The NFL is Nearing Unwatchable

“Too Many Commercials!” “A Record Number of Flags Thrown!” “Too Many Instant Replays! “The Art of Defense is Over!”

There are other headlines in the National Football League (NFL), but those headlines have the league tottering.

The NFL is still enjoyable for me, thanks to a technological invention called the DVR, but it’s tottering on the brink of unwatchable. My current routine NFL viewing habits involve me taping the game and waiting 45 minutes to an hour before watching the game. This time allotment usually allows me to skip the inane gibber-gabber in the pregame analysis, most of the commercials, and the time it takes for an official to review all of the instant replays in the game now. The latter often involves the broadcast network filling that time by replaying the play in question about 15 to 20 times. If you are still an NFL fan, and you don’t have a DVR, I have no idea how you maintain peak interest. On those occasions when I go to a friend’s house, we usually talk through those delays, until we eventually lose track of the game as it plays in the background. I have to imagine that the current NFL is grateful for the technological innovation, for if it weren’t for the DVR, I know I wouldn’t be watching anymore.    penalty_flag

Although NFL referees are the face of the problem for the current rise in penalties, they are just following the orders of The NFL’s Competition Committee (NFLCC). The NFLCC was set up to make the game more fair, to protect the players, and to free up offenses to score points. The NFLCC might be the most powerful body of people, controlling what the audience sees on the field. The NFLCC is comprised of representatives from eight different teams, and they are team owners, general managers, presidents, and one coach. They are a reactionary body who pass edicts down to referees. If the NFLCC believes that the offense is holding too often or the defense is getting away with pass interference too often, for example, the audience should expect to see a flurry of flags to try to curb the activity in question in the week that follows.

The NFLCC also tries to find creative and inventive ways to make the NFL a pass-friendly league to the point that quarterbacks (QB) and wide receivers (WR) are now breaking every record on the books. The creative and inventive methods that they once used to tweak the game are now becoming so blatant that it’s obvious to every core, NFL fan that the competition committee doesn’t just want a more pass-friendly league. They want what the cornerback for the San Francisco 49ers, Richard Sherman once called “A more fantasy-friendly league.”

The NFLCC has proven reactionary in some cases, and when they realize that they’re perceived as too friendly to the offense, they call for officials to ramp up offensive pass interference calls, hands to the face calls on the offensive linemen, and defensive holding calls on defensive lineman. To rectify a situation, they almost always call for more penalties to be called. Their goal, I can only presume, is to have as many penalties called on the offense as the defense, but the end result is more penalties.

We should note that with few exceptions most that the penalties being called by today’s referees are not new, but that there is a greater concentration, based on certain points of emphasis, than there were in any of the previous years. Some of them, usually the game’s announcers, defend these new penalties in ways we core, NFL fans find incomprehensible. Most of the coaches in the NFL also call for more replays on more plays, and more penalties, and the only casualty is the game and the fans.

The network announcers are supposed to represent the voice of the fan, but when another yellow flag lands on the field, we usually hear the announcers say something along the lines of, “… and guess what … another flag.” This, essentially, puts the blame on the player who committed the infraction. Yet, when we view the replay of the infraction, we often see a questionable infraction that suggests that the current NFL referee now defaults to throwing a flag. We can only assume that the points an NFL official accrues throughout a week favor a call, however questionable, over a missed call. If I were an announcer, the audience of the broadcast would tire of my “let them play” cries.

The current NFL and college football announcers decry the rare penalties in-game officials miss. “You want more penalties?” I want to scream at the screen. “Who do you represent in this call for more penalties, because I know it’s not me.” I’ve reached a point, a point near no return, where I no longer care if an official misses a call against my favorite team, if the alternative means another yellow flag. I no longer take any joy from a penalty against the opposition that awards my favorite team a first down. These are relatively new concepts for me, but I’m sick of it. I’m sick of all of the penalties, and I just want the NFLCC to loosen these restrictions up and let the players on the field play some football.

The calls for instant replay are also becoming absolutely ridiculous. I fast-forwarded through a call for an instant reply, the cut to a commercial, and the follow up decision, and I calculated an eight minute span. That time-span occurred on two different occasions in the same game. The other ten to twenty calls for a reply weren’t that long, but I don’t know how other viewers can maintain peak interest in a game that is broken up with such lengthy breaks?

