The Daily Briefing Tuesday, January 16, 2018

AROUND THE NFL 

NFC EAST

 

DALLAS

The Cowboys have completed a “trade” of offensive line coaches with the Bengals.  Clarence Hill in the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram brings us up-to-date:

 

The Dallas Cowboys have hired Paul Alexander as offensive line coach, a source confirmed.

 

Alexander comes to the Cowboys after a 20-year stint with the Cincinnati Bengals. He replaces Frank Pollack, who ironically was hired to replace Alexander in Cincinnati.

 

The Cowboys’ staff remains in flux with openings remaining at secondary coach, quarterbacks coach, receivers coach, tight ends coach and possibly running backs coach and linebackers coach.

 

Gary Brown has an offer to return as running backs coach, but is still weighing his options.

 

Linebackers coach Matt Eberflus could be in line for a defensive coordinator job with another team.

 

The Cowboys did not renew the contracts of secondary coach Joe Baker, quarterbacks coach Wade Wilson and receivers coach Derek Dooley after the 2017 season.

 

Dooley has since become the offensive coordinator at Missouri. Tight ends coach Steve Loney retired and special teams coach Rich Bisaccia left to join the Oakland Raiders staff.

 

 

NEW YORK GIANTS

Ian Rapoport of NFL Network hears that Vikings OC Pat Shurmur would prefer to be the coach of the New York Giants over the job with the Cardinals, both of which he may be the frontrunner for.  Rapoport hears that the Giants have come to love Shurmur as well

 

NFC SOUTH

 

ATLANTA

Bill Barnwell of ESPN.com with a lukewarm defense of Steve Sarkisian:

 

Contrast that to the Falcons, who rued the departed Kyle Shanahan in a game in which their offense simply didn’t do enough to win. New offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian took much of the blame as Atlanta’s offense failed to live up to the lofty heights of 2016 throughout the season, and he — alongside coach Dan Quinn — certainly didn’t have his best game as a coordinator. The Falcons seemed to decide to go for it on fourth-and-2 at midfield in the second quarter, only to somehow end up not getting set and running a play just after the play clock expired. The play wouldn’t have worked, but while the Falcons caught a break, the whole episode just spoke to how flummoxing their offense seemed to be at times on Saturday.

 

Sarkisian’s playcalls on the final series also came in for plenty of criticism. A first-down fade to Julio Jones failed. On second down, he called for a shovel pass to Terron Ward, who didn’t seem ready for the ball. Third down was a slant to Jones short of the end zone, before fourth down saw the Falcons motion fullback Derrick Coleman out as a wide receiver before running a sprint-out for Jones, who slipped and never got open on a play the Eagles saw coming as the Falcons broke the huddle.

 

The playcalls certainly didn’t work, but they weren’t as bad as the picture I presented above. The fade to Jones is entirely defensible given that he was matched up one-on-one against the shorter Ronald Darby. Ryan’s throw was bad. I don’t understand why it wasn’t to Devonta Freeman or Tevin Coleman, but the shovel pass has been an effective play near the goal line this season, with the Chiefs scoring repeatedly with the tactic. The Patriots also scored on a shovel pass on Saturday.

 

As for the fourth-down call, the fullback motioning out to the weak side is a tactic the vast majority of teams (including the Patriots) will use to both identify coverage and take a defender out of the play. The Eagles called the sprint-out, but the Saints used a similar play as their regular two-point/fourth-down play for years, while the Raiders ran the same sort of sprint-out and throw to the pylon for a game-winning score against the Chiefs in Week 7. It’s a natural follow-up when teams are expecting a fade, but Jones slipped. I don’t think it was a great playcall, but it’s not an inherently stupid choice.

 

Atlanta fans’ frustration with Sarkisian is also overstated and a product of regression toward the mean. The Falcons were dominant under Shanahan last season. They led the league in points scored, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Their five offensive linemen started all 16 games, the only team in the league to do so. Atlanta sported the most productive first-down offense in the history of football. Even if the Falcons planted Shanahan on the sidelines and didn’t allow him to take a single call from another team, Atlanta’s offense was going to decline in 2017.

