With Aaron Rodgers in the fold, New York Jets games will be intriguing, potentially high-scoring and possibly very important in2023. But they won’t be very much fun.
It's difficult to have fun when the hype is cranked up past 11. It's even more difficult to have fun when everyone is trying extra-extra hard, like a divorced dad taking the kids to a baseball game. (Do you want more cotton candy? Sure you do. What do you mean you aren’t hungry? EAT THE COTTON CANDY OR ELSE). It’s nearly impossible to enjoy a telecast when the broadcasters are desperately recontextualizing the experience in real time. (Hey, Rodgers threw a one-yard pass to Randall Cobb when Garrett Wilson was open in the end zone, but that’s part of the journey, everyone is still getting comfortable with each other, it’s only Thanksgiving). And it's a downright Herculean task to have fun when expectations are set so unrealistically high that every minor setback feels like a catastrophe.
Jets fans will enjoy Jets games, of course, but that’s the definition of “fan.” Perry Cuomo fans found Perry Como concerts somehow fun. For non-homers, the best litmus test for a team’s Fun Factor is a simple question: if this team was playing on Thursday night, would you alter your plans to watch the game?
For the Jets, that answer might well be “yes,” but out of a sense of obligation rather than enjoyment, like a Phase 4 Marvel movie: these stories have gotten pretty stale, but we’ve invested over a decade in these characters, so we might as well buy tickets for the finale. But that’s not how we would approach, say, a Kansas City Chiefs game, or even a Jacksonville Jaguars game now that Trevor Lawrence has gestated.
The Jets are therefore excluded from the 2023 NFL Fun Index: they are too uniquely annoying to categorize. The other 31 teams have been ranked according to their ability to deliver a delightful viewing experience to neutral-market fans.
It takes big stars, gifted quarterbacks, a high-flying offense, perhaps a turnover-happy defense, a knack for dramatic finishes, a realistic crack at the Super Bowl and the ability to provide some pleasant surprises to reach the top of the Fun Index.
Unfortunately for you, dear reader, we’re starting at the bottom.
31. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Baker Mayfield/Kyle Trask quarterback competition is a threat, not a plan, and the Buccaneers were boring in 2022 with Tom Brady at quarterback. Worst of all, the Buccaneers didn’t liberate Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, or many of their big-name defensive veterans so they could at least tank with Bad News Bears-level flair.
30. Tennessee Titans
Watching late-career Derrick Henry is a little like watching late-career Bruce Springsteen: still a thrill, even if the tempo of "Rosalita" has slowed to a schoolbus-on-a-steep-hill pace. Speaking of schoolbusses, the Titans receiving corps is more like the Poky Little Puppies than the E Street Band.
Throwing to the world’s least dangerous band will be Ryan Tannehill, entering his second decade as the NFL’s 25th most interesting quarterback, and Will Levis; whose upside hovers around the Next Mitch Trubisky tier. So don’t worry about missing a Titans game: Henry’s lone stiff-arm at the end of a 15-yard run will trend on Twitter
29. Washington Commanders
Sam Howell? Sure, why not.
The Commanders should get a boost in entertainment value from their pass rush and receiver corps, but we all know Chase Young will be injured again by Week 5, Terry McLaurin will be watching Jacoby Brissett bombs sail out of bounds by Week 7 and the rest of the Commanders will be just competent enough to produce a string on low-scoring losses which will continue until the new ownership decides to put its stamp on the organization by giving Bill O’Brien another coaching gig.
28. Los Angeles Rams
Watching the 2022 Rams was like watching a bunch of hungover fratbros stagger around trying to clean up after an epic rager. Watching the 2023 Rams will be like watching the same fratbros squeeze into their khakis and go back to work on Monday while still chugging Pedilite and texting apologies to (now) ex-girlfriends. The charm of the boozy come-uppance has faded, leaving just a dull headache and the tedium of rebuilding.
