NFL Season Preview: Football, Why Do We Love You So?

EAST RUTHERFORD NJ - AUGUST 27: Antonio Cromartie #31 of the New York Jets is introduced before the game against the Washington Redskins during their preseason game on August 27 2010 at the New Meadowlands Stadium in East Rutherford New Jersey. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

Tonight, the NFL returns, and not a moment too soon. In honor of football's new year, we run down some of the biggest questions coming into 2010. Who are the sleepers, who's going to underachieve, and most important, who's going to win it all?

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It's been exactly 214 days since the last meaningful NFL football game.

And it felt even longer. In the past 214 days, the Winter Olympics happened, Major League Baseball began, the health care debate was resolved in a way that somehow made everyone upset, the NBA playoffs were mostly a dud, Tiger Woods' return to golf was a complete dud, Glee continued its ascent to the forefront of pop culture, the World Cup happened (and suddenly there were a lot more insufferable American soccer fans), LeBron James inspired more cynicism in us than any athlete ever, Major League Baseball continued, Inception totally blew everyone's mind mannn, Major League Baseball continued, and, oh look! It's Major League Baseball again.

Not all of these things are bad, of course. But none of them are professional football.

Sundays just don't feel right without the NFL—and that's probably true for football fans and non-football fans alike. If you grew up in America and enjoy sports at all, the look and sound of football on television evokes a certain comfort that's unlike anything else in sports.

We watch basketball games if the two teams are good, or during March Madness. We watch the MLB playoffs because every pitch matters. Some people watch hockey, sometimes. We watch the Olympics once every two years. But in America, we watch football on Sundays in the fall and winter because it's just "what people do." And when it's not fall or winter and there's no football on television, it's hard to figure out what to do.

Even for people that don't like the NFL, the offseason just feels like an alternate universe—one where chores get assigned on Sundays, DirecTV stops being worth the money, and suddenly, people actually do stuff on the seventh day of the week.

I have no idea how I spent the 30 Sundays between the Super Bowl and this upcoming weekend, but I'm pretty sure it involved a lot of napping. For the next 22, though, we get to watch football again.

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And in the spirit of football's new year, it's time for a preview of the year to come and the kickoff of what should be an ongoing series this year. We're calling it "10 Questions" and every week, we'll use it to rundown the NFL and preview each weekend's games. Tomorrow, we'll look at Week 1 and what to expect. Today, though, we're talking 2010 in general.

Without further ado, 10 Questions about 2010...

1. Before We Get To The Preview Stuff... Was This The Best Hard Knocks Season Ever?

Had to be. Yes, juxtaposing the seasons is sort of unfair, because the show's brilliance stems from the concept—an all-access look at the one piece of the NFL's Big Business that remains mostly mysterious—and staggering execution from the NFL Films staff that puts the show together each week. Whatever form of methamphetamine the NFL Films editors are taking, it works, and produces astonishing results.

So, credit where credit's due: Hard Knocks is great because of NFL Films, and because no matter what training camp they film, it'll be completely fascinating for football fans. But just because this year's edition was that good, we need to recognize the Jets, in particular.

Since 2001, we've had the Ravens ('01), Cowboys ('02), Chiefs ('07), Cowboys ('08), Bengals ('09), and this year's Jets squad. Looking at those teams, has there ever been a more entertaining (and ultimately endearing) coach than Rex Ryan? Have any of those seasons given us Antonio Cromartie's (possibly staged) kid-counting scene? Has any other season ever completely cratered the stock of a potential franchise QB like this year's did to Mark Sanchez? Mike Westhoff, dropping the Triple F**king Asian Flu reference? And then getting away with it because he's Mike Westhoff and he survived cancer and he's awesome. Granted, no owner will ever be creepier than Jerry Jones, but damnit, Woody Johnson sure gave it his best shot, huh?

This season had it all. I don't know whether Rex Ryan is a great head coach, or whether John "Terminator" Connor will ever be a good football player, but that's what football should look like. Unapologetic, unadulterated ass kicking, with fart jokes before and after.

Every season of Hard Knocks has given us pieces of that ideal, but the Jets really did their best to live up to every single NFL caricature imaginable. It doesn't even matter that everyone in the universe could have called Darrelle Revis returning from his holdout in the last 10 minutes of the finale. When he walked onto the field and the whole team was cheering, and then he leads the breakdown to end practice... Anyone that didn't enjoy that is either a Patriots fan, or has a heart made of stone.

We want football players to have enough perspective to laugh at themselves, so long as they remember that winning the Super Bowl is the most important game on earth. We want them to be gladiators and human at the same time. We want cuddly ass-kickers, basically. It's pure fantasy. Completely unrealistic.

But with the spotlight brighter than ever, Rex Ryan and his Jets sure come close.

