While the decline of a great athlete is freighted with the usual autumnal sadness that comes with endings and how they relate to mortality, for those of a certain age, watching Tom Brady play football in 2022 has been like shopping for one’s own casket.
Although earth’s most competitive oddball occasionally displays the old fire in the belly—hollering at some guys, wrecking Microsoft Surface tablets, hollering at some other guys—the current version of Brady more often than not looks like a sloppily written first draft of an old man. As time goes about its tireless work of making us all look and feel like hell, Brady’s age-defying vitality seems to be draining out of him. He’s still performing at a high level, but he’s become strangely mortal, and nothing makes a fan feel more doomstruck than a creaky god.
While the oil painting in Tom Brady’s attic is slowly devoured by mice, his subsequent transformation hasn’t been a drag on Tampa’s TV ratings. Through their first four national broadcast appearances, the Bucs are averaging 22.7 million viewers per game, making them the NFL’s second-biggest draw behind only the perennial leaders in Dallas. Even last Sunday’s win over the strangely hapless Rams—a game that through the first 59 minutes and 16 seconds was so fundamentally torpid that even Tony Romo’s enthusiasm levels seemed to be flagging—managed to scare up more than 20 million viewers. If nothing else, Brady’s still such a huge draw that a matchup of three-win teams will attract the week’s biggest TV audience.
Since turning 45 in August, Brady’s biggest stage has been Tampa’s Week 3 clash with Green Bay. The fifth meeting between Touchdown Tahwmmy and a suddenly avuncular Aaron Rodgers averaged 26.4 million viewers on Fox, or about 1 million impressions shy of the season’s top draw (Bengals-Cowboys, 27.4 million, CBS). Looking for all the world like a man who collects Phish bootlegs and makes a lot of noise when he sits down, Rogers did just enough to lead the Packers to a 14-12 victory which came up decidedly short on the razzle and dazzle fronts. For all that, the game now stands as CBS’s most-watched regular-season Sunday afternoon game since 2019.
Green Bay is the NFL’s third-biggest draw, averaging 21.8 million viewers across their five national TV windows. As with Brady’s Bucs, the Packers have five more coast-to-coast dates scheduled before the season clocks out on Jan. 8. Next up for Rodgers is a date with the Cowboys at Lambeau, a game that Fox began promoting during the World Series. With clearances in 94% of the country’s TV homes, this long-overdue showdown (the last Rodgers vs. Prescott outing was three years ago) is expected to deliver in the neighborhood of 26 million viewers.
If a couple of wily veterans are responsible for some of the NFL’s broadest deliveries in 2022, there’s a whole pack of young QBs baying at their heels. Kansas City mesmerist Patrick Mahomes is leading the charge with three of the top 10 national TV deliveries, while human wrecking ball Josh Allen, Super Bowl LVI alum Joe Burrow and Brady’s Boston successor, Mac Jones, are all making a case for heightened AFC exposure.
Out west, erstwhile Brady backup Jimmy Garoppolo is drawing a crowd as the 49ers look to wrest control of the NFC West from a revitalized Seahawks team led by a slept-on Geno Smith, who in turn has made Seattle GM John Schneider’s decision to punt Russell Wilson to Denver look like a stroke of genius. Meanwhile, in the nation’s largest media market, the 6-2 Giants are keeping up with the [Daniel] Joneses, thanks in large part to a revived Saquon Barkley, who at the midway point in the season is ranked third in rushing with 779 yards. Barkley’s not the only guy on the roster with wheels; during Big Blue’s recent 23-17 victory over Jacksonville, Jones became the first player in Giants history to generate 200 passing yards and 100 rushing yards in the course of a single game. (New York’s big turnaround has had implications on the local front as well, as ratings in the hometown DMA are up 11% versus the year-ago period.)
The Giants are set to appear in the season’s top draw, as they’ll rendezvous with the Cowboys for a Tryptophan Bowl that’s likely to exceed 40 million viewers. Over the four-day holiday stretch, Fox will serve the focal point of the sports universe, as the USA-England World Cup match kicks off on Black Friday, followed in short order by Saturday afternoon’s Michigan-Ohio State game. The network rounds off its broadcast juggernaut with a Sunday NFL doubleheader featuring Rams-Chiefs in the national window.
Jalen Hurts and the 8-0 Eagles are further evidence that the NFL is in good hands with its emerging crop of signal callers, as the 24-year-old leads an offense that’s second in production with 28.1 points per game, and fourth in total yards (391.0). Hurts is a viable MVP candidate, although having scored 18 touchdowns through the air and over the land, he ranks below fellow dual threats Allen (23) and Mahomes (22).
All told, five of the league’s top-drawing quarterbacks are still in their 20s, a roster that includes Cooper Rush of Dallas. In the absence of injured starter Dak Prescott, Rush went 3-1 in his four national appearances, a slate that includes the season’s top-rated Bengals skirmish cited above. While there was some concern that the Dallas-dependent NFL might stumble a bit with Prescott on the sidelines, the TV ratings continue to dwarf everything else on the tube. With half of the regular season on the books, the league’s national and regional broadcasts are averaging 16.2 million viewers, down a few percentage points versus the year-ago period. The slight decline can be chalked up to a double-digit Thursday Night Football drop and a 7% decrease in the Sunday single-header window, a trend that’s more or less been neutralized by an uptick in the already massive CBS/Fox national showcase (23.8 million viewers).
With 137 games completed, and another 135 to come, the NFL now accounts for 47 of the 50 most-watched broadcasts of the 2022-23 TV season. Thus far, the national windows on CBS, Fox and NBC are averaging 22 million viewers, which is nearly 37 times what the average primetime entertainment series is drawing. Disney’s Monday Night Football is at a 12-year ratings high. The median age of the NFL’s TV audience is 54 years old, and while that’s sprightly compared to a slate of scripted dramas that are trending in the mid-60s, it may explain why so many fans still enjoy watching Tom Brady play football.
He’s like a kid out there. Relatively speaking.