A balanced NFL, in which your team could make a run in any given season and doesn’t get totally shafted for years because it didn’t draw the right ping-pong ball or isn’t located in a big TV market: seems like a good idea, right? By that standard, the 2012 season is going great. Very few teams look irredeemably horrible. Only two have failed to win a game. Mid-tier QBs like Joe Flacco and Kevin Kolb have their teams’ fans thinking they have real shots, while the best squads in the league are in Houston and Atlanta, neither of which are blue-blood franchises.
So, with all of this egalitarian fairness, with these new kids at the table, why does this season suck so much?
Let’s take two of our pretty-good-so-far-this-year teams as an example and imagine a Super Bowl between the 2-1 Bills and the 3-0 Cardinals. You don’t care about the Bills because they’re quarterbacked by a happy-footed interception machine (Ryan “Harvard Boy” Fitzpatrick) and can’t keep their running backs healthy for more than thirty seconds. You don’t care about the Cardinals because, other than Larry Fitzgerald, their offense consists of ten Fanta bottles that are controlled, badly, with strings. It’s not that these are poor football teams — they’re unexciting football teams, devoid of accessibility points, driven by stifling-but-not-spectacular defenses that win suffocating and belabored games. (The Cards’ victory over the New England Patriots was a tremendous and unwatchable achievement.) A lot of one-yard runs are involved on both sides. And right now, this is the norm in the top half of the NFL.
So far in 2012, there have been few really great offensive performances, creating an impression of parity that is really just a lack of impressive football. It speaks to the difference between national and local sports fandom; on a local level, Buffalo and Arizona fans would no doubt be perfectly happy to keeping winning ugly, and NFL management is perfectly happy to have those fans keep buying tickets and watching games. But for quite a few years now, the NFL hasn’t just been a thriving confederation of local fans; it’s been the center of national sports attention, its premier matchups and top players a subject of universal interest. At the moment, though, one might even say that the NBA is more interesting on a national level, with the Heat, Thunder and presumably the Lakers set to fight for the title with crews of highlight-reel players, while the marquee Knicks franchise is poised as a dark-horse contender after retaining the exclusive rights to the Asian-American phenom fan favorite who came out of nowhere to fill what had previously been their weakest position. (Wait, WHAT?)
Meanwhile, in the NFL, the guys who have won the last five MVPs — Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and Aaron Rodgers — are all having thoroughly lackluster years. Drew Brees has seen an insane 16.5% drop in his completion rate; the Saints are 0-3. 2011 Rookie of the Year Cam Newton has thrown only two TDs to five INTs; Michael Vick leads the league in turnovers. Two exciting running backs having breakout seasons — Reggie Bush and C.J. Spiller — got injured. Jamaal Charles and Maurice Jones-Drew are great but stuck on terrible teams. Calvin Johnson has caught a lot of passes but only scored once. Rob Gronkowski has been OK-ish. Ray Rice, Arian Foster, A.J. Green, and Percy Harvin are the only guys having killer seasons for decent teams (and that’s a very tentative “decent” rating for the Vikings).
By this point in 2011, Calvin Johnson already had six TDs.
The lack of offensive star power and iffy play from premier franchises is dampening the excitement of looking over the weekly matchups. There’s a good reason to expect this to change — the Rodgerses and Bradys and Gronkowskis should rebound, teams like the Texans and Falcons will become more familiar — but right now, we’re looking at an NFL that feels like the post-Jordan, pre-LeBron NBA. And no one besides Buffalo fans wants to see the NFL equivalent of the 2004 Pistons win a Super Bowl.