2. For What Seems Like The 10th Straight Year, The NFL's More Popular Than Ever. How Did We Get Here?

Good question. Especially on the brink of yet another opening night that will offer even more proof that professional football is the greatest cultural unifier that doesn't involve military engagement or hating LeBron James. I was wondering about this a few days ago, and found myself re-reading Chuck Klosterman's essay on the topic.

To Klosterman, the NFL's stranglehold starts with controlling the message:

In essence, the NFL Network works exactly like FOX News: It stays on message and invents talking points for its core constituency to absorb. If Donovan McNabb is temporarily benched for Kevin Kolb during week ten of the season, that decision is turned into a collection of questions for football people to ponder until Sunday. How will McNabb react? Is his career at a crossroads? Has Eagles coach Andy Reid lost control of his offense? How will this impact your fantasy team? These are the ideas football fans are supposed to talk about during the run-up to week eleven, and the NFL Network ensures that those debates will be part of the public discourse.

This is the genius of the NFL, and it is how they came to power long before they had their own network: The league can always make people think they're having the specific experience they desire, even if they're actually experiencing the opposite.

Klosterman makes some excellent points, particularly with regard to football's conservative reputation, but liberal evolution. But that's not the point matters, I don't think. If we're talking about the story of football in America, while you and millions of your closest friends watch Taylor Swift perform for the NFL's kickoff party—followed by fireworks, and smoke, and a cadre of highly paid analysts explaining the game—consider that our national party never became this rowdy until the internet.

Nearly 30,000,000 Americans play fantasy football every year, and the internet's made that easier than ever. What's more, football is probably the sport best tailored to gambling, and the internet has made that a booming industry in its own right. So, not to shortchange the sport's innate awesomeness, but if you were looking for the catalyst that made pro football the runaway winner for America's soul, Klosterman's only partly right.

It's all about engagement, yes—everyone's paying attention and talking all week long—but the engagement reached the current fever pitch (106 million viewers for last year's Super Bowl) because of fantasy sports and gambling, not the NFL Network.

Today's NFL fan is more educated than ever before, with greater incentive to care about players he's never seen in person, and study box scores of a Seahawks-Rams game, just because there might be a fantasy sleeper in there somewhere. Or maybe he took the Rams that week, and is looking to see why they did/didn't cover. See what I mean?

When everyone touts the NFL's invincibility tonight, remember that the league's most prosperous decade just happened to coincide with the rise of fantasy sports, blogs, and online gambling, three things that happen to work best with football.

Some people credit the NFL's growth to Paul Tagliabue, some credit Roger Goodell, some credit the NFL Network and ESPN. But really, wasn't it sort of luck?

3. Hey, What About The Concussion Thing? Still An Issue?

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  1. The wheelchair-bound NFL retiree (Willie Wood) photo-bombing this picture probably says, "Yes. Look at me."
  2. Roger Goodell is pretending not to hear any of these questions. 
  3. And the other guy, who's taking a picture of the guy taking a picture? I like to think he's drunk.

Bottom line: It's an ominous cloud hanging over the sport. Not just concussions and all the problems they cause later in life, but general health concerns. Football's getting bigger and more popular every year, and at the same time, it's becoming more and more dangerous.

(gulp)

4. Awkward! Will there be a lockout, too?

A few months ago, Sam Bradford signed a contract with $50 million in guaranteed money.

EVERYONE should be pissed off about that. And if Sam Bradford making more money than Tom Brady or Peyton Manning isn't enough to set off a lockout, then frankly, I have no faith left in capitalism.

The system's broken in more than one way, and both sides have some legitimate gripes. And maybe most important, the owners can afford a lockout if it means getting a deal that makes them ten times the money in the long run. The players can't.

Do you trust a bunch of billionaire owners NOT to exploit this advantage? Yahoo! Sports has a comprehensive overview of the situation, but this was my favorite nugget from the entire discussion:

It got worse for Goodell during the final visit of his tour, this stop coming at the Indianapolis Colts’ training camp. According to two sources familiar with the meeting, some Colts players admonished Goodell with swear words ... Veteran center Jeff Saturday, another executive committee member, cut the meeting short to keep the situation from escalating further.

Escalating further, huh? Like, the Indianapolis Colts were about to gang up on Roger Goodell? Because until someone releases a YouTube video, that's how I'd like to imagine things.

5. What's This The "Year Of"?

Every NFL season has some trend that comes to define the action. Last year it was the Saints and Colts flirting with an undefeated record despite crappy defenses. Two years ago it was the Wildcat.

This year? It's the Year of Offense. The Saints, Colts, Cowboys, and Packers all have elite offenses on paper, and those are just the sure things. If Carson Palmer plays well for the Bengals, they're in that group, too. Same with Mark Sanchez for the Jets, Matt Schaub for the Texans, and Joe Flacco for the Ravens. Plus, whatever happens, we know that San Diego and New England are going to score a lot of points.

