There’s been plenty of talk about how the election is overshadowing the football season (and everything else). While a ratings dip is certainly bad news for the NFL, it does mean that much of the nation was spared from watching a listless Giants-Packers game last Sunday night or the putrid Falcons-Saints Monday night meeting in Week 3.
It’s not all politics, though. Every time there’s a weird year full of unexpected team performances, the prime-time slate winds up underwhelming. Teams like the Cardinals, Panthers, and Bengals have vastly underperformed so far this year, and that’s taken a toll on leaguewide watchability. The key isn’t just to try to schedule better games, though, because no one would have guessed that Buccaneers-Panthers would be such a dud. The key is to prevent those stinkers from being shown to large audiences at all. Here are three suggestions for how to fix prime-time football:
1. Stop Being Fair
Did you know that the Titans and Jaguars are playing on Thursday night later this month? Again? Just like in 2014 and 2015? One easy way to fix prime time is to drop the idea that all teams should play in prime time. Currently, a rule limits teams to six prime-time appearances per season, and only three teams are allowed that many. Everyone else is limited to five. That excludes Week 17, when anything goes.
A modest proposal: Let anything go at all times. Should the Patriots and Steelers be on prime time every time they aren’t playing the Browns? Yes, they should. AMC doesn’t move The Walking Dead to the morning and put its worst show in prime time instead in the interest of fairness. The same rules should apply here.
2. Flex Early and Often
Flexing is another problem. First of all, the Monday game can’t be flexed at all, which is nuts, and will feel even more nuts in three weeks, when the Chicago Bears are scheduled. Sunday night can be flexed, but not until Week 5, and even then only twice from Weeks 5–10. Why?
College football routinely tweaks game times. Baseball doesn’t release every game time ahead of a playoff series, yet the sports survive. The reality is that sports are for TV, not for attending. Why wasn’t Falcons-Broncos in prime time last week instead of Giants-Packers? Would anyone have been upset about seeing Julio Jones and the best offense in football go against a team that just won a Super Bowl thanks to a historic defense? This week’s Colts-Texans game is inexcusable. Falcons-Seahawks, Chiefs-Raiders, and Bengals-Patriots are all better Sunday night options. Even if Fox and CBS wanted to keep their top afternoon games, there are still better evening options than what we’re actually getting.
3. Let Al Michaels Talk About Gambling the Whole Time
This is easy: If the Sunday night schedule has to stay same, there’s only one way to save it — Al Michaels should talk about gambling for the full 60 minutes rather than waiting until only three minutes remain. The highlight of last month’s Bears-Cowboys game — and it wasn’t particularly close — was Michaels narrating a potential backdoor Bears push. Colts-Texans should feature the same. When bad, ugly teams play football in prime time, there’s no reason to mention the standings or even the nice passes. Just mention the line and the game’s relation to the line. Save us, Al. You’re our only hope against dull football.
Now, on to the picks (home teams in CAPS):
Carolina (-2.5) over NEW ORLEANS
At the NFL annual meeting in March, Carolina coach Ron Rivera discussed asking just about everyone for advice on how to recover from losing the Super Bowl. He said John Madden offered up the best tip: Don’t start from where you were; start from scratch to prevent anyone from thinking there’s not a ways to go. That day, Rivera struck me as unusually interested in how to prevent this sort of hangover — but as anyone who attended college knows, the only real cure for a hangover is time.
Teams that lose the Super Bowl tend to start slow the following season. Remember how the 2015 Seahawks began 2–4 after their crushing championship defeat the season prior? The Panthers probably would have struggled in fairly typical fashion, but injuries to Cam Newton and Jonathan Stewart and the implosion of Carolina’s secondary have exacerbated matters and led to a 1–4 start. A concussion kept Newton out in Week 5, but he’ll be back this Sunday, and the Panthers’ upcoming schedule (at Saints, vs. Cardinals, at Rams, vs. Chiefs, vs. Saints) could help them rattle off a few wins quickly. If they don’t bounce back this week, though, we’ll be looking at the most depressing post–Super Bowl hangover in recent memory.
