The NFL likes to call it parity. This season, it looks closer to mediocrity.
From the porous offensive lines to the suspect quarterbacking and poor tackling, from the inconsistent officiating to the multitude of key injuries, the 2015 season has been filled with the unwatchable.
Yes, the playoff races, particularly for the AFC wild card, have been intriguing. Carolina’s chase for perfection has been worthy of headlines. The performances by the league’s top players — particularly the ones making substantial breakthroughs such as Cam Newton and Doug Baldwin on offense, Khalil Mack and Ziggy Ansah on defense — have been mesmerizing.
There’s also the noteworthy, if maddening, race to relocate to Los Angeles involving the Rams, Raiders and Chargers.
As for the rest, well, let’s hope the playoffs and Super Bowl go in a different direction than we’ve witnessed since September.
One team not concerned with the postseason for the 16th straight time — remarkable in itself that anyone could miss the playoffs that many years in a row — is Buffalo. The Bills under Rex Ryan epitomize how disappointing the level of play has been in so many cities. They brought in a high-profile coach and upgraded their talent level. They paid huge salaries to hold on to some key players.
And they flopped.
“I mean, I could tell you the common thread is this: that when you have high expectations and you don’t reach those things, that obviously you’re going to have a little more questioning,” Ryan says.
Here’s what has been most worth questioning through 15 of the 17 weeks on the schedule:
If what the NFL wants is nearly every team in contention to win a division or grab a wild card when the calendar turns to December, it came close to that goal in 2015.
If what it wants is high-quality football from many of those teams, sorry.
It’s worthwhile to praise the work of the Panthers and Patriots, Cardinals, Broncos and Bengals, who pretty much for the entire season have risen above the morass. Second-half surges by the Chiefs, Steelers and Seahawks have been impressive.
But also recall that Kansas City lost five in a row, going into a funk after blowing a game against Denver. Seattle wasted the best home-field advantage in the sport, falling twice at CenturyLink Field and basically being handed a win over Detroit by incorrect officiating. Pittsburgh was 4-4 and somehow lost to Baltimore at home.
Most disturbing, even laughable, has been the level of play and coaching throughout the NFC East and AFC South. It’s still possible both wretched divisions will be won by teams without winning records, who then deservedly will be underdogs as hosts to a wild card in the playoffs.
The league can brag all it wants about how packed together so many clubs are. It’s sort of like finding a slew of fast-food restaurants together along a busy roadway.
BLOCKING AND TACKLING
Shield your eyes.
These basic skills appear to have gone the way of the chip shot extra point (one of the good things about this season, incidentally). One reason quarterbacking has been so spotty (see below) is the inability of linemen, tight ends and running backs to provide protection.
No area requires bonding more than the O-line, but even some units that enjoy that continuity have underperformed. If the Broncos disappear quickly in the race to the Super Bowl, the lack of solid blocking could be the determining factor.
On the other side, it might be difficult to find a dozen fundamentally strong tacklers in the entire NFL. In their, uh, defense, the rules about what’s a legal hit have made some of them gun-shy or confused. But the very basics of wrapping up and keeping the head out of the play have been lost.
Someone recently wondered why the league doesn’t simply expand to get teams into Los Angeles — or the cities abandoned through relocation — and maybe even into London in the near future. One good reason: Where will NFL-quality quarterbacks come from?
And what is NFL-quality for the position today? It’s seems fair to say that half of the 32 teams aren’t sure what they have behind center, and a bunch of those don’t like what they have.
There is hope with the likes of Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota, Derek Carr, Teddy Bridgewater and Blake Bortles as the new wave, and with Newton and Russell Wilson in the MVP conversation. But future eliteness for QBs is unpredictable — see Matt Ryan — and when the aging crop of stars leaves, it’s hard to see the college game producing an ample number of replacements.
For decades, it’s been fashionable for fans to blame the officials for losses, while team owners, general managers and coaches have bitten their tongues and tried to shrug off officiating problems.
There’s a growing sentiment that game officials have lost their way, and the NFL will need to look long and hard into how it handles who is blowing the whistles; how to simplify the rule book; and how to better use the ever-improving technology.
One thing the NFL must hope as this season of mediocrity winds down is that a wrong call doesn’t decide that big game Feb. 7.
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