Declining NFL Quality of Play Has Been a Talking Point for 25 Years


The NFL TV ratings are down. The primetime games have generally been non-compelling. Even when it’s a close game, like Sunday night’s Colts-Texans overtime game, it’s not a great contest.

How much of this decline in quality of play is responsible for any ratings dip? Television ratings have been soaring for a long time, where the NFL seemed impermeable despite, well, everything the league might do. But what of the complaints? They’ve been going on for awhile.

Let’s go back beyond the recent complaints about quality of play, too many young players, the lockout, the spread offenses and college football. Here is a Lexis search of articles discussing the NFL and “quality of play,” and “inferior product.”

From Mike Preston of the Baltimore Sun, in 2008.

"The NFL is so watered down and mediocre that a team like the Ravens can be almost as good as any other on any given Sunday."

Almost as good? As it turned out, that Baltimore team reached the AFC title game.

From the Myrtle Beach Sun-News in December 2007:

Here’s a frightening notion: what if the playoffs follow the same pattern as the regular season?

That would be beyond depressing since we just went through the worst NFL regular season I can remember, a season where the quality of play diminished markedly, particularly by the quarterbacks.

And this is a league that is defined by its quarterbacks.

The Sun Journal of Lewiston, Maine lamented as well when having to watch a week without the Patriots (who went 16-0 that season):

The NFL really stinks this year. 

Oh, there are more than enough story lines to keep everyone’s interest. I’m never going to term the 2007 season boring. But the quality of play is just, ugh, turning the NFL into the post-Jordan NBA.

And it’s not like the really bad teams, the Jets, Dolphins, Raiders, Rams and 49ers, are bringing the rest of the league down. It’s the middle class, the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos of the world. It’s the teams like San Diego and New Orleans that were supposed to compete for the Super Bowl this year. Everywhere you look, it’s like country music radio – a bunch of watered-down pop wannabes.

That’s right, the NFL is Rascal Flatts.

From Mike Bianchi of the Orlando Sentinel in 2004:

Let’s just get this out of the way right now, OK? This has been the worst NFL season in history. For the most part, the games and teams have been unwatchable. It’s no wonder Ricky Williams quit before the season to go eat roots and smoke bushes in Tibet. Who wants to be a part of this mediocre mess?

In Jacksonville earlier this week, Jaguars owner Wayne Weaver announced that the team would be covering up all the empty seats with a tarp. I’ve got a better idea: How about we throw a tarp over the players so we don’t have to watch this dreck.

The quality of play, back in those halcyon days when Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Steve McNair, Donovan McNabb and Kurt Warner were in the league, must have been a talking point, because Bill Parcells is quoted in a 2004 USA Today article as saying “I’m trying to keep my own house from burning down” in response to a question on the topic.

After the previous Super Bowl, February of 2004, Tim Cowlishaw said:

For the NFL, the week of wretched excess that is the Super Bowl is over. Don’t expect a lot of self-examination over the declining quality of play. That’s not what this league is about.

In November 2003, Bob Raissman of the New York Daily News wrote:

On the recent edition of HBO’s “Inside the NFL,” Bob (Rapping Roberto) Costas asked the panel to identify the biggest NFL story at this point in the season.

There was silence until Cris Collinsworth blurted out: “Bill Parcells.”

Then the rest of the cast (Dan Marino and Cris Carter), acting like Solomonic scholars, nodded in agreement. They all feel the job Tuna has done – so far – in turning the Cowboys around is big news.

No offense to the panel – or Parcells – but the Cowboys’ so-called resurgence is part of a big NFL story no one on these NFL TV shows – or most NFL scribes – will touch. 

The reason Parcells has been able to straighten things out in Dallas so quickly is a direct result of the poor quality of play in the NFL. Compared to days gone by, the NFL is putting out an inferior product.

Raissman comes up frequently complaining of the quality of play in the early 2000’s. In other articles, he referred to it as “inferior,” “boring,” “suspect,” and “wretched.”

Jim Jenkins of Sacramento Bee, in 2003:

Fans probably would favor a shakeup in division races every year instead of a few teams dominating annually, as was the case most of the last three decades. But there are also purists who believe free agency and the salary cap’s effect on quality reserves, the major components of parity, have leveled the playing field too much and that the NFL product isn’t as good as it used to be. They may have a point.

In 2002, Pat Summerall was quoted as saying the following:
“I compare nothing you see now on the field with what was seen just seven or eight years ago. We still have great individual players, of course, but the teams just no longer have the quality of depth to make them great teams who can sustain a superior level over several seasons.”

In January of 2000, Bob Glauber quoted Troy Aikman:

Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman thinks he knows the reason: The quality of play throughout the NFL has suffered because of three-pronged pressure created by free agency, the salary cap and expansion.

“I don’t think the level of talent around the league is as consistent as it once was,” Aikman said. “When you spread out the talent that we do have over more teams due to expansion, then I do think it becomes a watered-down league.” Just look at the Cowboys. Dallas won three Super Bowls in the 1990s and easily could have produced the most dominant team of all time had free agency not been introduced in 1993 and the salary cap a year later. Over time, the Cowboys could not keep all their top players, to the point that they have become average.

From the Montreal Gazette in 1999, in the season which gave us the Greatest Show on Turf:

It’s gotta be the worst NFL season in history. Penalties, replays, fumbles, interceptions, commercials, Boomer Esiason.

