With the end of the NFL season less than a week away, I find myself reflecting on what an eventful year it has been. I’m not thinking about the surprising success stories like Eagles quarterback Michael Vick or the shocking disappointment of the Cowboys, but rather the excitement of off-the-field happenings that made for a rather interesting and highly publicized season.
The NFL’s ratings this season are 144 percent higher than television’s top non-football programs. Is this because the stars follow a similar plotline? The off-field drama of the 2010-2011 NFL season played out like a season of Desperate Housewives, and quarterbacks, for the most part, held the starring roles. Here is a brief recap:
- In March 2010, news broke about Super Bowl-bound Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger going under investigation for sexual assault of a female college student in Georgia. The charges were dropped, but Roethlisberger still served a four-game suspension.
- Rookie Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant grabbed headlines this summer when he refused to take part in the hazing tradition of carrying veteran receiver Roy Williams’ shoulder pads at training camp. Williams all but guaranteed retribution to the media. Two months later, Williams and other teammates left Bryant with a $55,000 dinner tab at a Dallas steak house.
- After photos and voicemail recordings were posted online, allegations arose early in the season that Vikings quarterback Brett Farve sexted to and left inappropriate messages for a Jets employee in 2008. The Vikings finished the season in last place in the NFC North, and Farve was fined $50,000 as a result of the scandal.
- After tearing a tendon in his right thumb during the Titans game against the Redskins, quarterback Vince Young had a meltdown. Young tossed his shoulder pads into the stands, had an altercation with Titans Head Coach Jeff Fisher and stormed out of the stadium. Young’s temper-tantrum cost him his starting position and later his spot on the roster.
- In December, a series of bizarre videos surfaced, which suggested Jets Head Coach Rex Ryan and his wife Michelle shared a foot-fetish. Ryan refused to answer questions on the subject and called it a “personal issue.”
Such controversies have garnered a great deal of publicity for the NFL, but has the off-field drama drawn more interest for its on-field play? Arguably so.
“The NFL is just on fire this year,” said CBS sports president Sean McManus. “Fan interest seems to be at an all-time high.”
The NFL’s 2010 regular season had a total of 207.7 million unique viewers, the most ever. NFL games were watched by an average of 17.9 million viewers, an increase of 1.3 million viewers per game from the 2009 regular season.
I’m sure McManus was pleased with the 43 million viewers that tuned into CBS for the Jets-Patriots divisional playoff game, making it the highest rated divisional playoff game in 14 years. The lead-up to the game drew heavy media coverage as off-field trash talk waged from members of both teams. During a media session, Patriots receiver Wes Welker’s foot comments (presumably alluding to Ryan) had the sporting world abuzz and were replayed incessantly in the days leading up to the game. Welker’s 11 foot-related references landed him on the bench for the Patriots’ first offensive series.
While all of this off-field publicity may be great for television ratings, is all publicity good publicity when it comes to the NFL and its teams’ images?
Welker has since said that he regretted the foot comments and getting caught up in such off-the-field banter.
“As much as you might want to get enticed into that stuff, at the end of the day, it’s just not worth it,” Welker said. “I think the best way to stick up for your teammate is on the field. … It’s concentrating on your job and what you do, and not concentrating on the riff-raff that goes with all that other stuff.”
So far the lead-up to the Super Bowl has been mostly drama-free. However, there was a “Twitter-driven mini-controversy” when some injured Packers tweeted about their “hurt feelings” regarding their possible exclusion from a team photo.
With 106.5 million viewers, last year’s Super Bowl was the most watched TV program in U.S. history. Will off-field drama help this year’s game surpass last year’s record? Or are the on-field traditions of these two blue-blooded teams a better way to close such a dramatic off-field season?