The Saints aren’t playing well either, but no one expected them to. The most notable thing happening for New Orleans is receiver Brandin Cooks attempting to navigate the tricky world of continuing a banned celebration. The NFL has nixed his preferred “bow and arrow” celebration, so like a filmmaker trying to trim his way from a R-rating to PG-13, Cooks is making some cuts. “You just can’t shoot [the arrow],” said Cooks, who apparently got the idea from a Bible passage. “I’m still going to pull it out. Whatever happens after that happens. I don’t want to do anything to jeopardize my team, but I’ll figure something out. … The Archer is still here.”
Uh, Panthers by 14.
Philadelphia (-3) over WASHINGTON
This week, Philadelphia’s Jim Schwartz forgot who Kirk Cousins was:
I don’t remember this ever happening. Defensive coordinators spend about 14 hours per day thinking about the opposing quarterback, and Schwartz forgetting Cousins says a lot about the Redskins offense. Speaking of Cousins:
I still think Cousins can be a good quarterback, and I still think he’s going to get a big contract after the season. But I don’t trust him to beat a good Philadelphia defense that will be angry after a weird loss to Detroit last week.
As for the Eagles, Carson Wentz is quickly becoming football’s Bill Brasky, with a new, absurd story surfacing weekly. For example, a recent article that detailed Wentz’s epic tipping habits in North Dakota included this nugget: “He was whisked off by his cousin in a 1996 Chevy pickup truck.”
Cincinnati (+9.5) over NEW ENGLAND
It’s been six years since the Bengals were underdogs by this many points. It’s been … a week since the Patriots, who destroyed the Browns last week while favored by 11.5, were giving this many points. This is a rematch of the infamous “On to Cincinnati” game from two years ago, when the Pats were struggling and Bill Belichick answered nearly every question thrown his way with that phrase. Alas, the New England media reports that Belichick only said “Cincinnati” this week, not “on to,” when trying to get to the next question. Belichick has shortened his answers so much that there’s a chance he’ll be responding in grunts instead of full words by 2018.
The Bengals, who’ve stumbled to a 2–3 record, would likely prefer not to see the Patriots and a still-angry Tom Brady this week. New England’s going to win this game, but I don’t think it’ll be a blowout. The Bengals have had trouble protecting Andy Dalton, who’s great when everything’s going right and potentially disastrous when everything’s not, but the Pats are only sacking the quarterback on 4.4 percent of dropbacks this season. If they can’t clobber Dalton all day, he’ll be able to get off some deep passes, push in some cheap scores, and keep things close. That said: With Tyler Eifert still injured, Belichick will be able to game plan around neutralizing A.J. Green, so to even keep it close the Bengals will need someone like Brandon LaFell to make a play. Only the Pats are at full-speed, and Belichick is over the moon:
Baltimore (+3) over New York GIANTS
Eli Manning is getting a lot of heat for being bad against good teams. I suppose that means the question is whether you think Baltimore, now 3–2, is a good team. The Ravens’ offense was comically bad before they fired Marc Trestman this week, with an average of a half-yard less per catch (9.3 yards) than any other team in football. We live in a football universe in which most players speak in generalities after a coaching change, but the Ravens seemed pretty sure it was Trestman’s fault. “We were in kind of a bad place,” Dennis Pitta said. Marty Mornhinweg — Marty Mornhinweg! — is the new coordinator, and everyone’s on board: “Marty is an exciting guy,” Joe Flacco said.
I have a new, semi-educated theory about in-season coaching changes: They’re easier to adjust to than ever. With teams able to put any film they want on any device they want in a matter of seconds, a coach can install and disseminate his vision quicker than ever. The Bills fired their OC, Greg Roman, after starting 0–2 and promptly got better. The Titans fired their special teams coach, Bobby April, last week and won six days later. Expect the Ravens to enjoy a similar bump.
Also: Do not watch this game.
San Francisco (+9) over BUFFALO
Colin Kaepernick’s last two seasons might as well be a viral ad for Jim Harbaugh’s quarterback coaching abilities, because Kaepernick’s post-Harbaugh numbers tanked across the board. If there’s anyone in the NFL smart enough to build a game plan around Kaepernick and steal this one, it’s … well, it’s Bill Belichick. But if there’s a second guy, it’s Chip Kelly. The former Oregon coach has lost a lot of his luster, but he’s still one of the best at maximizing players’ strengths. Kaepernick can run, he can move out of the pocket, and he can, on occasion, throw a nice pass.
