The clock strikes zero, prompting white and purple confetti to descend from the rafters. The Lombardi Trophy is passed around, dripping in sweat, dirt and fingerprints.
After a short 20 weeks of the greatest reality show in America, the NFL season is over—with the best yet to come.
As much as NFL Sunday has become a staple in our country’s culture, the best time of year is right now, in the middle of the most intense portion of the NFL offseason, in the middle of the free-agency tornado and the continuous guessing game that is the NFL draft.
How can the offseason possibly be more exciting than the actual season? Who can possibly prefer the drama of a contract negotiation or war room to the drama of 3rd-and-goal?
Probably more people than you think.
Hope and optimism are in abundance for fans of all 32 NFL teams. Every signing will work out perfectly, no draft pick will be a whiff, the offseason program will make stars out of their developing players and the coaches will develop schemes to work around any remaining weaknesses.
New college stars enter the league, changing the way decision-makers, well, make decisions. Free-agent moves sway the balance of power—that is, until these players bust and ruin these grand plans for NFL domination.
For now, those inevitable “busts” have yet to be discovered. In the NFL offseason, there are no busts. The bad times are reserved for the dream-buster known as the NFL regular season.
It’s Human Nature
The phenomenon of the NFL offseason being such an interest-piquing time is not restricted to sports. In all walks of life, we as human beings (meaning Adrian Peterson does not apply here) have a tendency to appreciate the anticipation of something more so than the actual event.
As comedian Lewis Black said in his 2008 stand-up album, Anticipation:
There is no better moment than this moment, when we're anticipating the actual moment itself. All of the moments that lead up to the actual moment are truly the best moments.
Those are the moments that are filled with good times. Those are the moments in which you are able to think that it is going to be perfect, when the moment actually happens. But, the moment is reality, and reality always kinda sucks!
Yes, Mr. Black, more often than not, reality does kind of suck for most NFL teams as the regular season rolls along. After all, only 12 teams make the playoffs every year and just one lucky franchise is crowned champion.
Easy math suggests that a lot of owners were left upset with their results, because, after all, their offseason was so darn promising.
By 1:32 p.m. on “Black Monday," the day after Week 17 of the 2012 NFL regular season, a whopping 12 head coaches and general managers were fired, and many more would follow.
NFL on ESPN @ESPNNFL
Here's a complete list of NFL Coach/GM firings today thus far - #BlackMonday - http://t.co/kKTMcHyv2012-12-31 18:25:27
Building an NFL roster is much like buying a new car. It is exciting to see all of the new features of the expensive machine you are investing in. After all, spending the past several years driving the same car around was simply getting dull—just changing the color of your car would be a much-welcomed change in your life.
That is, until you drive the car out of the lot, and the value depreciates instantly. The air conditioning is a bit lacking, the brakes are faulty and worst of all, and the cup holder is too narrow to fit your small drum of coffee.
The same concept applies to your favorite NFL team—once you take your team out of the lot and onto the game field, all of the offseason optimism goes out the window.
That mid-round receiver you though would be a steal? Inactive. How about that fancy new running back you got in free agency? Injured. What about that new "aggressive" mindset your team would take on defense? Nothing but coach-speak.
Sure, plenty of offseason moves pan out during the season, but in the offseason, everyone is batting 1.000. The regular season is when the drug of the NFL offseason wears off, its hangover leaving us clamoring for more as soon as it finally ends.
Where is it Getting More Popular?
The NFL product is already the most popular sports league in America by a significant margin. Game 4 of the 2012 World Series (in which the San Francisco Giants swept the Tigers) still lost in a ratings battle to a contest between two non-playoff NFL teams, the Saints and the Chargers.
We all know that the NFL dominates fall television, but its popularity from February to the start of Week 1 of the following season is what is most impressive.
Roger Goodell has drawn plenty of criticism as of late, but there is no question that he has made several very effective marketing decisions that have grown the league beyond the boundaries of the NFL season. From 2002 to 2008, the NFL saw a whopping 62 percent increase in viewership for the NFL draft:
Reacting to this trend in numbers, in 2010, Goodell moved the first round of the NFL draft to a primetime spot on Thursday night, which has led to another huge spike in ratings for one of the fastest-growing aspects of the sport.
