For the first two weekends of the NFL season, the football being played wasn’t all that captivating. The games were sloppy. The scores were low or lopsided. Debate focused on whether off-target quarterbacks or block-missing offensive linemen deserved more of the blame, and theories abounded that the sport’s player-safety-related cutbacks in offseason workouts and practice-field hitting were at the root of all of it.
Then President Trump spoke out.
After Trump said Friday at a campaign rally in Alabama that owners of NFL teams should fire players who protest by refusing to stand for the national anthem, the football played this past Sunday no longer mattered. The country was fixated on how the NFL would respond to Trump, both in words and via on-field deeds last weekend. It was all about teams skipping the anthem and about players kneeling or standing with interlocked arms, in some cases with their franchise’s owner participating.
And while few were paying attention to the football, the football actually was very good. The NFL season became compelling, even if few noticed or said much about it.
“This was a wild game,” New York Giants wide receiver Brandon Marshall said as he stood in the visitor’s locker room at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia late Sunday afternoon. “It came down to a wild finish.”
Marshall was speaking about his team’s last-second defeat at the hands of the Eagles, courtesy of a 61-yard field goal by rookie kicker Jake Elliott as time expired. He just as well could have been speaking about a number of other pulsating games around the league, particularly in the early-afternoon time slot.
“It was an unbelievable weekend of football,” NFL spokesman Joe Lockhart said, taking a break Monday between Trump-related responses to tout the aesthetics of Sunday’s games. “If you were a fan watching the early games in particular, it was “RedZone” heaven.
“We had 10 games within seven points in the fourth quarter, eight games decided by a touchdown or less with all eight games coming down to the final two minutes, two thrilling overtime games and an improbable rookie 61-yard field goal. Anyone suggesting that Sunday in the NFL would be boring was proved wrong.”
That was partially production promotion. But it wasn’t entirely off base.
There were two overtime games Sunday, with the Chicago Bears upsetting the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Green Bay Packers defeating the Cincinnati Bengals.
The Atlanta Falcons held on to win in Detroit when an apparent game-winning Lions’ touchdown was overturned by an instant replay review that required a 10-second clock runoff, ending the game. The New England Patriots beat the Houston Texans, 36-33, when Tom Brady won a quarterback duel with prized rookie Deshaun Watson and orchestrated a greatness-reaffirming winning drive punctuated by his fifth touchdown pass of the day.
That’s after Week 3 began with two teams thought to be also-rans, the Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco 49ers, squaring off in a Thursday night game, a forum known for usually producing hard-to-watch games. But they put on a highly entertaining show in a game won by the Rams, 41-39. That might not have counted, however, given that it was pre-Trump.
On a normal NFL weekend, the on-field greatness and ongoing immaturity of Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. would have been the main attention-grabber. Beckham had a pair of fourth-quarter touchdown catches, one of them in spectacular fashion. But he celebrated his first touchdown by crawling along the turf like a dog, then lifting his leg. That crass display drew an illegal celebration penalty, even in a season in which the rules regarding celebrations have been relaxed.
But on this weekend, Beckham’s antics were a mere footnote. The game ended with Beckham standing beneath the goal post in case Elliott’s kick fell short to give him a chance for a return. Instead, Elliott’s kick was true.
“He kicked it,” Beckham said, “and it looked like it was coming from the other side of the field.”
That’s because it was, actually. Elliott’s kick came from just on the other side of midfield, with the ball being placed on the turf at the Eagles 49-yard line. Elliott became an unlikely star in a game that once seemed destined to be a dud, with the Giants trailing by 14-0 before scoring 24 fourth-quarter points. Elliott’s kick gave the Eagles a 27-24 triumph.
The NFL said its TV ratings for Week 3 were up 3 percent from Week 3 of last season. Ratings for the Dallas Cowboys’ triumph Monday night at Arizona on ESPN, which began with Cowboys owner Jerry Jones locking arms with his team’s players and taking a knee in unison before the anthem before standing for the playing of the anthem, were up 63 percent from last season’s Week 3 Monday night game, which went up against a presidential debate.
That is significant. Sagging TV ratings were a season-long story line last year for the NFL. The controversy over Trump’s remarks may have helped to draw viewers to this past weekend’s games. Now the NFL must hope that the quality of the play remains good and that keeps people watching.
There won’t be a march toward a potential 19-0 season by Brady and the Patriots to keep viewers in front of their TV sets, as seemed possible when the season commenced. The Patriots spoiled that by losing the NFL’s season-opening game at home to the Kansas City Chiefs.
But they and Brady have rebounded with consecutive victories. The Cowboys likewise are 2-1, and both quarterback Dak Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott performed well in Monday night’s win over the Cardinals. The Cowboys were the centerpiece of the late-season rebound in the NFL’s TV ratings last year. The Patriots are the team that the football-watching public either loves or loathes. If both franchises remain in contention all season, that could boost viewership. Maybe the NFL will get the dream Super Bowl matchup that it was denied last season when the Cowboys lost an NFC semifinal at home to the Packers.
Either way, the league must cross its fingers that the football played from this point forward resembles what was on display Sunday.
Jerry Brewer: The NFL beat Trump. Soundly.