Most of the third round of NFL preseason games are behind us. The first regular season game will be played in a few days. For NFL fans it's surely the best of times. For some of the young players on what is euphemistically called ‘the bubble’ it is the worst of times. (Used with abject apologies to Charles Dickens and his fans.)
NFL fans still have faith that their team will go all the way. There are new rookies, new free agents and sometimes even new coaches.
All give new hope.
The season is in front of us, the anticipation is growing.
Preseason games are teasers. Rarely game-planned, preseason scrimmages are used by the management to audition new players, to separate the chaff from the wheat.
Fans hoping for clues as to the performance of the veterans are often disappointed as stars from last year are held out or used only for a play or two. Coaches hoard veterans to protect against the bugaboo and disaster of season-ending injuries incurred during meaningless games.
There are exceptions. The offensive line is often kept in for longer than other players because the team play required for them to be efficient is more complicated than other positions and therefore takes longer to develop.
However, special teams are fluid and the personnel being used changes from play-to-play. Coaches want to know who can be depended upon to play efficiently on punt return, kickoff and special teams. Receivers and the rushing staff are rotated in and out and then sent to the bench. Backups at all positions get some game time to speed them up and are checked out for effectiveness in almost full-speed plays.
Players to be waived or dropped are identified by the coaches to get the squads of some 90 players down to the regular season limit of 53 players. That means 36 people need to be let go or assigned to the practice squad.
We watch the games and cheer our team on without realizing that the guy who made that tackle or caught that ball just saved his job for the season. And the poor dude who missed that tackle, or missed that pass, or that block may be flipping hamburgers before the end of September instead of donning shoes with cleats. For those guys these are the worst of times.
But for us the uniforms are colorful;, the fields are pristine and the aura in the arena is filled with electricity. The high-definition TV is clear and sharp. Our guys are running around, catching, kicking, passing, blocking, tackling and hitting folks.
The ball is in the air, the spiral is tight, the receiver is shaking off the cornerback and we involuntarily stand up and shout. The line opens up and the running back flashes through and into the secondary and lowers his head toward the end zone and our hearts skip a beat.
We are awakening from a long winter’s nap.
NFL football is truly the Tale of Two Cities.
Two teams, most with animal names and mascots known by the cities they represent. They are not just known as the Cowboys, they are the Dallas Cowboys. They are not just known as the 49ers, they are the San Francisco 49ers. They are the Indianapolis Colts, the Cincinnati Bengals, the Jacksonville Jaguars, the St. Louis Rams and the Denver Broncos.
It's truly a weekly contest between competing cities, differing cultures, differing climates and foods. There are games with different cities every week. The ancient Greek city-states of Troy and Sparta should have been so lucky.
Preseason games may not be real football, but it looks like real football. It is the ultimate teaser. It is the appetizer that whets our appetites for another full year of fast, crashing and thrilling entertainment. It's the salsa for our tortilla chip, the suds in our beer stein, the spouse wearing our favorite teams tee shirt and our buddies showing up for the game and some barbecue.
For us it is the best of times in the NFL.