Tom Brady turned 45 in August, and while the seven-time Super Bowl champ isn’t sufficiently long in the tooth to pull off wearing sweats to a wedding, he’s been leaning hard into his Unbothered Old Guy routine. When asked last week about the rash of parity that seems to have broken out across the NFL this season, Brady responded with the sort of frankness that is the birthright of any American who first drew breath the year the first Star Wars movie came out.
“I think there’s a lot of bad football, from what I watch,” Brady said during a midweek huddle with Bucs beat writers. “I watch a lot of bad football, a lot of … yeah, poor quality of football, that’s what I see.” The quote is verbatim, but the ellipsis is there to represent the moment Brady paused in order to ruefully shake his head. When combined with the emphatic repetition of “bad” and “football,” the nonverbal cue really helped drive home Brady’s message.
Let’s be honest, folks: The thing we all love kinda sucks right now.
Just a few hours after making his assessment, Brady was thoroughly validated, as the Colts and Broncos that night engaged in what amounted to the wholesale butchery of all things honorable and decent. The touchdown-free, 12-9 Thursday Night Football slog was like witnessing a gang of feral, PCP-crazed toddlers murdering Santa Claus—or at least that’s what they tell me. I didn’t watch. Because I’ve taken a few more trips around the sun than Touchdown Tahwmmy, my hourglass is decidedly bottom-heavy, which is to say that my time is too precious to squander on such grim pursuits. Also, I didn’t have any money riding on the game.
But apparently 9.7 million other people did have a vested interest in the outcome, because that’s how many Americans tuned in to the debacle in Denver. And while this marks the weakest turnout of the Amazon Prime era, and made for a 34% drop compared to the year-ago Rams-Seahawks game on Fox, the game still managed to dwarf everything on broadcast prime, where the Big Four averaged 3.44 million viewers.
(Last night’s game did little to overturn Brady’s ruling. The Commanders and Bears presented fans with another lackluster TNF matchup, as Carson Wentz and his anemic 22.5 quarterback rating prevailed over Justin Fields (28.3) by a 12-7 margin. Each of these Thursday night games is costing Amazon $67 million.)
The allure of ugly football isn’t a phenomenon limited to the streaming upstart. Through Week 5, a half-dozen primetime games on NBC and ESPN have been decided by margins of two touchdowns or more, and yet the audiences continue to be massive. Sunday Night Football is averaging nearly 21 million viewers across linear TV and various digital outlets, and deliveries for the Monday NFL telecasts are up 6% from last season. Across the league, nearly a quarter (24%) of the games thus far have been settled by 14 points or better, and ratings are still up 3%.
A marked decline in production has contributed to the malaise, as scoring is down 9% year-over-year at 21.7 points per team per game—the lowest output in five seasons. Oddly enough, the drought coincides with a significant decline in offensive holding penalties, as officials have made 18% fewer of these drive-stifling calls than they did at this time in 2021. (Outside of defensive pass interference, no infraction has more impact on scoring probability than offensive holding.)
So what we’re looking at here is a whole lot of lopsided games without much explosive offense—this despite the fact that the zebras are keeping their flags holstered. Perhaps the forces of equilibrium are to blame. As defensive coordinators look to shrink the field with two-high coverage, the most effective counter is a strong running game. Teams that have figured this out have been met with success (the 5-0 Eagles are one of them), but the tradeoff is giving up a lot of aerial razzle-dazzle for the grunt work of the drawn-out drive. Which is to say that an efficient NFL offense in 2022 may not be nearly as much fun to watch as the yardage-gobbling flight crews of recent vintage.
Whenever defenses catch up with the guys on the other side of the ball (and vice versa), the resulting power balance often looks a lot like stasis. The teams that are adapting best to the defensive reset are still a blast to watch, but those that keep trotting out their 2021 schemes are largely inert. Case in point: The Cincinnati Bengals, which so far this season have displayed all the tactical cunning of a cocker spaniel. The defending AFC champs have become eminently predictable; they run the ball pretty much whenever Joe Burrow lines up under center, and dutifully throw from the shotgun formation.
If this year’s edition of the Bengals has been about as compelling as watching paint dry on growing grass, the Nielsen ratings suggest that fans have developed a tolerance for iffy football. In their Week 2 meeting with the Cowboys, the Bengals didn’t catch fire until midway through the fourth quarter, when Burrow capped a 19-play, 83-yard drive with a touchdown toss and a subsequent two-point conversion. A season-high 27.5 million viewers tuned in to catch the action in CBS’s Sunday afternoon window.
The following week, another 26.4 million checked in with Fox for Green Bay’s 14-12 win over Tampa Bay. Since the season began, 10 games have topped the 20 million-viewer mark, and the league average (17.2 million) for all national and regional windows is 326% the size of this season’s broadcast primetime average (4.04 million). The NFL is must-see TV that “burns the retinas,” to lift a phrase uttered by Troy Renck at Denver’s ABC affiliate, following the Colts-Broncos fiasco.
Proving causality is a thankless task, but most sports-TV execs will tell you that our inability to turn away from even the gnarliest NFL car wrecks is a function of our mania for betting on the games. Gambling has always been a part of the Sunday football experience—for many of us, if it’s not the 20-oz. bone-in ribeye at the center of the meal, it’s as indispensable as the baked potato and creamed spinach—but with 26 states now actively making book, the once-covert practice has gone mainstream. Add up all the legal sports bets made in the U.S. since 2018, and you’re looking at a $152.3 billion handle, and as the dollars pour in, the ratings keep growing. (This despite record declines in TV usage and the loss of 35.7 million pay-TV subscribers in the last eight years.)
The symbiotic relationship between betting and football has bled into the commercial breaks, with NFL-sanctioned sportsbooks spending $24 million on in-game ad units in Week 1 alone. FanDuel sponsors a pregame segment on CBS in which Boomer Esiason and Phil Simms share their picks, and every time a couch-locked Kevin Hart appears on the screen is an invitation to elevate your interest in the Sunday slate. All of which is by design; depending on which sentiment survey you believe, between 75% and 85% of those polled say that betting on a game increases the likelihood of watching it unfold. And since Nielsen ratings are largely informed by duration—the longer people stay tuned to a three-hour broadcast, the higher the average deliveries—anything that increases engagement is going to lead to a concomitant increase in ad sales revenue.
Everybody wins, unless you took the over in the Colts-Broncos game, or you’re Mr. Al Michaels. In an interview with ESPN Chicago, Michaels said the only thing that might make him want to hang it up for good is a repeat of last week’s TNF mess. “If we don’t have a better game than we had last Thursday then I may retire,” Michaels cracked. “That was grim.”
Meanwhile, Tom Brady’s about to get a front-row seat to some of the grimmest football on the menu, as Tampa Bay heads up to Pittsburgh Sunday to face a catastrophically inept Steelers team. Fox will beam the signal to just 11.5 million homes, which should prevent any real ratings slippage in the early afternoon window, but if Brady’s aversion to crummy football is genuine, he may be heading to the booth a lot earlier than expected.
Either way, $100 says you probably won’t be able to take your eyes off of it.