The league is damn near perfect.Football starts tomorrow night, folks, and rest assured that we will be watching the Saints and Packers here in New England just as surely as they will in New Orleans and Green Bay. That is one of the real beauties of the league. As baseball concludes an interminable regular season, as hockey players trickle toward training camp, as the NBA continues to disappear from our consciousness … football returns. Even a summer-long lockout has done little (if anything) to thwart the success of the game, which now returns in full force.
As Howie Long said upon his induction into the Hall of Fame, baseball may be America’s pastime, but football is America’s passion.
So here are the questions for the day: why? What is it about the NFL that sucks us in and holds us as willing prisoners until February, when the departure of the game prompts such withdrawal? The violence? The parity? The relatively minimal time commitment? Gambling and fantasy sports?
This morning, as much as any other, take a good look at the major league baseball standings and ask yourself this, too: what, exactly, is worth watching over the final month? Some of us love baseball as much as most anything, have played the game and worked in the game. And yet, the final weeks of this 2011 season have been relatively dreadful. Of the eight potential races in baseball -- six divisions, two wild cards -- only one race remains unsettled. One. (Even then, the gap between the Texas Rangers and the Los Angeles Angels in the American League West is 3-1/2 games.) For Red Sox followers, in particular, the most compelling competition exists between the Rangers and Detroit Tigers, who are now tied in the loss column with roughly 20 games to play.
Assuming the Sox finish as the wild card -- something that currently seems likely -- Boston will face the team that finishes with the best record among the Tigers, Rangers and Angels. Detroit currently holds the tiebreaker over Texas by virtue of a 6-3 record against the Rangers during the regular season, meaning that the Rangers must finish at least a half-game ahead of Texas to draw Boston.
But that’s it. The current margins in the wild card races, in each league, is eight games in the loss column. The closest division race features the Red Sox and Yankees, both of whom are headed to the playoffs. Four of the remaining five divisions races feature margins of six, eight, 9 1/2, and 9 1/2 games.
In major league baseball this year, the final month of the season has been rendered almost entirely inconsequential. Try to imagine that happening in the NFL.
As for the other particulars, parity in the NFL certainly is a factor, but the league has generally mastered the balance of supply and demand. For the most part, football is played one day a week, at assigned times, with little change. National television, from CBS, FOX, NBC, ESPN and Direct TV to the NFL Network, effectively means that you can watch every game in the league. That is impossible in other sports. You can watch Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers tomorrow night with the same level of scrutiny you will Tom Brady on Monday, largely because you have seen Brees play with some level of regularity over the large majority of his career.
Thanks to fantasy sports, too, you know Brees. You have more of a relationship with Peyton Manning (good or bad) than you do with Brian Hoyer. The NFL as a whole comes in one large, well-contained package, the sports world’s equivalent to the superstore in a world where one-stop shopping has become more important than ever before.
Think about it: do you really have time to invest in the other leagues the way you can in the NFL? The NFL gives you true competition and excitement in a defined period of time with relatively few exceptions. The lines are well drawn. You are included in, even invited into, the operation. You know far more about the Kansas City Chiefs than you do about the Kansas City Royals in part because of true revenue sharing, in part because the NFL treats the nation as one large market instead of a collection of little ones.
That means that Jamaal Charles is a local story for you almost as much as Benjarvus Green-Ellis is, at least in comparison to the other leagues.
Whether the other sports ever can match football’s current popularity seems highly unlikely, particularly as the NBA claims to be losing $300 million annually, with only one-third of all franchises alleging to have turned a profit. Hockey is cult sport. Baseball is more a part of our daily routine than it is appointment watching. The NFL, meanwhile, is a true event almost every time it takes to the field, even in the aftermath of a work stoppage that all but wiped it from our consciousness for months.
As another NFL season dawns, maybe that is proof as much as anything that the NFL has become nearly idiot proof.
If they play -- no matter what -- we will watch.
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