Let us begin with the New York Jets, because if you’re going to pose deep philosophical questions about what the hell this NFL regular season meant, and what it says about professional football as a consumer product in 2016 and whether this is a league dominated by parity or mediocrity, you might as well start with a team that is accustomed to staring into the yawning existential abyss.
On Sunday, with a playoff berth on the line, the Jets lost to the Buffalo Bills, 22-17. The Jets finished their season at 10-6, and lost out on a tiebreaker to the surging Pittsburgh Steelers; for much of the year, the Jets were not particularly interesting or enjoyable to watch, and they teetered between being “pretty good” and “not good enough.” Their quarterback, Ryan Fitzpatrick, was excellent at times and not-so-excellent at other times, and as with every other team in the league, the Jets labored their way through injuries that decimated their roster. They were a better team than the Bills, who upgraded their talent level and hired a name coach and still finished the year at 8-8, the very definition of mediocrity. And yet when it mattered, when their season was on the line, the Jets lost to the Bills, because this is the kind of thing that happens in the NFL, where everything eventually tends toward the mean.
And maybe you would argue this is a great thing, that Pete Rozelle’s dream has manifested itself in, say, the 8-8 Atlanta Falcons. Maybe you would claim that the fact a team went 15-1 this season and is far from a sure thing to win a single playoff game is the greatest thing about the NFL; maybe you relished the slopfest that the high-profile NFC East became. Some years, all of this does feel like a charming byproduct of Rozelle’s vision, but this season was different, in part because so many teams (including the Jets, and Bills, at times) wound up relying on backup quarterbacks of varying pedigrees to carry them through. The NFL’s sheer unpredictability is often its greatest gift, but this time around, it was often painful, and it’s not hard to wonder if something is just a little bit off, if maybe the regular season as a whole is more about survival than compelling football.
“If what the N.F.L. wants is nearly every team in contention to win a division or grab a wild card when the calendar turns to December, it came close to that goal in 2015,” wrote the mainstream arbiters from the Associated Press. “If what it wants is high-quality football from many of those teams, sorry.”
The conundrum, of course, is that the NFL doesn’t need to change anything at this point. People still watch the games in record numbers, even when they’re boring and sloppy, which they often were this year. The playoffs have a way of erasing all the angst and ugliness of the regular season; the playoffs are now set up, on the AFC side, to come down to one more battle between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, who rose from the dead to lead the Broncos to a victory over the Chargers in the second half on Sunday, winning his team home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Two weeks ago, the Broncos were limping along under backup quarterback Brock Osweiler, on the verge of missing the playoffs altogether. But then they beat the Bengals, and the Patriots collapsed under the weight of their own hubris (and injuries) and the balance of power shifted completely. On the NFC side, the Seahawks did the same thing, limping along in the early season and then thrashing the Cardinals on Sunday in a game that served notice about their preparedness for the postseason. The Seahawks kind of treated this regular season the way the San Antonio Spurs often do, working out their kinks and worrying about very little until it became time to worry, and while I sort of respect this, I also wonder if it’s a sign that the regular season has become so much of a relentless grind that it isn’t even fun to watch anymore. That we’re all just following along out of force of habit and fantasy-football inertia and Red Zone-fueled adrenalin, awaiting the moment when the games actually begin to mean something.
There is a fine line between parity and mediocrity, and watching that Jets-Bills contest, I’m not sure which side of the line I come down on anymore. I just know that I’m glad its over.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games, now out in paperback. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb