As a football fanatic, this is the most difficult time of year.
Yes, it's hot. And it's humid. But worst of all, it's the middle of another baseball season, and you know what that means. No football.
Sure, seeing my New Orleans Saints eliminated from playoff contention in December - again, for the 35th time in 41 seasons - was hard.
But the disappointment of defeat is nothing compared to this. The sharp pain of December has been replaced by the dull, inevitable decay of July.
The excitement of free agency has subsided. The NFL draft has come and gone. Mini-camp, always a tease, offered a brief glimpse of the 2009 season and then evaporated.
Now, in July, players are on vacation, training privately, or squabbling with management about inadequate contracts.
At this point, I'm so bored by the headlines that Chad Ocho Cinco could get me excited by changing his name again. Heck, my blood would start pumping if Pacman Jones just did something, anything, stupid in a Las Vegas strip club.
That's why I spend my time dreaming about September, when football news will finally be new again.
In that spirit, here are five reasons to get excited about the 2009 NFL season:
1. The Wildcat
Remember how incredible it was last year when the Dolphins (who finished 1-15 in 2007 and started the 2008 season 0-2) unveiled their version of the Wildcat formation and whipped the mighty Patriots 38-13 in Week 3?
Desperate to shake things up, the Dolphins resuscitated the old-school single wing offense and brought it roaring back to life.
The ghost of Tubby Raymond smiled upon the Dolphins that day for dusting off the history books and reviving the old Wildcat, which he had made famous back in the 1960s and 70s at the University of Delaware.
In September 2008, the Wildcat was a blast from the past, and for the football pundits, it was a hit. It would change the game, they declared: offenses around the league would copy the Dolphins and adopt the Wildcat, because if Bill Belichick couldn't defend it, how would anyone else?
Apparently, a new era had commenced in the NFL.
Well, by November, it was time for Round 2. In their rematch against the Patriots, the Dolphins again ran the Wildcat; but this time Belichick prevailed, 48-28.
Talk about a short-lived era. Suddenly, the Wildcat had lost its luster, and again it seemed destined for the dusty bookshelves in the basement.
But not just yet.
In April, the Dolphins selected QB Pat White in the 2nd Round of the NFL Draft. White has a solid throwing arm, but also the speed and athleticism to run outside the pocket. If he is properly used (which, I think, Bill Parcells will make sure he is), White could be a tremendous asset to the Dolphins in their Wildcat offense.
And besides the Dolphins, other teams could also make some noise using the Wildcat formation in 2009.
The Vikings have reportedly been experimenting running the Wildcat with versatile rookie Percy Harvin.
And whoever eventually signs Michael Vick will surely have designs on the Wildcat spread. With his athleticism and his powerful arm, Vick could be dominant in the right system.
I'm not saying we're on the brink of a revolution in the NFL. But I do think the Wildcat formation will leave its mark on several games in the 2009 season. And the NFL will be more exciting because of it.
2. Bone-Crunching Defense
No matter where the Wildcat offense catches on in 2009, it will be up against some pretty fearsome opposition.
The league already boasts a stable of stellar defenses (Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Philly, Tennessee, and the Giants come to mind), but in 2009, several other teams are in position to join the NFL’s defensive elite.
This offseason, the Jets lured Rex Ryan away from Baltimore, where he helped build one of the NFL's dominant defenses. Now, as the Jets' head coach, Ryan will bring his aggressive yet fundamentally sound style of defense to New York.
The Jets' defense already has the talent to be successful, but now, with Ryan at the helm, they will have the necessary swagger, too. Ryan brings an energy to the Jets locker room that they have lacked for years, and I think the Jets will compete fiercely in what will likely be a very tight AFC East race.
Just take a look at Rex Ryan's fiery introductory news conference on YouTube, and you'll see why Jets fans are so excited.
Another defense I've got my eye on is the San Francisco 49ers.
In 2009, Mike Singletary will get his chance to be head coach for a full season. When he took over the head coaching role midway through 2008, the 49ers were in disarray. But, following Singletary's lead, the 49ers rallied to win five of their last seven games, and I believe they will carry that momentum into 2009.
Singletary displays the same aggressive intensity as a coach that he did during his Hall of Fame playing career in the 80s and 90s, and his players will try to match his attitude. With Singletary's energy and a defense built around the core of Patrick Willis, Nate Clements and Justin Smith, the 49ers defense could be a force in 2009.
