Has anyone else noticed that something seems a little off with professional football, lately? Sure, the NFL is still showing up to work on time, and credit is due, it now even shows up on three days a week instead of just two. Technically, it is still doing its job just fine, and it is definitely not disrupting anyone else’s job either. Hell, it even cracked a smile a few times last week, but… there is just something missing.
This league used to be so passionate about its job. Now it seems to be punching the clock and waiting until the end of the year to really put in the real effort. There is some noticeable sloppiness too: more penalties, a drop in primetime ratings and two ties in one year. That is just not the league everyone has learned to count on for so many years. That’s not the real NFL. Without prying too much, is it time to ask the league some tough questions about its performance?
As the NFL’s primetime ratings dip persisted over the first half of this season, media commentary devolved into semi-sincere concern trolling like the paragraph above. This is all part of a larger trend in which, even as American football remains a cultural powerhouse at all levels, there is a growing sense that the sport is heading for a steep and imminent decline. If it is time to corner the NFL and have “a serious talk,” then maybe the place to start is the league’s past to see what has actually changed.
The biggest change between the professional football of decade’s past and that of today is the lower variance in the quality of competition teams see week to week. Much has been said of how building dynasties is impossible in the current salary cap era, whereas dominant teams completely drove the league’s narratives in the past. Point differential numbers back this observation up: In 2016, 57.5% of all games have been one possession games (decided by 8 points or less). From the 1970 merger to 2010, that same number was just under 48%, but since 2011, it has averaged 51% and is clearly trending upwards.
This trend arguably should automatically create an exciting slate of games every Sunday. It certainly makes RedZone must watch television as potentially 9 games go down to the wire around 3:30 every week. Yet, clearly the spike in close games is due to less blowouts, which typically occur when a bad team plays a much better team.
In a never-ending attempt to gain more viewers and keep them until the end of a broadcast, the NFL tried to make the league as evenly competitive and edge-of-your seat exciting as possible. To do so, they forced most of the league into a state of mediocrity. Without giving a medical opinion, it appears the league is suffering from Peak Parity Syndrome. There probably is not a pill for that.
The salary cap has been around a lot longer than 2011, so what else could be causing the march to the middle? Recent seasons have also been reported as the most penalized in league history, which is confirmed when comparing the end of year totals. A lot of blame is put on the coaches and players for this, which makes sense on the surface. There are less disciplined teams who are flagged more than others.
Missing from this explanation are other groups with a stake in this change: the league office and the officials. The justifiably maligned NFL rulebook is an annually revised mess, and every year officials are given “points of emphasis” from their bosses to “clean up” the game by enforcing certain rules with greater stringency. Most of these initiatives are PR bullshit, overreactions by a league concerned with maintaining a perfect appearance every Sunday. Blaming players and coaches as a group may be a case of attacking the symptoms rather than the disease.
The problem is not simply a greater number of penalties called, but also the result of those penalties. The 2015 season set the record for aggregate penalty yards league wide, and 2016 is on pace to at least end up with the second most penalty yards ever. From 1940-2010, the average team gained 1.4 first downs from penalties per game. This decade has seen that number progressively increase, with it reaching 2.0 in each of the last three years.
Maybe an increase of 0.6 first downs from penalties per game might not seem significant, but it does represent a 46% increase over the previous 70 year history of the game, and that # is an average for each team, so those flags effectively give every single offense an additional chance to put up points in every single game. This is akin to giving every kid in an arcade an extra roll of quarters and then subsequently wondering why no one can stay atop the high score list for more than a week.
OK, maybe everyone has been too harsh on the NFL, because all of those flags sound stressful, but how could a few key pass interference penalties and few veterans cut to save cap space create this sea of 4-4 teams in the current standings?
The last catalyst for Peak Parity Syndrome seems to be the schedule itself. There are games played on Thursday now, which produces a brutally short recovery and preparation period for sport as physically taxing as football. There are games played in London now, and teams often arrive in the UK on a Friday, which is nowhere enough time to overcome jetlag. Plus, every team that improves from one year to the next is rewarded with a much more difficult schedule the following year. Over the course of a season, last year’s bad teams run downhill while good teams run uphill, and everyone is spread thin at some point due to short weeks or frustrating travel logistics.
All of this is not to say that some other theories already presented elsewhere are obviously invalid: the recent collective bargaining agreement does result in teams plugging gaps in their rosters with less experienced rookies who now have less practice time to get up to speed before their first season. Still, for the most part, the “what’s wrong?” articles do seem to be wildly speculative and reeking of recency bias.
There have been plenty of horrific injuries and shameful scandals in the past. Even if the public is more aware of the flaws now, viewership continued to go up until this year. In fact, the audience numbers might be going down simply due to cord-cutting. After the NFL spent years trying to grow an already gigantic audience through endless expansion and meticulous brand management, it might ironically be brought down a few pegs by changes to the medium that brought it to millions of homes in the first place: television. By overextending and over-managing its product, the league is slowly watering down the sport while changes in distribution slowly shrink its profits. Ironically, Peak Parity Syndrome is starting to sound like self-sabotage.
* * *
 These percentages, as well as all statistics in this piece, were calculated using Pro-Football-Reference.
 Weirdly enough, only 43% of 2016 primetime contests so far have been one possession games, which may have caused some backlash, but this will surely regress to the mean later in the season.
 The increase in one possession games almost makes it seem like ties should be more common! It does not seem insane to suggest that if games routinely lasted 75 minutes, or god forbid 90, then ties might be more common than blowouts.
 This includes 2016. After watching so many uneventful plays suddenly draw a drive saving flag, this # actually feels low.