I've been on both sides of the entertainment coin as a football fan. I came of age in New York City in the mid-'90s, which meant that I got to see two games on Sundays. One was the post-Parcells Giants, which meant Rodney Hampton running into the line for two and a half yards between incompletions by Dave Brown or Kent Graham. The other game featured the pre-Parcells Jets, who helped establish Gang Green's reputation for ineptitude while chasing it with total irrelevance. Since those games each required a TV blackout on the other channel and I was too young to stay up for the night games, those two awful teams were all I got each week. It's no wonder I grew up to be a cranky football writer.
These days, life is better. I have Sunday Ticket, and the NFL Network, and Game Rewind. I can see any team that I want, and if I do decide to watch the Giants, they have a successful passing game whose curiosity extends beyond throwing a short pass somewhere in the vicinity of Chris Calloway. And Simmons usually lets me stay up late to watch the night games if my article for the morning is done. Football is exciting!
If you've seen this year's slate of Thursday-night games1 you know that not every team is exciting. I watch just about every play of every game during the course of a full week, and there's a definite hierarchy of teams in terms of pure excitement. When I watch some teams play, I'm glued to the screen; for others, I praise the heavens above that it's socially acceptable to check my e-mail once every 30 seconds. I read a lot of power rankings articles every week that attempt to rank teams in order of how good they are, but nobody ever puts together power rankings on how entertaining teams are to watch.
That changes now. And there's one simple rule: Against an average opponent, which team would I want to watch the most? Would I rather watch this team play that average opponent than that team? And so on and so on. Being good helps, obviously, but an entertaining bad team (like last year's Panthers) are going to be more fun to watch than a boring good team (like last year's Steelers). You get the idea. I tend to prefer teams that throw the ball and make a lot of big plays on defense, so my bias leans there. Let's start with the worst of the worst:
Raiders-Jaguars, not coincidentally, was one of just two 4 p.m. games on the schedule last Sunday. That means that every sports bar in America with more than three or four televisions had this game on. Imagine the requests that bartenders must have gotten to turn off that game. "Figure skating!" "Infomercials!" "The sweet sound of silence!" During the first quarter of the Patriots-Jets game, I was turning to this game periodically to get an idea of what was going on. By the third quarter, when the Patriots-Jets game was in commercials, I was going outside for smoke breaks. I don't smoke.
The Jaguars, by the way, are probably the least-entertaining organization in NFL history. Even the good Jaguars teams with David Garrard were conservative, ball-control teams. When was the last time the Jags were really fun to watch? It might be 1999. I know that they just drafted Justin Blackmon, but he's on pace to finish with 336 receiving yards this season. Do you know who holds the record for fewest receiving yards among first-round picks with a full season underneath his belt since 1990? Why, it's Reggie Williams, whom the Jaguars took with their first-round pick in 2004!
This is a four-team group that entirely depend upon big plays from their speedy running backs to be entertaining. Unfortunately, their four great running backs are also incredibly inconsistent from week to week; some weeks you end up tuning in and seeing Chris Johnson carry the ball 13 times for 20 yards while the announcers babble on about getting the ball to him in "space." So then you skip the 191-yard game from Johnson and tune in to see Trent Richardson carry the ball eight times for eight yards before he limps off with an aggravated rib injury while Jimmy Haslam makes throat-slitting motions toward Pat Shurmur from the owner's box. The Dolphins rate at the top of the list because they, at the very least, have an interesting quarterback to watch and a dominant run defense.
The Bills push just ahead of that group because they have two entertaining running backs to watch. It's also fun to watch their impossibly expensive defensive line get overrun by opposing offensive lines, and to make jokes about how each three-point stance makes Mario Williams's wrist even worse, especially if there are Bills fans in your general vicinity. On the other hand, they have a quarterback who cannot throw more than 12 yards downfield and a head coach/offensive play-caller who seems to forget that fact at the worst possible time in each game.
