Sunday November 8th, 2015

NFL television ratings are situation-proof. There is nothing that will keep people from tuning in. Is it too much to ask that the league provide a quality product in return?

Thursday nights, Sunday mornings, terrible matchups ... doesn’t matter. Nearly 8.8 million people saw this past Thursday’s game between a two-win Browns team and the Bengals, per, by far the largest cable audience of the night. Another 12 or 13 million will watch Monday night’s Bears-Chargers matchup, which pits teams owning a combined 4–11 record.

More evidence that we’re freaking nuts over the NFL: The pregame show for Thursday’s game drew 3.76 million viewers. That’s more than double what the NBA’s Thunder-Bulls showdown earned on TNT that same night—that game featured two of basketball’s biggest names in Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose—and it’s more than triple the audiences of ESPN’s Mississippi State-Missouri game and FS1’s broadcast featuring No. 2 Baylor and Kansas State.

The pregame show!

The NFL is operating on the George Costanza Theory.

“Well, why am I watching it?”

“Because it’s on TV!”

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The numbers are remarkable, and they come in spite of the actual play diminishing before our very eyes. A slate of games like last weekend’s, which featured several nail-biting finishes, hides that reality a bit. But it’s there.

Penalties have been way up across the league this year, and the convoluted rule book isn’t helping, as it often leaves refs grasping at straws over seemingly simple decisions like what is and is not a catch. Many analysts have waxed philosophic over an overwhelming dearth of quality offensive-line play. There are a limited number of high-quality quarterbacks, too, while those teams without one are almost doomed to mediocrity.

And speaking of mediocre, 20 of the NFL’s 32 teams are at or below .500 right now, including the entire AFC South and NFC East divisions.

The NFL probably doesn’t care, either. In fact, in a lot of ways, this season has set up perfectly for the league when it comes to maximizing interest. There currently are four undefeated teams, so each of their appearances is a draw. Plus, all but the absolute dregs at the bottom of the standings (hello, Cleveland and Detroit) remain in playoff contention, regardless of their putrid records.

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So we watch, if only because there are so few chances each year. The brevity of the schedule also plays to the league’s advantage. Most games are important, sure, but the gap between seasons feels interminable. Compared to the NBA and NHL, it is; baseball’s five-month hiatus is somewhat similar to the NFL’s off-season, but MLB teams play 162 games.

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NFL fans get a minimum 16 chances to see their teams, somewhere between 17 to 20 if they’re lucky, then they vanish for seven months. Bad football is better than no football.

It’s basically the same marketing strategy McDonald’s uses for the McRib. The fans are desperate so they’ll take any piece of crap shoved in their face.

Don’t the loyal NFL diehards deserve more? Given all the money invested in the league and all the remarkable talent filling it, shouldn’t the hopes headed into each Sunday be higher than, “I hope these games aren’t terrible?”

Well, perhaps there is hope yet (no, not consistency from officials—that’s a lost cause). Just a few reasons why:

1. The playoff races. Yes, the overall state of the league is diluted by the rash of sub-.500 teams. That cluster of mid-tier teams also should set the stage for ample do-or-die showdowns come December and early January.

Would it be preferable to have 10–5 teams slugging it out for a postseason spot? Sure. The drama will exist nonetheless if 7–9 is the cutoff point.

2. Young quarterbacks. A lot of attention, deservedly, falls on the likes of Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Tony Romo. But it is not much of a secret that the NFL has seen the influx of talented QBs via the past couple drafts.

Derek Carr has his Raiders fighting for a playoff spot, which is a remarkable accomplishment in itself. Teddy Bridgewater and the Vikings have their hands on a wild-card spot at the moment, too. The records are worse for Blake Bortles and Johnny Manziel, but each—and especially Bortles—has shown signs of improvement. The rookies, Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota, also haven’t been half bad.

How all those players develop will be key to the NFL’s future, but they’re worth watching in the present.

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3. The quest for 16–0. This one could backfire a bit on the NFL come the playoffs—if the top four or five teams are clearly superior to everyone else, the wild-card and divisional rounds might be busts. In the meantime, the closer the Patriots, Bengals, Broncos and Panthers get to a perfect regular season, the more overall intrigue they will warrant.

Oh, and the folks at the NFL offices—as well as at NBC and ESPN—are absolutely relishing the prospect of two undefeated teams meeting in Week 12 (New England at Denver) and Week 16 (Cincinnati at Denver). In at least those cases, a win for the networks is a win for the fans.

With or without those elements, however, the NFL will keep churning out massive TV audiences. Unique audiences, too. Viewers usually do not DVR games to watch later, as they do with many of their favorite shows so they cannot skip commercials. Heck, a lot of people won’t even turn the channel during breaks for fear of missing a play. There is a reason that ad space on broadcasts cost about as much as a trip to Mars.

The fans are not going anywhere. If boring games or clueless officiating or even an endless stream of horrific and debilitating injuries will not turn people away, it’s hard to fathom what might do it. Nor does anyone want it to fade.

We crave the NFL, whatever form it takes. It still would be nice to get a little better return on investment.

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