The NFL season comes to an ignominious end next Sunday, punctuated by a Super Bowl that’s both a monumental event and ever-lingering afterthought. Congratulations, genuinely, to the Atlanta Falcons, this year’s winner of the NFC’s rotisserie of mediocrity, for being so fortunate as to be personally guillotined by the New England Patriots. Such a public execution by football’s Legislators of Death would bring joy were there any other team the public so wished to see beheaded.
Certain defeat aside, the Falcons could also win. That’s the narrative of any Super Bowl, particularly those involving the Patriots: they’re going to triumph, easily, unless they don’t, in which case of course they didn’t. That’s football — the whirlwind of randomness, chaos and small sample sizes coalesces into the certainty of the inevitable. Whatever happens will happen because it’s what was always going to happen. Just ask any prognosticator — especially those who were right.
But that randomness, that beauty, feels like a cherry on top of our NFL Sundae. That sounds delicious, but the sundae is made out of lightly-roasted tires coated in dry ice, and the cherry is actually Buckcherry, and they haven’t showered in weeks. It was a terrible season, amplified by the excitement 2015 brought us: a season where Cam Newton, an electrifying young quarterback bootstrapped his team to a 15–1 record. The same season saw five teams — those Panthers, plus the Patriots, Broncos, Packers and Bengals — all reach perfect 6–0 records. Some of them broke each other first, and others were broken by a different team with a soiled record, only to break the unbroken in retribution. The playoffs were filled with instant classics; all so satisfying that the Super Bowl, a perfectly entertaining game in its own right, felt like a crushing disappointment.
The 2016 season saw but one team even make it to 5–0: the Minnesota Vikings, who proceeded to finish 8–8, missing the playoffs entirely. The Raiders and the Titans, two also-rans who became front-rans as the season went on, saw season ending injuries to their youthful, promising quarterbacks ushering them to the Promised Land. Some teams sucked, then were good. Some teams were good, then sucked. Some teams were one or the other, but after seventeen weeks, most of them were done. They were all spies, infiltrating our televisions, on a dangerous mission armed with just a Derringer and a cyanide pill. Most teams shot themselves in the dick and bled out along the sidelines.
The NFL’s primary appeal — should we generously dismiss the bloody carnage more reminiscent of the Roman Coliseums than anything else — is chaos. A 16 game season makes the value of each win substantially higher than in other leagues, and each of those games are governed by a set of rules so inconsistent and arbitrary as to make referees the de facto arbiters of the sport. “There’s holding on every play,” grumble fans. They’re right, sort of. But what truly breaks football, and what occurs on every play of the game, is the spot of the ball. There is no precision in where the ball is spotted. A referee sees a pile of men disperse, grabs their buried treasure and decides “eh, here’s good.” This is every play that doesn’t end in a score, and it is all but dismissed. It’s the open secret to the variance of the NFL: the game cannot exist without it.
Yet, through seventeen weeks, plus three playoff rounds, that variance failed to emerge. There were no shocks, and anything that could even be called a surprise was tantamount to finding out that Chuck Berry is still alive. “Cool, I guess,” you think, as the Dolphins rally to make the playoffs before the Steelers send them back to the couch. Same to the Lions, bolstering their legacy of mediocrity by QWOPing their way into the playoffs before being embarrassed by the Seahawks — who were, in turn, were pantsed by the Falcons in front of tens of thousands of people. But least surprising of all were the Texans, winners of a 1st place participation trophy and the honor of testing the blade with which the Patriots dispatch all challenges. The Texans, who finished 9–7 quarterbacked by a man who looks, and plays, like Robert Pattison, if only because six of their games came against the Colts, Titans and Jaguars. If Donald Trump and the Republican Party are truly committed to gutting entitlement programs, the least they could do is cut the playoff spot for the AFC South.
There were no surprises this season. In a game designed to maximize surprise on any given Sunday, and in a league more than willing to tip scales to make that happen, we transitioned from September to January without any expectations being shifted, altered or even slightly nudged. At the beginning of every season, analysts craft projections; rough estimates of the likeliest possible future, but with the acknowledgment that impossibly many exist. The saddest reality in sports is the one you expect, and the realization that a season might as well have been simulated in the newest Madden game inspires a creeping dread that rivals any cosmic horror. Sports are, ultimately, a distraction from the mundane ordeal that is everyday life. When the distraction becomes what it’s meant to distract from, what is left?
Something else; anything else. Distractions are plentiful, for we are the ones who create them — not out of boredom, but out of necessity. The NFL is a precious rarity: something meant to distract us from itself. We cheer touchdowns, field goals, sacks and interceptions to distract from the fact that we are watching men destroy their own bodies for our personal amusement. It is an institution littered with systemic racism, policed by the ghouls so indifferent to suffering that their idealized Westworld would see them cosplaying the slave trade. In their tireless pursuit of profit, they were so generous as to create an outlet for us to forget about them. Excluding, of course, those who pollute our minds with their faces. The very least Dan Snyder and Jerry Jones could do is invest in a way to punch them through a screen.
We weren’t given sufficient distractions this year. We never are, really, but 2016 highlighted the need for them, and the NFL failed us spectacularly. The see-saw of its benefits and faults because disproportionately weighted towards its failures, burdened by scandal, poor play and less than . All of those wonderful stats and factoids about undefeated teams and revitalizing players failed to spawn, and we were forced to ponder the same exploits that kept us occupied the year before. But a shelf life of eight months isn’t good enough, and barring a Super Bowl for the ages, we’ll be all to eager to banish this season to clip shows and lesser 30 for 30s.
The NFL will get better. It must, as it isn’t designed to sustain periods of stagnation — after all, sameness does not pair well with chaos. The league has been on a meteoric rise since the 1980s; nearly every Super Bowl more viewed than the last, with even the most meaningless regular season games generating a bombastic vigor typically reserved for the championships of other sports. But the bubble will burst, as they all do, and we’ll have to see who’ll be there to greet the league when it recovers.
If this season was a proving ground for that future, let it stay gone. Other distractions will expand to fill the void.