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Are You Ready for Some Football?

By Tom Scocca | Posted 9/8/1999

The call of duty sounds, with the squeal of the whistle and the crack of splintering tibias: The National Football League is back in action, and attention must be paid. I held off as long as I could, reading about late-season roster moves in baseball and watching the first round of the U.S. Open. But now the big boys have stopped scrimmaging, the Ravens' 4-0 preseason record--sorry, fellas--gets wiped away, and it's time to care about football again.

There's no sense pretending it's a matter of choice. The new GQ is a special issue on "Why We Love Football." Who are they kidding? It's G-fucking-Q, the Bible of USA-style manhood. They might as well do an entire issue on "Why We Love T&A" or "Why We Love Brewskis." Everyone loves the NFL--it's the deadly serious capstone of our deadly serious sports culture. Get with the program.

And part of the program is making authoritative predictions about what's going to happen in the football season. In baseball you can sit back and adjust your opinions as the season unfolds--this player emerges as a star, that player gets sidelined, teams go hot and cold. Football demands hard-core soothsaying from day one.

Unlike baseball, football is supposed to be a pure test of strength and will, in which the Best Team Wins. This is why they can get away with a measly 16-game schedule. The winners win each Sunday, and the losers lose, and then the winners play the other winners in the playoffs, till finally there are 29 (or, starting this year, 30) losers and one big All-American winner. So it should, in theory, be possible to predict the whole thing in advance, on merit.

This attitude, of course, makes the NFL the sports league for serious gambling--which, in turn, increases the demand for predictions. Jimmy the Greek may be gone, but NFL studio analysts still routinely announce who they think is going to win, complete with hypothetical scores for the benefit of folks playing the point spread. When was the last time someone did that on The NBA on NBC?

Right now, though, the prognosticatory landscape is way more forbidding than usual. Usually the football forecaster, like the weatherman, can fall back on predicting more of the same. Even if last year's winners lose this time around, nobody can fault your judgment in picking them.

But what happened last year was that John Elway and the Denver Broncos won their second straight Super Bowl. And then Elway retired. Picking the '99 Broncos means having faith that either Bubby Brister or Brian Griese is a championship quarterback--a faith that even the Broncos seem to lack, given that they benched Brister at the end of the preseason.

So Plan B would be to take last year's runner-up. That was the, ah, Atlanta Falcons. Any takers? Anyone want to speak up for that winning Falcons tradition?

Trouble is, the perennial winners of the '90s--the Cowboys, Packers, and 49ers--all looked shaky in '98. The playoffs featured a cast of arrivistes: the Falcons, the New York Jets, the Arizona Cardinals. So the choice this year is between apparently fading dynasties and teams that could have been flashes in the pan. Last I looked, the conventional wisdom was running strong for the Jacksonville Jaguars, a team that didn't even exist five years ago.

The analysts do, I'll admit, sound as if they know what's what. My brief, reluctant survey of the preseason literature suggests their hot topic this year is the defensive backfield. This approach has the advantage of being impressively abstruse. All the talk about the leading man-to-man defenders and the best strong-side cover units has the ring of profundity.

Me, I'm relying on the obvious. I may read impressive things about Sam Madison's fine work at cornerback in Miami and Donovin Darius' brilliance at strong safety in Jacksonville. But if their respective quarterbacks, Dan Marino and Mark Brunell, pop a tendon, Madison and Darius might as well be playing for the Ravens.

At draft time, I was skeptical about all the emphasis on picking quarterback prospects. I'm still skeptical. But in the massed mediocrity of the NFL, it's generally true that a real QB is what separates the teams with a chance from the teams with no hope--or rather, it's multiple real QBs. The NFL arms race is so tilted toward defense that most teams will see their signal-callers get pulped at one time or another. Barring injury, Marino's Dolphins or Steve Young's 49ers should be contenders. But injury, especially for the multiply concussed Young, is going to happen, and neither team has a second option.

This still puts them above the teams that have no first option--such as, say, the Ravens. Former Lion Scott Mitchell is--let's not waste time here--a complete bum. Behind him is former Ram Tony Banks. (One writer told me the Ravens would have been better off with the former Genesis keyboardist Tony Banks.)

If we're talking about playoff teams, I'm going with the ones that can field tag-team QBs. Look for the Doug Flutie-Rob Johnson combo to carry the Bills to the postseason once more. Keep an eye on Drew Bledsoe and Michael Bishop in New England, and Steve McNair and Neil O'Donnell in Houston or Tennessee or wherever that team is.

And, despite the departure of Minnesota's offensive coordinator, Brian Billick, to become the Ravens' savior/coach, watch out for the Vikings. The Ravens may have got the genius. But in Randall Cunningham and Daunte Culpepper, the Vikes appear to have the quarterbacks. [·]

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