Speaking of offensive play-caller jokes, hello, old friend! The Chargers were once one of the most entertaining teams in the league to watch, but that was back in the days when Philip Rivers was chucking impossible bombs to Vincent Jackson between dominant stretches from LaDainian Tomlinson and Shawne Merriman. Even the role players — Michael Turner, Darren Sproles, Chris Chambers — had fun skills worth watching. And when the Chargers inevitably came up short, nobody pouted better than Philip Rivers. Now? Rivers checks down all day behind one of the league's worst offensive lines, Ryan Mathews and Antonio Gates get hurt, and the defense remains anonymous beyond the work of Eric Weddle. It's one of the rare cases where being entertaining and winning games have correlated perfectly for a team.
Arizona had some wildly entertaining finishes during their four-game winning streak to start the season, but it's truly hard for a team with Kevin Kolb and John Skelton at quarterback to be entertaining, even with Patrick Peterson around. Arizona's defense is good, but it's built around solid, sound coverage and effective pass pressure, not huge turnovers. RIYL: Passes thrown at the feet of an invisible man standing two yards in front of a covered receiver, traffic jams, four-yard completions on third-and-9, the Sonic Youth Recordings series, the sad "somebody's injured" piano version of the Fox football song, having dreams about being late to school years after you've graduated and not knowing where any of your classes are
Both these teams should be fun to watch. They're teams with big-play receivers, franchise quarterbacks with huge arms, great pass rushes, and dedicated fans who make a lot of noise. On the other hand they're really tough to actually enjoy. How many times can you really watch Matthew Stafford break down in the red zone and do something stupid? What enjoyment can you really glean from Ben Roethlisberger standing around in the pocket for 11 seconds before taking a sack? Calvin Johnson caught a touchdown once every six passes over the 2010-11 seasons; this year, he has one touchdown on 38 catches in six games. What good are the Lions if Megatron isn't jumping over three guys and making circus catches for touchdowns? And how many shots of Troy Polamalu standing downtrodden on the sideline can we stand as a nation?
How many players from this Colts team will be getting significant snaps for Indy in five years? My guess is five: Andrew Luck, Anthony Castonzo, Coby Fleener, Pat Angerer, and (if he stays) Vontae Davis. I'm willing to bet that viewership of Colts games by people who do not identify as Colts fans drops by 50 percent when Luck's on the bench and the Colts' defense is out there.
Fun like a Werner Herzog movie: never a complete performance, but you'll probably see something spectacular amid lots of gory, uncomfortable moments in a setting that exhibits absolute disdain for nature. It seems more likely that the Rams could pull a steamship over a mountain than produce another Super Bowl run, which would seem to make Steven Jackson the NFL's Klaus Kinski.
Outside of the occasional fun moment from Torrey Smith or Ray Rice, the Ravens are mostly fun these days by virtue of their propensity to pick a fight with anybody. Is it an NFC team the Ravens haven't played in six years and have no prior history with? They'll be engaged in shoving matches after the play before the third possession switch of the game.
The Vikings are very decent, but it's no accident that they were getting booed off the field at home on Thursday night even after starting 5-2 (and 4-0 at home) this year. This is a fan base that quit on the team about halfway through Brad Childress's final season and hasn't come back, even with Adrian Peterson and Jared Allen around that entire time. When the Vikings are bad, they are close to unwatchable. And nobody truly believes yet that the Vikings are really that good.
By the way, some fun numbers on Christian Ponder after last night's defeat: Through the first three games of the year, Ponder was completing 70.1 percent of his passes, averaging 7.4 yards per attempt, and had four touchdowns against zero interceptions. Since then, including the Bucs loss, Ponder has completed 62.4 percent of his passes, averaged 6.2 yards per attempt, and thrown more interceptions (seven) than touchdowns (six).
The Panthers were one of the five most entertaining teams in the league last year, since they could score on anybody and seemed incapable of quitting on a backdoor cover and/or a late loss. This year, their games have served as backdrops for armchair psychologist color commentators to analyze what's mentally wrong with Cam Newton, which ranges from vaguely insulting and racist to ill-informed and boring. (The statistical record, by the way, suggests that he's pressing mightily on second down and creating too many tough third downs.) They're too injury-riddled to compete after their 1-5 start, but here's hoping for Steve Smith punching a mascot at some point and inspiring the Panthers to an unlikely winning streak.