Matthew Stafford’s impending return will make the Rams offense as interesting as the 2018 Lions offense was. Should Stafford falter again or be permanently broken, there’s always Stetson Bennett, the shorter, less-talented, less-reliable and somehow older version of Mac Jones.
27. Cleveland Browns
Enough time has past to make watching Deshaun Watson play football tolerable, unobjectionable and (when he’s playing well, as last seen in 2020) aesthetically satisfying. Whether you can make it all the way to “fun” is a matter of personal taste. I ain’t there yet.
26. Las Vegas Raiders
Replacing Derek Carr with Jimmy Garoppolo is like replacing a turkey sandwich with bacon and avocado with a turkey sandwich with turkey and bread.
Without Tom Brady, Josh McDaniels is a 1980s Big-10 coach who loves multiple formations, so long as all of them are the I. Davante Adams, Josh Jacobs and Maxx Crosby SHOULD juice the Raiders’ entertainment value, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that everyone, especially McDaniels, is just cashing Mark Davis’ checks, compiling stats and marking time until a better gig (Bill Belichick’s retirement, in McDaniels’ case) comes along.
25. Carolina Panthers
Bryce Young won’t probably endure a Trevor Lawrence-level rookie pratfall, but that's only because Frank Reich, unlike Urban Meyer, won’t stomp on kicker’s feet, slip away from team flights to hang out at the Lap Dance Bar & Grille or watch Aaron Donald film like a toddler encountering Elmo for the very first time.
Unfortunately, competent coaching will actually make the Panthers less interesting than the 2021 Jaguars. Young has no one to throw to, Reich will exercise quiet patience, and Panthers games will interest only hardcore Panthers fans until 2024.
24. Houston Texans
If you loved watching C.J. Stroud throw to Garrett Wilson, Chris Olave, Jaxon Smith-Ngiba and Marvin Harrison Jr., just wait until you see him throwing to Nico Collins, Jon Metchie, the desicated husk of Robert Woods and Tank Dell, a draftnik binkie who might max out as “fun-sized Keke Coutee.”
DeMeco Ryans may turn out to be a great coach, but he’s a defense-oriented coach who imported third-generation Shana-clone Bob Slowick to be the Texans offensive coordinator. Who loves fourth-and-1 punts? No one under age 60? Oh, well: Texans fans should get used to them.
Stroud and the Texans rank ahead of Young and the Panthers because the AFC South long embraced it’s Sun Belt/Fun Belt nature as a glorified midmajor conference. NFC South teams are still dreaming of Brady and Brees (and Matt Ryan I guess) and an unattainable Super Bowl. AFC South teams know they are competing for the Belk Bowl, and they love it.
23. Denver Broncos
The Broncos have a deep playmaker corps and lots of interesting pieces on what is usually a rock-solid defense, so the Russell Wilson Comeback Tour would rank higher if:
a) Everything about Wilson wasn’t filtered through an army of publicists, handlers and soothsayers to achieve maximum disinformation and insincerity; and
b) Sean Payton didn't appear to be treating the Broncos like a lucrative retirement hobby.
The peak for the 2023 Broncos will be to reach the lofty heights of the late-2010s Seahawks: Wild Card also-rans with a penchant for Russ-fueled late-game heroics. Their trough will be a Week 12 benching so Payton can reduce expectations to rubble, start the rebuilding clock and give his coaching pals an extra year or two of job security.
The midpoint between those extremes – the most likely outcome for the 2023 Broncos – is a pasteurized narrative of a coach and quarterback spending months trying to “get on the same page.” That sounds only slightly more fun than watching C.J. Stroud throw to nobody.
22. New England Patriots
Bill Belichick’s grimdark championship factory of the 2000s and 2010s has been replaced by his grimdark notch-above-mediocrity factory in the 2020s.