And finally, though it may surprise many fans, I'm beginning to see signs of life in Detroit.
New head coach Jim Schwartz (the very successful defensive coordinator from Tennessee) is trying to instill a sense of pride and accountability in a franchise that hasn't had a winning season since 2000.
The Lions' new defensive coordinator, Gunther Cunningham, said he plans to blitz around 40 percent of the time in 2009, looking to bring some fireworks to Ford Field. And with a talented trio of linebackers - Julian Peterson, Larry Foote and Ernie Sims - he might be able to. I expect the Lions' defense to improve, or at least become more exciting, in 2009.
After all, following a dismal 0-16 campaign in 2008, the Lions have nowhere to go but up.
3. Global Warming
As global warming continues, weather patterns are becoming ever more unpredictable and extreme. The melting polar ice caps are making for hotter summers and colder winters all over the world.
Sure, I'm concerned about the fate of our planet, but more than anything else, the football fan in me is excited.
Because I know the only thing better than footall is football played in the snow.
In the NFL, inclement conditions can transform a good game into a legendary one. For instance, the 1967 NFL Championship, the "Ice Bowl", between the Packers and the Cowboys. What about the 2002 Divisional Playoff betwen the Patriots and the Raiders, where Tom Brady and Adam Vinatieri stormed onto the national stage.
With any luck, 2009 will produce a few Snow Bowls of its own.
Can't you see James Harrison burying an opposing quarterback underneath the Heinz Field snow? How about Brandon Jacobs busting through the line and leaving defenders grasping at snowflakes in his wake?
Here's to hoping that the football gods - and global warming - will ensure that the 2009 season is colder and more brutal than any season before.
Dome teams beware.
4. The Next Generation
The NFL in the 2000s has been dominated by a handful of names such as Peyton Manning. Tom Brady. LaDanian Tomlinson, and Ray Lewis. Without a doubt, the players of this decade have produced some fantastic moments.
And the best players of the 2000s are not finished. Manning (33) and Brady (31) still have plenty left in the tank. Tomlinson is still hungry for his first Super Bowl ring while Lewis remains as driven and competitive as ever.
But the winds of change are upon us, and a new group of players is gradually taking over.
Defensively, Patrick Willis and Troy Polamalu, along with a host of others, are making plenty of noise.
Every eight or nine years in the NFL, a generational shift takes place. Young talent surpass the old greats. With the different faces come different schemes, strategies, and tactics.
Already over the past two or three years, the style of play in the NFL has changed. Backfields featuring one primary tailback have been replaced by two-headed attacks (see the backfields of the Titans, Panthers, Giants, Jaguars etc.).
New rules protecting quarterbacks and wide receivers have opened up offensive playbooks, allowing coaches to spread the field and make an assault on the record books.
As the players change and the rules of football evolve, so does the flow of the game.
If the trends of the past few seasons are any indication, the 2009 NFL season should be the most explosive and exciting yet.
5. The New Orleans Saints.
I'll never again pick them to go to the Super Bowl (check how that worked out for me the past two years), but Saints fans have real reasons to be optimistic in 2009.
Aside from the most obvious reason, Drew Brees and his No. 1-ranked offense, the Saints made great strides in several other areas.
Head Coach Sean Payton and GM Mickey Loomis revamped their defense with an attacking, aggressive scheme, the brainchild of new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.
The defense added a slew of talented defensive backs, both young and old, to improve a unit that has long suffered from big plays and was ranked 23rd in overall defense in 2008.
This year, the defense has more talent than any Saints team since Jim Haslett’s 2000 version. With a little chip on its shoulder, the 2009 defense could erase memories of a porous and punchless 2008.
But perhaps just as important as the defensive overhaul are the little (or simply less talked-about) adjustments Sean Payton has made to his team.
He acquired fullback Heath Evans, a versatile and dependable veteran, to replace the more one-dimensional Mike Karney. Evans' New England Patriot pedigree should bring a winning attitude to the locker room. Paul Spicer and Rod Coleman add veteran depth to an already talented (but underachieving) defensive line.
In 2009, the Saints' mini-camp and OTA participation was at nearly 100 percent, the first time in his three years as head coach that Payton has managed such commitment from his players.
If the Saints perform anywhere close to their potential in 2009, New Orleans' long-suffering fans could finally have a reason to consider their prayers answered.
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