold up against the onslaught.

There's a lot of talk that offensive line play across the NFL is down. But lots of teams are playing well along the offensive line: the Cowboys, Redskins, Titans, Falcons and Raiders, to name a few. Most of those just aren't the teams we watch every week.

    

Good Quarterback/Bad Franchise Syndrome: Some of the NFL's most exciting quarterbacks are trapped in bad situations right now. Andrew Luck is frittering away his prime with the directionless Colts. Drew Brees plies his brilliance for a team that hasn't fielded a competitive defense in years. Philip Rivers plays in a tiny market in a far corner of the nation for a team that has just started rebuilding his supporting cast. Aaron Rodgers takes the field weekly to run an offense opponents figured out five years ago with ever-dwindling skill-position support.

So some of the NFL's most entertaining players are either not as fun to watch as they should be or not being watched at all. Colts, Saints and Chargers games are generally close and high-scoring, but with all three teams destined to hover around .500 at best, the shootouts feel like a middleweight undercard instead of a main event. The "What's Wrong with Aaron Rodgers" perma-meme drags an MVP-level superstar into pessimism each week, even as his team stops even pretending to employ running backs.

    

Regional Shootout Phenomenon: Falcons-Chargers was Sunday's most exciting game by far. Unfortunately, CBS had the doubleheader and Fox had an early Eagles-Vikings game to promote. So Fox only broadcast Falcons-Chargers to select markets. Even those of us who can watch any game we like were more likely to prioritize Patriots-Steelers over at CBS, a game that might have been awesome with a healthy Ben Roethlisberger.

ATLANTA, GA - OCTOBER 23:  Melvin Gordon #28 of the San Diego Chargers rushes away from Deion Jones #45 of the Atlanta Falcons at Georgia Dome on October 23, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The same thing has happened many times throughout the season. Most Raiders games have been fun this year, but none have gotten a national spotlight. The Lions have played a series of close, interesting games in 1 p.m. obscurity. As noted above, the Saints make everything an adventure, but their only prime-time appearance came opposite one of the most-watched presidential debates in generations.

Speaking of which…

    

The Anxiety Avalanche. This presidential election has been blamed for everything from declining NFL ratings to stress-related illnesses to a disappointing eggplant harvest. The fact that we seem to be overstating the election's impact on our mood may be evidence that we are not overstating the election's impact on our mood. Throw in the usual selection of NFL scandals and controversies, and there is something to harsh any pregame buzz.

The problem may have reached avalanche levels on Sunday. The late-week talk was all about low ratings and another poorly handled domestic violence situation. Thursday night's game was a stale cracker. The NFL woke us up early and fed us Rams-Giants. We were in no mood, and when the games started looking bad, we shouted at each other about how bad they were until they all looked worse. Thousands of "and the NFL wonders why ratings are down" tweets after fumbles and missed field goals gathered momentum and buried Week 7's good stories: Brady's excellence, the Falcons-Chargers shootout, Matthew Stafford's last-minute comeback, Jay Ajayi's huge game, another textbook Chiefs victory and so on.

The NFL is in a strange transitional state right now. Many of the top contenders lack great offensive lines, which impacts their quarterbacks. Many of the best quarterbacks play for weak organizations with bad defenses. Some of the best offensive lines operate in obscurity for rebuilding or small-market teams. It's a strange sort of parity that makes everything feel a little suboptimal. You can either watch contending teams or offensively dynamic teams, but you can rarely watch both. And both the political climate and the NFL's gift for making the worst of its own scandals leave us in no mood to channel surf for a great Chargers-Falcons game.

LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 23:  Kenny Britt of the Los ANgeles Rams fumbles the ball during the NFL International Series match between New York Giants and Los Angeles Rams at Twickenham Stadium on October 23, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Warren Litt
Warren Little/Getty Images

In a few weeks, the NFL will serve up some compelling Thanksgiving games (Lions-Vikings! Cowboys-Redskins! Steelers-Colts, hopefully featuring Roethlisberger!) and start flexing teams like the Raiders and Falcons into prime time. The best matchups will be easier to find. And the sociopolitical climate will return to a slow simmer. We'll forget that October 23 ever happened.

At least I hope so. Optical illusion or not, no one wants to see another Sunday like that anytime soon.

   

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @MikeTanier.