 

And to be honest, it didn’t decline very much. The Falcons had the league’s third-best first-down offense. They were the best team in the league converting third downs. Atlanta finished ninth in offensive DVOA and seventh in points per drive.

 

Their raw numbers went down because the Falcons ran a league-low 157 meaningful drives on offense, 24 fewer than the league average and 38 fewer than the league-leading Cardinals. That’s a product of their own offense generating long drives and their defense struggling to get off the field. No team faced more plays per drive than the Falcons’ defense, which had the second-longest average time of possession per drive on defense. As a result, the Falcons’ offense struggled to get on the field and had the league’s second-worst average starting field position.

 

If you want to ignore that, it’s your call. The easy, reactionary thing to do would be to fire Sarkisian. Never mind that some Falcons fans wanted to fire Shanahan after his first year in town, when Atlanta ranked 23rd in offensive DVOA and looked disjointed all year, which would suggest that continuity might be the smarter move.

 

There just isn’t much in the way of better options out there. Consider that the Seahawks are hiring Brian Schottenheimer — who has been run out of his past three coordinating jobs with the Jets, Rams and at Georgia — because they were concerned that he wouldn’t last much longer on the market. Who are you hiring who represents a clear upgrade on Sarkisian?

 

I asked Falcons fans on Twitter and heard Gary Kubiak as the most frequent response, but Texans fans were sick of what they considered to be an antiquated Kubiak offense when he was pushed out in Houston. And after Kubiak ranked ninth in offensive DVOA during his lone season in Baltimore, his offenses ranked 25th and 28th in two seasons with the Broncos. Darrell Bevell was just fired so the Seahawks could hire Schottenheimer. Eagles quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo was 27th in DVOA during his lone season as an offensive coordinator with the Browns in 2015. This just isn’t a great market for offensive minds.

 

Consider the Eagles, who were one of seven teams to hire a head coach during the 2016 offseason. Each of those seven teams hired an offense-minded coach. Two of those other six — Chip Kelly and Ben McAdoo — are already out of their jobs. Dirk Koetter and Mike Mularkey nearly lost their jobs this year. Adam Gase saw his team fall apart in what was supposed to be a big year. Hue Jackson has gone 1-31. Pederson pretty clearly has been the most successful hire of the bunch, and now, both he and his backup quarterback are one game from the Super Bowl.

 

NFC WEST

 

SEATTLE

Ken Norton, Jr. was unceremoniously fired in mid-season as Raiders defensive coordinator.  But he’s good enough to run Pete Carroll’s defense in 2018.  Bob Condotta of the Seattle Times:

 

The Seahawks are bringing back former assistant Ken Norton Jr. as the defensive coordinator with Kris Richard apparently on his way out.

 

The news was first reported by Mike Garafolo of the NFL Network and then confirmed by the 49ers, who had hired Norton last week as assistant head coach-defense/inside linebackers.

 

“Last week, Ken was presented with an opportunity to once again coordinate a defense,” said a statement from 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan. “Because of how we feel about Ken as a coach, we understand and respect his desire to pursue the position.”

 

Norton was with the Seahawks from 2010-14 as linebackers coach before leaving to become the defensive coordinator of the Raiders when the Seahawks chose Richard to replace Dan Quinn as defensive coordinator. Quinn left to become the head coach of the Falcons.

 

Norton was fired by the Raiders in November and then announced as hired last week by the 49ers.

 

But his San Francisco contract included an out allowing him to take a job as a coordinator.

 

The Seahawks had no confirmation of the move and also have yet to confirm that Richard will not return. It is thought that the team is hoping Richard will find another coaching job so as to avoid a firing.

 

Norton is the son of former heavyweight boxer Ken Norton and spent 13 years as a linebacker in the NFL with the Cowboys and the 49ers, winning three straight Super Bowl rings in 1992-93-94.

 

He spent all of his coaching career under Pete Carroll until the move to the Raiders in 2015, beginning at USC in 2004 as a defensive assistant and then from 2005-08 as linebackers coach and 2009 as assistant head coach-defense/linebackers before coming to Seattle with Carroll in 2010.

