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It seems that everyone is writing some variation on what is wrong with the NFL, or questioning whether there are any good teams. The ratings for TV in the States are down, and the quality of the prime time games has been called into question, yet as ever, I think that the situation is more complicated than that.

Certainly there do seem to have been a lot of less than stellar games in the prime time slots, but part of that is due to the lack of flexing games until later in the season, and the very nature of the Thursday games. As it allows me to watch every team, and I get a chance to watch without knowing the score, I watch and write up the Thursday night games and you can frequently see them descend into an easy win for the home team. Playing a game three days early when it takes a week to recover has always caused problems for NFL teams, and it certainly calls into question the NFL’s claim that safety is their prime concern.

However, whilst these games are deliberately chosen to show case every team to the nation, the big prime time Sunday night and Monday night games are meant to be the best of the week’s matchups. The problem with that though, is these fixtures are selected whilst the army of computers that are used to churn out the schedule are working overtime to find the best fit that they can out of the incredibly complex mix of team requirements, TV requirements, the cycle of divisional opponents and various other factors that goes into making the NFL schedule. The difficulty being that when these decisions are being made, nobody knows who the good teams are going to be in the upcoming season. Even a safe looking selection like the New England Patriots visiting the Pittsburgh Steelers can take a turn for the worse when an important player like Ben Roethlisberger picks up and injury that keeps him out of the game.

There has been mention of the NFL having gone up against the presidential debates, but whilst there is a lot of focus on the race, the league have only had games go up directly against two of the three televised debates. So what is going on?

Part of it could well be that the NFL seems to be lacking teams that are definitively good this season. Week seven saw the last undefeated record go, and there are only three teams with a solitary loss. The New England Patriots look as good as anyone now that Tom Brady has come back from his suspension, but their defence seems to lack pass rushing and may be vulnerable to a high powered offence. The Dallas Cowboys have looked good as they have gone 5-1, largely thanks to the performance of two key rookies on offence and a defence that seems to have made a definite step up in play when compared to last season. The only other team to with a solitary loss are the Minnesota Vikings who were the last undefeated team this year, but the injuries to their already suspect offensive line allowed the Philadelphia Eagles to pressure them into a loss. This is a team that has already lost their starting quarterback to a practice injury in the preseason and their leading rusher.

Not team is ever perfect, but it feels like the presence of a major flaw is looming over a lot of teams this season. The Seattle Seahawks are as competitive a team in the league, but their offensive line is not good, and now an injured Russell Wilson is struggling to perform behind it. The Atlanta Falcons have the second ranked offence by DVOA, but their defence is ranked a lowly twenty-sixth and such a disparity makes it hard to look like a super team.

Once again though, there could be more to it. Certainly the games haven’t always been the best spectacle, people want excitement, and when games are being called with so many penalties as they currently are, it is hard to keep people engaged. My only personal frustration is the five yard illegal contact that seems to get called the moment a corner back breathes on a receiver, along with an unnecessarily generous automatic first down. If you are going to call a penalty that often, it shouldn’t just come with a first down, and a bit of hand fighting is hardly the biggest problem in the NFL. In fact I’ll try to approach that right now.

There are so many topics to cover and once again I am running out of time so let’s circle round to the biggy, at the centre of so many questions. The league office, and in particular Roger Goodell. There have been many words dedicated to his performance over the last couple of years. For a very on point summary of his handling of the Josh Brown case look no further than Sally Jenkins in the Washington Post (article here) and the really troubling this is that we have been here before and Goodell has not learnt his lessons. So the NFL are stuck with a commissioner who is happy to fine players for daring to twerk in the end zone, but can’t stick to his own policy on domestic abuse and yet again is blaming local law enforcement. The owners are happy to have him as he acts as firewall for criticism aimed at the league, but with dropping ratings, questions about safety and concussions, plus for possibly the first time there is potentially a serious rival league in the NBA who might be able to mount a genuine attempt at replacing football as America’s number one sport, it might be time for them to realise that the NFL is not too big to fail.

It is a long way from that, but they have to address youth football, get out of their own way when it comes to officiating, and find the right balance between player safety and allowing coaches to coach. To look at whether the rosters are too young, what new training tools like the robotic tackling dummies that we saw in this seasons Hard Knocks can give to the game. Football can be a conservative game, but with the challenges it faces, and to ensure its policy, it has to look to the future and embrace it, and that might just mean a forward looking commissioner that inspires confidence.

Of course, in four weeks’ time these stories could all just disappear, but the problems won’t and that should concern owners, players, and fans alike.

Jaguars @ Titans (-3.5)

My rule for the Thursday night games going forward is to always pick the home team unless there is a compelling number of points, or an amazingly good team on the road against a poor team. By this formula there is nothing about the Jaguars who seem to have gone backwards this season on offence for me to do anything other than pick the Titans.

Gee’s Pick:          Titans
Dan’s Pick:          Titans