Despite the title, I am admittedly hooked to the NFL Network. That’s of course because I am addicted to watching the sport it covers.
It took me awhile to finally view it, mainly due issue of availability, but I always intended to give it a try when I was able to. Now, while I have some positive things to say about the programming — and some of the hosts — there will always be some lingering gripes I have about the network.
My Initial Reservations
Initially, I really hated the idea of the NFL network. Here’s why:
The first reason was the prospect that the National Football League would begin a process to make television viewers pay even more to watch football games at home. This had already started with services like Sunday NFL Ticket (DirecTV) and it’s obvious that the NFL would always look for ways to increase its own profit margin. This suspicion has been partially confirmed as the NFL Network ultimately started showing matchups during the season.
Thursday night games increased since the turn of the century. In 2002, the NFL season opener took place on a Thursday for the very first time. That game featured the 49ers against the NY Giants and it was shown on ESPN. Eventually, those season-opening games would only be shown on the NFL Network for a few years. There used to be only two games shown on Thanksgiving; since 2006, there would then be a third that was only shown on the cable network. A few more regular games would be shown on Thursdays and the late-season Saturday Game would ultimately be gone from the regular networks. So games viewers would normally be able to see — given the region and number of games being played on a given day or night — would be unavailable to non-subscribers.
(Yes, there are others ways to get around these roadblocks, with streaming sites online. However, early sites for that purpose were rife with viruses and Trojans. Even today, there is lagging on some of the most popular streaming sites and the sites may have links to questionable domains.)
The second reason I hated the idea of an NFL network was because it would take away from ESPN. An analyst or two I liked (Rich Eisen) would move on to that cable network and so would the late Steve Sabol for the most part. I enjoyed the latter’s narration during NFL Films showcases. He (and his father, Ed, who started as the League’s filmographer) gave a glimpse of the League’s history through pictures. NFL Films would have less of a presence on ESPN channels, so non-subscribers to the NFL Network would kind of be shut out.
In any case, if one did not have the NFL network, he was really missing out. I was still curious, to be certain.
My Reaction upon First Viewing the Network
The first time I looked at the network, I was hooked. I relatively starved of televised NFL analysis for years, so it was like I was in heaven as I viewed the selection of programs on the network for a few days. (Part of blissfulness I experienced was partly due to being on vacation, as well. That and the Niners finally being relevant after 8 rough years.)
My Main Gripes about the Network
Now, I have kind of soured toward the network given the programming in three areas:
1. More Games Being Featured on NFL Network
In total, there will be 16 games on the shown on the cable network. Of those games, 14 will actually be on Thursday Night, with 7-8 being simulcast with CBS. (Two Saturday games are shown, as well.)
While the idea of another primetime game each week would sound fun, my first concerns are about the teams involved. More teams have to deal with a shortened week. A team may play on a Sunday then go and play on the following Thursday. That is three days to prepare for the next opponent. This not only puts pressure of the coaching staffs to game plan, but there may be a safety issue as the players have fewer days for their bodies to recover. This is ironic considering the NFL Commissioner, Roger Goodell, has made an effort to make it appear that the League is concerned about player safety. There have been various rule changes in this regard, as well as changes to helmet technology aimed at limiting concussions.
Secondly, the entertainment value of most Thursday Night matchups are lacking. The games offered often feature teams without playoff aspirations or those in free-fall. Even when two teams in contention are featured, the quality of play may be off as the teams have less time to prepare for each other. I love watching football as much as the next person and an extra Thursday Night game during the season is pretty cool…but as a change of pace. There is too much of a good thing.
Additionally, parts of a Thursday Night football game will be shown on NFL.com, but not without some drawbacks. Each broadcast is interrupted by the boring chattel of analysts and the stream is laggy.
2. The Network Borrowing Heavily from ESPN’s Model
To be perfectly honest, this was going to happen naturally and with some great results. Many of the documentaries shown are informative and enthralling. I generally like the news programs and player interviews. Additionally, I like the news anchors and some personalities, like former players Willie McGinest, Eric Davis, and LaVar Arrington. I think those three, among others, are fantastic.
However, some of the things that annoy me about ESPN can be seen with the NFL Network, as well.
One particular annoyance is player hype. Prior to the 2015 season, it seemed like the chosen player for this network was Andrew Luck. That might just happen again depending on how her performs. Yes, he is part of the future, but he has not yet met his hype and there a many other players worthy of attention.
In particular, there is this obsession with “elite” quarterbacks, mainly on the Interwebs, which is completely stupid when you really think about it. Football is the “ultimate team game,” so it does not matter if a QB is “elite” or not. What matters is what he does to help his team win in the postseason and more importantly, what the team around him does as well. Case in point: Peyton Manning. Sure, he holds so many records, but it should be emphasized that he defenses carried him both times when he walked away with a Lombardi.
Ultimately, as a result of a few players being held up, others are denigrated and doubted. I will admit that the NFL Network’s analysts have not been as vicious as analysts on other networks. Still, I am sick of analysts repeating the same stereotypes assigned to certain players and consistently sticking to one persistent, all-important narrative.
3. Repetition and Lack of Originality.
On most days, the schedule can be sparse. The NFL Network airs the same few news shows all day, outside of other specials, especially during the off-season.
For one thing, there is an overuse of countdown shows. There are countdowns for even the menial aspects of the sport, or made-up subjects, and some of the placements of the players/groups within the list are often disagreeable. There doesn’t need to be a countdown for everything.
My Suggestions for Improvement
I do have some suggestions to improve the lineup on the NFL network:
1: Get rid of most Thursday Night games. There should be no more than five per season. The Thanksgiving Day games with Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys can stay due to tradition. The third Thanksgiving Day game is nice so it can stay, as well. I like the opening night game. I also don’t mind once early Thursday Night games during the season.
2: The NFL Network should do a little bit more to promote some of the League’s players that receive little coverage. This would set the network apart, if only a little bit. While it is understandable that the superstars receive the most attention and praise, the NFL should be more diplomatic outside the awards and accolades it already hands out at the end of each season. Get viewers involved by knowing more about players and thus the positions they play at an earlier age. Highlight more athletes with the best character makeups and more of those who overcame adversity. Question the importance of character overall when front offices decide who to draft and/or sign and don’t shy away from covering stories of those who got into legal trouble.
3: While I think ESPN is a good model for sports channels to use, that network covers more sports than just one. There is built-in variety there. All that needs to be done is for the NFL is for it to make use of more of the footage it already has. The NFL has access to so much film and it sponsors charitable events for young children, among others. If anything, viewers can learn more about the history of the league through NFL Films, but I rarely see anything beyond the specials on League dynasties.
Some of the footage for the countdown shows could be repurposed for player profiles and discussions of entire seasons.
There are no specials on what the NFL is doing to improve player safety, and although we might know more of the settlements against the NFL if legally allowed, that would still be an opportunity for positive publicity.
The way I see it, since the NFL network is covering just one league, it can afford to delve deeper into it.
Every spring, the NFL network is harping on the upcoming NFL draft. There should be more things to talk about — albeit with some profiles on top prospects. There might not be much currently going on in the off-season outside the Draft, but the League has a rich history; the League should remind us of that history and show us things that perhaps we have never seen before.
Next up, I will talk about gripes I have about general NFL game coverage.