Green Bay-Carolina yesterday turned out to be a decent game, but this was one sequence in the first half:

Packers punt. Panthers returner fumbles. Green Bay recovers at the two. On the first play, Brett Favre drops back 24 yards and gets called for illegal grounding – a 24-yard penalty. Next pass, a Carolina deep back intercepts. Runs it back 10 yards. Fumbles. Green Bay recovers.

But the Packers don’t score. Martha Stewart, anyone?

Indeed, Martha Stewart, anyone?

From John McClain of the Houston Chronicle in 1999:

Playing quarterback in the NFL used to be glamorous. Now it can be hazardous to your health.

Remember when quarterbacks used to be larger than life?

The NFL no longer produces quarterbacks like Johnny Unitas, Otto Graham, Sonny Jurgensen, Bobby Layne, Sammy Baugh, Y.A. Tittle, Sid Luckman, Bart Starr, Joe Namath, Joe Montana, Roger Staubach, John Elway, Kenny Stabler and Terry Bradshaw.

Quarterbacks were stars. They were the leaders. They didn’t walk; they swaggered. They could defy authority. It was cool when they were cocky. Everyone wanted to be their friend. They were celebrities who made the most money and got the girls. 

Today, they just make the most money.

Playing quarterback in the NFL isn’t what it used to be. One reason there is rampant mediocrity in the league is because the quality of quarterbacks is diminishing.

The NFL is competitive, and it can be interesting, but the quality of play has slipped significantly. As is the case with the other major professional sports, there are too many teams, and the product has been diluted.

And no position has been watered down more than quarterback. It’s the most difficult position to master in pro sports. Jurgensen, an analyst on the Redskins’ radio broadcasts, calls it “the worst-coached position in pro sports.”

From Dan Caesar’s NFL picks column in 1999:

That the giants (we can’t bring ourselves to capitalize the g — there is nothing giant about this offense) are above .500 heading to the game that brings them to the midpoint of the season speaks volumes about the quality of play in the NFL.

From 1998, Len Pasquarelli’s Sunday Special column:

Offensive line coaches point out that NFL free agency has eroded the quality of play on the offensive line more than at any other position. Only four teams began this season with the same unit they had in 1997. Three teams have four linemen each in new positions. Among the 150 starters, there were 31 linemen who went into Week One with fewer than a dozen starts at their current positions.

From Bob Glauber in 1997:

“If anyone has previously seen such lousy football during the second half of a season, please let me know, because the NFL’s quality of play in recent weeks has been downright loathsome.”

From John McClain in 1996:

It says here the salary cap is ruining the NFL. It is becoming
an inferior product. Financial restraints are killing teams
that suffer an inordinate number of injuries and are forced to
play too many young players and too many undrafted free agents
who are fortunate to have jobs.


The NFL just isn’t what it used to be, and we’re not talking
about 20 years ago. We’re talking about two years ago.

Let’s check in on two years before, back to Len Pasquarelli:

“Suddenly, all the talk about the dearth of young talent at quarterback has subsided. The overall quality of play is still not up to the standards everyone would prefer, but at least now the NFL can point to a half-dozen potential standard-bearers.

“It’s not exactly a ‘Golden Age,’ but you can see some guys getting ready to make the move up to Pro Bowl caliber,” said San Diego general manager Bobby Beathard, whose quarterback, Stan Humphries, 29, may be the league’s most valuable player over the first month of play. “There was a down time, certainly, and that’s worrisome. But we’ve got to take strides, too, to develop people. Once in a while, you have to make the tough decision, like they did in New York with [waiving] Phil Simms. Could the Giants have won this year with Simms? Probably. But they’re winning now without him and they’ve got their quarterback for the next 10 years maybe in Brown. They’ve made the transition and moved on.”

The Dave Brown era was indeed memorable.

From 1993, Charles Bricker of the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel:

“Free agency has been a gold mine for the players but a disaster for the quality of play in the NFL.

It’s murdering team depth and forcing young players onto the field before they’re ready to perform. “

In 1992 the league used the quality of play due to free agency in its defense in the anti-trust trial:

The point emphasized by the league is that total free agency would disrupt teams and lessen the quality of play. At the same time, the NFL needs to explain football in terms that jurors can use to give them a sound basis for judgment. All the while, the all-male NFL legal team is aware that simplifying things too much will sound condescending.

From Glenn Dickey, San Francisco Chronicle, in January of 1991, before a playoff matchup:

IN THE NFL , it all comes down to the quarterback, which is why the 49ers should beat the Washington Redskins today — and also why this has been the worst NFL season in years.

The quarterback controls the pace of the game; when a game seems slow or dull, it’s usually because one or both of the quarterbacks is ineffective. This year, ineffective quarterbacks have been the rule, not the exception.

Arbitrarily, I’d define a topflight quarterback as one who can make the game-winning play when necessary and who can carry an offense that is otherwise sputtering. The list is short: Joe Montana, Randall Cunningham, Dan Marino, possibly Warren Moon, possibly Jim Kelly, though Kelly gets a lot of help from a good running attack. John Elway should be on the list, but he has slipped badly the past two seasons. Steve DeBerg? This year, maybe, but not before or again.

We’ll close in 1990, from the Boston Globe:

“Last year proved that aside from the 49ers, there are no super teams in the NFL. Adding two more mediocre teams to the playoff mix might create more excitement, but it will not increase the quality of play. Add to that the strong possibility of expansion, as well as spring play when the international operation of the NFL begins in 1991, and you have a formula for overexposure that could make the NFL a second-rate league very quickly.”