Patriots games are often tense defensive duels which offer some entertainment value, but after 20 years of Tom Brady conditioning it can be excruciating to watch the least-talented Alabama quarterback of the last decade throw to leftovers from the 2019 Dolphins in a system cobbled together by yes men.
The Patriots will once again appear on lots of national broadcasts in 2023, plus an international game, so announcers will be forced to sweatily pull at the strands of the team’s past excellence to keep their huge fanbase placated (with that 16-13 win over the Colts, the Patriots may be the most dangerous 4-5-1 team in the NFL!): meanwhile, that 38-35 Chargers-Lions shootout will only be available on YouTube Double-Premium-Deluxe.
21. Green Bay Packers
Will Jordan Love prove to be a worthy successor to Aaron Rodgers and Brett Favre? Can you think of a more leading, silly, SEO-thirsty to ask about a quarterback with 83 career attempts? What are we supposed to do: anoint Love as a first-ballot Hall of Famer after his first 2023 touchdown pass?
(Checks social engagement model for 98.5% of sports media outlets). Oh yes, that’s precisely what we are supposed to do.
The Aaron Rodgers trade and Love succession plan are not about making the Packers competitive or entertaining in 2023. They are about giving the Packers and their fans a chance to feel something again. This is a fanbase that responded to 13-4 seasons like rock stars attending their ninth party at the Playboy mansion in seven days (can’t we just fill out some tax documents instead?) and a roster that boarded every team flight worried that anyone might get earholed by the quarterback about chemtrails at any time.
The Packers need detox and reprogramming. That’s what their 2023 season will represent, and it will get pretty ordinary once the TV takeslingers punch themselves out on Love by mid-October.
20. Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings are the Yellowstone of football teams: expensively-produced, ostensibly-prestigious arch-traditional comfort food for grandpas to fall asleep to in their Barca-loungers.
Last season’s fourth-and-forever heroics and last-second field goals kept Vikings games lively. The law of averages states that they will be replaced this year by Kirk Cousins’ signature stock-in-trade: meaningless fantasy touchdowns with six seconds to play to cut the opponent’s lead to one score.
19. Arizona Cardinals
Sheer incompetence was one of the things that made the 2020s Cardinals so fascinating. It was always entertaining to tune it to watch Kliff Kingsbury order Kyler Murray to run the Itty Bitty Statue of Liberty play from a quads formation while five total strangers blocked for him on third-and-17 while trailing by two scores. (There was also the Cardinals defense: J.J. Watt, Budda Baker, nine linebacker-safety tweeners with no idea where to line up).
Now that adults have retaken the organization, we’re left hoping that Murray is healthy enough for his career to have a second act, that DeAndre Hopkins lands with a contender before the trade deadline and that Jonathan Gannon has set fire to his Super Bowl defensive gameplan, then sunk the ashes out at sea.
18. Atlanta Falcons
Bijan Robinson’s arrival transforms Falcons games from the equivalent of watching television static to watching television static with significant fantasy implications. Come for Arthur Smith’s efforts to recreate the peak-Derrick Henry Titans, stay for endless fretting about how Kyle Pitts is being used (oh, he’s in the slot. Innovative), and do your best to convince yourself that Desmond Ridder is a true franchise quarterback because he was slightly better than Marcus Mariota (who had six deep balls left in his arm and blew them all in September) against Buccaneers backups in Week 18!
17. Pittsburgh Steelers
Steelers fans seem to think that Kenny Pickett has already arrived as a franchise quarterback and that he will join forces with George Pickens, four-time Breakout Star of the Year candidate Dionte Johnson, Najee Harris and the ossified remains of Allen Robinson to form a dynamic offense. The rest of us think that T.J. Watt and company will register a kabillion sacks, allowing the offense to putter along in first gear until the Steelers win on a late-game Ravens goal-line brain cramp.
16. New York Giants
The Giants are a well-run organization with a sturdily-built roster that manufactures wins through fundamentally-sound football Borrrrr-innnng.
