When the 2011 National Football League schedule was released last month, most of the primetime spots on Sunday, Monday, Thursday and Saturday nights were occupied by the usual suspects. Of the six teams to get the maximum five games on primetime, five made the playoffs last year (the Pittsburgh Steelers, New York Jets, Indianapolis Colts, Philadelphia Eagles and Baltimore Ravens) and have big name superstars or coaches who bring eyeballs to the television set. And the sixth squad was the Dallas Cowboys, who went 6-10 yet remained the most polarizing team in the sport.
There were some surprises on the primetime schedule though, most notably the relative frequency of primetime games involving Florida-based teams. The Miami Dolphins, Jacksonville Jaguars and Tampa Bay Buccaneers are scheduled to play under the lights a combined seven times, an impressive figure considering the three franchises are each in the midst of multi-season playoff droughts and have won a total of just five playoff games since 2000 and only one since the Buccaneers won the Super Bowl following the 2002 season.
In addition, while the Dolphins remain a popular draw both inside and outside of Florida, the Jaguars tied for the NFL lead with seven blackouts in 2009 while the Buccaneers had every home game blacked out last season. Yet in what may be an attempt by the NFL to stoke interest in Jacksonville and Tampa Bay, both the Jaguars and Buccaneers will play two primetime home games this year.
The Jaguars, who managed to sell out every home game last season at EverBank Field — where the upper decks are closed off for Jaguars games, reducing the stadium capacity from 84,000 to 67,164 — will host the Ravens Monday, October 24 and the San Diego Chargers Monday, December 5 before visiting the Atlanta Falcons Thursday, December 15. The cache of a pair of primetime games may be needed to lure fans to EverBank Field after the Jaguars endured their third straight non-winning season in 2010 and may have embarked upon a rebuilding plan by selecting quarterback Blaine Gabbert with the 10th overall pick of the draft last month.
For the Buccaneers, meanwhile, primetime games against two of the most popular road attractions in the NFL — the Peyton Manning-led Colts on Monday, October 3 and the aforementioned Cowboys on Saturday, December 17 — could end a blackout streak that was once unimaginable and one not usually associated with an up-and-coming team such as Tampa Bay.
The Buccaneers were just 3-13 in 2009 but will be a popular pick to reach the postseason after going 10-6 last year and remaining in the playoff race until the final hours of the season. However, interest in the Buccaneers remains low in the recession-ravaged Tampa area, where the Buccaneers once had a season ticket waiting list of more than 100,000 but will be cutting ticket prices by as much as 31 percent next year in hopes of filling the empty seats at 65,000-seat Raymond James Stadium.
The Dolphins, who are coming off consecutive 7-9 seasons, haven’t won a playoff game since 2000 and haven’t gotten beyond the conference semifinals since 1992, will host the New England Patriots in the Monday Night Football opener September 12 before visiting the New York Jets Monday, October 17. Despite their recent lack of success, the Dolphins remain a traditional favorite with baby boomers and Generation X thanks to winning back-to-back Super Bowls in the early 1970s and the nearly annual playoff trips they took on the right arm of Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino in the 1980s and 1990s. The Dolphins have also played to 101 straight sellouts at 75,192-seat Sun Life Stadium, though they went just 1-7 at home last year and sold 10,000 fewer season tickets than in 2006.