I'm not exactly sure when the National Football League went off the rails for me, when watching the games became an exercise in eyelid-propping. It was before this year, but a game this season brought it all home. Why is the NFL overhyped, over-commercialed and downright dull?
Go back to Monday, Sept. 12, Broncos-Raiders. Here's an isolated sequence from that thriller:
Oakland ball, inside the Denver 5-yard line. Timeout.
Oakland scores on the next play, a touchdown pass.
Oakland kicks off.
Denver fumbles on first down. A challenge occurs.
Oakland is awarded the football after the challenge. Oakland goes three-and-out. Oakland punts.
All together now: Commercial.
It took 10 minutes to run two plays, not including the kickoff. It took 15 minutes to run five plays. It did. I timed it.
Are we watching a football game or the Clio Awards?
For me with the NFL, the clock strikes Zzzzz earlier and earlier.
(In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that I work in Cincinnati and have covered the Bengals for 24 years. This extended tour of hazardous duty could have colored my opinions somewhat.)
It's not just the ad time. You can fix that with a DVR. In fact, you can watch an entire NFL game on a DVR in exactly 24 minutes and 12 seconds. I did it. The problem with that is, Guy Next Door is sure to tell you who won before you get to the DVR.
When you combine the commercials with the time spent reviewing plays, the game loses its flow. It herks. It jerks. It lurches from did-he-have-possession-of-the-ball to did-he-cross-the-invisible-plane. Replay takes boredom "to the next level'', as they say. It is the Sominex of the sports world. In the interest of ridding a game played by humans, coached by humans and officiated by humans of all of its humanity, the NFL has created a product that on occasion is unwatchable.
And that's not even the worst of it.
The bigger problem is the NFL is mediocre.
Unless you're a fan of the Packers, Eagles, Chargers, Falcons, Ravens, the News (England and Orleans) or, heaven help me, the Detroit Lions, you are going to see some traumatically bad football. Sooner or later, you are going to wonder why you invested close to four hours of your life watching it.
Why do you think they don't sell out consistently in Miami or Tampa or, sometimes, San Diego? Why do you think the people in Los Angeles aren't nearly as thrilled about the NFL's return as the NFL is? They have nice weather in those places. They don't want to spend a 75-degree December day in a stadium or on a couch.
If you watch a game involving two young and/or bad quarterbacks, you're going to groan, sooner or later. If one team has a great QB, cut the groaning in half. On the rare occasions when it's Brady-versus-Brees or Rodgers-against-Rivers, settle in and enjoy yourself. Otherwise, prop those lids, brother.
Is this heresy?
I will get e-mails that lovingly begin "Dear Idiot.' People will cite big TV ratings and (mostly) full stadiums. They will compare the NFL to Major League Baseball, even though I offered no such comparison. They will say that baseball makes stamp-collecting seem electrifying.
It is, I realize, practically un-American to rip the NFL.
TV ratings are boffo for America's favorite sport. They're also pretty good for American Idol. As reality TV goes, nothing beats the NFL. It's real, for one. But how do you stick with one lousy game for three hours and 15 minutes?
It doesn't help my cause that the season already has been marked by some amazing comebacks and lots of offense. Detroit winning at Dallas after trailing 27-3 showed how good the league can be. Problem is, it's not that good very often. It's more like the 13-8 skunk I witnessed two Sundays ago when the 49ers">49ers beat the Bengals.
I pitched this idea to my editor at SI.com. At first, he said it was lame. Actually, what he said was, "I disagree with your premise. It seems to me with the Red Zone channel and DirecTV, which allows you to flip around and focus on three good games, watching the NFL is a better experience than ever.''
Sure is, if you have ADD and eight eyes. Me, I like to finish what I start. Trying to watch several games at once -- or with Red Zone, real-time highlights at a warp speed -- makes me dizzy. It's like voting for the Best Picture by watching the trailers.
Gamblers and fantasy players might be hooked. I'm not, especially.
Melodrama has replaced the real variety. Because the real stuff isn't compelling enough to keep us thrilled, we hear ad nauseam about Michael Vick ripping officials or Tony Romo blowing off Jerry Jones or in-depth analyses of Jay Cutler's manhood. ESPN should have given Brett Favre his own primetime hour.
I spent last fall watching Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco. They were far more interesting off the field than on it.
In the meantime, the league suffers, as always, from an innovation deficit. One team's off-tackle left is the same as any other's. Heaven forbid that a coach might do something different, such as eschewing punts and using all four downs in all but the most reckless situations. You think baseball managers live and die by The Book? They're Fellini compared with football coaches, who are deathly afraid of losing their jobs by challenging convention.
Very few teams are a joy to watch. The NFL's socialism has seen to it that every team has a chance to be mediocre. Almost all take full advantage. The league discourages personality, so with few exceptions, the players are dull.
I used to look forward to the Bengals' bye week. Football on TV! All day! Then it was midnight. I'd watched games at 1, 4:15 and 8:30. And I thought, "what a waste of a day.''
And that was before two plays required 10 minutes.