Last Thursday, Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk tweeted this during another miserably boring Thursday night NFL game:
Currently, college football is genuinely exciting far more often than pro football is. NFL needs to be concerned about that.— ProFootballTalk (@ProFootballTalk) September 15, 2017
It’s significant that the head of ProFootballTalk, a site that’s a repository for NFL news, was the one tweeting this opinion. But he’s correct. And in Indiana, with Purdue and IU off to exciting starts while the Colts linger towards another year in purgatory, the evidence is clear.
Both the Boilermakers and the Hoosiers faced some uncertainty as the year began, as both teams started with new head coaches. But after a few games, the outlook seems bright for both. IU started off the season by playing Ohio State closely for over half the game, then easily beating Virginia by 17 on the road. They’ve got a stud wideout in Simmie Cobbs, an all-B1G linebacker in Tegray Scales, and a defense that’s become much improved over the past couple seasons since Tom Allen joined the program.
Meanwhile, Purdue had a lead in the 4th quarter against Louisville and defending Heisman winner Lamar Jackson in week 1, then absolutely pasted Ohio and Missouri in its next two games. And as loathe as I am to give Purdue credit on anything, Jeff Brohm has turned the offense around and made Boilers fans enjoy football for the first time since the Joe Tiller era. Good for them, I suppose.
(And yes, even Notre Dame, which is technically an Indiana school, looks improved this year. They went 4-8 last season. People forget that.)
This brings us to Indiana’s NFL team - the Colts.
Two Sundays ago, the Colts played in front of 25,000 disinterested fans in Los Angeles, and lost to the Rams 46-9. The game was an embarrassing start to the season, as Scott Tolzein threw two pick-sixes and was replaced by Jacoby Brissett - a cast-off of the team that Colts fans claim to hate most. This week, Brissett started strong quickly, but the Colts blew a 10-point 4th quarter lead, and Brissett threw an interception on the first play of overtime as the Colts lost 16-13. Overall, that’s 22 points and only two touchdowns over the course of two games for the Colts so far, both against teams in the NFC West, which could be the worst division in the league this year. Brissett is certainly better than Tolzein, but I don’t think anyone is expecting him to replace Andrew Luck - who has been sidelined since the end of last year with a shoulder injury. There is a free agent QB who could help the team now, but I understand that he’s a non-starter in Indy, both with fans and with owner Jim Irsay.
Like they did with Peyton Manning in 2011, the Colts have not been honest about what the extent of Luck’s injury has been, and when he might return to the team. But then again, this is a franchise that after being gift-wrapped Luck with the #1 overall pick 5 years ago, squandered every opportunity to give Luck any sort of protection, thanks to the drafting acumen of former GM Ryan Grigson. Grigson’s gone now, but Chuck Pagano still remains coach, and after an inspiring battle back from cancer, followed by an initial run of playoff berths and division titles, Pagano now seems lost during games. Nowhere was that more evident than during the fake punt debacle against the Patriots two years ago.
But ultimately, the game comes down to what happens on the field, and like many other NFL teams, the Colts are a bad on-field product right now. Without Luck, the Colts look to be no more than a 5-11 team. Which is fine if you intend to be rebuilding and stocking up on draft picks and young talent. Problem is, the Colts never suggested that they would be rebuilding after two straight 8-8 seasons. Ultimately, this team is still banking off its success at the end of last decade, but it’s been almost 11 years since that Super Bowl victory now, and almost 8 since its last appearance. Even an AFC South title used to be a lock most years, but now it looks less and less likely every season.
The Colts are a microcosm of the NFL’s problems right now - the league is struggling to put an exciting product on the field, and dealing with issues of negligence towards player safety. Many of the league’s most well-known quarterbacks (Brady, Rodgers, Ryan, Brees, Big Ben) are well into their 30s and in the latter stage of their careers, and the field of reliable starting QBs dwindles year after year. Concussions and CTE have become a dangerous issue, one that commissioner Roger Goodell did not properly deal with for many years - I highly recommend the book League of Denial for more details about it. Goodell’s insistence on being judge, jury, and executioner on all player suspension matters hasn’t helped his cause either. And of course, Colin Kaepernick has become a lightning rod of criticism, and I think no matter how you feel about him, it’s fair to say that the league did not handle his protests well (oh great, the comment section will be a mess now).
And last but not least, it comes down to greed and pocketing off the fans. Goodell’s first and foremost mission is to make the owners more money, and in turn he’s had two teams move to Los Angeles in two years, in order to play in front of fewer people just in order to use a new fancy multi-billion-dollar stadium that won’t even be ready for use until 2020. Indy only got 25 years out of the old RCA Dome before they built Lucas Oil. Atlanta’s fancy new stadium, which debuted on national TV last night, just replaced a dome that was built in 1992. These fancy new stadiums get glowing profiles, yet the public often pays for a good portion of the burden of their construction.
To readers in Indy: don’t feel bad if you don’t feel like watching the Colts next Sunday afternoon (I mean, they’re playing the Browns). And to readers in other cities: make use of the good weather and the longer daylight while it’s still here. Go for a hike. Ride your bike somewhere. Take the dog on a long walk. Sign up for a Sunday afternoon intramural league. Or if it’s raining next weekend, go see a movie or binge-watch a show - I saw It last Thursday instead of football and regretted nothing. I’m not advocating to completely cut the NFL out of your lives - watching with friends at a bar will always be fun, last year’s Super Bowl was great entertainment, and I still enjoy bantering about fantasy football with my coworkers. But it’s just no longer worth it to plan your Sundays around NFL games.
And yes, I’m aware that college football has many problems of its own, especially with regards to player equity, the growing financial gap between Power 5 and Group of 5 teams, and appropriate player punishments for criminal charges. But at the end of the day, college football’s on-field product - with its creative formations on both side of the ball and down-to-the-wire finishes - is very much worth it. And between the Hoosiers and Boilermakers, Indiana’s two state schools should make you feel excited and believe that the future is bright for college football in the state.
So forget Sundays. With the excitement of the college game right now, Saturdays are the best days for watching football - both in Indiana, and around the country.