Welcome to the unofficial midpoint of the NFL regular season, which is a beautiful place to be, because it is so much less charged than the offseason.
The offseason is the time when we react to stories as though they are monumental and inflexible, and we draw conclusions accordingly. Often, the conclusions have a dire, far-reaching quality and address larger truths than those contained in the trivial victories and defeats that take place on autumn and early winter Sundays.
Most of the time, we find out later, these suppositions are exceptionally overblown.
This past offseason, for example, the biggest story in football concerned the sexual-assault accusations against Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger(notes). Though ultimately he wasn't charged with a crime, Roethlisberger severely damaged his reputation, incurred a four-game suspension from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and provoked internal discussions among the Steelers' owners about whether he should be shipped out of town.
We were told that Big Ben was forever scarred in Pittsburgh, that Steelers fans would never forgive him, that he was as unpopular in the locker room and was no sure bet to reclaim his starting job. And those were some of the less-dire assessments of his shattered stardom.
And where are we now? Well, after the Steelers' 27-21 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals on Monday night, Pittsburgh is one of six NFL teams with a league best 6-2 record halfway through the regular season. Roethlisberger, having won three of his four starts since his season debut in Week 6, was cheered warmly upon his return to Heinz Field in October and seems to have been embraced in the Steelers' locker room.
It's not hard to picture Roethlisberger hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in February after a third Super Bowl triumph as black-and-gold confetti falls and Steelers fans exult – or riding atop a float through downtown Pittsburgh at a victory parade.
Similarly, one can peer across Pennsylvania and entertain notions of Michael Vick(notes) – the quarterback at the center of the preeminent offseason scandal of 2007 – leading the Eagles on an unlikely playoff run. Vick's involvement in a dogfighting ring triggered the most precipitous fall from grace any active NFL star had ever experienced, one which resulted in nearly two years of incarceration and the loss of tens of millions of dollars.
Vick's crimes were supposed to be so unforgivable, his morals so wretched, that he would never, ever be tolerated in NFL stadiums without an angry mob to shout him down.
And now? Vick, who began this season as the Eagles' backup quarterback, is an MVP candidate for a team in the thick of the NFC playoff hunt. He is well-liked by teammates, including the quarterback he displaced as Philly's starter, Kevin Kolb(notes), and is received positively at home and road games alike.
Similarly, for all of the shots Brett Favre(notes) has taken from fans and media over the past several offseasons as he changes his mind about retirement, skips training camp and drives superiors and teammates insane, it's nothing a few dramatic victories like Sunday's comeback triumph over the Arizona Cardinals won't smooth over, as his tremendous 2009 campaign with the Vikings demonstrated. Indeed, even though Favre has been at the center of an in-season scandal (over graphic text-messages he allegedly sent to a former Jets in-house TV reporter) in 2010, it will inevitably fade into the background at the first sign of a Minnesota revival.
I'm not saying this is a good thing, and I'm not saying it's a bad thing. Honestly, I'm not passing judgment at all, except to note that the breathless proclamations of the offseason tend to morph into measured, more nuanced assessments once the games return. This has something to do with football's natural rhythms and the way the one-game-a-week format hijacks our collective focus.
Realistically, this shift also happens because most football fans, in their heart, yearn to be entertained, and watching Vick flick a lovely spiral 50 yards or Favre make magic off his back foot or Roethlisberger adroitly keep plays alive is a lot more entertaining than confronting the sociological ramifications of a fallen-star soap opera.
The bottom line is that it's easier to block out the noise of scandal and reproach when the screams from sold-out stadiums and bustling sports bars serve as our civic heartbeats. That's what's going on in Steeltown now, as Roethlisberger earns back the people's trust by doing the most trivial, obvious and natural thing he can – playing quarterback at a high level and helping the Steelers win.
On Monday in Cincinnati, Big Ben played big at key junctures and, after a fourth-quarter interception allowed the Bengals to forge a potentially crushing comeback, got bailed out by his defensive teammates on the game's final drive. "The defense held strong," Roethlisberger told reporters afterward, undoubtedly grateful for the pivotal play in which James Harrison(notes) and Ryan Clark(notes) dislodged a fourth-down pass from Cincy rookie Jordan Shipley(notes) at the Pittsburgh 5-yard line.
At that moment, as Roethlisberger celebrated on the sideline with teammates and coaches and prepared for an upbeat flight home, few Steelers fans were thinking about the events that went down in a Milledgeville, Ga., bar last winter. Instead, they were reflecting on a fruitful first half of the 2010 season and next Sunday night's big showdown with Tom Brady(notes) and the 6-2 New England Patriots.
For better or worse, that's the way it works once the offseason ends and the games begin.
IF I SLIPPED JON GRUDEN SOME TRUTH SERUM …
Midway through the third quarter, Steelers linebacker James Farrior(notes) blasted Bengals halfback Cedric Benson(notes) after a short reception, and Gruden heaped praise upon the veteran: "They call this guy 'Father Time.' Fourteen years he's been playing. One of the great communicators of this defense. … Watch him rattle Cedric Benson's cage. What a football player … " And now, the inner monologue within:
"They call this guy 'Father Time,' and you know who'll sign him? Al Davis … when Farrior's 40. My last year coaching the Raiders, in 2001, my wideouts were Jerry Rice – when he was 38 – and 35-year-old Tim Brown(notes). The year before I had Andre Rison, at 33, which was his last year in the NFL. My quarterback, Rich Gannon, turned 36 my final year in Oakland, and he acted like he was about 70. It was like coaching at a [expletive] old folks' home.
TUESDAY MORNING HAIKU
Nugent is his name
Got them in a stranglehold
Bengals kicking woes
ONE E FOR FREE
You amazae me how uninformative you are. I try to finish every article you write but can only stomach so much. Yes I know "why" I am a firm believer of the underdog and that is why I root for your brain to wake up since there is clearly no other way a biased person such ass you who has a favorite a man love team of the packers. Conflict of interest but then again you would have to be a professional to realize that.
Amazing (or, as you might write, amazeaing) is a word I would use to describe the trend in recent years of people like you charging that journalists are "biased" anytime you quarrel with the content of their reports. When the journalist in question is a columnist, as I am, this ignores the fact that we are paid to give our opinions, some of which will inevitably provoke disagreement. In this case, you seem to be suggesting that I'm biased in favor of the Packers, a conclusion I'm guessing that you reached because a) I picked them to beat your favorite team; b) I ranked them ahead of your favorite team; c) I had a higher opinion of them than you did; or d) all of the above. Before forming your conspiracy theories, realize that I pick against half of the teams who play each week and rank 31 of them below the top spot each time I write "32 Questions." And know that of all the things I pride myself in doing for Yahoo! Sports, forecasting the future – along with forming an imaginary pecking order that will ultimately (and thankfully) be resolved on the playing field over the next few months – ranks near the bottom. So how do I really feel about the Packers? Many of you already know the answer. I have 32 babies, and I love them equally. It's just that some give me more trouble than others.