 

He held the title of linebackers coach for all five years of his Seattle tenure before leaving for the Raiders in Feb., 2015.

– – –

Seahawks CB JEREMY LANE has picked up a DUI despite passing the blood alcohol test (if Lane is to be believed).  Michael David Smith of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

Seahawks cornerback Jeremy Lane took to Twitter today in response to his driving under the influence arrest yesterday, and he suggested that he didn’t deserve to be arrested.

 

Lane wrote on Twitter that his blood-alcohol level was below the legal limit in the state of Washington.

 

“A fail DUI is 0.08 right ? I blew 0.03 why was still arrest,” Lane wrote, “I’ll just leave it at that.”

jeremy lane (@StayingInMyLane) January 15, 2018

 

However, the law does not leave it at that. Although a driver who blows a 0.08 will be arrested, Washington law makes clear that a driver can be arrested for DUI if “He or she is found to be driving a vehicle under the influence or affected by alcohol, any drug, or a combination of alcohol and drugs, regardless of the concentration of alcohol in their breath or blood.”

 

What other factors led the officer to make the arrest are unknown, but the mere fact that he blew a 0.03 won’t be enough to get Lane off the hook, either with the law or with the league office, which could issue a suspension, or with the Seahawks, who may not want Lane on their team in 2018.

 

We’re not sure about the contention made by author Smith in boldface.  An arrest is not a conviction, and the low test should be a strong part of Lane’s defense.  We’re guessing that at 5:30 a.m. he exhibited signs of bad driving that might be a combination of fatigue, alcohol and some other substance such a marijuana.  We don’t know yet how bad that driving might be, but there is still to be a final adjudication where he may or may not escape the clutches of the police.  Then on to the roulette wheel of NFL Justice.

 

AFC NORTH

 

CINCINNATI

Unknown quantity QB A.J. McCARRON opens up about the trade to Cleveland that would have given him a Garoppolo-like opportunity.  Michael David Smith of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

Bengals backup quarterback AJ McCarron was nearly traded to the Browns, but the trade fell through when the proper paperwork wasn’t sent to the league office before the trade deadline. McCarron now says he wanted to be traded because he thought he could have started and won games in Cleveland, rather than stand on the sideline in Cincinnati.

 

“As a competitor, I wanted that opportunity, just to be able to showcase and help a team win ball games,” McCarron said on WNSP, via AL.com. “I think I would have had some success playing for Hue. I would have loved the opportunity to go up there and get them a win, more than one win. As a competitor, that’s all you can ask for.”

 

But the trade didn’t go through, apparently because the Browns didn’t submit the trade through the official league channels, as required before any trade can be consummated.

 

“It was an odd deal,” McCarron said. “I got a text from my agent at 3:34 saying ‘hey, there’s a possible trade going down. Stay by your phone. I’ll let you know.’ I got another call from him right at 4 saying ‘from what I know, it’s a done deal. I’ll call you back in a minute and let you know.’ The next call I got was at 4:03 and he’s ‘hey, the trade didn’t go through. They didn’t get the paperwork in on time.’ Everybody has a story. I’m sure Cleveland has their own story, Cincy has their own story. But it’s just one of those things, when you think you’ve seen everything, you’re shown a little bit more. I think the only people who truly know what happened were the ones leading the whole situation on both sides.”

 

McCarron believes he could have won games with the Browns, just as Jimmy Garoppolo took the 49ers from 1-10 to 6-10 when he started the final five games of the season. We’ll never know how that would have worked out, but McCarron may get another chance to go to Cleveland: He has a grievance hearing scheduled for next month that will determine whether he’s a restricted free agent, in which case he may spend another season as Andy Dalton‘s backup, or an unrestricted free agent, in which he’ll get to shop his services to the highest bidder and hopefully find a team that thinks he can start.

 

 

PITTSBURGH

The offense wasn’t the bulk of the problem against Jacksonville.  The Steelers are just the third team to score 40+ points in a postseason loss, the first to do so at home.

