Is this the best era of NFL football that we have ever seen? More importantly, is this the best era of NFL football we will ever see?
Every sport has its so-called "Golden Age". The years when the sport and its athletes shined like no other. The era that people point to and say "now THAT'S when the sport was played like it was supposed to be played". In hockey you had the magical years when Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux were flying around the ice and scoring at will. In baseball there were the unforgettable home run races in the late 90's (now even more unforgettable since most of the participants were more juiced up than Jack LaLanne). In basketball, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird thrust the NBA into the big time and then Michael Jordan brought it to an even higher level.
Of course that's my generation's general opinion. If you ask an older or younger crowd you could get completely different answers about the Golden Age.
"Gretzky? Pssh. Too much finesse. Now the Gordie Howe days--those guys knew how to play hockey!"
"McGwire and Sosa? Cheaters! The whole lot of 'em were all on 'roids! You gotta go back to the days of Gibson and Koufax if you wanted to see pure baseball!"
"NOW is the best time to watch the NBA! The league is stacked! The players today would mop the floor with the guys from 20 years ago. They're way better athletes these days."
I heard a theory the other day that things were always "the best" when you were in your teens and early 20's, which could be why my generation tends to look back on 80's and 90's sports so fondly. It makes sense because it's the impressionable time of your life where you begin to form your own values and beliefs, many of which you carry on throughout your life.
Music is a great example of this theory. The music you grew up with is always the "Golden Age". It's why our dads listen to classic rock. It's why Backstreet Boys and Boyz II Men can go on tour 15 years after their last relevant song and still sell out arenas full of 30-something moms. It's why I bump Notorious B.I.G. while driving my daughter home from daycare. Movies follow the theory as well. For instance, if I had seen Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore for the first time at 33 instead of 15, I probably wouldn't regard them as shining examples of comedic cinema. In fact, I'd probably regard them like I regard the dreck he has put out over the past several years.
With sports the process of becoming a fan starts a little earlier than your teenage years. Team allegiances are usually passed down from parents to children at an early age, or a kid latches onto whatever team happens to be winning the most when they first start watching a sport. (Bill Simmons has stated many times that kids are front-runners. It's why people my age had to deal with a ridiculous number of Cowboys fans and an entire generation of insufferable Patriots fans are just hitting their 20's. And just wait for the legion of Heat fans that started junior high this week.) But you still become a diehard fan around the same time as you form your entertainment interests. Those first years you really started becoming enamored with your favorite team are your Golden Age of fandom.
It was no different for me. And thanks to the 1998 Vikings, my Golden Age of football fandom ended up more like Picasso's Blue Period.
But then again if you ask people about 20 years older than me, they'll swear that Drew Pearson shoving Nate Wright and all those Super Bowl losses were way more scarring. If you ask folks about 10 years younger than me, they'll say 2009 in New Orleans hurt most of all. (The Minnesota Vikings, ladies and gentlemen! Ruining childhood dreams since 1961!)
Before we drive any further down Miserable Memory Lane, let's get back to my original question. Are we currently in the NFL's Golden Age? Only five months ago I was lamenting that NFL overkill might be taking the fun out of being a fan; but after strong consideration, I have changed my tune.
Maybe it's just the Week 1 excitement talking but this might really be the best time past, present, or future to be a football fan. The NFL certainly has never been more popular. It is the end-all, be-all in the sports landscape. Each NFL season has practically turned Sunday afternoons into 21 national holidays. Playing made-up games based on the statistics of the players is a multi-billion dollar industry by itself. The NFL takes up half of SportsCenter when the season is still four months away from starting.
Of course there's no rule saying that the NFL will remain this popular in perpetuity. The issues of concussions and other long-term effects on the body of playing such a violent sport have started to gain much more traction. Combine the safety concerns with the league's insatiable lust for points and we might be slowly degrading into a penalty-filled version of flag football. Technology has given us unprecedented access to football; technology has also given us unprecedented access to players' personal lives, making it much harder to root for certain guys. It seems unfathomable right now but a handful of adverse events could knock the NFL from its throne quicker than you think. Remember, baseball is called "America's pastime" because it was actually the biggest thing going in the not-so-distant past.
