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How to Fix ‘Monday Night Football’

Jon Gruden deserves better

AP Images/Getty Images/Ringer illustration
AP Images/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

This season, Monday Night Football has not only been unmemorable; it’s often been unwatchable. Nearly half of the games have been blowouts: the 49ers’ 28–0 win over the Rams in Week 1, the Eagles’ 29–14 defeat of the Bears in Week 2, the Cardinals’ 28–3 win over the Jets in Week 6, and the Broncos’ 27–9 victory over the Texans in Week 7. And compared to last season, Monday Night Football’s viewership was down almost one-quarter through seven weeks. The Bears’ 20–10 win over Minnesota on Monday night isn’t likely to help those numbers.

While you’ve surely heard by now that ratings are down across the league, one of the biggest issues with Mondays in particular is a lack of flexible scheduling. The league’s slate is released in April, well ahead of many high-impact trades, signings, and major injuries, but only NBC’s Sunday Night Football has the ability to flex better-looking Sunday-afternoon matchups into its prime-time slot.

Why? Well, first of all: money, as NBC paid for exclusive rights to flex. Plus, flexing a Monday game back into Sunday and vice versa would be a logistical mess for each city and stadium, it would likely piss off the teams involved (who’d lose an extra day of rest and practice), and it would further complicate the NFL’s already-complex prime-time rules: Three teams are allowed six prime-time games and everyone else is allowed only five a year, while CBS and Fox have the right to protect a number of their afternoon games from being flexed into prime time.

But with Monday viewership dropping so precipitously, what if the NFL could find a way to flex the best matchups not only to the Sunday-night game, but also to the Monday-night game? Would it inspire fans to abandon their other Monday-night distractions — dinner and a movie, a Netflix binge, or something ridiculous like, say, spending time with their family — and come back to the NFL?

We’re locked into this schedule, so we’ll never know. But if we had our way, Monday nights would have flex options, allowing ESPN to pick the best games on the schedule as playoff scenarios, contenders, and the most exciting teams emerge week to week. Here’s how we’d change things for the second half of this season.

Week 9

On the Schedule: Bills at Seahawks

The Bills have lost two in a row. LeSean McCoy, Buffalo’s most exciting player, is nursing a hamstring injury and may not even play. They don’t have much of a passing game to speak of, and the Seahawks are among the elite teams in defending both the run and the pass. But the Seahawks haven’t won in two weeks either, and their offense is struggling badly. Russell Wilson is on pace to throw 11 touchdowns just a year after tossing 34, and the run game is averaging 3.2 yards per attempt (30th in the NFL) and 81 yards per game (28th). This game is going to be a sloppy, low-scoring affair — it has real potential to become another 75-minute, 6–6 tie — and almost everyone outside of Seattle and Buffalo will hate it. Actually, many people inside Seattle and Buffalo will hate it as well. I’m a Seahawks fan and I feel bad that this game is on national television.

The Flex Fix: Eagles at Giants

A year after holding the distinction of being the worst division in the NFC, the East is now the conference’s most competitive and exciting. Dallas is in control at 6–1, but the Eagles (4–3), Giants (4–3), and Redskins (4–3–1) all hold strong claims to a wild-card spot.

Philly–New York is a game with legit playoff-seeding implications, and while it may not be a high-scoring barn burner, it should produce a playoff-like atmosphere. The Eagles boast one of the best defenses in the NFL to counter the Giants offense, which has heated up the past two weeks with Odell Beckham Jr. catching 13 passes for 271 yards and two scores. Defensively, New York is getting great play out of its secondary — Landon Collins, Eli Apple, Janoris Jenkins and Co. have combined to hold opposing quarterbacks to a 77.5 rating (fourth best in the NFL) — so it should be a fun challenge for rookie passer Carson Wentz.

Week 10

On the Schedule: Bengals at Giants

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this matchup — the Bengals are playing better ball over the past two weeks, and Tyler Eifert’s return from injury makes them more of a contender in the AFC North — but we can’t roll with the Giants in back-to-back weeks.

The Flex Fix: Vikings at Redskins

Cowboys vs. Steelers seems like the obvious choice, but with Ben Roethlisberger’s return date still up in the air, we’re going with the matchup featuring one of the league’s stingiest defenses against one of its most prolific offenses.

It’s still just 15th in points per game (23.3), but Washington can really move the football. Washington is second in the NFL in yards per play (6.2) and third in yards per game (410.3), and quarterback Kirk Cousins is second only to Matt Ryan in passing yards (2,454) at the halfway mark. Washington’s offense features some of the most exciting players in football, with DeSean Jackson as its explosive deep threat and Jordan Reed as its unguardable red zone magnet. They pair well with an underrated, physical run game.

On the other side, few defenses can match up well man-for-man with Washington, but Mike Zimmer’s suffocating squad has the horses to do it. The Vikings feature talent at every level of the field, whether it’s with Xavier Rhodes and Harrison Smith in the secondary, Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks at linebacker, or Linval Joseph and Everson Griffen up front. Despite Monday’s loss, the Vikings are still giving up the fewest points per game (14.9) and second-fewest yards per game (297.1) in the NFL.

Week 11

On the Schedule: Texans at Raiders

Look, nothing against the Texans defense. They’re a talented group that flies around and gets after the passer, but America just doesn’t deserve to be forced to watch Brock Osweiler’s sub-4.0 yards-per-attempt passing game in prime time again so soon — even if it’s against the Raiders’ extremely generous secondary.

