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How Football Stopped Being Fun

Completion percentage is at an all-time high, but watchability is trending in the other direction. Why has the 2017 NFL season been such a slog?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

We are living in the golden age of failed completions, a statistic as grim as it sounds. Tracked by Football Outsiders, failed completions occur when a team doesn’t get 45 percent of the yards it needs on first down, 60 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third or fourth down. The stat goes back to 1989, and last season Joe Flacco set the record with 144. Nothing encapsulates this era of football as well as the failed completion: allegedly a success, but ultimately a bleak disappointment.

In the past five years of the NFL, offenses have reached unprecedented levels of scoring, quarterbacks have become more accurate than ever, turnovers have plummeted—and yet, it’s not fun. If you simply read the statistical markers, it would seem like every offense was as exciting as the pub scene from Inglourious Basterds. Sacks and interceptions hit all-time lows last year, but that just means that quarterbacks are getting rid of the ball quicker and opting for shorter, safer targets. We have reached one of the most frustrating eras in football history. Everything is fine and it doesn’t look good.

Through two weeks, scoring is down 2.4 points per game from last year, but this isn’t a statistical argument. This is about aesthetics. If a critical mass of fans agrees the game is ugly, then it’s ugly. If a listless 13-9 Bengals-Texans game doesn’t especially disappoint fans because everything looks like a 13-9 Bengals-Texans game, then that’s an issue. The national conversation about the NFL right now is about the game’s decreasing watchability; it doesn’t matter if offenses are hyper-efficient.

“If you show me a team with a great completion percentage, I automatically think, ‘Your offense probably sucks,’” said Chris Simms, a former NFL quarterback and now an analyst at NBC Sports and Bleacher Report. He said “the NFL has a sickness” in which nearly everyone on the field and on the sideline has become conservative to a fault. There’s been a dramatic rise in completion percentage since 2000—Sam Bradford broke the NFL’s record last season—but yards per catch has gone down over that same span.

How’d we get here?

For starters, rule crackdowns on defense prevented tight defensive coverage and allowed even the most mediocre quarterbacks to complete easy passes—or draw a pass-interference penalty.

“We’ve rewarded too much bad quarterback play,” Simms said.

Marry that with ever-worsening offensive lines that prevent offenses from considering long-developing routes and letting their quarterback hang in to finish a play.

“Offenses are adjusting to quicker-hitting throws and not having the quarterback do seven- or eight-step drops,” said Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman. “Offensive linemen are tougher to find coming out of college, and taking longer to develop, so offenses are going to more rhythm and quicker passes.”

This is not an isolated opinion about offensive linemen, either. “I’m amazed at how poor the technique is for the young players,” said former Giants offensive lineman Shaun O’Hara, now an analyst at the NFL Network. And so while rule changes have incentivized quarterbacks to get rid of the ball quickly, the offensive line predicament has made it more of a necessity.

Then you have the offensive coordinators, who, Simms said, are doing whatever they can to limit mistakes in order to earn the “quarterback whisperer” label on the back of some decent statistics.

“Everyone looks at the box score and says ‘The offense wasn’t that bad!’ But well, they sucked,” Simms said. “Quarterbacks and coaches are now very wary of mistakes. We crucify all the quarterbacks when they make a mistake and then, when it’s third-and-12, they say ‘I’m going to live to play another day’ and throw it short.”

Offenses like the New England Patriots, Green Bay Packers, or even the New Orleans Saints can still be beautiful to watch, but a growing number of offenses are not.

Ratings dipped again on Sunday. Sunday Night Football’s Packers-Falcons game was down 8 percent from last season and 23 percent from 2015. The curious thing about these dips is that the number of people viewing games is not down, but the amount of time they’re watching for is. Unless “only watching part of a game” is a new form of political boycott, that reasoning for the ratings drop doesn’t hold much water. (Yes, we have a year’s worth of data noting that people say they are tuning out because of boycotts. But we have roughly 200,000 years of data suggesting that what people say and what they do are often two entirely different things.)

The product is diluted, and fans are tuning in and then tuning out. If that doesn’t scare the league, then nothing will.

“When I came into the league,” said Trent Green, former NFL quarterback and current analyst for the NFL on CBS, “you had a good season if you threw for 3,500 yards and completed 55 or 60 percent of your passes. You’d chuck the ball down the field as far as you could, and if you couldn’t you’d check down. Now guys are hitting 67 percent and if you don’t have a 4,000-yard season or sometimes 5,000, you didn’t have a good season.”

Green was drafted in 1993 and played until 2008. In that time, he saw the game change dramatically.

By the time they reach the pros, modern quarterbacks have thrown more times than any group of quarterbacks in history. Among high schoolers, seven-on-seven flag football leagues have exploded this century. This type of football involves lots of quick passes and one-on-one coverage. It used to be that just kids in warm-weather states like Florida, Texas, and Southern California could play this game all year long, but now teenagers from all across the country travel to play in seven-on-seven tournaments. “There is going to be better completion percentage because there’s more reps,” said Green, whose son TJ plays at Northwestern.