But hey, we're probably still good for the immediate future, so let's enjoy another season of the Golden Age of football, right?! Enjoy it while you can! Hell, football is so great these days that it even gives hacks like me a platform to ramble on about stupid theories for 1,000 words before I get into what I'm actually supposed to be doing: previewing the Week 1 game between the Minnesota Vikings and St. Louis Rams.
One of the more popular opinions I've heard from Vikings fans is "we might have lost if Sam Bradford was healthy, but now that he's out we're definitely winning". I'm here to tell you to pump your brakes. The drop from Bradford to Shaun Hill might not be as precipitous as you think. Unfortunately for Rams fans, this isn't their first go-round with a backup. The team is sadly used to going without their #1 quarterback under center at this point. Jeff Fisher and Brian Schottenheimer have plenty of experience game planning for a quarterback that may be slightly limited. I'm not going to argue that Hill is just as good as Bradford, but I don't think it's outrageous to say that if he plays fairly well he can at least get close to Matt Cassel's level. And if there's no major difference in quarterback play, we'll have to look elsewhere to see who has the edge.
The game could be easily won or lost with one incredibly important matchup: the Rams' defensive line against the Vikings' offensive line. St. Louis has one of the most formidable defensive lines in the league. Chris Long, Michael Brockers, and Kendall Langford are all solid players. They threw in first-round DT Aaron Donald this year just for good measure. But Robert Quinn is the player that makes this line special.
I have no idea why Quinn isn't more of a household name. He's my pick for Defensive MVP this year. The guy had 19 sacks, 57 tackles, 7 forced fumbles, and 2 fumble recoveries in 2013. Simply put, he's f*cking amazing. How amazing? Last season he had a cumulative Pro Football Focus score of 74.6. SEVENTY-FOUR POINT SIX. The next closest 4-3 defensive end in their ratings? Greg Hardy with 25.6. QUINN NEARLY TRIPLED THE SCORE OF THE NEXT HIGHEST PERSON AT HIS POSITION. I CAN'T QUIT USING CAPS WHEN I TALK ABOUT ROBERT QUINN BECAUSE HE'S SO FREAKING GOOD.
Sorry for yelling. But yeah, the Vikings offensive line is going to have to bring their A+ game in order to move the ball. If the O line can play well enough to make holes for Adrian Peterson and keep Cassel upright, the Vikings could dominate possession and subsequently the game. Regardless of your opinion of Cassel, I think we can all agree that it's hard to get the ball to Greg Jennings, Cordarrelle Patterson, and Kyle Rudolph from your back. Robert Quinn & company can definitely put you on your back if your blockers are struggling.
Minnesota's defensive line will be very important in this game as well. If they don't get to Hill early and often it could be a mess for the Vikings on defense--especially through the middle. When your middle linebacker and strong safety are the starters by default instead of by merit, that might be a bad sign. Mike Zimmer basically said as much in a press conference leading up to the game--"Jasper Brinkley and Robert Blanton sucked the least, so they're starting". Hopefully Linval Joesph is at 100%; if not, other rotational guys like Tom Johnson and Shamar Stephen need to step up to keep Zac Stacy and Benny Cunningham contained. Most of all Brian Robison and Everson Griffen need to prove why the team has put so much metaphorical and monetary faith in them. Just like with the Vikings, Hill can't find Kenny Britt and Tavon Austin from his back.
Even if the Vikings can't get to Hill as much as they'd like Mike Zimmer is one of the best coaches in the league at hiding flaws on defense. He had major injuries to some of his best players in Cincinnati last year and adjusted on the fly to hide the holes. He should be able to do that with the Vikings' weaknesses as well. Minnesota's run defense should be able to hold their own if the preseason is any indication. As long as the back seven can prevent the big play to St. Louis' speedy receivers and they don't get dinked and dunked to death they should be OK. (I think the latter is much more likely; they couldn't get off the field on third down last year and screen passes were still effective against them in the preseason.) While the Rams have a very formidable defense, we have an even more formidable running back just itching to break his first big runs of 2014. After all, Adrian Peterson is "new and improved"!
