Secret To Solving NFL’s Ratings Woes: Show Better Games

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Ezekiel Elliott (21), the NFL's leading rusher, has led the Dallas Cowboys to eight straight wins after a season-opening loss to the New York Giants. USA TODAY SPORTS

This past Sunday, the National Football League unleashed its latest gimmick to reverse this season’s trend of relatively anemic ratings: decent games!

Fox’s late-afternoon contest featuring the Dallas Cowboys against the Pittsburgh Steelers, which would have been an absolute gem 40 years ago, produced the largest viewership of any game this season (a 17.8 Nielsen rating). Later on, in prime time, NBC’s telecast of the Seattle Seahawks against the New England Patriots was the Peacock’s highest-rated Week 10 contest (14.3 rating) in five years.

During the first two months of this NFL season, ratings were so poor that the league sent out a memo blaming a “confluence of events” on the downturn. That maneuver made the Shield look skittish and probably caused New York fans to wonder why the Jets don’t send out a similar memo each autumn. One of the events the NFL cited was the presidential election, and that is true; it’s also a reminder that we live in an age in which some consider the election of the most powerful leader in the free world, as compared with football games, to be the diversion.

What the NFL lacked in September and October was drama. In terms of attention, it was being sacked by Donald Trump and blindsided by the Chicago Cubs—with no concussion protocol established for either trauma. The most newsworthy NFL moment each Sunday was whether San Francisco’s backup quarterback would replicate football’s least exciting play, taking a knee, during the national anthem. Colin Kaepernick chose to kneel, while the league’s premier attraction, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, had no choice but to sit out the first four weeks of the season because of his Deflategate suspension.  

RTX2TIF2 The New England Patriots' Tom Brady (12) missed the season's first four games and fumbled the snap on a potential game-winning quarterback sneak. USA TODAY SPORTS

Meanwhile, the gimmicks and mishaps kept coming: “Color Rush” Thursdays. Sunday morning kickoffs in London (what would the pastor say?). No Mike Tirico. A double dose of Al Michaels. A No. 1 overall draft pick, quarterback Jared Goff, who has yet to take a snap for the Los Angeles Rams, who have the NFL’s worst offense (in an appeal to L.A.’s soccer-mad Hispanic community, the Rams have won two games by exclusively scoring field goals). The Cleveland Browns.

Then came this past Sunday. The election was over (how did it turn out?), and almost all of the 5 million Cubs fans who had attended the November 4 victory parade had by now sobered up. The NFL and its TV partners seized the moment by airing a pair of terrific games for every fan who thinks of his couch as his personal seat license. The Cowboys and Steelers have quite a history, having met twice in Super Bowls in the 1970s and once in the 1990s. The Seahawks and Patriots played in Super Bowl XLIX less than two years ago. All but the third Cowboys-Steelers skirmish were classics, with each of the other three games decided by four points.

Sunday’s ratings grabbers featured three first-place teams and a trio of quarterbacks (Brady, Ben Roethlisberger and Russell Wilson) who between them had 11 Super Bowl starts and seven rings. The fourth, Cowboy rookie Dak “to the Future” Prescott, had led Dallas to seven straight wins. The fourth-round pick would be a shoo-in for Rookie of the Year if it were not for his backfield mate, running back Ezekiel Elliott, who leads the NFL in rushing.

RTSPDLV The San Francisco 49ers' Colin Kaepernick (7) has taken a stand by not standing for "The Star-Spangled Banner." USA TODAY SPORTS

Both games had plenty of promise, and both, er, trumped expectations. In both contests, the lead changed hands seven times, marking the first time in NFL history that two games on the same day flipped the advantage that many times.

Both games were decided in the final minute too. The Dallas-Pittsburgh game had three go-ahead touchdowns after the two-minute warning, capped by Elliott’s 32-yard run with 0:09 on the clock. The Cowboy rookie rusher is the prohibitive favorite for Rookie of the Year and could be the first person to win that and Most Valuable Player in the same year since Earl Campbell of the Houston Oilers did so in 1978. The only other player besides Tyler Rose to achieve that feat? Jim Brown.

A few hours later and a few hundred miles northeast, in Foxboro, Massachusetts, the Seahawks and Patriots played an isomer image of their memorable Super Bowl XLIX meeting in Glendale, Arizona. This time, it was New England that was in a position to at least tie the game with the ball just a couple yards from paydirt in the waning seconds, but Seattle held on downs when Brady’s fourth-down end-zone toss to tight end Rob Gronkowski fell incomplete. Gronk and the Seahawk safety covering him, Kam Chancellor, stopped and frisked one another as the pass sailed toward them, but you cannot call pass interference on both players. Or can you?

There were actually four fantastic NFL games on Sunday. Besides the two aforementioned contests, the Denver Broncos overcame the Saints in New Orleans via a bizarre reversal of misfortune. The Saints tied the score with 1:22 to play on a 32-yard touchdown pass from Drew Brees to Brandin Cooks. Denver then blocked the ensuing point after try that would have given the Saints a one-point lead and returned it to the opposite end zone for two points, and the 25-23 win (in an earlier era, this moment would later be commemorated via one of Alcoa’s “Fantastic Finishes”).

Meanwhile, in Charlotte, the Carolina Panthers led the Kansas City Chiefs late in the third quarter but still lost. What was more inconceivable: that the Panthers went on a 20-play drive in that third quarter that ended in a punt, or that the Chiefs would score 20 unanswered points to win without getting a touchdown on offense? Either way, Kansas City has now won 18 of its last 21 games without anyone outside the Central Time Zone appearing to notice (the Chiefs do identify with the color red, after all).

A quick note: All four of those meetings were inter-conference games in which the visiting team won. There may be something to the appeal of dancing with strangers in the NFL.

After a moribund first two months, the league got its groove back on Sunday. For the foreseeable future, the most heated debates will take place on barstools.