Watching Brian Daboll call the perfectly-crafted five-yard Daniel-Jones-to-Isaiah Hodges slant on third-and-4 is like watching a perfectly-crafted Ken Burns documentary about the history of paint. Saquon Barkley? He’ll rush for 164 yards in a pair of early-season games you didn’t watch, then go 18-for-53 in every game you do watch. If he’s healthy.
Giants fans may think their team has “arrived” because they will play lots of primetime games in 2023. No, Giants fans: the team is scheduled for lots of primetime games because there are a zillion of you, because you live in or around New York. Notice that most of the Sunday/Monday/Thursday nighters are early in the season? The networks want your eyeballs before the Giants are 3-5 and you wander off to watch the Knicks implode again.
15. Indianapolis Colts
Anthony Richardson executing a knockoff-Eagles offense should at least result in fascinating failure: much more compelling than watching Matt Ryan crumble to dust in real time, much less guilty a pleasure than watching Carson Wentz left-handed shovel-pass his career into oblivion. Jonathan Taylor is still around, and the arrivals of Josh Downs and Isaiah McKenzie spruce up the receiving corps.
The Panthers and Texans drafted better quarterback prospects, but the Colts got the guy who's likely to burst out of the gate producing viral highlights, and they also possess a better overall roster.
14. Chicago Bears
Bears games were actually rather compelling in 2022 for the 15 minutes or so. When games were close, Justin Fields’ scramble-for-dear-life tactics were sometimes effective and always amusing. Then the defense would buckle, opponents would realize that their scout-team towel boy could cover the Bears’ WR2, the game would grow lopsided and the scrambling became saggy and sad. Also: Nathan Peterman and Tim Boyle.
Fields may never become a great quarterback, but he has the makings of an incredibly watchable one. And now that DJ Moore headlines his receiver corps, the offensive line has been rebuilt and the defense looks ready to put up a fight, Fields should keep games competitive until at least halftime, even if he barely develops at all. And if he does develop: watch out.
13. New Orleans Saints
So it has come to this: the post-Brees Saints as the most fun team in the NFC South. Heaven help us.
But really, it’s not so bad. Chris Olave wears rocket boots. Michael Thomas might stop burning sick days now that he is on a one-year contract. An Alvin Kamara/ Jamal Williams/Kendre Miller backfield has promise. Derek Carr brings enough professionalism to distribute the ball. And griping about two or three Taysom Hill Wildcat plays per week is soooo 2021.
Watching the Saints play football will be more interesting than watching GM Mickey Loomis build a Jenga tower out of back-loaded contracts in 2023. That’s a significant change from the three previous seasons.
12. Miami Dolphins
The Dolphins rank among the top three teams in sheer fun when Tua Tagovailoa is healthy, in the bottom five when he is not and squarely here when they are in their perpetual state of the next time Tua gets hit will be the last time, plunging you into a shame spiral for even watching football.
11. Los Angeles Chargers
Justin Herbert finally has a real offensive coordinator in Kellen Moore and a new weapon in Quentin Johnson. Let the fireworks commence!
But are they the right coordinator and receiver? Moore played second fiddle to Jason Garrett and Mike McCarthy for years; are we sure he didn’t catch a case of boring-predictablitis from his bosses? And Johnson is a fine vertical threat, but wouldn’t Zay Flowers have been much better? Plus another running back to rotate with/replace disgruntled Austin Ekeler?
Internet film hipsters assure us that Herbert is practically a first-ballot Hall of Famer already. And the talent certainly shines through now and then. But if his supporting cast and coaching staff isn’t precision-optimized, he looks suspiciously like Derek Carr. So let’s hope Moore and Johnson are the missing ingredients that will turn the Chargers into the Bengals or Bills. If not, Twitter will assure us that it’s the galaxy’s fault for not being a worthy receptacle of Herbert’s excellence.
Coming later this week: the NFL's Ten Most Fun-to-Watch Teams!