Sorta like the Panthers, but with a stifling defense and a quarterback attempting to learn professional football through immersion. Much more fun at home, obviously, than on the road.
Also one of the five most entertaining teams in football as of a couple of years ago, then because they were one of the teams with the highest variance in the league. Those Cowboys were capable of being brilliant or abysmal from week to week, and you had no idea which version was going to show up. Remember the 2008 Cowboys, who comfortably beat the Super Bowl–defending Giants and then lost to the Ravens on Thursday night and got blown out by 38 points in Philadelphia to miss the playoffs? That was a fun team. This one can't really run the ball very well, turns the ball over too frequently, and seems to blame its problems on Dez Bryant too much. Bryant, by the way, is averaging 10.6 yards per catch this year. Only the 2012 Cowboys could turn the next Terrell Owens into late-career T.J. Houshmandzadeh.
Reliably a very good team, but only really entertaining when Devin Hester is getting punts in the middle of the field or Jay Cutler is having a bad day. Otherwise, workmanlike and sound.
Nobody is watching them, but secretly, Tampa's one of the more entertaining teams in the league. You saw last night how effective their offense can be, and they have two-big play wideouts (Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams) who can make spectacular catches. And that penchant for the spectacular also extends to their defense, which seems to forget about players 40 yards downfield on a regular basis. Put it this way: If the Bucs defense was a living, breathing human being, it would forget to turn something flammable off and burn its apartment down three times a week.
Probably a little spoiled after years of seeing Drew Brees do his thing, but man, can this team be frustrating. What's the fun in seeing Roman Harper turn into Roy Williams Jr.? How can you resist yelling at the television when a team with one of the best quarterbacks in league history insists on giving the ball to Mark Ingram because they wasted a draft pick on him two years ago?
Oh, and since it's come up a bunch with regard to Ingram, the problem with Ingram isn't that he's on the field in situations where the other team knows he's about to run the ball (and promptly crowds the box). Before they drafted Ingram, the Saints had a running back who only came on the field when he was going to run the ball, and his name was Chris Ivory. Ivory, who is a healthy scratch for the Saints every week, averaged 5.0 yards per carry on his 216 rushing attempts while catching just one pass in two years. Ingram — who is a functional enough receiver to get 12 receptions across his 16 pro games — is averaging 3.6 yards per carry. He just isn't any good.
This is about as low as a team with a Hall of Fame quarterback and the fastest offense in league history can rank, which says a lot about how unerringly awful their defense can be. They're not a terrible defense like the Buccaneers, either, where they mix moments of clarity with huge mistakes; the Patriots are a conservative defense that rarely gets pressure on the quarterback and allows Mark Sanchez to march down the field on them, 12 yards at a time.
Get ready for exclamation points. The Bengals are secretly exciting! Yes, you know that you can catch the A.J. Green highlights on SportsCenter, but he might be the best wide receiver in football right now! And do you know who leads the league in sack rate? Why, it's the Bengals! Geno Atkins is the best defensive player you've never heard of! Michael Johnson's having a breakout year! Andy Dalton is a gunslinger! Maybe they'll run that Mohamed Sanu pass play again! After their bye week, the Bengals come back with games against the Broncos and Giants, both of whom are still to come on this list. They might not win those games, but I guarantee they'll be fun to watch.
When the offense is purring, it feels like the Falcons can't be stopped, and it becomes a question of whether they're going to pick up the third down on a throw to Julio Jones, Roddy White, or Tony Gonzalez. When it's not, though, the Falcons are plodding and bland. It also doesn't help that they've basically locked up the NFC South (with projected odds of winning at 98.2 percent and Vegas no longer taking action) and get to spend the next 10 weeks resting guys for their playoff loss at home to the eventual Super Bowl winner.
