In 2016 many of you finally learned your lesson. We don’t need to watch the NFL every time it’s on TV. The NFL’s declining television ratings made for a dominant storyline in the fall.
While there are many reasons, one of the most obvious to me is simple oversaturation. Over the last few years, the schedule has become increasingly bloated with extra games in solo windows. Between the primetime schedule, early morning games in London, a Week 1 Monday Night Football doubleheader, Thanksgiving, Christmas Day and late-season Saturdays, 58 regular-season games were played in solo windows last season. That’s a whopping 22.7% of the schedule played with no other competing games to keep tabs on, accumulate fantasy stats from or flip to during commercials.
For years, the NFL survived and thrived. It was simply the best thing on TV, and whenever we saw football, it was often glorious. Many people think the overall quality of the league has declined, but here’s a little secret—many games have always been tough to watch, they’ve just been hidden. Now we see more games in primetime and every game on Red Zone, so there’s nowhere to hide.
In addition to creating the extra windows, extending Thursday Night Football to a full season came with a concerted effort to put every single team on the TNF schedule. This is a key part of the NFL’s hubris—the thinking that its worst was still good enough to lap everyone else’s best in the TV ratings. And last season people finally figured out it wasn’t. Many viewers pointed their eyeballs elsewhere—to Netflix, the Cubs’ playoff run and, yes, the election. But not me. I’m not sure I’ll ever learn. With the NFL releasing its annual slate of 256 games, including 58 more in single windows, I’ve got about 174 hours of my calendar blocked off.
I am here for transatlantic Blake Bortles, color rush backdoor covers and missed field goals at midnight.
Come with me if you dare, and let’s watch bad football together. I’ve already combed through the schedule to find the 10 worst games we’re all going to be stuck watching together next year.
10. Week 10, Monday 8:30 p.m., Dolphins at Panthers
Do you love the Miami Dolphins? Well too bad, because the TV networks apparently do. Nothing against the Dolphins, who did make the playoffs at 10-6 last season, despite a minus-17 point differential. They just aren’t what I’d consider a glamor franchise at the moment and yet, the NFL has given them a stretch of three consecutive primetime games.
In Week 8 they play at Baltimore on Thursday night, in Week 9 they host Oakland on Sunday night and in Week 10 they play Monday night in Carolina. That’s more Dolphins action than an entire season of Ballers. It’s just too much.
Honestly, this isn’t that bad of a game. And I could have picked the front end of this whirlwind network tour thanks to the Thursday night factor. But by the third straight week I think we’ll all be ready for something new.
9. Week 10, Sunday 4:05 p.m., Texans at Rams
OK, so I’m cheating on this one, as the game isn’t actually in primetime. But I’m highlighting one of my biggest NFL scheduling pet peeves: when they take a week in the middle of the season, with the schedule reduced by a few bye weeks, and load up the early game window.
Week 10 features only three games in the late window. An awesome Cowboys-Falcons game, a potentially lopsided Giants-49ers game and this Texans-Rams slugfest. This is the only game on CBS, and we will see a lot of it on Red Zone. I can already hear Scott Hanson’s voice reminding us, “Well every touchdown in every game does matter to somebody. Let’s go back to Tom Savage just shy of midfield.”
8. Wild Card Weekend, Saturday 4:35 p.m., TBD at TBD
Alright, I’m cheating again. By now we all know the history here. We are excited for the playoffs to start and they get started Saturday with the least appealing of the four match-ups.
Eight teams will play on Wild Card Weekend and it’s likely that one of them will be dealing with turmoil at the QB spot thanks to an injury or a benching. For 15 weeks last year I was excited for a Raiders playoff game. Then Derek Carr was injured and Connor Cook happened.
This game will be Bengals at Texans, Chiefs at Titans, Lions at Bucs or some other seemingly harmless match-up. It might not even be a bad game, but people will make jokes as we watch daytime Jon Gruden pumping us up about somebody’s backup quarterback.
