Two Sundays ago, the Dallas Cowboys beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in a game widely considered the best of this NFL season. The lead changed hands a whopping seven times, Dallas’s duo of star rookies—the quarterback Dak Prescott and the running back Ezekiel Elliott—trading big plays with a Steelers offense powered by the veteran Ben Roethlisberger. The final eight minutes featured two touchdowns from each team, the last of them a game-winning 32-yard dash from Elliott with nine seconds left.
For the Cowboys, it was a signature win, giving them a league-best 10-1 record that would improve to 11-1 after the next week’s matchup with the Baltimore Ravens, but also a characteristic one. The resurgence of one of the most storied sports franchises has been a key plot point of the 2016 season. Known over the past couple of decades as an opulent but often self-defeating outfit, Dallas has refashioned itself around its two youngsters and into a sturdy force. These Cowboys appeal not only to their legions of boisterous fans, but also to the most discerning football aficionados. Elliott gains yards by the dozens behind a thick-shouldered but mobile offensive line; Prescott displays the calm of someone who has commanded huddles for a decade. Dallas blows out the teams it should and manufactures close wins against its near-equals.
Thursday afternoon, the Cowboys will host their annual Thanksgiving Day game, this one against Washington. In many ways, it is a moment the NFL has been waiting for: an iconic team, freshly ascendant, playing on the holiday synonymous with football. It features the blend that has made the sport America’s most watched and most profitable: tradition and novelty, old customs shined up by new superstars. This Thanksgiving, though, partway through one of the more trying seasons in recent memory, the league will look to the Cowboys not to celebrate its ongoing standing but rather to revive it.
NFL ratings have dropped. For the league, the decline in viewership is as much an ideological problem as a fiscal one. Football is the sport of a certain strain of the American dream, one that operates on a corporate rather than an individual scale, in which success compounds and growth begets more growth, perpetually. It is a game whose championships announce their halftime performers months beforehand, in special news releases, and whose teams charge more for parking than teams in other sports do for the actual tickets. The NFL has long since passed the point where its hugeness might be thought of as a simple result, e.g. more people want to watch us play, so we need bigger stadiums. The size, the sheer scope of the country’s appetite for this product, has become a core component of it. The sense that everyone is watching the same game on a Sunday afternoon is an undeniable part of that game’s appeal.
That sense is weakening, and various theories have been offered as to why. Some blame the drawn-out and attention-hoarding presidential election, others the less regimented television habits of a new generation. Critics of the league’s extensive faults—ranging from its ongoing concussion crisis to its mishandling of domestic-violence incidents—suggest that the public may no longer have the stomach for it. The NFL itself attributes the ratings slide partly to bad luck, a run of primetime matchups that looked good on the preseason schedule but have since turned out to be uninspiring. “There are a lot of factors to be considered,” the commissioner Roger Goodell said in October. “We don’t make excuses. We try to figure out what’s changing.”
Perhaps the most worrisome hypothesis, at least to NFL officials, is that the quality of play simply isn’t up to par. Thursday Night Football, a series introduced before the 2012 season, routinely features sloppy games played by two poorly rested teams, but even the usual Sunday and Monday contests have increasingly been lacking. To a greater degree than ever, teams rely on younger and more affordable players, who make mistakes their more seasoned counterparts might not. Players of all ages are also subject to stricter injury protocols, which may help their long-term health but which dilutes the talent on the field; the linebacker who may have played through “having his bell rung” five years ago now visits the independent neurologist on the sideline while his backup takes his place. The NFL’s failsafe has always been the expertise of its teams, but more and more, that trait is being chipped away.
In this context, the Cowboys are an aberration, a reminder of what the league used to produce on a regular basis. They combine competence—expert blocking, tidy routes—with extreme star power, so that they embody football’s X-and-O fundamentals and its physics-bending possibilities simultaneously. Prescott throws a quick, accurate pass, and the locomotive-like receiver Dez Bryant rips it out of the air. The offensive line opens up a seam, the kind that might give an average runner five yards or so, and Elliott burns through it, lowers his shoulder, and rumbles for twenty. They celebrate their sport as much as play it: Those rudiments that, repeated often and well enough, can turn into spectacle. The Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who has presided over three Dallas Super Bowl victories, coos over this year’s version, saying, “This is a rare team.”
It is the kind of show that lets its audience overlook the behind-the-scenes trouble, at least for a few hours. Even in its present form, though, Dallas isn’t immune to the problems that plague the league. Prescott only found the field in the first place because the former starter Tony Romo suffered the latest in a string of grisly back injuries, each one a reminder of the harm this game does to its participants. Elliott is the subject of an ongoing league investigation centering on his possible physical abuse of a woman. If football can still be beautiful, at least when certain teams are playing it, its ugliness waits just outside the lines.
The NFL hopes that the former outweighs the latter in its audience’s mind, but the swooning television metrics, and the endless supply of plausible reasons for them, suggest this might not be the case. Each week brings another gruesome injury or heinous accusation, or simply another slate of mediocre games. The Cowboys will draw plenty of viewers this Thanksgiving afternoon and will almost certainly play well enough to reward those who tune in. They are an exception, though. Every team, and every game, can serve as a reminder of the shortcomings of America’s most popular (for now) sport. Only a few are good enough to make the fans forget.