Certain Points of Emphasis

While it may be true that these are not new penalties, no one can argue that these new points of emphasis on some rules have led to more penalties being called, more confusion regarding the consistency of those calls, and more delays in the game. The resultant complaint, as evidenced by Richard Sherman’s, is that the league has turned its officials against the once beloved art of defense.

Most defenses do not have a Richard Sherman, or an Aquib Talib, that can play hands-off and still cover a top receiver, so most defenses have little-to-no hope of stopping the league’s high powered offenses. To rectify this perception, the competition committee put in other points of emphasis to ostensibly level the playing field. Rather than narrow the definition of illegal contact, beyond five yards, they instituted a point of emphasis on offensive pass interference, and pick plays, which has led to led to more penalties being called, more confusion on the inconsistency of those calls, and more delays in the game.

This has all led to the perception that a penalty is called on just about every series of downs, which statistically it is not, but perception beats reality in most cases. It has also led to what seems like a penalty on just about every passing play, which again is not statistically true, but perception beats reality. It has led the game’s greatest fans from the dramatic anticipation of: “Is he, or isn’t he, going to catch that pass?” to “Is he, or isn’t he, going to throw a flag?”

“All your life you grow up saying I’m only going to call a foul if it creates an advantage,” said former official, and former Senior Director of officials, Mike Pereira. “You can’t look at it that way anymore. Any contact, it’s a foul.”

The old saying that the best referees in the game are the ones that you don’t remember when the game is over, is now out the window. Referees now affect drives with their new “When in doubt, throw the flag” modus operandi, and the way the game is played, and ultimately the outcomes of some games. Anyone who doubts this change, need only look to the broadcasting booth where just about every major broadcasting now has a go-to-guy, former referee to help analyze and explain the calls that are being made on the field.

“The officials may take the heat (for this),” Mike Pereira said in an interview with UT San Diego, “But the heat should go to the (NFL’s) Competition Committee. Why do they keep doing this? There already was a league record for most point scored.

“The players will have to adjust, not the officials.”{1}

One of the many enjoyable aspects of watching sports is the historical comparison between athletes of another era. Is Drew Brees as good, or better, than Joe Montana, is Ben Roethlisberger as good as John Elway, is Peyton Manning as good, or better, than Dan Marino or Johnny Unitas? NFL game announcers now speak of current QBs and WRs breaking those old records held by Hall of Fame players. No one cares anymore, in much the same way no one cared about the Major League Baseball (MLB) records that were broken at the turn of the millennium. Most of those MLB records —the home run records in particular— mean nothing now, and the NFL’s passing yardage, touchdowns, and receptions now carry the same asterisks in the minds of the core NFL fans of the future. The game is different now, old NFL fans now tell new ones that claim that current players are just better now. You just cannot compare them line by line anymore.

The NFL does not have the rich, century old history of the MLB, and the NFL is not as reliant on comparisons via records, but even its relatively newer, and less pertinent, traditions are being eviscerated through the points of emphasis that now foster a pass-friendly, fantasy-friendly game that breaks records on an almost weekly basis. We all saw what happened to the MLB, when they began desperately tinkering with their game (post-strike) to attract a broader audience, but the powers that be in the NFL seem oblivious to the aftermath that resulted from all that tinkering.

The idea that the NFL might follow the MLB down the path to total unwatchability seems improbable, as the game has never been more popular. As the NFL institutes on field and off field bells and whistles to broaden the base, the indispensable base is starting to think the NFL views them as dispensable. We’ve burned through a number of DVRs fast forwarding through the pregame commentaries that focus on non-game related activities, and the commercials and replays that test the fan’s endurance. Some of us even go so far as to turn the volume down during a game, so we don’t have to hear commentary from the broadcaster’s chosen analyst defend referees, the NFLCC, and rules in general. We try very hard to ignore the new aspects of the game we don’t care for in favor of those we do, but the NFL is making this more difficult with every passing year. Even while we grumble, however, we have some sympathy for those placed in the impossible place of trying to please Vegas gamblers, fantasy football players, and all of the people all of the time, but when they stoop to please the others too often the core NFL might reach that point of estrangement that they consider the game unwatchable.


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