 

QB BEN ROETHLISBERGER, the first QB to throw five TD passes in a postseason loss, hopes to play three more seasons according to teammates, but it sounds like it will be with a new offensive coordinator.  Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

 

Ben Roethlisberger said publicly on Sunday he will return to play in the 2018 season. He has told teammates he wants to play at least another three.

 

The question now becomes, who will be the Steelers’ offensive coordinator in 2018 and beyond?

 

Todd Haley just finished the final year of his contract, and it is not common for a Steelers coordinator to return under those circumstances. They usually sign extensions before they enter that final year, unless there’s a reason not to. The last one who ended his contract without an extension was ushered into “retirement” so they could hire Haley.

 

It appears the same might happen to Haley that Bruce Arians experienced after the 2011 season, although no one would call this one a retirement.

 

Haley has done some good things with the Steelers offense and with Roethlisberger at quarterback, particularly helping him cut down on the large number of sacks he had experienced throughout his career.

 

One thing he did not do, however, was build rapport among some of his staff or support among key players in that offense, including Roethlisberger.

 

Two days after their loss to New England in the AFC championship a year ago, Roethlisberger said on 93.7 The Fan that he was contemplating retirement. After he decided to return, he insisted concerns about his health, his family and recent CTE tests prompted retirement thoughts.

 

However, a Steelers source surmised that some biting words from Haley the day after the loss in New England prompted a frustrated Roethlisberger to bring up retirement publicly.

 

The coach and quarterback rarely talked along the sidelines, never huddled to discuss upcoming strategy while their defense was on the field. It came to a head when the coaches were unprepared to have a play ready when the Jesse James touchdown was overturned against New England.

 

Mike Tomlin made the unusual move at midseason to have quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner leave the coaches’ booth for the sideline. It came at the behest of Roethlisberger, who wanted a “buffer” between him and Haley, according to a CBS report at the time.

 

Haley himself took to the booth in the preseason but explained it was merely to see if he might prefer working there during games rather than on the sideline. All denied it had anything to do with Roethlisberger, and Haley returned to the sideline once the regular season began.

 

He may not be on the Steelers sideline or in the booth for 2018. If not, Fichtner would be a strong candidate to replace him as coordinator.

 

Haley’s offense finished third in the NFL with an average of 377.9 yards per game in 2017, third in passing (273.8), eighth in points (25.4) and 20th in rushing (104.2), which has always been a Steelers staple.

 

They produced 545 yards and 42 points Sunday in their playoff loss to Jacksonville, the NFL’s second-ranked defense in 2017.

 

But then, they all proclaimed they have the best talent on offense in the league, as the All-Pro and Pro Bowl teams have backed. And the schism that has developed among the players and coaches on offense may override some of the production as they decide how to move forward.

 

Since Roethlisberger has told teammates his plans to play at least another three years, management must know too, and that would have to come as a relief because they can now plan accordingly.

 

There is no need to rush to draft a franchise quarterback for this year, especially since they will select low in the round again and have so many needs elsewhere. There is a pressing need at inside linebacker, safety and even halfback if they pass on making Le’Veon Bell their franchise player again and he does not come to terms on a contract.

 

There’s no question Roethlisberger remains at the top of his game, as his performance against Jacksonville can attest. Whether Haley returns to coach him again is the next question.

 

AFC SOUTH

 

INDIANAPOLIS

Although we will believe it for sure when we see it, sources presumably close to Josh McDaniels says the coveted Patriots OC will choose/has chosen the Colts head coaching job over others.  The Titans abrupt new opening may have given him pause, Ian Rapoport and Tom Pelissero of NFL Network are among those saying McDaniels will take the Colts offer.

 

 

TENNESSEE

The statement released by the Titans last week saying there would not be a change of head coaches was a bunch of malarkey.  ESPN.com:

 

Mike Mularkey has agreed to part ways with the Tennessee Titans, who announced Monday that the sides “couldn’t come to an agreement over the future.”