Kelly should have a plan for Kaepernick that will be enough to keep this close. Meanwhile, Rex Ryan revealed that when he interviewed for the 49ers job two years ago he didn’t wear a suit. So there’s that.
Pittsburgh (-8.5) over MIAMI
What’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen? A mandatory school play? An instructional minor league baseball game? A typical Miami Dolphins drive this year?
The average Dolphins drive lasts 4.5 plays, half a play less than any other team’s, and two minutes and three seconds, at least 18 seconds less than 30 other teams’. The Dolphins end a drive with a score 23 percent of the time, less than any other team in the league, and are fourth-worst at holding on to the ball, turning it over on 18.3 percent of drives. Pittsburgh’s defense is banged up, but can that possibly matter against a team this inept at moving the ball?
If you’re picking the Dolphins or even saying they’ll keep this close, you’re overthinking it. No team scores a higher percentage of touchdowns on its passes than the Steelers, who do so 7.8 percent of the time. The Dolphins? They just rearranged their secondary in the middle of the season to acquire the guy who recently gave up 300 yards to Julio Jones.
CHICAGO (-3) over Jacksonville
Gus Bradley, who has led this team since 2013, has won just two of the 22 games he’s coached in the first six weeks of his seasons. That’s mind-boggling. John Fox, meanwhile, has won two of his 10 home games as Bears coach.
This week, Fox also ripped reporters for eating hot dogs, and when asked what he plans to do at quarterback once Jay Cutler gets healthy, he admitted: “We don’t have a plan.” The surprise is that anyone thought Fox might have a plan.
The hot dog thing, however, is defensible. I swear this is real: In 2013, an NFL offensive coordinator gently mocked me for having too many donuts on my plate before an early kickoff. We knew each other, and I don’t think he meant it maliciously. But I was heavy, and shortly after that encounter, I started running daily and lost 60 pounds over the next year. Who knows how many similarly effective fitness regimens Fox just inspired!?
DETROIT (-3) over Los Angeles
Jim Caldwell knew the Lions were poised to improve because of the Jewish New Year, which is actually a much better way of explaining things than John “I don’t have a plan” Fox. Or, for that matter, than Jeff Fisher, who described last week’s fake punt thusly:
I guess we have different definitions of “a long way.” The Rams are averaging 3.1 yards per carry, Case Keenum is still their quarterback, and the Lions are (1) moving the ball as well as anyone in the league, and (2) led by the league’s most emotional coach.
Cleveland (+7) over TENNESSEE
I found the worst thing on the internet: It’s a photo gallery of Titans-Browns games through the years. The Titans and Browns are meeting for the third straight season in a leaguewide social experiment to see if Titans and Browns fans will keep watching.
At least the Titans are starting to come together. They dominated the Dolphins last week, with Marcus Mariota looking downright capable of leading a solid offense. On the other side of the ball, Hue Jackson will start Cody Kessler if he’s healthy. Amazingly, that’s the team’s best-case scenario. I’m still picking the Browns to cover, because the Titans, even while showing signs of life, should never be favored by this much. God bless the NFL.
OAKLAND (+1) over Kansas City
The Raiders are the most fun team in the league. Here’s Amari Cooper turning Philip Rivers into a person who looks like they’ve just snapped on the sideline:
Here’s their punter trolling their kicker:
And here’s this: The Raiders went to WWE Raw earlier this week, and according to ESPN’s Paul Gutierrez, defensive lineman Dan Williams was disappointed that he couldn’t hit the wrestlers from his seat. “Times have changed a little bit, though; fans used to get their licks in. But they said you can’t do that anymore,” he said.
I’m obsessed with that quote, because it’s totally false. If a fan hit a wrestler once, we’d still be talking about it; if it had been commonplace, we’d probably never stop talking about it. David Shoemaker, The Ringer’s wrestling expert, said this statement makes Williams a crazy person. Damn right. I love the Raiders.