The results were spectacular, as the 2010 draft saw a massive 55 percent increase in viewership from 2008. The 2012 draft topped every other show by at least double its viewers, amassing 8.84 million viewers between NFL Network and ESPN.
And that was just Round 1.
Instead of watching actual games being won and lost in other sports, fans are much more interested in seeing the live construction of teams. The draft is no longer a facet of the game reserved for diehard fans with unhealthy obsessions about football; the draft has become a mainstream aspect of the sport.
Even months before the draft, fans are glued to NFL Network's combine coverage, as a staggering 7.25 million bothered to watch a bunch of college kids run around in gym shorts in the middle of the day.
This is a far cry from the days when the NFL draft was conducted in a hotel conference room, with the results posted in the corner of the newspaper the following morning.
One unique aspect of the NFL draft that helps its popularity is that rookies, perhaps more so than ever before, make an immediate impact for their teams. The 2012 season saw three rookie quarterbacks reach the postseason—gone are the days when it was customary to let a top draft pick sit and learn on the bench.
This is much different from leagues such as the MLB and NHL, where players often spend several years developing in minor league systems before they reach the professional roster.
While baseball and hockey's approach to player development may be more responsible, the NFL's model makes it a lot more exciting to get involved in the draft when fans know they are going to see these players in live action in just a few short months.
Of course, the offseason excitement does not end with the draft. The annual free-agency frenzy creates as much buzz on sports talk radio streams and barber shops as any other aspect of the offseason, despite its popularity being much more difficult to quantify than the draft.
ESPN analyst and former general manager Bill Polian recently said on a conference call that the NFL free-agency period "sets [teams] up for failure." Yet, here we are, refreshing our Twitter pages in anticipation of the latest news.
Whether it is Mike Wallace, Mario Williams or Peyton Manning, the drama surrounding where the top free agents go often dwarfs their actual impact. Last year, Mario Williams and the Bills failed to make the playoffs; Manning's Broncos wound up losing in the same playoff round as they did with Tim Tebow under center.
While 2013 did not have quite the same drama without one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time suddenly becoming a free agent, drama abounds nonetheless.
The Jets have looked into trading the best defensive player in the league, longtime defensive captain Brian Urlacher was released from the Bears, Ed Reed did the unthinkable by leaving Baltimore and one of the best defensive ends in the game, Elvis Dumervil, was released because of a slow fax machine.
How will these moves impact the results of the 2013 season? Only time will tell, and as history has shown, most of these free-agent moves are bound to disappoint.
But for now, the air is ripe with more anticipation and excitement than it will ever have. Until next offseason, of course.
Sports in Mainstream America
The idea that the offseason is a more compelling aspect of sports than the actual sport itself is not reserved for the NFL. Sports as a whole are more incorporated into American culture now than ever before.
When ESPN launched in 1979, there was no such thing as 24-hour sports coverage, and few believed it would ever succeed. Now, ESPN dominates sports broadcasting, reaching more than 100 million households around the world.
Combined with the increased use of social media platforms, the constant sports coverage will fuel sports discussion into depths it has not yet reached. More air time to fill equates to every aspect of the nation's most popular sport being dissected—and there is only so much to talk about in terms of the actual games.
Every signing, draft pick, trade and release is instantly reported, dissected and broken down ad nauseam. No longer do you have to wait for tomorrow's paper to get a single columnist's opinion on the matter—we can access instant analysis from top industry leaders with every move and even directly debate them on the topic.
This occurs in all forms of news, but with the NFL being the most popular sport in America, every move is even more magnified.
The NFL Sunday experience will always be the conductor of the unstoppable NFL train, but the offseason is the fuel that drives it.
The ratings for NFL games has been on a steady incline for several years now, but the attention given to the NFL "offseason" (if you can even call it that) has grown exponentially over the past several years to the point where one could argue that the player movement and draft results are more exciting than the games themselves.
With each passing season, the more anticlimactic the actual NFL season seems, as the constant dissection of each and every move by all 32 teams cannot possibly be lived up to in a handful of Sunday afternoons.
No one watches a movie and skips to the end. The NFL calendar is a process that is meant to be enjoyed in all of its components, even with as fun and exciting as the final product is.
Unless otherwise stated, all quotes obtained firsthand.