Oct 15, 2012; San Diego, CA, USA; General view of the ESPN Monday Night Football trucks in the Qualcomm Stadium parking lot during the NFL game between the Denver Broncos and the San Diego Chargers. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-USA TODAY Sports

NFL should give Monday Night Football flex scheduling

Donald Penn, an offensive tackle for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, lined up as an eligible receiver on a third and goal play on the game’s first drive. He feigned at blocking down before leaking out into the flat and catching a touchdown pass from Mike Glennon. In an instant, a putrid Monday Night Football matchup between the Miami Dolphins and the Buccaneers was salvaged by hilarity.

However, there can’t always be fat guy touchdowns (can there?), and Monday Night Football has seemingly become a routine exercise in habitually awful football between awful teams.

There was the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers playing a quality of football that you’d expect to see in an empty lot next to a grade school in Week Two. There was Peyton Manning chokeslamming the outweighed and overpowered Oakland Raiders in Week Three.

The New Orleans Saints pasted the Dolphins. The New York Giants out garbage-picked the Minnesota Vikings. The Seattle Seahawks put up ONE HUNDRED AND THIRTY-FIVE yards of total offense in a win over the St. Louis Rams, and–in arguably the most entertaining Monday Night Football game to date–the Chicago Bears backup quarterback outlasted the Green Bay Packers backup quarterback for a significant NFC North victory.

Monday Night Football is bad, in large part, because of the scheduling, and while logistics are certainly a challenge–given that only one game is actually slated for Monday night every week–I think it’s time for the NFL to consider allowing their signature showcase to flex into more appealing games on the league’s schedule. You know… games more appealing than the 0-8 Bucs against the reeling Dolphins.

Since 2006, Sunday Night Football has had the ability to flex into games during the second half of the season (here’s the NFL’s flex policy). That has led to some incredibly entertaining matchups on a large national stage and it’d be nice to see a similar setup for Monday night.

For over 43 years, Monday Night Football has been arguably the most critical part of the NFL brand, but with five networks (NFL Network, Fox, CBS, NBC and ESPN) now vying for television rights and divvying up games, that brand has suffered in terms of quality. The ratings remain relatively strong, given our growing fervor for football, but how often can that brand survive praying for fat guy touchdowns and saturated storylines to give their terrible football game a ratings bump?

This Monday night, the majority of my football-loving Twitter timeline appeared to have opted out of Tampa Bay against Miami entirely, partially because of the terrible matchup and largely because they were sick of hearing about Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito. They were ultimately swooned by a Twitter eruption at the sight of a 6-5 340 lb. lineman scoring a touchdown and dunking the ball hilariously over the goalpost.

Granted, that’s a small sample size, but it’s a relatively accurate in that it samples a smattering of die-hard football fans. The kind who, under normal circumstances, would always be tuned into Monday Night Football. Last night, they weren’t, and even after they were, it was largely in jest.

Now, ESPN and the NFL don’t particularly care what reason you’re tuning in for. However, the issue arises when bad football ultimately ceases being painfully entertaining and just begins to simmer at painful.

Before long, as hard as it is to believe, people will begin tuning out. The only way to save that may be to flex into more meaningful games, particularly late in the season.

Ultimately, the biggest obstacle towards that becoming a reality (besides four other networks unwilling to give up a premier game) is ticket holders. Sunday Night Football is only allowed to take games from the afternoon slot, and they must do so with at least 12 days  notice so that fans who have paid for tickets can adjust their plans accordingly.

But, that’s just for moving the game from the afternoon to that evening. Playing the game on an entirely different day is a toothier animal altogether.

Realistically, Monday Night Football–should they be allowed to flex into the NFL schedule–would have to do so at least a month in advance. And, while that wouldn’t always result in the best game of the week being played in the premier timeslot (given the way the NFL can change in a month’s time), it should lead to a more competitive brand of football altogether.

In a month’s time, fans unable to attend because of the change of date could easily offload their tickets (likely at a premium rate, given the magnitude of a Monday Night Football matchup) or be compensated with tickets to another game at a later date. I know that’s not an ideal situation for people shelling out that kind of money to attend a live NFL game, but with so much of the NFL’s revenue now coming from TV rights, they have to do something to protect their premier timeslot.

The ratings haven’t fallen off yet, but if the football continues to be this bad on Monday night, they will. And when ratings fall, television executives in charge of bidding on rights slither silently back into the holes from which they came.

Monday Night Football is in trouble, and it won’t always have a fat guy touchdown to bail it out.

Tags: Miami Dolphins Monday Night Football NFL Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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