by Keith Aksel
For most American sports fans, the calendar’s turn to September signals a reawakening. All summer we have been hearing about preseason camp, and how so-and-so looks great on the practice field. We’ve also come to know that no amount of late-summer baseball can quench our sports thirst for what has clearly become America’s new pastime. Now in early September, our football snouts smell pigskin in the air like a bloodhound detects beef roast. The new season brings all the typical clichés about how “hope springs eternal” and whatnot. As always, we at The Tattered Pennant try to prime you with some different points to ponder going into this year. You won’t get predictions or team ratings. What you will get is a set of analytical lenses through which to view this new and glorious season. That’s just a fancy way of saying we want you to watch this season better than ever before. Let’s do it, starting with the big picture stuff:
1. Is the league actually losing viewers?
Last season, much was made out of the lower weekly ratings NFL games were receiving. Many blamed the drama of the 2016 presidential election season for drawing eyeballs away from sports toward politics. Even after the election was over, the Falcons-Patriots Super Bowl attracted the fewest title game viewers since Ravens-49ers matchup after the 2012 season. It seemed that people were genuinely watching less NFL.
Now in 2017, there are thankfully no political excuses to lean back on. If ratings are down this season, something serious is actually at work, and the league will need to figure out some way to reverse the trend. The cost to follow the league is part of the problem, and it has nothing to do with Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, or Gary Johnson (if you were so inclined). Personally, I’m sticking it to the man in 2017 by not subscribing to the Sunday Ticket again after owning a subscription for the past three seasons. The price for the programming is enormous (about $70/month), and I will happily trade less NFL viewing for more time to write poetry, concoct a method for melding the flavors of barbecue pork with glazed doughnuts, or generally stare at the wall. Who’s with me?
2. Were the 2016 Cowboys a fluke?
Most of us were a tad surprised last season to see Dallas turn the injury of Tony Romo into the franchise’s best season in a long time. With the emergence of rookies Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott, the Cowboys took the NFC’s best record into the playoffs. This season, we shall see if all that flash was just beginner’s luck. Of course, nothing is a sure thing in the NFC East. Seeing as no single team has repeated as East Division champs in a long time, an array of young weapons in Dallas could keep the boys in contention, even with Elliott’s early-season suspension looming. Plus, the NFC has struggled to keep pace with the AFC recently (winning only one of the past five Super Bowls), and the conference could use a consistent contender in Dallas.
3. What happens when the old timers leave?
One consequence to being a NFL fan in the past decade is that you end up watching the same people climb the mountain over and over. Since 2007, a guy named Manning or Brady has won the Super Bowl every other year on average. The NFL has plenty of players poised to take the superstar mantle from the Mannings and Brady, including Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, Houston’s JJ Watt, and Denver’s Von Miller. But, do we want another era of preponderant powers ruling the NFL after the aforementioned stars leave the scene? The alternative is true parity in the league, something like what we saw in the 1970s NBA, when it seemed that any franchise or star could pull their team into contention in any given season. Could such a trend take hold in today’s NFL, or will the Rodgers’ and Russell Wilsons simply fill in as the new faces we see reach the pinnacle time and again?
4. A star’s going to emerge out of nowhere.
We see it almost every season; a player drafted in the later rounds is given an opportunity to show their stuff, and becomes a star. It happened last year with Prescott (drafted in the 4th round in 2016) and Miami’s Jay Ajayi (drafted in the 5th round in 2015). Guessing who will follow that particular path to stardom in 2017 is like trying to find a needle in a haystack. After all, there are more than 200 players drafted every year, and maybe 2-3 late-round picks will take starring roles during the entirety of their careers. Nevertheless, it’s worth watching for those athletes who may be given an opportunity they weren’t planning on, due to injury, suspension, or something else happening to the player ahead of them on the depth chart. For example, Seattle DB Tedric Thompson was taken in the fourth round in the 2017 draft out of Colorado. Given the experience around him on the Seahawks secondary, he’s precisely the TYPE of player worth tracking this season. Rest assured, plenty of first-rounders will get their day in the sun- they were paid the most to actually see the field, not warm the bench- but someone less-heralded will steal headlines as well.
5. Historical thought to chew on: what do we do about Belichick’s time in Cleveland?
Now that New England has harvested its fifth Super Bowl title (as someone who remembers the Pats in the Pat the Patriot days, this fact is still hard to grasp), analysis of the Brady-Belichick nexus has all sorts of writers angling for their own place at the mic. After the Super Bowl comeback against Atlanta, observers immediately brought forth new assertions that Tom Brady is undoubtedly the greatest QB of all time. And they might be right. As the other point on the double-pronged Patriot pike, Bill Belichick has long been associated with the greatest coaches of all time. Seeing as the franchise’s Super Bowl success began after he was hired as the head man, many cite Belichick as one of the game’s all-time geniuses.
My question to those who seek to place Belichick in the pantheon of America’s greatest coaches is, “How do you square his legacy with his abysmal tenure as the head coach of the Cleveland Browns?” After all, good historians can’t selectively leave anything out when they make their arguments, and Belichick’s record in Cleveland was bad, as in four-losing-seasons-out-of-five, bad. Even before Belichick, Cleveland was a black hole for coaches, and that tradition has only continued since. But if Belichick is an all-knowing, all-seeing mastermind genius, shouldn’t he have been able to do something in Cleveland like he did in Foxboro? I don’t personally have the answer. It’s just a point to ponder as you gnosh on your next batch of football Sunday chicken wings this season.
Certainly fans of some teams out there can bank on a good 2017 season: New England, Green Bay, and maybe Pittsburgh. So, most of us will spend 2017 sorely disappointed. As a Bengals fan, I know the season’s outcome before it begins (that is, with no Lombardi Trophy, and some choice words for Marvin Lewis). Watching your favorite team die on the vine is only part of the big web of storylines worth investing your time in this season. I’m hoping the unpreview points above offer everyone a little more substance with which to view the season. See you on the other side of the playoffs!
1. Not saying Thompson will be the man, he’s just an example.
2. By Silly git2000 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37568422