WASHINGTON — As you’ve heard basically every week this season, the NFL has a ratings problem. Hell, even baseball is beating them out head-to-head for the first time in what feels like forever. Pro football is broken in many ways (especially when you consider we’ve had to suffer through tie games in consecutive weeks for the first time in 19 years), but everyone is talking about the ratings.
In a different twist from all the other suggestions floating around, I’ll outline five ways to not only get the NFL’s ratings back up, but allow them to thrive for many years to come.
1. Start a true minor league system
Remember NFL Europe? Well, you probably don’t and even if you do, it’s dead. Colleges aren’t running pro style offenses for the most part, so it’s hurting the NFL’s available talent pool –particularly at quarterback. The NBA has had a developmental league for 15 years now, and both the NHL and MLB have had minor leagues for decades. The NFL needs their own pipeline to young talent that is actively playing games and honing their skills, rather than wasting away on a practice squad. Perhaps this would open the door to more Kurt Warners, James Harrisons, and Adam Vinatieris.
2. Bring back full contact practice
The Redskins aren’t the only team in the league playing like crap for the first 2-3 weeks of the season. There’s a big difference between football in September and football in December. The reason? Practice. (Yes, we’re talkin’ about practice.)
The rules prohibiting full contact practice in the offseason is also prohibiting teams from playing good, fundamentally sound football as soon as the games start to count. The widespread disinterest in playing starters during the preseason only exacerbates the problem. The only way to get good at tackling is to tackle. The only way to improve at blocking, or running, or passing is to do so at full speed on the field. And if starters can’t really do so until the third preseason game (and in some cases, the regular season opener) that’s going to make for almost a month of sloppy football. I get that the league is trying to eliminate the threat of injury in practice, but they’re in effect trading that for the threat of early season injury since the players’ bodies aren’t properly trained to take those hits.
3. Ties must die
I know I’ve spent most of the last two weeks ranting on this, but it really is mind-numbing that a multi-billion dollar professional sports league that is (allegedly) bent on player safety is willing to play 75 minutes of football without an official result. If you can ensure an overtime winner and loser in the playoffs, there’s no reason why you can’t do the same in the regular season.
The league has a chance to make the additional 15 minutes fun. Why not have a shootout scenario like hockey and soccer? Each kicker gets five attempts from different hash marks and varying distances. Maybe a scenario like this that involves both teams simultaneously vying for the winning score at the goal line (Ed. Note: Or college-style overtime!)? Or simply ditch the clock altogether in OT and play until someone wins. The league can do something innovative without having to resort to something XFL drastic.
4. More matchups, less laundry
Less is more. Especially when it comes to yellow flags.
Sunday, the Josh Norman vs. A.J. Green matchup was tainted by the amount of penalty flags, and the duel in Tampa between young gunslingers Derek Carr and Jameis Winston was marred by a combined 29 penalties, including an NFL record 23 from Oakland alone. Nobody’s paying to see Jerome Boger or the Ed Hochuli gun show (although, to his credit, his biceps are exquisite enough to merit their own Facebook fan page). Refs are there to keep law and order, not slow down the game with ticky tack fouls and incidental contact.
5. Ditch Thursday Night Football and flex schedule all primetime games
Again…if the NFL is truly mindful of player safety, there’s no logical reason why players have to be subjected to the additional wear and tear on their bodies associated with the quick turnaround from a Sunday game to a Thursday contest. Case in point: This year, the Redskins have to play the Packers in primetime Sunday night, then have to travel to Dallas to play the Cowboys on Thanksgiving Day. That’s a killer.
Furthermore, the Thursday matchups have been largely awful since the league mandated all 32 teams to play in at least one. There’s just no time and space when having Jacksonville and Tennessee as a stand alone game on a national stage is appealing.
Late in the season, flex scheduling allows the games we didn’t expect to be good to get moved to primetime (i.e. the Redskins/Cowboys duel for the NFC East crown in 2012), and the crappy games nobody on the East Coast wants to stay up until midnight to see get shuffled into the full deck of 1 p.m. Sunday games. Obviously, this can’t apply to Monday Night games (those have largely been marginalized since ESPN got the rights to MNF anyway) but at least we won’t get bored to death by awful stand alone games on Thursday and Sunday. Ditch TNF, flex SNF, and everyone will STFU and tune in.
These won’t necessarily change things overnight but they’ll certainly make the product better. I’m not sure if this will ever make its way to 345 Park Avenue, but at least you have it. Just make sure you attach it to your updated NFL Week 8 Recap.