The NFL’s popularity seems to be down, and those in the game wonder why

Tackle Bob Hendren, a 6-foot-9 teammate, was more than a foot taller than Redskins quarterback Eddie Lebaron, who was listed at 5-9, but was actually 5-7. LeBaron died April 1 at age 85. CREDIT: Washington Post photo)

Bill Polian, a Hall of Fame former National Football League executive, tuned in to watch the league’s Thursday night contest a week ago and like so many other viewers this season he did so almost grudgingly.

Jacksonville and Tennessee, a pair of small-market franchises with losing records, were squaring off in prime time. If expectations were low beforehand, the game sure met them: a lopsided, sloppy grind in which the Titans led by 27 before halftime. A little more than three hours of penalties, punts and an overall lack of intrigue, even to an NFL lifer.

“The Thursday nights have been awful,” Polian, now an ESPN analyst, said. “Maybe not awful. The Thursday nights have not been compelling.”

The NFL is enduring an unusual season, particularly considering its dominance over the past decade. Television ratings are down – 21.8 percent on Thursday nights, according to Nielsen data — riveting games and story lines have been scarce, and though games have actually been shorter this season than a year ago, it often doesn’t seem like it amid the penalty flags and play stoppages of the season’s first eight weeks.

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Theories are common about why the NFL doesn’t have its typical grasp on the American conversation this fall: an extraordinary presidential election and an entertaining baseball postseason that culminated with the Chicago Cubs’ historic World Series victory are two. Others are more central to the NFL itself: an abundance of mediocre teams and a corresponding absence of dominant clubs that has resulted in bland games; indeed two contests within a week last month ended in a tie, a rarity. At the same time, the league has cracked down on on-field celebrations by its players, which many say is further sapping the game of joy and spontaneity.

Asked by reporters Thursday for his theory about the sport’s popularity woes, Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, one of the game’s more thoughtful players, blamed what he said was a stifling obsession by the league about protecting its image and brand.

“Every other league, you see the players have a good time. It’s a game. This isn’t politics. This isn’t justice. This is entertainment,” Sherman said. “And they’re no longer allowing the players to entertain. They’re no longer allowing the players to show any kind of personality, any kind of uniqueness, any individuality. Because they want to control the product.”

If those issues have attacked this NFL season by a hundred tiny cuts, one threat in particular seems to trouble many close to the game: sloppy, undisciplined play that can be traced back to diminishing practice time and less hitting while there.

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“It’s basics,” said Randy Cross, a former San Francisco 49ers offensive lineman. “It’s fundamentals. It’s blocking. It’s tackling. . . . If you’re not doing those things on the practice field, you can watch all the tape you want and it won’t matter.”

Cross is not alone in his assessment.

“The tackling is atrocious. The execution is atrocious,” Hall of Fame former quarterback Warren Moon said. “The number of penalties the players are committing – they’re penalties because they’re not being coached correctly.”

Five years ago, the league and the NFL Players Association agreed to limit offseason practice time and curb the amount of contact allowed on the practice field. Concerns over player safety still weigh on the league and its 32 teams, but the lack of on-field discipline seems an unintended consequence of those 2011 labor negotiations.

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The league points to a few metrics that speak to the game’s overall health: Scoring is down but only slightly compared with last season, and penalties are actually down – even after the Oakland Raiders set an NFL record last Sunday by committing 23 of them in a win against Tampa Bay. Games are two minutes shorter on average than they were a season ago, according to the league.

The thing is, it doesn’t always seem like it. Last weekend featured the best slate of contests of the season: Dak Prescott, the Dallas Cowboys’ rookie quarterback, led a thrilling comeback against Philadelphia on Sunday night, Atlanta’s Matt Ryan outdueled Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers for a big win, and even the 1-6 Chicago Bears upset the Minnesota Vikings on Monday night. The action was crisp, the endings were lively – but ratings still plunged: The Eagles-Cowboys Sunday night game, which coincided with the fifth game of the World Series, drew five million fewer viewers than last year’s Week 8 prime time contest, Green Bay at Denver. Even the Monday night game, with no World Series broadcast as competition, attracted 15 percent fewer viewers than the same slot in 2015.

Viewers like Moon can’t help but blame a clearly inferior on-field product.

“It’s different from even five years ago,” he said. “It is definitely diminished the last few years. There’s no question about it.”

