This was said by Super Bowl-winning quarterback Trent Dilfer on ESPN this week: "The football has never been worse in the National Football League. The quality of product is horrific."
People like to hate Dilfer, but the truth is, he says some interesting things. And smart things. Like all of us, sometimes he's wrong and sometimes he's right. On this topic, I think he's right. It's a sentiment I've also heard expressed repeatedly by assistant coaches all season. I heard it again when I ran it by some coaches after Dilfer said it.
Many people across the league agree with what Dilfer said. Many, many people. The NFL is a mess.
Now, of course, this is all subjective. What exactly does "football has never been worse" mean? How do you qualify it? How do you even compare the quality of play to 2000, much less 1980 or 1950?
Again, all subjective, but here are three big reasons various assistant coaches told me Dilfer might be right:
The running back factor: The position was supposed to be dead, and now we're seeing how important it is. One of the reasons the Packers, for example, are struggling is they can't control the tempo of the game, and one of the reasons the Vikings are one of the great surprises of the league is because they can.
Having a great running back takes pressure off the quarterback—and off the defense as well—and the end result of not having one can be an offense (and team) that looks sloppy and chaotic.
What we're learning this season is that running backs are not only far from archaic, but they are in fact still vital. Teams took them for granted, and that's affected how the game flows and looks.
Officiating: The officiating this year is easily the worst I've ever seen. Mistake after mistake. Part of it is something I've said before: The athletes are simply too fast for 50-year-old dudes to keep up with.
The ref falls on his ass just backpedaling. And these are the guys who are supposed to ref the best athletes in the world.
But it's something else. It's the thickening of the rule book to the point that it's difficult to tell what is a catch and what isn't. In some cases, even the officials don't know. That's how bad the officiating has gotten.
I challenge you to read this from Dean Blandino, the NFL's vice president of officiating, on what exactly is a catch, and tell me what a catch is. You cannot read it and know. It's like reading Klingon.
When even the men who are charged with enforcing the rules don't know them, well, that's a problem. The uncertainty with the officiating adds to the notion that football today is sloppier than in the past.
The quarterbacks: Some of the biggest names in the sport have struggled, been hurt or both. Go down the list: Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, Andrew Luck, Tony Romo, Sam Bradford, Ryan Tannehill, Johnny Manziel, Tyrod Taylor. On and on it goes.
Mark Sanchez threw a red-zone pick last week. It was like being in a time machine. Different uniform, same result.
Backup quarterback play has never been pretty, but the backups this season have been so unbelievably bad (in Dallas especially) it has dragged the entire NFL into a bad place.
Dilfer continued to say something else that's also true: The athletes are so good, they are saving the game from being unwatchable. The grace some of them display offsets the problems.
But it's not enough to totally do so.