The NFL slate this weekend may be the best one of the young season: All three 4:25 EST games appear compelling: The Raiders and Chiefs with the AFC West lead at stake; Dak Prescott and the Cowboys travel to Aaron Rodgers and the Packers; and the surprising 4-1 Falcons, still trying to prove they’re legit, visit the Seahawks.
The sagging NFL ratings should finally get a nice boost with the strong afternoon lineup leading into Andrew Luck in prime time.
But then you dive deeper, to ask if these are really must-see games, and you start looking for reasons to watch instead of getting dragged to pumpkin picking. The Raiders have been a tease for a decade and play defense like an Arena League team; Andy Reid and the Chiefs are the most boring playoff-caliber offense in the league. The Cowboys have won three playoff games in the last 20 years and are winning in the unsexy trenches; Aaron Rodgers has played poorly for a year now. And really, who cares about the fraudulent Falcons, who were 5-0 last year yet still missed the playoffs?
I ask this because I’m wondering where the NFL villains are. The players and teams that fans love to hate. The ones who wear the black hat, and are perceived as the bad guy. The NBA has had polarizing players turn to villains in recent years (LeBron, Stephen Curry) and Super Teams (Heat, Warriors), too. In the last five years, they’ve vaulted the NBA to its best run since Michael Jordan starred in Chicago.
But in the NFL right now, outside of the Patriots (because of 39-year old Tom Brady and coach Bill Belichick) and Cam Newton, where are the players or teams that could qualify as polarizing villains who are compelling you to cancel all your plans and watch?
Based on ratings returns through four weeks, nobody.
If the single biggest villain in the sport is Roger Goodell, the commissioner, isn’t that a problem?
Ndamukong Suh is a dirty player, vastly overpaid, but he’s also on the Miami Dolphins, one of the biggest dumpster fires in the NFL over the last 15 years. Chip Kelly? He was surly with the media in Philadelphia, comes off as arrogant, and is detested by plenty of NFL fans … but the Eagles went 7-9 in his final year, and the 49ers are 1-4 this year and in the midst of a major overhaul. Nobody cares about them.
JJ Watt probably comes to mind as a polarizing player to the fickle denizens of social media – I still find him an odd guy to hate even a little – but he’s never had off-the-field drama, his teammates love him, and he’s one of the best pass rushers in league history.
Also, he had back surgery and is out for the year.
The guys who have been must-see in the NFL over the last few years are either playing another sport (Tim Tebow), have partied their way out of the NFL (Johnny Manziel) or have finally gotten the memo and receded far enough into the background to let the team operate without constant meddling (Daniel Snyder, owner of the Redskins).
What about a goofy ogre Rex Ryan? The portly, mouthy coach who a few weeks ago felt like he was going to get fired, has gotten the Bills back into playoff contention, but it’s early, and they still could implode. It’s still too early to get excited about a guy who beat just Jacoby Brissett and Case Keenum. But when was the last time anyone said, “man, I love Rex Ryan!” Bills fans don’t even say that.
Cam Newton, the dancing QB who loves to celebrate is the NFL’s best hope for a villain heading into the post-Brady years. But following up an MVP season with a year in which he doesn’t get the Panthers to the playoffs certainly won’t help his cause. And let’s remember, in his first four years in the NFL, Newton didn’t make all that much noise (he did win Rookie of the Year, though).
Which leaves us with once-great Colin Kaepernick, who was recently on the cover of Time Magazine. If he had begun protesting three years ago … oh boy! But now? He’s a backup QB who looks like he’s not long for the league. He gets his chance this week in Buffalo, but from the injuries to the weight loss to the read option being mostly dead in the NFL right now … is he even on an NFL roster next year?
[Aside: Before you whisper Odell Beckham to yourself, can the kid get into a playoff game before we call him polarizing? Floyd Mayweather, champion, elicits hate, but you still watch him. Bryce Harper, the reigning MVP, is polarizing (just ask his teammate, who choked him last year). Blake Griffin could get into the Curry/LeBron class of villainy … if he could get to the NBA Finals. You have to actually win something to qualify. Tony Romo, bless his stats, can’t get in the discussion with two playoff wins in his career.]
Look at the last few decades and how many love him/hate him, polarizing players with strong personalities were hated and compelling: Brett “Mr. Retirement” Favre, Terrell Owens, Peyton “Stat Guys Love Me, Despite my Postseason Struggles” Manning, Randy Moss, Ray Lewis, Joey Porter, and on and on.
It certainly doesn’t help the NFL that the Jets don’t have anyone who qualifies, and neither do the Bears or Rams. It’s nice to have big, polarizing personalities in major markets on good teams. Russell Wilson is married to Ciara, has already been to two Super Bowls, has plenty of doubters, but is he too boring to qualify?
Villains are good for business. They stimulate discussion. They generate interest. They get fans to care. The NFL needs them now.