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Sunday Sports: Mike Pesca's Theory On NFL 2016


It's time for sports.


CHANG: It's Sunday. And if you're a football fan, you're probably getting ready to watch your team this afternoon. Not to upset you, but our friend Mike Pesca has a word for this year's NFL, and it is mediocrity. He's the host of slate.com's podcast "The Gist" and he joins us from Slate Studios in New York to tell us more.

Thanks for being with us, Mike.


CHANG: OK. So what is so mediocre about football this year?

PESCA: Huh, well, I can't explain it by throwing out phrases like point differential, standard deviation - I won't do that.

CHANG: No idea what you mean.

PESCA: I will just say this. Yes. The biggest reason is the eyeball test. You look at these teams, you don't get the impression - even the great ones, or the ones who have the best record, you don't say to yourself - my God, who could beat the Patriots or the Cowboys or the Raiders or the Chiefs? Because not only have teams beat them, they don't look forceful. And they don't look so omnipotent from week to week.

I will cite - there is a site called Football Outsiders, and every year, they do a very advanced number-crunching. And they say the best teams in the league this year are the worst best teams we've ever had. And they've also saying that the worst teams - now the Browns are a winless team. They could go un-winned, which is the opposite of undefeated, this year. But compared to the other two teams that didn't win a game, they're much, much better than that.

But it really is this clustering in the middle, where teams - even the great teams - aren't blowing out the bad teams. And it doesn't seem like the games are crisp on every play and with every - on both sides of the ball. And that's what I mean by mediocre, and I do think the fans are feeling it.

CHANG: Wait - so basically, you're saying that the best teams aren't as good as they think they are. And the worst teams aren't as bad as we think they are. But isn't that the case any year?

PESCA: Well, I would say this - if the NFL were just a league of 32 coins and there were a bunch of flips, the bell curve would dictate that there'd be some teams with really good records and some teams with bad records and some teams with 800 records. And that's what we're getting.

But it's not - it's a little bit different from most years because the Patriots, who are the best team - there have been other Patriot teams that win by an average of 12, 13 points - usually, the best team in the league will win by double-digit points. That'll be their average margin of victory. Last year, the Panthers and the Cardinals both had an average margin of victory of double-digits points. This year, the Patriots aren't at that point. That's just one of the many factors to say the greats aren't the greatest.

CHANG: So does your theory of mediocrity explain why TV ratings are down?

PESCA: I think it plays into it. I think that you look at all these matchups, and maybe it's not unbelievably exciting, especially early in the season when you're not sure if teams are going to be good. Now with playoffs on the line, there's a lot of incentive for, say, if you're a Tampa Bay Buccaneers fan. Even if your team was bad, now it's pretty good. Well, now if they beat the Dallas Cowboys, that means a lot in terms of their playoff chances.

But I would say this - the overall ratings decline has been a little bit exaggerated. A lot of that is "Thursday Night Football." My big theory is those games are terrible. Also, they wear awful uniforms.

CHANG: (Laughter).

PESCA: There was this Seattle drag show I recently heard about that would find the uniforms of the Seattle Seahawks demure by comparison if you look at what they were wearing on Thursday.


CHANG: OK. In the 20 seconds we got left, let's talk about the big games being played today. Which ones are you keeping an eye on?

PESCA: I mentioned Tampa Bay and Dallas.


PESCA: New England and Denver will be a good game. Whoever wins the Lions against the Giants, they're going to the playoffs. But let's also look at the Bills and the Browns because if the Bills lose to the winless Browns, I believe their coach will get fired. Also, people of Buffalo are being offered $10 to shovel out the stadium.


PESCA: You also get a free game ticket. However, they're selling for six bucks on StubHub.

CHANG: Mike Pesca, host of "The Gist" podcast at slate.com.

Thanks, Mike.

PESCA: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.