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Commentator Mike Pesca On Redeeming Football's 'Lousy Season'


I bet over the next 12 days, we're going to keep hearing what is at stake in Super Bowl 51. Could New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady really be the best quarterback ever? Can the Falcons finally bring a title to Atlanta, a city that's been waiting a really long time? Every Super Bowl has a ton riding on it, right? Well, actually columnist Mike Pesca says maybe this one has more than usual.

MIKE PESCA: Every Super Bowl answers a question. Will this aged veteran be able to finally get a ring? Will that coach overcome a string of disappointment? Can Lady Gaga make amends for Meryl Streep's Golden Globe anti-football calumny? But for this Super Bowl, there's a question that's not been posed before. Can one great game redeem a lousy season? To my eyes, this was the worst season of professional football in memory. Ratings fell by 8 percent across all broadcasts, which might not sound too dire. But for the all-consuming cultural behemoth that is the NFL it's the first significant slippage in many years.

The explanations for why viewership fell were many, and they acted like Rorschach tests. For a certain type of fan, it was said to be the sympathy expressed for the Black Lives Matter movement from Colin Kaepernick, a then-backup quarterback on a team that would go 2-14. For another set of fans, it was said that finally, in 2016, all the horrors of head trauma became too much, though oddly not when the Cowboys were playing. They still set viewership records. It is a natural tendency to hear of a new as of yet fully-vetted development and pour our anxieties into an explanation. Bee colonies die out? Must be cellphones. Pedestrian accidents on the rise? Must be cellphones. By the way, one explanation for the NFL ratings decline - also cellphones.

But I'm here to tell you that it really was just bad football. There have been 10 playoff games so far. One was scintillating, the Packers versus the Cowboys. One was close, but the Steelers won without even scoring a touchdown. And eight were terrible. And the teams to make the playoffs were a horrible lot. They included the Texans, rated by Football Outsiders' advanced statistical model as the fourth worst team in the NFL. They played the Raiders, who would have been good, but because of injuries were forced to start a third string quarterback who looked like he was desperately trying to call an Uber at the Daytona 500.

Last year, the Carolina Panthers and the Arizona Cardinals, two teams who had never won Super Bowls, assembled terrific offenses. And they had the best won-loss records in the league. This year, both those teams have losing records, and the new teams that seemed to come out of nowhere went back to nowhere pretty quickly. Minnesota started 5-1, then four straight losses, missed the playoffs. Detroit Lions, the Cubbiest (ph) of all the teams, put together a series of improbable wins early in the season but regressed, losing their last three and were summarily dismissed in the playoffs. Oh, you could look at the Dolphins' record, 10-6, and tell yourself that ain't nothing. But it kind of was nothing. They beat only one winning team.

Lest this become a Mr. Blackwell inventory of the worst-dressed list where everyone makes the list, let me acknowledge that the Cowboys were compelling. The Patriots were their usual dominant selves. The Falcons have a legitimately impressive offense and, as of late, a defense that can offer occasional resistance. And in the Super Bowl, two of these teams are playing. That is a hopeful prospect for the NFL. On the other hand, the championship could well reflect the desultory parade of horribles that's characterized this season. I guess what I'm saying is, there is a lot riding on one participant - Lady Gaga.


LADY GAGA: (Singing) I'm on the edge of glory.

GREENE: Oh my, Lady Gaga and Mike Pesca, could the morning be better? Mike Pesca...



GREENE: Nope. Mike Pesca's the host of the Slate podcast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.