Poor fundamentals are the only reasonable explanation for this phenomenon, at least according to those interviewed for this story. After all, games this season have been close: 88 contests were within one score in the fourth quarter through Week 8, the most competitive schedule in league history to this point in a season. Quarterbacks are on pace to set single-season records for the best league-wide completion percentage (63.3) and highest passer rating (90.4).

It’s the eyeball test this season can’t seem to pass.

“I’m thinking about two games that I saw last weekend; one was that absolute garbage game Thursday night,” said Cross, referring to the Jaguars-Titans showdown. “That was an abomination.”

Players are more athletic than ever, former NFL quarterback Trent Green said. But the level of indefensible precision that once existed on a passing play from, say, Troy Aikman to Michael Irvin is more rare, he said.

“It’s amazing,” Green said. “You see these 290-pound defensive linemen who can run down a running back. It’s crazy to see the size, speed and strength of the athletes. But I’m talking about things like the timing. I can remember being with Washington, and we’d be on the sideline saying we knew it was gonna be a 15-yard out to Michael Irvin. But Troy and Michael were so good, it didn’t matter. You couldn’t stop it. Their timing was so perfect. And you can only get that by doing it over and over and over again.”

There are circumstances that exacerbate the problems created by decreased practice time and infrequent hitting. Rosters turn over more than they did decades ago because of free agency, while the salary cap dictates that roles once filled by veteran players now are handed to younger and less expensive – and less experienced – alternatives.

“You’re trying to make the product less expensive,” Moon said. “It means more young players. With free agency, you’re going to have a lot of new players every season, anyway. They can’t come to the facility to work out until April. In training camp, guys don’t get themselves football-ready. Everyone is worried about safety and all that. That’s good. But there’s a certain amount of football preparation that needs to be done to play football.”

When those younger players are pressed into duty, they’re not properly prepared, Polian said.

“It would be akin to having 24 pitchers on a major league baseball roster, 12 of whom don’t dress and they can only pitch batting practice and the only time they can throw a simulated game is once a week,” Polian said. “That’s what happens with the young players. They can’t get developed in the offseason. They can’t practice enough in pads during the regular season. And as a result, when they get in the game, they’re not ready.”

It is debatable, however, how much the average fan notices the subtleties of offensive line play and the exact timing of every pass. Teams all face the same issues, so games shouldn’t be any less competitive. Former NFL offensive lineman Ross Tucker said he questions whether a direct link exists between overall quality of play and fan interest.

“I do think it’s had an impact on offensive line play,” Tucker said. “But this is not unique to this year.”

Some question the wisdom of the league’s schedule that now has games held four days a week. The Thursday night games, which the league introduced a decade ago, are a favorite target, but it’s unclear whether the owners would consider reducing or eliminating them. There’s not much incentive to move away from a profitable – albeit lower-quality – enterprise that has CBS and NBC paying the league $450 million over two years to broadcast Thursday night games. Twitter also has a deal to stream 10 contests, estimated at about $1 million per game.

Polian, who spent decades making deals as a front office executive, gets the economics behind spreading out the schedule to more days of the week. He just doesn’t like it. “I don’t really care what the league office has to say,” Polian said. “The human body wasn’t meant to play football on three days’ rest, not at the level that we play.”

He acknowledged the Thursday games are likely here to stay. But he proposed other measures to improve the quality of play: Adjust the rules, for instance, to permit more than one player per team to be activated annually from injured reserve. To prevent creative roster maneuvering, such as stashing healthy players on injured reserve, Polian proposed waiting until Week 4 before a player could be placed on the injured list.

“The [more] good players you have on the field the better off you are and the better the quality of play,” he said. “

Polian also said it might be unnecessary to have both restrictions on practice-field hitting and a rigid time limit for the amount of time that can be spent practicing.

“They are not allowed contact, which is not terrible,” Polian said. “They’re on a strict time limit. When you’ve got to get . . . a backup quarterback [ready] who hasn’t played, you might want to extend practice by 20 minutes. To me, the time limit is the absolute stupidest thing going. You’ve restricted contact. Why do you need a time limit?”

It’s highly questionable whether the league and union would roll back the practice reductions, given they were made in the name of enhancing player safety. Increased practice-field hitting, in particular, could lead not only to an increase in concussions, but possibly also an increase in repetitive sub-concussive hits that concern many medical experts as a potential cause of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the degenerative brain disease.

Polian nevertheless believes they should think about it. “We’re talking about fundamentals here,” he said. “The only way to get good is to work at it.”