Definitely a more entertaining team than they were last year, because they can do more things on offense with their personnel and have the league's best running game. On the other hand, their defense isn't quite as fun as it was a year ago. They're playing just as well, but the crazy turnover rate is gone and replaced by merely stifling work.
Much like those old Cowboys teams, the Jets are capable of anything and everything, and they do that in front of an audience that knows they are part of the tragicomedy. They were more fun with the sublime skills of Darrelle Revis around, of course, but who doesn't enjoy the possibility of a fake punt on every single play?
This might even be a little low. Which Giants game hasn't been wildly entertaining this year? Maybe the Panthers game got boring very quickly, but that was fun solely because the Giants were doing it with third-stringers at the skill positions. They have two fourth-quarter comeback wins at home and a blowout of one of the league's best teams on their own field. The last time a Giants regular season was this fun was 2008, when they came off of a Super Bowl win and went 12-4 before getting embarrassed by the Eagles at home in the playoffs. So it's not fun to invoke memories of that year.
The league's highest-variance team is Denver, although that variance seems to always manifest itself in terms of an awful first half and a fantastic second one. Broncos receivers have also fumbled the ball away without being touched and tripped over their own feet running with an empty path to the end zone this year, so there appears to be some sort of poltergeist activity in their games. Let this post-Tebow era haunting be a warning to you, Jets.
Now that they're done shoving the ball into Cedric Benson's gut for three yards a carry and Aaron Rodgers is doing stuff like this again, it's fun to watch the Packers. Even if their presence in commercials is ubiquitous and inescapable. Also, confusing. Why is Clay Matthews sitting at a public gate on a Sunday during football games? Why is Aaron Rodgers's man cave exclusively colored red? How did Greg Jennings somehow score two different ad campaigns? And with Jennings and Ray Lewis both suffering injuries, is there an Old Spice curse? Are we going to hear that Terry Crews tore a pec filming an episode of The Newsroom soon?
The Eagles are fun for casual fans because they reinforce simple, widely held narratives. Even your one game-every-few-weeks fan knows that the Eagles turn the ball over all the time, fail spectacularly in the red zone, and make terrible clock management decisions. These things happen in every Eagles game, and the only question is really just how awesome those mistakes are. Sure, you thought Ronnie Brown throwing the ball with his other arm to nobody inside the 2-yard line was bad, but was it really much worse than Michael Vick fumbling the ball into the end zone on a sneak? And between those narrative-affirming fiascos, you occasionally get some gorgeous play from Vick or LeSean McCoy. That's fun!
The Texans are brutal efficiency personified, running the ball down people's throats with the same play, over and over again, without any answer. They run the same route combinations that Gary Kubiak was putting together for Ed McCaffrey and Rod Smith to catch passes from Brian Griese in Denver, and it doesn't matter. They could show you the play before the snap and still beat you to the punch. They knock down a half-dozen of your passes at the line of scrimmage, and if you're lucky, they don't return any of them for a touchdown. They somehow let a first overall pick go and got better on defense, and their best player is so obviously the league's Most Valuable Player that he's become a household name despite playing a position commonly regarded as statless and anonymous. They are the German national soccer team of the NFL, ruthless and consistent and a testament to how to win. But they are not Brazil. Brazil is
Robert Griffin III, who is the most exhilarating football experience since Michael Vick emerged on the scene in 2002. And RG3's numbers blow Vick's away. Keep in mind that Griffin leads the league in completion percentage (70.8 percent) and yards per attempt (8.5) with Leonard Hankerson and Josh Morgan as his starting wideouts, and that doesn't even consider his value as a runner. You know how Simmons has the Tyson Zone for celebrities who are so crazy he'd believe anything he heard about them? I feel the same way about Griffin on the field. If I'm watching the Red Zone channel on Sunday and I see the "Coming up " image with a Redskins graphic, my mind races. Did RG3 just kick a 65-yard field goal? By accident? Did he go back in time and relieve Drew Storen? Is he hosting the Red Zone Channel right now? You could tell me RG3 accomplished just about anything during a game on Sunday and I'll believe it. These days, nobody in football is more watchable or entertaining.