 

Titans controlling owner Amy Adams Strunk acknowledged in a statement that the organization had discussed a potential contract extension with Mularkey, who this year coached Tennessee to its first postseason appearance since 2008.

 

But the talks revealed that Mularkey and the Titans “saw different paths to achieve greater success,” according to Adams Strunk. General manager Jon Robinson is expected to address the decision during a news conference later Monday.

 

The Titans were open to extending Mularkey, whose current contract runs through 2018, but they wanted to make changes to his coaching staff, sources told ESPN’s Cameron Wolfe.

 

“It is certainly unfortunate that we couldn’t find enough common ground,” Adams Strunk said. “I generally believe that continuity is the best path for success, but I also view this as an important moment for our football team as we try to make that next step to sustained success on the field. Jon will begin the search immediately to identify that person.”

 

Mularkey, 56, went 20-21 in parts of three seasons with the Titans and guided Tennessee to back-to-back 9-7 records in his two years as the team’s full-time coach.

 

The Titans ended an eight-year postseason drought and won a playoff game for the first time since 2003 with their 22-21 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs in the wild-card round earlier this month.

 

But Tennessee was eliminated Saturday with a 35-14 loss to the New England Patriots.

 

“I want to thank Mike Mularkey for his contributions to our franchise over his tenure with our organization,” Adams Strunk said in Monday’s statement. “He took over our team during a low moment and together with Jon built a solid foundation for our franchise. I appreciated that Mike devoted himself to this team and the community.”

 

Adams Strunk had publicly supported Mularkey just over a week ago, saying in a Jan. 7 statement that “to eliminate any distractions moving forward, Mike Mularkey is our head coach and will be our head coach moving forward.”

 

Thoughts from Cameron Wolfe of ESPN.com:

 

Mularkey’s smashmouth offense did not appear a fit for the 24-year-old Mariota, and maybe his biggest mistake was not adjusting enough to what Mariota did best. He also never connected with the Titans’ fan base, many of whom didn’t want him as head coach and grew frustrated with his offense.

 

“We’re going to play to the players’ strengths and do what they do best. It’s always been that way,” Mularkey said Sunday afternoon, also noting he was happy with Mariota’s development.

 

Sorry, Mike, but that’s hard to believe after watching the 2017 Titans. At the very least, Mariota’s strengths were not maximized.

 

Mariota was expected to take a huge step forward in 2017, but he finished with a career-low 13 passing touchdowns and career-high 15 interceptions. He never appeared comfortable in Mularkey’s scheme that relied upon multiple tight end sets, a power running game and an overall slow flow to the offense.

 

It still seems true, at least to this writer, that Mularkey did a good job building a culture and a resilient mentality in the 2017 Titans while doing a bad job running the 2017 Titans’ offense. Mularkey’s unwillingness to change the latter likely cost him a chance to continue to do the former.

 

In an AFC South where Jacksonville has emerged as a true contender, Indianapolis is preparing for the return of Andrew Luck and Houston is awaiting the return of Deshaun Watson, Tennessee felt like a regression candidate under Mularkey next season.

 

While another Mike, McCarthy of Green Bay, remains in command of the Packers after jettisoning most of his hand-picked coaching staff, Mularkey’s desire to stay the course/stubbornly refuse to adapt led to his undoing.  Charean Williams of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

Titans General Manager Jon Robinson said the decision to fire head coach Mike Mularkey was made Monday morning. Mularkey’s insistence on keeping his staff intact and his message of “continuity” in Sunday’s press conference played parts in the reversal from discussing an extension with Mularkey to moving on from him.

 

“We’ve done a lot of good things here over the last two years,” Robinson said, via the team website. “I just felt like we needed to go a different direction and maximize the skill sets of the players on the field.”

 

The Titans won their first playoff game in 14 years, and no team had fired its head coach after it won a playoff game in the same season since the 49ers parted ways with Steve Mariucci after the 2002 season. But after Tennessee was blown out by the Patriots on Saturday night, Mularkey talked of status quo.

 

It’s not what the Titans or their fans wanted to hear.

