The NFL's season of unending misery comes to a close on Sunday night with a Super Bowl that might reprise all the league's woes in one handy four-hour package. It would be quite an undertaking, but the Patriots and Falcons could conceivably do it.
Let's see. All it would take is an overly long, boring game with too many commercial breaks, a sloppy one with too many penalties, a crucial missed call, too many stoppages for reviews, and at least one of each of the following: an anthem protest, a concussion, a penalty for celebrating, a deflated football, and an immediate report of disappointing television ratings.
Don't know about you, but I think they've got a shot.
Overall this season, NFL viewership was off by 8 percent over the previous year, a loss of more than 1.4 million viewers. The league was still wildly profitable and will continue to be, but the overriding question is whether the parabola of popularity that took the NFL to its lofty perch above all other sports has passed its apex and begun a gradual decline.
Commissioner Roger Goodell said the league studies that question all the time. (His answer is "No," by the way.) There are things he wants to see tweaked in order to make the "game experience" better for in-stadium customers and those watching on television. He said last week he expects there will soon be four planned breaks per quarter instead of the current five. He also said the replay format will probably be streamlined, with the referee being handed a computer tablet rather than tramping all the way to the edge of the stands to put his head beneath the curtain of Oz.
That's fine, but it doesn't address the biggest problem of them all: People don't want to sit still and watch an entire game any longer. That is the real change to which the NFL must adjust, and some of it has nothing to do with the league at all. We have become a phone-scrolling, channel-flipping, instant gratification, ADHD society that increasingly grew up on video games that are a lot more entertaining (and interactive) than the inferior real life that is presented on television. With so many other things competing for our collective attention - and so many more people who don't even bother with a basic cable package - is it any wonder ratings went down for the weekly Thursday night snoozefests between a steady diet of Tampa Bays and Tennessees?
There is plenty the NFL is responsible for, though, on the list of issues, and the league's overexposure - the fallow prime-time scheduling is a good example - is high on that list. The NFL didn't know when enough was enough, and it still doesn't. There will be more games in Europe and the average NFL Sunday will gradually become a four-game proposition every week, stretching on the East Coast from 10 a.m. to midnight. Sooner or later, the regular season will expand to 18 games. And on and on.
More games on television mean more opportunities to decide that the overall product isn't very good. This season's results formed a nearly perfect bell curve of quality, with seven teams that won 11 games or more, seven teams that won five games or less, and a bulge of 18 teams lodged in the murky middle of mediocrity.
The salary cap funnels big money to the stars and forces teams to employ younger, inexperienced players at many positions. That hurts the quality. The collective bargaining agreement severely limits practice time. That shows up in the fundamentals of the game and their execution on the field. Often, it's just not good football.
Then, there are the officiating problems, and those are obvious. No two games are called the same way. When a football league can't decide what is a catch, sort of a basic requirement, fans get turned off by the randomness of things.
Even fan loyalty, the reason to watch at least one game per week, has been eroded by the rise of fantasy football, which is interactive gambling so ubiquitous that it spawned an entire NFL programming channel, the Red Zone, just to feed the short-attention-span beast.
That's the landscape onto which the tossed coin will fall Sunday night, and maybe these two teams will be able to slow the popularity slide. In one way, the best thing that could happen to the NFL is another New England victory. Dynasties are good for business, whether for those who support them or those who will tune in consistently to hope for their demise. Having a truly great team around is also a good reminder that they can still exist in this era dominated by the utterly average.
The Super Bowl, if it is truly a spectacular game, could be as good for the NFL as it is bad for the nation's cholesterol, but this season that might be asking a lot from just one game. The nearly 275 that preceded it left more than a small mess to clean up as the long party finally ends.