The NFL is fast approaching the halfway point of its 2017 season, and everybody stinks.
Perhaps that’s harsh, but the point stands. In the last two weeks, I’ve read articles like: Forget the Chiefs: There Is No Best Team in the NFL; NFL 2017: A Mishmash of Mediocrity, Where No Team is Great, Some Are Good (and One is Perfectly Bad); and There are no good teams in the NFL this season. Not even the Patriots.
There are plenty more in a similar vein.
It’s not that we don’t know who’s the best of the bland bunch; there is remarkable consensus on that. In a cursory survey of league power rankings from major sports news websites, a consensus had, in some order, the same top four: Eagles, Patriots, Chiefs and Steelers. Add the Seahawks and Rams, and those six teams were unanimously listed among the top seven.
It’s fascinating, really — we agree nobody is especially good, we are in lockstep on who is kind-of maybe good and we concur that almost no team has played themselves out of contention (with apologies to the 49ers Faithful).
What nobody seems to agree on is what it means. Why so much mediocrity? Is the lag in ratings a response to bad football or a collection of more complex factors? Is this the oft-ballyhooed “parity” that the league has been striving for? If so, YOU LIKE THAT?! Less importantly, weren’t the Bills supposed to be tanking?
WHEN ELITE IS ELUSIVE, GOOD IS GETTABLE
Taking the last question first — yes. Voices from inside the franchise denied it from the beginning (and were clearly onto something), but the consensus on Buffalo after they shipped Sammy Watkins and Ronald Darby out of town was “tankapalooza.”
The Bills, who the Raiders visit Sunday, are tied for second in the AFC East with a controlling position on a Wild Card spot after six games. Sean McDermott is distinguishing himself as a good young head coach, Tyrod Taylor remains a surprisingly effective quarterback and the defense is stout.
The 49ers’ upcoming opponent paints an equally encouraging picture. The Philadelphia Eagles struggled in the second half last year and entered this season with concerns abounding for both their head coach and starting quarterback. Carson Wentz is now leading the league in passing touchdowns, Doug Pederson has avoided puking on himself publicly and the Eagles have been the best team in the league.
There’s a short distance between blah and best. Both the Bills and Eagles were 7-9 last year. Neither bolstered its roster considerably (though hiring McDermott to replace Rex Ryan was significant), and both are in the 2017 playoff picture.
Moreover, the lack of an entrenched power means virtually any team that sneaks into the playoffs can have a real shot at reaching the Super Bowl. The unilaterally well-ranked Patriots have one of the worst defenses in football. The equally respected Steelers lost to the lowly Bears. When the top of the heap is so vulnerable, a postseason berth is that much more meaningful.
FORTUNES CHANGE FAST
This has been true in the NFL for a while, but it’s more meaningful than ever.
Not only is the prospect of a one-year turnaround reasonable (see: Los Angeles Rams, Jacksonville Jaguars), but prospects change dramatically on a week-to-week basis. Take the Miami Dolphins, who were beached after Week 4 at 1-2, with an unfortunate first-week bye and a more unfortunate quarterback situation. They’ve now won three straight and are somehow in wild card position. Steelers’ QB Ben Roethlisberger nearly declared himself deceased before back-to-back wins over the Chiefs and Bengals put Pittsburgh into the consensus top four.
This should be a source of encouragement for Bay Area fans. It means the Raiders are every bit contenders after their big Thursday win. The next six games — five matchups with AFC opponents currently ahead of them in the standings — will go a long way in determining how serious that contention is. But we know none of those teams with better records than Oakland are especially good, because nobody is.
The 49ers situation is more dire, but the forecast may be equally encouraging. The Niners will be competitive sooner than you think. (Not this year, of course.) The Rams and Jaguars won a combined seven games last year, a total that both seem very likely to pass this season.
And not much changed.
The Jaguars cemented their defense with big free agents and added a hellion of a rookie RB in Leonard Fournette. The Rams got some O-line help and receivers to assist young QB Jared Goff. Both teams hired new head coaches. Boom — destitution becomes playoff contention.
The 49ers already hired a well-respected young head coach. They have drafted a collection of talented young defenders and quality running backs. As crazy as it seems to say this of an 0-7 team, San Francisco may be a QB, improved WRs and some bolstering of the offensive line away from legitimately competing for a playoff spot.
With a heap of salary cap space and what looks to be easily a top five draft pick, those are undoubtedly things that could happen in a single offseason.
PLAYING WITH PARITY
Is this really what football fans want?
Ratings are down, but it’s impossible to nail down exactly why. We simply don’t have the ability to isolate the factors. There are legitimate complaints about quality of play, quantity of injuries and penalties, off-field behavior of the league’s personnel and on-field protests of police brutality.
Then again, there’s more football available than ever, more television and visual entertainment across the board, and no shortage of dramatic content to lead the consumer to non-football programming — from natural disasters like hurricanes to unnatural disasters like our current political situation.
The NFL remains one of the, if not the most, bankable assets on television. It draws more eyes and pushes more product than virtually anything else. It’s not in imminent danger of disappearing. But fundamentally, one of two things is true: Either declining quality is not a major factor in ratings, or the public prefers to see greatness and the overall lapse in quality is driving the decline in viewership.
Perhaps, the possibility that any team can turn it around and compete within a year or two is beneficial. It gives hope to everyone (with the possible exception of Browns fans). Perhaps, mediocrity is the new black. Perhaps, the chorus of “no good football” increases in volume and it’s all downhill from here.
But I do know one thing: With all the off-field garbage the NFL puts on our plates — political quagmires, domestic violence, head trauma — it’s hard to imagine the league retaining its hold on the nation’s eyes and minds if we all agree that everybody stinks.
Matt Kolsky is a sports media professional (or something like that) and lives with an aging Shih Tzu/Schnauser mix in Berkeley. You can hear his podcast, The Toy Department, on iTunes or wherever else fine podcasts are free. Find him on Twitter @thekolsky to share your personal feelings about this article or any other topic, he will respond to most tweets that do not contain racial slurs.