But in the last three or four seasons, my enjoyment of this most splendid of games, run by the most savvy of sports minds, has been diminished. (And no, smart-guy, it's not just because the Bills suck, though that doesn't help.)
I used to be able to watch any game at any time with a zeal usually reserved for birthdays. I would live for Saturday NFL games in December, since it was like getting 2 games for free. Now? I find myself being mildly interested. The 1999 season may go down as the greatest overall football season I've ever witnessed. And in 2000 there was a string of so many unforgettable Monday Night Football games (the famous Dolphins-Jets "comeback game" being the crown-jewel that season). So why in a scant five seasons do I find myself becoming more and more indifferent to the glut of games being shown at least two nights a week?
For the longest time, I tried to put my finger on it. What is wrong? Why doesn't anything feel right anymore? I racked my brain about this for a while trying to figure it out.
Is it the league? I don't think so. The league itself does a good job of marketing itself and bettering its product every year with rule changes and technological advancements.
Is it the quality of play? Not that I can see. There have been some very exciting teams since 2000 (the 2001 Rams, 2003 Chiefs, 2004 Colts) that I would put up against the most exciting of the 1980s.
And finally it hit me: it's not the leagues or the teams; it's the networks. Simply put, television networks have no clue what the f**k they're doing.
There are many reasons that network broadcasting and coverage of NFL Football runs the gamut from piss-poor to godawful, and as is my custom, I will outline them in my patented, easy-to-read numerically ordered outlining system.
- Bad Football: Okay, so I lied, this actually is one of the problems with the league, but not for the reason you might think. It's not that there are less good teams than at any other time. Though we may not be in the "parity-league" days of the late 1990s, there are still some solid football teams. The problem is that many of the teams, though successful, play a dull -- nay, nearly unwatchable -- brand of football. Whether it's the dink-n-dunk (my favorite), or the 2 runs up the middle / 6-yard pass / punt gameplan, offensive football has been quite atrocious. For every Manning-to-Harrison combination, there are ten Charlie Batch-to-Peerless Prices (or somesuch equivalent). Offensive football has been on a downswing since Mike Martz stupidly gave the 2000 Rams the bye week off. (I know that's a pretty obscure reference right there, but that's how much I used to follow all this stuff.)
- Poor Scheduling: This is not the league's fault, as you might think. The league's scheduling is pre-determined and decided completely autonomously, based on all the teams' records from the previous year. What I'm referring to is the way that the prime time games are chosen. Networks are woefully short-sighted in this regard. People wonder why the matchups are so bad on Monday Night Football, and they usually blame it on bad luck. But it's not bad luck, it's picking games without thinking about it. Somewhere, some TV exec says, "Say, this game has Michael Vick playing against Ray Lewis. What a great game! Put it on the board!" Or "Giants? Eagles? What a great matchup!" No, these are not great ideas. They lack any sort of insight into what would make a good matchup. For example, for 2005, instead of taking the up and coming teams of last year (Bengals, Vikings, Panthers), they chose the same lame-o teams they assume will be good (Eagles, Falcons, Packers) who end up putting on boring displays of football. These make for crap games, but if someone at one of the networks would really look at the matchups, the time of year, or anything that is actually related to football (rather than related to what players sell the most jerseys), they might stumble upon a game.
Does anybody remember how many memorable Monday Night Football games there used to be? There were at least five really good games every season. Now, other than the Bucs-Colts 2003 game where Indy scored 28 points in the fourth quarter, I can't even thing of a good game, let alone a memorable one.
- Too Many Damn Commercials: Football has always had commercials, and I'm thinking that they probably don't have any more than usual, but here is the difference now: flow. I remember the days when the broadcast would start off with the kickoff, then a couple possessions by each team (at least one each) before going to commercial. Now, there is the pregame, then a shot of the stadium with someone saying, "We'll be right back to FedEx Field after this," then eight minutes of commercials, then the kickoff, a punt, and a commercial.
Not only do they try to sandwich as many breaks as they can -- such as before and after an after-touchdown kickoff, which is reprehensible -- but during every free second, they show graphics on the screen exhorting the new episode of C.S.I. or Prison Break or Lost. Know what TV executives? I know your shitty show is gonna be on TV! I get it! You can pretty much tell me once and if I'm interested I'll set the old DVR for it. I am offended not only by the number of interruptions, but because they don't even have the decency to show me different commercials. So I have to sit through the same shitty Coors Light "AND TWINS!" commercials, and then even more shitty "World Series of Poker" or "Walker, Texas Ranger" promos over and over again. You only have to tell me once, bitch!
