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Where is the NFL when you need it? While We’re Waiting

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Happy Tuesday, WFNY!

So how is everyone feeling this week? It has been a pretty crazy week in this country since my last While We’re Waiting to say the least. But on the field, from a sports perspective, it has been a pretty quiet week in Cleveland sports. The Browns lost again, and sure, there’s some rumbling about potential changes on the horizon and whatnot. But does anyone care? The Browns are the Browns. Why are the Browns the way they are? I don’t know, why are boobs good?

I don’t have the energy to really talk about the Browns because there’s just nothing to say. We already know how this is going to end. Jimmy is going to get restless and impatient, he’s going to start making front office changes next year, then Hue Jackson will be fired the following year, and we’ll be told that the Browns are starting over and that this time they are going to get it right. So why even bother talking about things happening now, right?

Now that baseball season is over and basketball season is still too new to have any kind of larger takeaways, we are truly in the heart of football season, and it sucks when the Browns are the Browns. Normally I could get into the NFL in general, but honestly, the NFL kind of stinks this year. The Cowboys are a fascinating story and of course, I’m still rooting for Ezekiel Elliott. The Patriots are still doing their thing. The Kansas City Chiefs are doing that thing they always do where they are really boring and nobody pays attention to them but somehow there they are at 7-2, tied with New England for the best record in the AFC. Seattle might be interesting again. So there are a few interesting teams to watch, but man, in general, I have found the NFL tough to watch this year.

This isn’t breaking news. The declining TV ratings for the NFL has been an ongoing storyline all season. Plenty of talking heads are trying to get at the root of this decline. I have theories, but they are just that. My favorite, however, is the theory that people aren’t watching because the games aren’t entertaining and the quality on the field is so bad. That twists my mind in knots. I mean, if people aren’t watching, how can they know the quality of the games is so bad? If they know the games have been lousy this year (and they certainly have been), it means they are watching. I know it’s not that simple, but I think there are probably bigger things at play with the TV ratings.

I don’t want to get too much into the TV rating side of things because that’s pure speculation. What I do want to touch on a little deeper, though, is the low quality of football being played in the NFL. It’s funny because college football is kind of like the opening band at a show. They go first, and they’re supposed to get the fans warmed up. And then the headliner comes on and blows everyone away. In this scenario, though, the opening band has been stealing the show night in and night out.

As bad as the NFL season has been, the college football season has been the polar opposite. It has been great. Every weekend there have been incredible finishes, big upsets, and plenty of intrigue. But even beyond that, the quality of football being played at the college level is pretty great. There are so many schools doing all kinds of innovative and interesting things on offense. The game feels much more wide open and energetic. Teams are consistently able to spread the field and use every square inch of the field to their advantage. Then on Sundays, we get to the NFL where you have more or less the same old predictable pro-style offenses. The games feel stale and stuffy. There never seems to be much innovation, either, as coaches are routinely recycled from team to team.

When it comes to postseason prognostication, too, college football is winning here as well. In college football, there is intrigue and speculation on whether or not a one-loss Ohio State team should get into the playoffs or not. Meanwhile, in the NFC, a bunch of 4-5 teams are battling for a wild card spot.

Then there are issues like inconsistency on calls (such as, what is and what is not a catch) and flags galore. It seems like we’re lucky to go three plays without flags being on the field. At which point the game stops, the refs quickly huddle, the umpire makes the call, and then they walk off the yardage and reset the clock. Then the teams finally get back to the line to restart the game. It’s disruptive and disorienting.

Obviously, the refs can’t just not call penalties. But I’m wondering if the technology allows the refs to be more tightly scrutinized in post-game performance reviews with their superiors, which might lead to the game being called tighter on the field. The goal should be to get every call right, of course, and that means if teams are going to commit penalties the refs are going to call them on it. But that doesn’t mean that outcome is enjoyable from a pure entertainment perspective.

And speaking of entertainment, there’s also the issue where the NFL is the only major sport that keeps going out of their way to stifle fun and entertainment. Other sports want their stars to be flashy and bombastic. The NFL would prefer their players act like students of the Milford School, being neither seen nor heard.

None of this means the NFL is going anywhere. It’s not going to lose its grip on America as the king of all sports any time soon, if ever. It’s not all gloom and doom. It’s still football. It’s just that right now the quality is probably the lowest it has been in quite some time. And on top of that, the NFL has a star problem.

Quick, name the 10 biggest superstars in the NFL. The 10 guys even people who don’t follow sports have probably at least heard of.

I’ll give you a couple seconds…..

Who did you come up with? Who are the marquee names in football? Who are the guys that if you were making a commercial, you would really want them to be in it? Once you get past the obvious ones like Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, JJ Watt, and Andrew Luck, the list starts to dry up pretty quick. You have your guys like Gronk, Richard Sherman, Cam Newton, Odell Beckham Jr. on the periphery of that list. But there’s not a lot of star power in the NFL right now.

And on the defensive side of the ball, it gets harder than ever to find big names. Long gone are the likes of Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Troy Polamalu, Deion Sanders, Lawrence Taylor, Reggie White, Ronnie Lott. With JJ Watt hurt, you pretty much have Von Miller, Richard Sherman, and maybe Josh Norman as somewhat household names. The NFL has never done a worse job of marketing and promoting itself and its major stars than it has in recent years. For so long the NFL rested on their laurels of having Peyton Manning in the league. But Peyton is gone, and the NFL hasn’t really gone on about the business of marketing the next batch of stars.

Things only get worse when we start talking about off-the-field issues with players and with the NFL, where guys like Ray Rice and Greg Hardy have dominated story lines in recent years. Just this year the NFL had another issue with New York Giants kicker Josh Brown and claims of domestic abuse and the team potentially looking the other way on it. This stuff just isn’t fun to follow, to root for, or to support.

Most sports fans in America love football. I love football. This is why I’m bringing these issues up. It’s because I do care, and I do want the product to be as entertaining as it can be. Rather than ruling with an iron fist, I wish the NFL could allow players to better express themselves and be unique and most of all, be entertaining. The “No Fun League” acronym exists for a reason and it has never been more appropriate than these last few years. I hope it changes soon, because, with no turnaround in sight for my beloved Browns, I’m stuck with the rest of the league for better or worse.