This game could definitely go either way. The Rams are wounded yet still dangerous; the Vikings have promise yet need to work through some growing pains before realizing their potential. But I truly believe that this game could be the beginning of a new Golden Age for the Minnesota Vikings. They have the coach, the quarterback of the future, and a lot of good pieces in place to give them a chance compete for years to come.
And you really shouldn't start a new Golden Age with a loss.
Prediciton: Vikings 24, Rams 20
And now for the rest of my Week 1 NFL picks (home team in ALL CAPS):
SEAHAWKS over Packers
Nothing like starting a new football season with a Green Bay loss! And if I'm wrong, nothing like starting a new football season with a loss by the defending champs! Unfortunately, I'm still picking the Pack to win the NFC North this year. In fact, I have them winning...a whole lot more than that. Here are my full 2014 NFL season predictions, just so you can look back on this in February and laugh at me for getting so much of it wrong:
(If you don't think my Super Bowl pick is a blatant attempt at a reverse jinx, you don't know me very well.)
Saints over FALCONS
This season of Hard Knocks was pretty damn pedestrian. It wasn't because of HBO's production value either. Atlanta will improve this year but there isn't that much to get excited about.
BEARS over Bills
Chicago's offense could be scary this year. Their defense will likely be scary too in the other sense of the word. Either way they should be able to handle Buffalo at home.
Bengals over RAVENS
I have no idea who's going to take the AFC North this year. So for now I'll stick with the incumbent. The only thing I'm certain of with this game is that both quarterbacks are overpaid.
STEELERS over Browns
They should just show Johnny Manziel on the sideline for the entire broadcast instead of the game. Oh wait, that's exactly what they're going to do anyway.
CHIEFS over Titans
Both teams are just thankful that they don't have to face Teddy Bridgewater again this season, amirite?!
JETS over Raiders
This game could have huge implications for the playoff picture. Oops, did I say playoff picture? I meant the overall #1 pick.
Patriots over DOLPHINS
Oh boy, the beginning of yet another division title for the Pats. Since I have nothing else to add, let's all celebrate the triumphant return of the Gratuitous Picture of the Week!
EAGLES over Jaguars
My inaugural Survivor Pool pick of 2014 (I lasted through six weeks last season and went 13-4 overall). The Jags will be better this season under second year coach Gus Bradley, mostly because he's from North Dakota State University and everyone from NDSU is awesome. But that won't stop the Eagles offense from looking like they're playing on a low Madden difficulty.
TEXANS over Redskins
Am I being a rebel for being one of the few football writers remaining to use the name of the Washington football franchise? Anyway, Jon Bois posted his first entry of this year's wonderful Breaking Madden series and he had Jadeveon Clowney sack Robert Griffin III until the game stopped counting. The real version might not be that far off.
49ers over COWBOYS
It's the stoppable force vs. the movable object: the Niners offense that looked awful this preseason against the Cowboys defense that looks awful all the time.
BUCCANEERS over Panthers
Do you remember that State Farm commercial with Chris Paul and Stephen Curry that was played throughout the NBA playoffs? Here's a gif to refresh your memory:
It's a metaphor for this game. The Bucs (Curry) are on their way up and the Panthers (Paul) are on their way down.
BRONCOS over Colts
Gee, I wonder if they'll mention that Peyton Manning is playing against his former team. I wonder if they'll show an inordinate amount of clips of Manning's days in Indianapolis. I wonder if they'll mention how he "passed the torch" to Andrew Luck. This game is three days away and I'm already sick of the narrative.
LIONS over Giants
I really want to get my NFC North picks right this week so I can tweet about how the Packers are in last place in the division by themselves after Week 1. Too bad Detroit is fully capable of screwing it all up.
Chargers over CARDINALS
It's the once-a-year novelty late-night Monday Night Football game! Please tell me Chris Berman will be nowhere near Glendale that night.
2013 picks record: 169-86-1