 

“At the end of the day, we felt like we needed to go down a different path to move forward,” Robinson said.

 

Mularkey claimed he was satisfied with third-year quarterback Marcus Mariota‘s development. But statistics don’t back that up as Mariota threw 13 touchdowns and 15 interceptions this season after throwing 26 touchdowns and nine interceptions last season.

 

“Marcus is a really good football player,” Robinson said when asked about Mularkey’s comment about Mariota’s development. “I think if you just look at the statistics, it didn’t quite say that. But I think Marcus made quite a few good plays for us this year.”

 

Robinson said the search will beginning immediately. Robinson’s Patriots ties could lead his search to Josh McDaniels and Mike Vrabel, with the Texans defensive coordinator expected to interview in Tennessee.

 

How did firing Mariucci work out for the 49ers?  A quick glance at the raw record says not so good:

 

2002                     10-6         Steve Mariucci

2003                       7-9         Dennis Erickson

2004                       2-14       Dennis Erickson

2005                       4-12       Mike Nolan

2006                       7-9         Mike Nolan

2007                       5-11       Mike Nolan

 

The 49ers next winning season was 2011 with Jim Harbaugh

– – –

GM Jon Robertson will interview Texans DC Mike Vrabel, an old Patriots crony, for Mularkey’s job.  Josh McDaniels may also be of interest, but reports continue to link the Pats OC to the Colts job.

 

More from Terry McCormick of TitansInsider.com:

 

Another potential candidate, according to a league source, might be Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich, who is most known to Oilers/Titans fans for the playoff comeback he directed back in 1993 with the Buffalo Bills against the franchise.

 

A report from CBS Sports indicated the Titans plan to interview Panthers defensvie coordinator Steve Wilks, who would also satisfy their compliance with the Rooney Rule to interview a minority candidate.

 

Also getting a Tennessee interview is Matt LaFleur, the righthand offensive man for youthful Rams genius Sean McVay. LaFleur, 38, has also spent two seasons as QB coach for Kyle Shanahan when that offensive genius ran the Falcons offense.

 

 

THIS AND THAT

 

 

BROADCAST NEWS

It was epic TV, but the Divisionals continued the season-long trend about ratings.  Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

Via SportsBusiness Daily, the ratings for the four games fell to the lowest level in nearly a decade, with each game dropping in comparison to the comparable game from a year ago.

 

The good news, if there is any, comes from the fact that the 21.8 rating generated by the Saints-Vikings in the late afternoon/early evening slot was only 0.1 lower than the 21.9 for Steelers-Chiefs last January, even though that game was played in prime time. The bad news is that the apples-to-apples comparison — the late-afternoon Sunday game between the Packers and Cowboys — churned a 28.2.

 

The Jaguars-Steelers game played at 1:05 p.m. ET posted a 20.4, the lowest overnight rating in that window in 15 years.

 

For the Saturday games, the 17.4 rating coming from Falcons-Eagles was down from last year’s 18.3 from the Seahawks-Falcons contest; that’s the lowest since Ravens-Titans in that same spot drew a 17.0 in early 2009. The 16.6 overnight for the Titans-Patriots game on Saturday night was the lowest since Cardinals-Panthers in early 2009.

 

The NFL would say that the drop is still lower than the broader drop in TV ratings for other shows, that the games lacked national brands like Green Bay and Dallas, and that the starting quarterbacks included Nick Foles, Marcus Mariota, Blake Bortles, and Case Keenum. (Three of them won, besting Matt Ryan, Ben Roethlisberger, and Drew Brees.)

 

Expect similar news next Monday, given the which-doesn’t-belong-and-why? quartet of quarterbacks (Foles, Bortles, Keenum, Tom Brady) for the championship round.

 

Clay Travis of OutkickTheCoverage.com notes that only one kind of football has seen decreased ratings this season, the kind with Anthem Protest issues:

 

Monday night Alabama played Georgia in an all SEC title game and ratings rose 10% over last year’s Alabama Clemson national title game that was decided on the final play of the game. That 10% rise in college football national title game ratings, coming on the heels of another double digit rise in the playoff games between Oklahoma-Georgia and Alabama-Clemson, coincided with a 13% drop in NFL playoff ratings over wild card weekend.