And not only do you show so many commercials for your own crappy shows during the commercials (over and over again no less) but now you're throwing it in the middle of the game too??? During, for example, a penalty or stoppage in play? If the appeal of sports is the drama, then why are you interrupting this supposed drama by throwing a bunch of commercials in the middle? Imagine you are watching the big ending scene at the end of, say "The 40 Year Old Virgin" (or literally any movie or TV show for that matter), and during the climax, when you are caught up in the drama of the moment, and someone pops up on screen in the bottom corner and says "Don't forget that the new Harry Potter movie is coming out next April!" and then goes right back into the scene. This is the equivalent of shattering the intensity of the game.
These interruptions have always occurred, but it used to be only once per half or so. Now it seems that the game has become secondary to making sure we get as much advertising thrown in our collective face as possible. But what the network execs don't get is that they are making the product less palatable to people like me, and therefore making us less apt to watch, and generate their precious ratings-revenue.
- Bad Pregame Coverage: ESPN's Sunday NFL Countdown used to be THE best pregame show in the business. They had a combination of a then-not-annoying, pre-caricature Chris Berman (who some may remember used to have quite a quick wit) and football men like Pete Axthelm, Tom Jackson and Chris Mortensen (who are still there, thank God because they are the only watchable thing on it right now). Now, they have "names," like Steve Young, Michael Irvin, Mike Ditka, etc., who offer little-to-nothing in the way of actual insight and are just there to blow hot air. I remember a time that you could get an explanation or examination of football that was neither a Ron Jaworski-like dissection of game film or a noise-heavy harangue by Michael Irvin. It was something in the middle; it was intelligent discussion of football, high on facts and insight, low on bombast.
Likewise, the NFL Today on CBS (with Brent Musberger and Irv Cross) and the NFL on NBC (with Bob Costas, Will McDonough and Frank Deford) were equally excellent. Today it's, Who's More Outrageous?! Who's More Opinionated?? Who can speak the loudest???
There have been a few strides made toward improving pre-game shows, such as ESPN replacing Sterling Sharpe, CBS moving their pre-game show indoors (for the love of God), and Fox actually showing information about the AFC once in a while. But for each of these, we still get Stuart Scott using urban slang of the late 1980s (Note to Stu: no one says "phat" anymore) and Terry Bradshaw asking Jake Plummer if he says "couch" or "sofa." So much utter crap.
For some reason, many pre-game shows thing that we as football fans give a shit about some players' actual life. They will ask Carson Palmer if he thinks the iPod or TiVo is a more important invention. Or follow Torry Holt on a day shopping and playing video games. I personally only care about these people in a football context. I have a life of my own (well, technically anyway), and I don't need to follow some millionaire around to a quasi-hip hop soundtrack, unless he's doing something truly interesting. Keep it on the field, people!+
- Horrible Announcers: I am one of the six people in America who actually liked the move of putting Dennis Miller on Monday Night Football. I'm not saying it worked out that well, but I liked the move. At least it seemed to be an attempt to try something that actually resembles an entertaining broadcast. There are probably a half-dozen decent --DECENT -- football announcers in the country: Marv Albert, Jim Nantz, Al Michaels (sorry, Jav, I know you disagree), Mike Tirico, Dick Enberg. I am seriously struggling to think of more. But there are almost no good color commentators.
John Madden is, I'm sorry kids, a terrible terrible color man. He hasn't been good since 1987. He coasted on his telestrator and his "boom" shtick briefly, but now he doesn't even have that. Now all I has is his name slapped on the cover of a popular video game. I have not heard him make one insightful comment since he started broadcasting Monday Night Football. Not a single one. He actually said this: ready? "The ball is slippery because it's wet, and it's wet because it's raining." I have pets that have made keener observations.
And don't get me started on that heaping steaming pile of obsequious excrement known as ESPN Sunday Night Football. I used to like Mike Patrick, honestly. He always took the bluster out of Joe Theismann's pomposity, but when you add the waste of valuable blood platelets known as Paul Maguire to the mix, you have a recipe for knob-washery that would make Ed McMahon vomit. According to this crew, there is not a single normal or good player in the league. Instead, every player is magnificent, gifted beyond all possible comprehension. A player doesn't make a nice play, he makes a sensational play!
It's painful for me to say this about football. For years and years I have maintained football's superiority over all other sports, not only in gameplay, but in watchability. But lately, coverage of playoff baseball has actually been more compelling than regular season football (for the first time in my life).
Maybe it's the fact that I feel I could run a network better than almost anyone doing it now. (For example, I had been saying that NBC should drop The Apprentice go back to a 2-hour comedy block on Thursday nights for over a year now. And what did they just announce? I should get a bonus from NBC for this.) But it shouldn't take a frustrated would-be network exec to fix the problems. Let's stop trying to marry sports and entertainment. Because good sports should be all the entertainment one would need.