The Transom, Ben Domenech, September 21, 2017

This week saw the lowest ratings for CBS’s primary NFL matchup since 1998, and not because it wasn’t a good game.  “The Week 2 NFL singleheader window delivered an 8.4 rating and 14.5 million viewers on CBS Sunday, down 24% in ratings and viewership from last year on FOX (11.0, 19.2M) and down 14% and 13% respectively from 2015 on CBS (9.8, 16.7M). The 8.4 rating is the lowest for the Week 2 singleheader since at least 1998. The first two NFL windows on CBS this season have both declined double-digits to multi-year lows. Sunday’s telecast featured Patriots-Saints, called by CBS rookie lead analyst Tony Romo, in 41% of markets — including Dallas-Ft. Worth, where he played his entire career.”

We can argue about the role various off-field factors have played in this phenomenon, where the National Football League, supposedly immune to any factors that impact the ratings of other sports, has been shown to be surprisingly vulnerable to ratings decline. But the truth is that it’s all about the on-field product, and that product is increasingly ugly. We are in a period of quarterback transition – one that occurs regularly in the NFL, but perhaps not to this degree – where the older, accomplished quarterbacks are declining significantly in front of our eyes and the younger, newbie quarterbacks are not yet experienced enough to make for good games.

It makes for an ugly scene.   “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… 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.”

Rule changes have created a scenario that rewards the dink and dunk Sam Bradford’s of the world (he set a new record for completion percentage last year). The little dropoff pass is becoming the safe norm for quarterbacks not just because of those changes, but also because the inability of offensive lines to deal with attacking defenders has incentivized the little drop-off pass. This makes for a boring game where risks are fewer and gunslinging is rare.

Some argue that this is intentional – that the NFL is being devoured by its own economic model, and owners are incentivized to field products that aren’t entertaining.  But this seems to me to be an issue that can be more accurately blamed on coaches and schemes. The fact is that it appears at any juncture that no more than 20 athletes alive in America are capable of running a pro-style offense. This is a problem in a league with 32 teams – you have a dozen or so that are run by players who have no business quarterbacking an NFL team and who would be much more comfortable holding a clipboard.

The solution is simple, but audacious: break up the pro-style offense. End it. Let the best teams in the league run it, the top two thirds who have the tall strong-armed quick-witted passer. But if you’re in that bottom third, switch it up. Run your offense with a player who more resembles the successful offenses of the college game – who runs the spread, the option, or the run and shoot. Better to lose in audacious fashion than be boring. The entertainment factor in such a change would be significantly greater than attempting to run a pro-style offense with the likes of Tom Savage, Deshone Kizer, or Jacoby Brissett.

And if you disagree, consider that this weekend will see a showdown in the largest TV market in the country between Jay Cutler and Josh McCown – WHY?