 

So far I haven’t seen anyone else point out the dichotomy of these ratings moves — the college football playoff surged despite airing only on cable and featuring only Southern teams while the NFL tanked despite games being available for free on ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox. The NFL’s 13% collapse in ratings follows a 2017 football season that saw NFL ratings decline 9.7% and this year’s fall comes on the heels of another 8% ratings decline from the 2016 football season.

 

In the past two years the NFL has lost roughly 20% of the viewing audience that the league had in 2015 and, as Outkick previously reported, the NFL’s collapsing ratings are leading to ESPN/ABC, Fox, NBC and CBS projecting a $500 million advertising revenue shortfall relative to their projections. I’m told that revenue shortfall could be even more substantial than the $500 million shortfall if playoff numbers don’t improve substantially over the next two weekends.

 

Already the sports departments at these respective networks are adjusting spending plans and cutting back expenditures to handle this revenue shortfall.

 

Seeing the divergent directions of the NFL and college football playoff ratings this year, I have an interesting question — why is this happening? Why would the college football playoff be up double digits and the NFL be down double digits?

 

Isn’t the college football playoff facing the same structural issues as the NFL? If a decline in overall television viewing is to blame, shouldn’t it be to blame for both football playoffs? If cord cutting is an issue shouldn’t the college football playoff be even more impacted since ESPN is losing over 10,000 subscribers every day and the game airs on cable as opposed to traditional broadcast television which carries the NFL playoffs? Yet the college football playoff ratings surged while the NFL’s games, which are available for free on broadcast television, plummeted.

 

If people are paying more attention to political news and watching it on television more, which I think they doubtless are, shouldn’t that change in viwership impact college and the NFL playoffs similarly? Plus, it’s not as if college football suddenly had a miraculous match up featuring four playoff teams from four different regions of the country. There were four playoff teams, all effectively Southern in regional fan bases. (Oklahoma and Clemson are both shadow SEC programs from pretty much the same geographic footprint as the SEC). Plus, the all SEC title game between Alabama and Georgia had led to dire predictions of limited viewership and fans of other conferences promising not to watch in protest. Instead, the Alabama and Georgia game beat the ratings of the previous two years of playoff title games. This was not, in any way, an ideal four teams for college football TV ratings.

 

Now the NFL apologists can point to the playoff match ups not being very sexy, but all four wild card games were actually pretty competitive. It’s not like we had four massive blow outs; in fact, it was the exact opposite — all four games weren’t completely decided until the final five minutes, and three of the games went down to the final minute of the fourth quarter. What’s more, Atlanta and Los Angeles are two of the biggest television markets in the country and Cam Newton and Drew Brees, playing a highly competitive and exciting game in the premier time slot head-to-head, are two of the biggest stars in the league.

 

So why did college football ratings surge while the NFL plummeted?

 

I think it’s the politicization of the NFL protests. I believe the NFL has lost its way with the anthem protests, alienating its core fan base in the heartland of the country and driving away nearly 20% of its viewership in the past two seasons.

 

Yet the NFL has still been slow to react to this crisis in viewership that is costing its TV partners hundreds of millions of dollars.

 

How many entertainment businesses in the country could handle 20% of their fan base disappearing in two years? This should be a holy crap moment for the league, which should be having emergency meetings designed to fix this issue. Instead, the NFL seems to be just hoping the story goes away.

 

And, amazingly, most national media have ignored the story or, even worse, they’ve pointed to the fact that the NFL games are still highly rated as evidence that the protests aren’t very impactful.

 

Why have the national media not covered this story aggressively? I suspect for several reasons: first, the NFL has intentionally tried to kill the argument that the protest has had a substantial impact on their business because if that story becomes mainstream then it risks seeing the protest grow even larger. Second, most national media are liberal and don’t want to give credit to a conservative fan protest. Rather than cover the conservative fan protest they’ve chosen to lionize the protesting players as heroes. Third, most national media live in New York or Los Angeles or other coastal communes and don’t actually hear from fans in the heartland. They’re in a bubble and don’t know what the rest of the country thinks.