Put it all together, and almost a third of the league—and most of the NFL's best teams—will have some seriously kickass offense working in their favor. How many times do you hear announcers say the NFL is a "copycat league"? Well, now the model being copied comes from the Saints and Colts, who have basically said, "Screw it, we're going to throw 40 times-a-game and win 42-35." If this is going to be the last year before an NFL lockout, at least it'll a lot of fun.

6. Which Team Has The Most Depressing Outlook For 2010?

Obviously, this is difficult to gauge, so we'll need an independent way to measure all this. What's that? We should compare the subheads in the Sports Illustrated NFL Preview? Okay let's do it. The most depressing subheads from SI's last-place teams, in descending order.

  • Lions: "Is that sun peeking through the clouds over the Motor City?"
  • Chiefs: "The draft class of 2010 should set the tone for a long-term turnaround."
  • Redskins: "Mike Shanahan arrives to, ahem, adjust some attitudes in D.C."
  • Browns: "The Holmgren era begins with some housecleaning and a healthy dose of hope."
  • Bucs: "It's the Dungy blueprint: Lay the foundation, and a title will come. Eventually."
  • Bills: "A mostly anonymous team is looking to sneak up on people. Not likely."
  • Jaguars: "A local product will try to revive Florida's fan-starved franchise."
  • Rams: "A berth in the playoffs is a long shot, but Steven Jackson runs on and on."

See, it doesn't start out too bad. The Lions have a little hope, the Chiefs have a good draft class, and the Redskins have a new head coach. But next thing you know, the Buffalo Bills are an anonymous team that will remain that way, the Jaguars are "fan-starved" and reliant on some anonymous "local product", and poor Steven Jackson is Football Sisyphus. Nobody deserves that.

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7. Who's The Playoff Team Most Likely To Disappoint Everyone This Year?

Brett Favre. Err... The Vikings. But isn't it more fun to blame everything on Favre?

Anyway, Minnesota's most explosive player, Percy Harvin, has a chronic migraine problem. Their second best receiver, Sidney Rice, will miss the first 8 weeks of the season—at least. And did we mention that Minnesota's tethered their destiny to a 40 year-old quarterback with a gimpy ankle and zero mobility?

Even if Favre was completely healthy and had all of his receivers, the odds of him matching last season's performance are slim. But with a depleted core and a degenerative ankle, it's hard to believe he'll be making many miracles happen in Minnesota. Look at their schedule the first eight weeks: @New Orleans, Miami, Detroit, BYE, @New York Jets, Dallas, @Green Bay, @New England. 

Those games after the bye week—will the Vikings be favored in any of 'em?

Right now it sounds insane, but if Minnesota loses in New Orleans Thursday night, they could be entering November at 2-5, having lost four straight games. That's not impossible to overcome, but remember: Brett Favre has been non-committal about playing football for the past four years.

If things start to go south in the first half of the season, and particularly if Favre's ankle issues continue, there's a decent chance that he'll be checked out by the time December and January arrive. Can the Vikings get on a roll in the second half of the year and ride that momentum to a Super Bowl? Sure. But...

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Bet on Brett at your own risk.

8. On A More Positive Note... Which Teams Might Surprise People?

Here's four:

Oakland. We dealt with the Raiders in depth a few weeks ago, but here's the case for the Raiders this year. They've got four games against the NFC West highlighting one of the league's easier schedules. The defense has been solid the past few years, and with new talent on the line and at linebacker, the team should only improve. Jamarcus Russell is no longer they're quarterback. And frankly, last year was an off-year for NFL parity. Does anything think that'll last? It's time for most irresponsible franchise of the past decade to make the playoffs.

Detroit. I mean, it's just a given that either the Raiders or Lions are going to make me look profoundly stupid after tabbing them both as sleepers. But Detroit's case is strong. They've got the best rookie in the NFL (NDAMUKONG), a superstar wideout (MEGATRON), a decently explosive rookie running back (Jahvid Best), and Matt Stafford, who is, in fact, a man. Their division is brutal, and nobody's saying they'll make the playoffs, but... Keep an eye on the Lions. Suddenly, the Lions aren't so depressing anymore. Detroit still is, but hey! We're looking for progress, not perfection.

Carolina. With Deangelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, the Panthers may have the best one-two punch at running back in the entire league. Throw in a top 10 defense and a quarterback that's not Jake Delhomme, and the Panthers have what it takes to ride out a ball control strategy to a 9-7 record and a wild card berth. Or, if the Saints stumble, they're right there to win the NFC South. Obviously, Matt Moore can swing things in both directions at quarterback, but even if he's a net zero, the Panthers could make a run.