Dallas (+4) over GREEN BAY
Mike McCarthy is getting grilled about the Packers’ offense, and he’s not happy about it. “You know, we had 400 yards of offense, so I don’t know why the hell I’ve got to come in here and answer questions about the things you think that went wrong,” he said midweek. The answer probably has something to do with Aaron Rodgers’s increasingly worrisome performances. The QB isn’t getting worse, but he seems to have settled into a spot where “slightly above average” is his new normal. Sunday against the Giants, he posted his worst quarterback rating of the season, 65, and his current yards-per-attempt total of 6.3 is on pace to be his worst since becoming a starter.
Meanwhile, the Cowboys are thinking about whether they should replace their talented young quarterback, Dak Prescott, with one of the most gifted passers of his era, Tony Romo. And whether league-leading rusher Ezekiel Elliott, just a rookie, is going to get flagged for doing his signature touchdown celebration in someone’s face.
It’s good to be Dallas.
Atlanta (+6) over SEATTLE
Maybe it’s a surprise that Matt Ryan made such a significant jump this year compared to other quarterbacks starring in this era. Players like Peyton Manning, Brady, and Romo established who they were almost immediately, then stayed great. Ryan, however, is taking a path more in line with previous generations: He’s making the early-30s jump, and he’s putting up historically good numbers.
The last time anyone averaged more than 10 yards per pass attempt, as Ryan is, was 1954. That’s in line with players like Dan Marino (who after a midcareer lull exploded at age 31) and John Elway (whose numbers skyrocketed at age 33). Ryan, reinvigorated by a good running back corps and the sharpest version of Julio Jones yet, is having his best season at age 31, and it may not be a fluke. Quarterback is the most mentally demanding position, so early-30s passers have an advantage as long as their bodies holds up. Ryan’s seems to be.
HOUSTON (-3) over Indianapolis
I’d like to bring to everyone’s attention a soccer manager named Jackie McNamara. Last year, McNamara’s team, York City, was relegated. He did not win any of his first seven games. He skipped a practice last month to get a new Audi. Incredibly, he was also fined almost 500 pounds for not traveling with a train ticket, a crime called “fare-dodging” in England. Despite all of that, McNamara’s job was in no danger even if, as it appears, he wanted it to be. Then he announced that he would resign if his team didn’t do well in its next game, and when it drew 1–1, McNamara quit. Only, the team decided to keep him on as the interim coach. McNamara, in full George Costanza trying-to-get-fired mode, is still managing the team.
I tell this story to remind Colts fans that it could actually be much worse than what’s currently happening in Indianapolis, where the Colts have taken perhaps the most gifted quarterback in years and subjected him to unprecedented levels of on-field abuse. Andrew Luck is now getting sacked on nearly 9 percent of his dropbacks. It’s football malpractice. He is seven sacks away from the total number he suffered in 2014, his last healthy season. Those 27 occurred in 16 games; the 20 Luck has experienced so far have occurred in five.
He’s still thrown only three interceptions, because he’s really good. GM Ryan Grigson told Sports Illustrated that in 2012, he wrote “Protect 12” on a piece of paper. He has not done that, despite writing it down. Now, that happens to the best of us. Hell, I’ve forgotten to go to Trader Joe’s every night this week despite scribbling down a reminder. But we’re not talking about a vanilla yogurt here. For the good of the player and the sport, it’s time to get Luck some help.
New York Jets (+8) over ARIZONA
The heat of the New York media is often overstated. However, I’ve been surprised by how quickly the local press has turned on the “beleaguered” Todd Bowles. Recently, a noted expert had to go on the radio to argue against hosts calling for his firing: “Are you advocating the firing of Todd Bowles? Come on, the guy won 10 games last year. Oh, stop? If that was a firing offense, you would have been out of here years ago. Fired?! Fired?! The idea that this guy should be fired is absurd.” That expert is New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who is, amazingly, the voice of reason here. Imagine a situation deteriorating so quickly that Christie is the one making sound points.
Despite Christie’s logic, there are legitimate concerns here. To date, 22.6 percent of the Jets’ drives have ended in turnovers, and now Eric Decker is having season-ending shoulder surgery. A recent New York Post headline read: “Jets get more bad news: They’ll have to face Carson Palmer.” Hm. Are we sure that’s bad news? The Jets are struggling, but they’ll keep it close against an up-and-down Arizona team.
Last week: 3–10–1
2016 season total: 36–38–2