7. Week 12, Monday 8:30 p.m., Texans at Ravens
The Ravens have been perennial contenders throughout the Flacco-Harbaugh era, so it’s a bit jarring to look up and see they’ve missed the playoffs in back-to-back years and three of the last four. They could easily bounce back, but let’s not ignore that kicker Justin Tucker was the team’s offensive MVP last season.
The MNF schedule doesn’t seem to have many clunkers but here’s one that may be sloppy where you will probably want to bet the under.
6. Week 15, Saturday 4:30 p.m., Bears at Lions
What’s this game doing here? The NFL has taken over Saturdays in years past after college football’s regular season shuts down in December. But the non-holiday, Week 15 Saturday doubleheader is a little brazen. The league will do it again in Week 16, but that week there’s no Sunday night game (probably because it’s Christmas Eve). In Week 15, however, the league will give us a Thursday night game, two games Saturday, the normal three-window slate Sunday and a Monday nighter. That’s a full weekend!
There’s a good chance the Bears will be out of the playoff race by then, and I think the league could have tucked them into a normal 1:00 Sunday window.
5. Week 5, Monday 8:30 p.m., Vikings at Bears
Who’s ready for back-to-back Bears?
Last year [for unknown reasons] the Bears were in primetime in Weeks 2, 3, 7 and 8 and lost the first three of those games by two touchdowns each. This year the Bears have a totally defensible obligatory Thursday night showing against the Packers, which is followed immediately by another national showing against Sam Bradford and the Vikings. How much Mike Glennon are you ready for?
4. Week 3, Sunday 9:30 a.m., Ravens vs. Jaguars in London
Here we have the first of the NFL’s four games being played in London, three of which will be in the extra-early Sunday a.m. time slot. If you live on the East Coast (like, say, Baltimore or Jacksonville) you can wake up to watch football at 9:30. If you live on the West Coast, it’s probably less likely that you’ll rise and shine for the full quadruple-header starting at 6:30 a.m. your time.
The Jaguars had what I remember to be a fun 34-31 win over the Bills in London in 2015. Though a quick look at the box score helps remind me that the Bills had four turnovers and Blake Bortles was 13-for-29 for 182 yards. And Bortles has actually regressed since then.
I support the effort to put football in London, but at some point the NFL needs to make a change here. Give London fans better games so that they want to see them and to greatly increase the chance those of us in the U.S. will be excited to wake up and watch. Otherwise, what are we doing here?
3. Week 9, Thursday 8:25 p.m., Bills at Jets
The Jets’ token Thursday Night Football game will be their only appearance in a standalone window. It probably shouldn’t shock you to see the game crack my list. Things can always change. Maybe the Bills will be playoff contenders and the Jets will have an exciting rookie QB at the helm. Putting together a list like this before the draft has enormous potential to make me look stupid.
But there’s a decent chance this will be an unappealing match-up come Week 9, and perhaps it could have smarter to put this game a little earlier in the season, like the NFL did with:
2. Week 3, Thursday 8:25 p.m., Rams at 49ers
Things could certainly change here as well. Maybe the 49ers will draft a QB, Jared Goff will take an immediate sophomore step forward and these teams will be better.
But I feel OK about this pick. This is a Thursday night game kicking off at 5:25 p.m. local time and I can already envision the camera shots panning across an empty Levi’s Stadium. Even if Aaron Donald plays like the star that he is and Todd Gurley runs for 150 yards, this still doesn’t feel like it’ll be a pretty game to watch.
1. Week 8, Sunday 9:30 a.m., Vikings vs. Browns in London
And we have our winner. Again, the Browns could improve themselves in the draft even if they don’t find their long-coveted franchise QB. And sure, it could be fun to watch Myles Garrett chase Sam Bradford around. But is that “wake up at 9:30 a.m.” fun?
The Vikings could also be better. They did start 5-0 last season, and injuries played a large part in sputtering to a 3-8 finish. But Vikes fans, chins up, you know this isn’t really about you. It’s not totally your team’s fault that it placed two games in my Top 5. (Bottom 5?)
The NFL is obsessive about finding new TV windows and giving us national telecasts. And they’ve given us the Browns at 9:30 a.m. ET and 6:30 a.m. on the West Coast. Can’t wait.