The Vikings were back on the ground after a long, uncomfortable flight home from Philadelphia in time to catch the ending of “Sunday Night Football,” which this past week was a 6-6 tie in a game dominated by two of the NFL’s stingiest defenses.
Both the Seattle Seahawks and the Arizona Cardinals had a chance for a walk-off victory in a wild overtime session, but each team’s kicker shanked a short field-goal try. Many players for the Vikings, a team that also prides itself on low point totals for its opponents, tuned in until the final whistle of the NFL’s first tie since 2014.
“It was a good defensive battle,” right guard Brandon Fusco said. “It was two good teams going at it, two good defenses. What else could people ask for?”
A lot more, actually. Several hours later, by the time Vikings players pulled into the parking lot at Winter Park, sports talk radio hosts across the country were pointing to the Sunday night game as further proof that the quality of play in the NFL is down, echoing what NFL fans and some analysts had been arguing on social media.
With television ratings down for NFL prime-time games, many have placed the blame on the on-field product after some of those games — including the Vikings’ 24-10 victory over the New York Giants on Monday night in Week 4 — were one-sided.
This week, some Vikings players scoffed at the notion that NFL games have gotten ugly.
“If people are going to sit here and say that the quality of play has dipped,” defensive end Brian Robison said, “I invite every one of them to come out and play this game.”
Television ratings for “Monday Night Football” are down 24 percent from last year at this time, ratings for the Sunday night prime-time game have dropped 19 percent and Thursday night ratings are down 18 percent, Sports Illustrated reported this week.
A Seton Hall University poll conducted this week asked people to identify the reasons why viewership is down. Among the factors that “evoked a large number of yes responses” were players not standing for the national anthem, the distraction of the presidential campaign and the league’s handling of domestic violence cases.
A decline in the quality of play was not cited as a potential reason as often as those three, but it was still identified as a factor for at least a third of those polled.
But according to number-crunching done this week by Bleacher Report, turnover rates are actually down this year, pass completion rates are up, sack totals and rushing averages are about the same and touchdowns are only down from 2.56 last year to 2.51 this year. Field-goal rates are down, though, and penalty rates have spiked.
“This is the highest level of football, and I don’t see [the level of play] being any different from any other year I’ve been in the league,” fifth-year safety Harrison Smith said.
Smith was surprised to hear some call the Seahawks-Cardinals tie an “ugly” game. He admits he is biased, but he said he would much rather watch a game like that over the 52-45 shootouts college football fans often see every Saturday.
“I guess I’m an outlier,” the Pro Bowler said. “Most people just want to see points.”
And many of those people want to see points because they play fantasy football. Wide receiver Adam Thielen theorized that the quality critiques stem from that.
“People want to see their players score a bunch of touchdowns and all of that,” Thielen said. “We’re not worried about that in here. We’re just trying to win games.”
Of course, complaints about a supposed drop in the quality of play in the NFL are nothing new, as national sports blog the Big Lead chronicled earlier this week by conducting a thorough search of newspaper articles over the past 25 years.
They noted that the Orlando Sentinel called 2004 the worst season in NFL history. In 2000, former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman argued free agency and expansion made the NFL “a watered-down league.” And the Boston Globe in 1990 said looming expansion “could make the NFL a second-rate league very quickly.”
Outside linebacker Chad Greenway, who has spent just over a decade in the NFL, said he has read some of the current-day articles speculating why TV ratings are down. He doesn’t know why that is, but he insists the on-field product has not slipped.
“Quality of play? I think we’re better than we have been in the past,” Greenway said with a shrug. “But what do I know? I’m just a farmer from South Dakota.”