The Flex Fix: Ravens at Cowboys

Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott (Getty Images)
Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott (Getty Images)

The Cowboys run game continues to look seriously unstoppable, averaging a league-high 164.9 rushing yards per game. The dual battering rams of Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott behind that line is a ridiculous proposition for opposing defenses. Not even the Packers’ elite group could slow them down, surrendering 191 yards on 33 carries in Week 6, and the Eagles’ top-tier defense didn’t fare much better, giving up 187 yards on 34 totes last week.

We need to find someone, anyone, who can stop Dallas in its tracks. The Ravens have the no. 1 run defense by DVOA, giving up just 3.5 yards per carry and 82 yards per game, so if they can’t do it, it’s unlikely that anyone can.

Week 12

On the Schedule: Packers at Eagles

The NFL actually got this one right, and this is bound to be a fun game — despite the mismatch it looked to be back in April. But since we already flexed the Eagles into Monday Night Football in Week 9, let’s change things up.

The Flex Fix: Cardinals at Falcons

This is another strength-on-strength matchup. The Cardinals may be struggling on offense, but their defense remains among the league’s elite, allowing a league-low 297 yards per game and 4.7 yards per play, second only to the Broncos. Arizona’s pass rush has already produced 21 sacks (seventh in the NFL), and the combination of Markus Golden and Chandler Jones has been too much for most offensive lines to handle. Atlanta’s offense will have its hands full, but Kyle Shanahan has consistently built out effective and intelligent game plans to move the ball and score points on some of the best defenses (Broncos, Seahawks, Packers) the Falcons have faced this year.

While 5–3 Atlanta might currently look like the favorite in a game against the 3–4–1 Cardinals, the Falcons’ suspect pass defense could open things up for Carson Palmer and the Cardinals’ deep-passing attack.

Week 13

On the Schedule: Colts at Jets

Noooooo. Nope.

The Flex Fix: Lions at Saints

The Week 13 slate might be the worst remaining set of games, so instead of trying to blow smoke up your ass about how Bucs-Chargers or Dolphins-Ravens is must-see TV, let’s just flex the game that’s guaranteed to start with an over/under of about 60 points.

Neither of these teams can play defense: Through seven games Detroit was ranked dead last per DVOA, and the Saints were 29th. This game is all about offense: Matthew Stafford has enjoyed one of the best starts in his career and Drew Brees is still just Drew Brees (read: absurdly good).

As a bonus, both teams look poised to make runs at a playoff berth, so this game could have some playoff implications in the parity-driven NFC. The Lions have scrapped their way to a 4–4 record at the halfway point, while the Saints are quietly still in the wild-card hunt at 3–4.

Week 14

On the Schedule: Ravens at Patriots

This isn’t a bad game — the Ravens have a strong defense to counter Tom Brady and New England’s potent offense — but we can do way better.

The Flex Fix: Seahawks at Packers

Everyone remembers the Fail Mary game from 2012 and the 2014 NFC championship game comeback by the Seahawks, but Seattle will be looking for some revenge after its 27–17 loss at Lambeau last September. Aaron Rodgers vs. The Legion of Boom is a fantastic matchup, especially with Rodgers’s recent improvement over the past two weeks, when he’s completed 71 percent of his passes for 620 yards with four touchdowns and one pick. With any luck, Seattle will have figured out how to move the ball on offense by the time Week 14 rolls around and make this a back-and-forth battle like we’ve seen from these two teams in the past.

This game should also have playoff implications. Seattle (currently 4–2–1) sits at the top of the NFC West, but the Seahawks’ hold on the division is tenuous at best because of their offensive struggles and a tough schedule down the stretch that features the Bills, Patriots, Eagles, Panthers, Cardinals, and Rams. It’s not out of the question to think that the Seahawks might end up battling the Packers (currently 4–3) for one of the wild-card spots in the NFC. Plus, December night games at Lambeau are just fun — the cold, the frozen-looking field, the possibility of snow, and the crowd make it unlike any other environment in the league.

Week 15

On the Schedule: Panthers at Redskins

It’d be fun to see Josh Norman play against his former team, but the Panthers are a shell of the Super Bowl team they were last year. Plus, we already flexed Washington into the Monday-night spot in Week 10.

The Flex Fix: Patriots at Broncos

Does this even need an explanation? It’s a rematch of last year’s AFC championship game. It’s two of the best teams in the league, a great defense vs. a superb offense. Oh, and it’s Gronk. This one could determine who has home-field advantage in the playoffs.

Week 16

On the Schedule: Lions at Cowboys

The Lions defense is not equipped to stop the Dallas run game. This feels like a blowout. [Hits the FLEX button.]

The Flex Fix: Bengals at Texans

After struggling out of the gate, Andy Dalton and A.J. Green have jump-started the Cincinnati offense. The run game is slowly getting back on track. And getting Eifert back into the action, particularly in the red zone, is going to provide a major boost; he caught nine passes for 102 yards and a touchdown last week.

It won’t be easy against a stout Texans defense, though. And the Bengals will have plenty of issues protecting Dalton against Houston’s top pass rushers, Whitney Mercilus and Jadeveon Clowney.

This game will almost surely have big playoff implications, too. The 5–3 Texans have set themselves up well for a second-half run and currently hold a tenuous one-game lead over the Titans in the division, but their issues on offense (meaning: it is terrible) make their running away with the division unlikely. For the 3–4 Bengals, the prospect of their challenging the Steelers from their second-place spot in the AFC North looks plausible.