Philadelphia. Hard to call the Eagles underrated, ever--no team in the NFC East is ever overlooked. But I'm including them solely because losing Donovan McNabb has got to be positive from a karma standpoint, and with that working in their favor, the sky's the limit. Desean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin should provide a handful of big plays every week, and if Kevin Kolb steps up, the Philly offense begins to look pretty terrifying. The Philly defense won't be dominant, but if the offense fulfills its potential, they won't need to be. Plus, after Green Bay in Week 1, they've got seven straight winnable games and then a bye (@DET, @JAX, WSH, @SF, ATL @TEN). And did I mention they got finally got rid of McNabb?

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9. Who's Going To Be The Most Entertaining Team In Football?

If 2010 becomes the year of offense, we're going to have a lot of attractive choices for this one. Any Saints game is going to be exciting. We know this. Colts, too. And a handful of the others will have the ability to spread things out and score 40 points on any given day. 

But after a while, that might get repetitive. We know the spread offense by now. What about a team that runs variations of the option, has the most explosive player on the planet, and makes a habit of miracle comebacks?

We're talking about the Titans, of course. For Chris Johnson alone, the Titans are can't-miss material, but they've also got the Vince Young Experience—every pass play is an adventure, the coaching staff will throw in the occasional option play, and you'll write him off at least ten times this season, but then you'll look up, and he's leading a game-winning drive and completely taking over.

The Titans make no sense. Johnson's brilliance is barely comprehensible, Vince Young's game is unlike any other quarterback in the league, and game-to-game, you never know what you're getting. But one way or another, they always keep things interesting. If you have Sunday Ticket, watch the Titans. You won't regret it.

10. Okay, So Who Wins The Super Bowl?

Pssh... I have no idea. Nobody does. The parity in the NFL is astonishing when you look at other sports. With football, nobody has any clue. Just compare the Vegas odds.

Odds for the 2010 World Series:

New York Yankees — 8/5

Philadelphia Phillies — 4/1

Tampa Bay Rays — 5/1

Atlanta Braves — 6/1

Odds for the 2011 NBA Championship:

Miami Heat — 8/5

Los Angeles Lakers — 5/2

Boston Celtics — 10/1

Orlando Magic — 10/1

Odds for the 2011 Super Bowl:

Indianapolis Colts — 7/1

Green Bay Packers — 7/1

New Orleans Saints — 7/1

Dallas Cowboys — 8/1

Not only is there no favorite in the NFL, but the odds are A LOT longer. Bet 100 bucks on the Yankees to win, and you can win 160. Bet 100 bucks on the Colts, and you win 700. Translation: even for the best teams, this is a complete crapshoot.

Which is great, because there's absolutely no pressure to be an expert. In fact, the only people that look like idiots predicting the NFL are the ones who pretend there's some science to what goes into a Super Bowl winner. At this point, the NFL is like the NCAA Tournament.

You've got a handful of contenders, but it all comes down to two factors: who's peaking at the right time, and luck. Injuries, penalties, big plays, etc. That's all luck. And peaking at the right time involves coaching, but even that is sort of an external consideration that's impossible to gauge as an outsider.

All of which is to say, the Eagles and Jets are going to the Super Bowl, and the Jets are going to win. Why those two? Well, let's start with Philly. The NFC's up for grabs at this point. The Packers have looked great, and Aaron Rodgers will probably be spectacular this season. But if Green Bay gets homefield, doesn't that negate Rodgers' ability to dominate with the passing game? New Orleans is great, too, but they also got really lucky with injuries last year. Can that happen two years in a row? Odds are slim. Dallas has a shot, too, but I'm a Cowboys fan that's lived through the Wade Phillips/Tony Romo era. I know better than to back those two (or jinx them with a Super Bowl pick).

Philly, though, brings a nice mix of veterans and spry young playmakers, and perhaps just as important, the team will evolve as the year goes on. The Eagles won't be great in September, but by December and January, there's a good chance that Philly will be clicking on all cylinders. So I'm riding with Desean Jackson on this one.

And then, in the AFC, the following teams have a realistic shot at winning the conference: San Diego, Indianapolis, New England, Pittsburgh, New York, Houston, Cincinnati, and Baltimore. Each one has the pieces to make a run, but only one of those teams is coached by Rex Ryan.

The Jets have the pieces to win ugly, which is perfect for the NFL playoffs--the biggest question mark is whether they figure that out, and abandon the Mark Sanchez Experiment. Sanchez isn't terrible, but the Jets are best when he does as little as possible, and the game revolves around defense, running, and the occasional deep ball. If that happens... New York's a pretty tough out in January and February.

As for Philly-New York... Well, screw it. I won't pretend to analyze a hypothetical game that's five months away. But I'm picking the Jets. Mostly because this picture needs to happen again.

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