Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 23, 2022

The Predictable Limits Of Quantity Over Quality

One game does not a weekend make, so despite the showcase of quarterbacks and offensive firepower on display in Kansas City as this is written, it has not been a great weekend for NFL football.  To be sure, the television ratings will doubtless tell a different story.  Just last week, the first round of this year’s playoffs saw a significant increase in viewership, with the matchup between the 49ers and Cowboys yielding the highest ratings for a Wild Card Game in seven years.  There is no reason to expect a sudden reversal of that trend, and since the league and its multitude of corporate sponsors care first, last, and only about the bottom line, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and everyone else at 345 Park Avenue in New York will assert that the divisional round of the postseason was a fine display of America’s favorite sport.

A casual fan might disagree with the opening assertion as well, since all three games that have been decided so far were won on the final play.  Since it’s unlikely either the league or any of the companies paying top dollar to advertise on playoff broadcasts care how deeply committed a viewer is to the sport as long as they’re invested in the game at hand, the drama of a last second victory is a godsend, especially when it neatly obscures fifty-nine-plus preceding minutes of wretched football.  The casual fan gets to talk about the “exciting” game he or she has just witnessed, and the multitude of viewers combined with the frequent commercial breaks guarantee these broadcasts will dwarf all other programming in the count of total ad impressions during the week.

But for the committed NFL faithful, it’s surely been a hard slog to get through 59:56 of Bengals versus Titans, or 49ers versus Packers, or Rams versus Buccaneers, all for the final four seconds worth of Evan McPherson converting from 52 yards, or Robbie Gould from 45, or Matt Gay from 30 to send their respective teams on to the Conference Championship round next weekend.

Sunday’s contest between Los Angeles and Tampa Bay at least had plenty of offense, albeit divided between the two teams by half.  The first thirty minutes belonged to the visiting Rams, with quarterback Matthew Stafford leading his squad to scores on each of L.A.’s first three possessions.  The vaunted Tampa Bay defense, which in fairness had been hollowed out by injuries, seemed incapable of slowing down the Rams, much less stopping each drive.  Meanwhile the Buccaneers’ offensive drives produced just three points, along with a turnover, three punts, and a kneel-down before escaping to the locker room.

The tide took its time turning after the intermission, with Los Angeles extending its edge to 27-3 before Tampa Bay began to rally.  A Tom Brady to Rob Gronkowski pass for 42 yards set up a field goal with just over three minutes remaining in the third quarter.  Those points proved to be the first of twenty-four that Tampa Bay would post in a little over fifteen minutes of game time.  When that scoring ended with a 9-yard run by Leonard Fournette for a touchdown that tied the game, surely most viewers thought, no doubt some with joy and others with resignation, that another unlikely comeback was about to be added to Brady’s career highlight reel.  But with 1:43 remaining, Stafford had plenty of time to move the Rams down the field and set up Gay’s short field goal for the win.

The two Saturday games combined failed to produce even a fraction of that much action on offense.  Cincinnati’s offensive line played as if its members were volunteers picked from the stands just before game time.  Quarterback Joe Burrow was harassed by Titans rushers all day, with Tennessee recording nine sacks.  Yet it was Titans QB Ryan Tannehill who tossed three interceptions, the last one coming with just 28 seconds left in a game that was tied 16-16.  Burrow then converted a 19-yard pass to Ja’Marr Chase, setting up McPherson’s fourth field goal, to go with the Bengals’ sole touchdown.

That TD was one more than San Francisco’s offensive unit could muster in Saturday’s late game.  Fortunately for 49ers fans, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo turned in a vintage performance, which is to say, he somehow found a way to pull out a win despite not playing particularly well.  In that effort he was assisted mightily by the Green Bay Packers special teams unit, which thoroughly lived down to its regular season ranking as the worst such unit in the entire league.  The Packers had a field goal blocked on the last play of the first half, then allowed a 45-yard return on the opening kickoff of the second half, giving the 49ers prime field position at the 50.  With time winding down and the Packers clinging to a 10-3 lead, Green Bay’s punt from its own end zone was blocked and the loose ball scooped up by Talanoa Hufanga of the 49ers for a touchdown that tied the game.  Finally, with its season on the line, Green Bay deployed only ten men on defense when San Francisco lined up for Gould’s game winner.

Last second heroics aside, the Packers’ Keystone Cops version of special teams, just like the Bengals’ abject front line, Tannehill’s penchant for throwing the ball to the wrong team, and Garoppolo’s indifferent play, all made for less than scintillating viewing, and the alternating futility of the Rams’ and Buccaneers’ offenses didn’t do much to improve things.  It’s the second year of the NFL’s expanded playoffs, and one more weekend that reminds fans of the old and unrelenting truth about diminishing returns.  Or at the least, a sign fans should move on from the likes of Brady with his avocado ice cream and Rodgers with his aggrieved entitlement, to a new generation of quarterbacks.  Any chance Mahomes versus Allen could be a weekly event?

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