It’s been a lousy season for primetime NFL games, and the ratings reflect it. Through the first five weeks, ratings are down by more than 10 percent. Sunday Night Football and Monday Night Football have been hit especially hard, seeing significant drops in viewers on a weekly basis compared to last year.
There are a number of possible culprits for this phenomenon. A Rasmussen Poll says nearly one-third of Americans are less likely to watch the NFL due to the Colin Kaepernick-led protests, but those numbers may be due to the consistently conservative lean in their polling.
In a league memo sent last week, NFL executives blame the drop in viewership on a “confluence of events,” including the high interest in this year’s contentious presidential election.
But perhaps the biggest reason for this decline is the obvious one: the product stinks right now. Due to a rash of injuries to quarterbacks — along with the retirement of Peyton Manning and Tom Brady’s four-game suspension — there’s been a lack of star power around the league. Monday night’s game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers, for example, saw a 22 percent ratings drop from last year despite only going up against a smattering of MLB playoff action. That’s probably because the Panthers were playing without the concussed Cam Newton and the Buccaneers are below .500.
The three primetime matchups this week — beginning with Thursday’s affair between the Denver Broncos and San Diego Chargers — don’t appear to be much better. It’s fair to wonder whether we’ll ever see a good primetime game again this season:
Thursday Night Football
Ever since its inception in 2006, Thursday Night Football has been the weak link of the NFL schedule. Teams are often only playing on three days’ rest, meaning they have a tendency to be sloppy and short-handed.
This year has been no different. Outside of the season opener between the Broncos and Panthers, TNF games have been decided by an average margin of 14 points.
The next slate of games up until Thanksgiving don’t appear to be much better. On paper, the most competitive matchup might be this week’s contest between the Denver Broncos and San Diego Chargers. Despite a 1-4 record, the Chargers have played in four one-possession games this year — losing all of them. With head coach Mike McCoy’s job reportedly in jeopardy, they may treat their meeting with the Broncos as the turning point of their season.
Broncos quarterback Trevor Siemian, meanwhile, is questionable with a sprained left shoulder. If rookie Paxton Lynch makes his second straight start, the game could remain close — even though it may get pretty ugly.
But after this week, see if you can spot another game that even looks like it will be moderately competitive or entertaining. It’s hard to do:
Week 7: Bears-Packers
Week 8: Jaguars-Titans
Week 9: Falcons-Buccaneers
Week 10: Browns-Ravens
Week 11: Saints-Panthers
Week 12: Steelers-Colts
There isn’t a single Thursday night contest for the next six weeks that will pit two above .500 teams against each other. The ratings could continue to plummet.
Sunday Night Football
It wasn’t too long ago when Sunday Night Football usually was the game of the week. That’s no longer the case. Every Sunday night affair this season has either featured teams with missing quarterbacks or been difficult to watch. Take a look:
Week 1: Patriots-Cardinals (No Brady)
Week 2: Vikings-Packers (No Teddy Bridgewater)
Week 3: Bears-Cowboys (No Jay Cutler or Tony Romo)
Week 4: Steelers-Chiefs (Pittsburgh won by 30)
Week 5: Packers-Giants (sloppy game that featured Aaron Rodgers throwing two interceptions)
This week, the SNF matchup between the Texans and Colts threatens to be another ugly contest. Brock Osweiler has already thrown seven interceptions and the Colts are on pace to give up the fourth-most sacks in league history. Next Sunday’s Seahawks-Cardinals game looked good heading into the season, but Arizona is currently 2-3 with both wins coming over Bucs and 49ers.
For whatever reason, play around the league seems to be down and there are fewer elite teams. Coaches have been complaining about the lack of practice time for years, and perhaps their worries about underprepared players are more than just grandstanding. With the proliferation of spread offenses in college, there also appears to be a quarterback crisis, further contributing to the dearth of good teams.
Even if a Sunday night matchup appears attractive on paper, such as Packers-Giants, it’s unlikely the game will actually deliver.
Monday Night Football
Injuries have taken a toll on star players being available for primetime games this season. This was the case Monday night, when Newton sat out of the lineup for the Panthers. Yes, the defending Super Bowl champions were playing on Monday Night Football, but veteran placeholder Derek Anderson was under center instead of the reigning MVP.
This Monday, Carson Palmer should be in the lineup to take on the Jets after being in concussion protocol last week. But after one week off, the 36-year-old passer could show some rust.
The next few weeks don’t feature a good lineup of games:
Week 6: Jets-Cardinals
Week 7: Texans-Broncos
Week 8: Vikings-Bears
Things can and will probably change, but out of the remaining Monday night games, only three feature two teams that both have a winning record after five weeks of play.
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With a litany of bad teams and the strong possibility that at least one star player from each time will be unable to play, there are many obstacles in the way of a good game actually breaking out amidst all of the dreck.
The odds say there have to be a few enjoyable prime time contests the rest of the way — partially because there are so many of them — but it’s hard to see which ones at this point.