Green also said that aiming for statistics has a long history in football. In the 1980s and 1990s, he said, quarterback rating became the en vogue way of measuring passing. Sacks were better than incompletions “and there were guys we knew wouldn’t throw the ball away. The offensive line coaches would be going nuts.”

Today, completion percentage and a low interception number have become the envy of young quarterbacks. “Until you get to a certain point of your career—stability within your team, stability with your contract—quarterbacks are thinking about rating, completion percentage, or points scored,” Green said. Less-established quarterbacks are more likely to go for “the bubble screen or underneath stuff.”

“The great quarterbacks—[Aaron] Rodgers, [Tom] Brady, Big Ben [Roethlisberger]—they are looking for the daggers, the 25-yard throws,” Simms said. He thinks most coaches want to default to less adventurous plays—and that any excitement you do see is when the individual talent of some of the quarterbacks wins out. “Look at Aaron Rodgers, throwing a 40-yard missile after a backflip, into a keyhole.”

“One of the biggest problems is the conservative play-callers,” Simms said. “When I played, we’d think of something and they’d say, ‘I’ve never been taught that, you’d have to show that play on film.’ And of course there’s no way to do that. So if that’s the case, we’ll never have a new play ever. There’s the problem.”

Modern offenses run the risk of becoming so predictable that they give up their advantage over the defense. Scoring has skyrocketed in the modern era. Matchup-nightmare tight ends like Rob Gronkowski and the rise of flexible players, along with the favorable rule changes, routinely rocked opposing defenses. But more and more short passes? Yeah, defenses can handle those.

According to Spielman, the Vikings general manager, the way to build a defense in the modern era is changing. Since quarterbacks are getting rid of the ball quicker, defenses have to be faster.

“You need first-step quickness—an Aaron Donald—extremely quick off the snap,” Spielman said. The Vikings have a defensive line filled with, as he put it, “almost outside linebacker types” who are tall enough to bat passes down and light enough to move well. “We liked guys who are 6-6, 6-5, 6-4 and all in the 250s [pounds].”

If all 32 quarterbacks will get rid of the ball quicker, playing defense will likely become more about pushing the pocket and trying to bat down the ball rather than getting to the quarterback. Edge rushers could start to lose value, while inside rushers see their importance rise.

Meanwhile, the lack of competent offensive line play will be a boon for defenses. That, in turn, will muck up the game even more.

Offensive linemen, Spielman said, are almost exclusively pass protectors in college now and are rarely in three-point stances, which are a requirement in the NFL. Of course, it’s not easy for teams to coach up these young athletes, as the collective bargaining agreement caps the number of padded practices at 14 during the regular season. “You have to come up with creative ways within the collective bargaining agreement to give them the attention they need,” he said. “Keep them out there an extra 15, 20 minutes, or give them an extra period.”

Spielman wishes that teams could extend the “rookie development program”—which starts in May and can last most of the offseason thereafter—throughout the season.

“It takes time to develop those guys. The restrictions in the CBA put you behind the eight ball,” he said.

The lack of reps directly results in sloppy play, many coaches say. Matt Nagy, the Kansas City Chiefs’ offensive coordinator, said that he wishes all players could get more reps, particularly quarterbacks. That would likely have to come via another league, but there is no major American secondary league at the moment—no XFL, USFL, strong Arena League, or NFL Europe.

“I was able to play the game in the Arena League, I wouldn’t have gotten those reps on an NFL roster,” Nagy said. “Whether it’s the world league, XFL, that’s advantageous to the quarterback. Not just mental reps. Physical reps.”

Do sports have to be beautiful? That depends on who you ask. In soccer there’s a phrase called “anti-football” that gets thrown around quite a bit as an insult for teams that play too defensive or play too many long balls up the field. The game’s most popular figures reject the notion that ugly play is good play. In American sports, we haven’t put the same emphasis on aesthetics. Doug Baldwin called his Seahawks’ 12-9 win over the 49ers on Sunday “ugly as hell” and he meant it as a good thing.

Green thinks that the growing number of offenses that can only take up small chunks of yardage at a time will result in some teams going back to simple, ground-and-pound offenses. That certainly wouldn’t make the game any easier to watch.

Yet, football is not going to end anytime soon, and those declaring the end of it have a long history of looking wrong. Esquire magazine asked if football still mattered in 1997. This isn’t even the NFL’s biggest problem—head injuries are—but it’s a problem nonetheless. In 2013, youth aged 12 to 24 named Lionel Messi as the fourth-most popular athlete in America. Today, anyone can access any play from any sport anywhere in the world on a phone, and football does not, at the moment, look as fun as Messi scoring a goal.

The NFL isn’t dying: 46 million people watched last year’s NFC title game and well over 100 million watch the Super Bowl. But whether or not they’re beautiful, sports are supposed to be fun. Two weeks into the football season, not many people are having a good time.