 

My listeners and viewers have anecdotally been telling me they were choosing not to watch the NFL because of the protests for the past two years and I’ve been one of the few national media members to discuss this at all. Two of my close family members, my father-in-law from outside of Detroit and my uncle from outside of Chattanooga, have both told me that they stopped watching NFL games over the protests. Indeed, my father-in-law, a lifelong Detroit Lions fan wasn’t going to put the Lions on at Thanksgiving dinner until I asked him to do so this year. He’s highly educated, politically moderate, and not given to histrionic overreaction to sports. After all, he’s a Lions fan and has been for fifty years.

 

Trust me, he can handle football disappointment.

 

One year he bought my wife and me tickets to see the Titans play the Lions on Thanksgiving and in years past the NFL games have always been on in his house for Thanksgiving.

 

But not this year.

 

When I asked him why he told me he just didn’t need to see politics when he wanted to watch football. If the players could protest things they didn’t like in this country, then why should he, a fan who was helping to pay their salaries, not exercise his own right to protest and not watch them play?

 

The NFL’s ratings collapse suggests my father-in-law’s not alone, that there are millions of other people just like him, people who would otherwise watch the NFL but have chosen to do something else with their time.

 

My uncle’s viewing decisions are also increasingly common — he was upset by the protests so he decided to watch his local team, the Tennessee Titans, but not to watch any other teams play. In years past he would have watched national games on Monday Night Football, Thursday night football, and other national contests. This year, he’s not doing that.

 

Ratings reflect that millions of other football fans are just like him, tuning out the national football games.

 

Donald Trump understands this on an intuitive level, it’s why he showed up for the Alabama-Georgia game and strode out onto the field to stand for the national anthem before the college football title game. I’m told that Trump’s appearance for the national anthem was a well guarded secret, hardly anyone knew he would be on the field for the moment. The college football playoff organizers had no idea he’d be there on the field until he told them he planned to walk out for the anthem just minutes beforehand.

 

Trump knew exactly what he was doing — he was showing his base that he honored the country before a football game featuring two states he won in the 2016 presidential election, he stood for the national anthem. What’s more, he was going to make his hated foe, ESPN, actually show him live on television standing up for the national anthem. Many in the sports and political media missed this connection, but Trump’s base of supporters didn’t.

 

Through all of these collapsing ratings the NFL owners have mostly remaining silent, fearful of making things worse by opening their mouths. But NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has bungled this issue. Worst of all, he wasn’t proactive in realizing an issue like this might arise.

 

The NBA has a rule requiring all players stand for the national anthem and, guess what, all players have stood for the national anthem. As a result the NBA, whose players, coaches and owners are certainly outspoken politically, has managed to avoid the anthem controversy completely. If the NBA were smart, they’d give David Stern a $100 million bonus for solving this issue before it arose. And if the NFL were smart they’d actually sanction Gooddell for not recognizing this issue and solving it two years ago.

 

Instead Colin Kaepernick’s anthem protest, and the resulting protests surrounding it by other players, have cost the NFL’s TV partners hundreds of millions of dollars and led to a precipitous decline in TV ratings. Yet the league continues to do nothing and hope the issue just goes away.

 

That’s not a plan, that’s a Hail Mary.

 

The NFL better hope the ball is caught because otherwise the league’s on track to cost its television partners billions of dollars and millions of fans.

 

If the league were smart it would do what Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, a man who lives in Texas and has the pulse of the heartland football fan, has been suggesting for the past several months — mandate all players stand for the national anthem as a condition of their league employment.

 

It’s not a revolutionary idea, it’s the same exact thing the NBA has already done.

 

But the league’s not smart, so I expect the hundreds of millions of dollars in losses to continue to roll in throughout the playoffs.

 

And I expect college football, which doesn’t have the same anthem controversy, to continue to grow its product while the NFL’s product declines. If you need any further evidence of this occurring, just look at the playoff ratings for both sports.