Enthusiasm for schedule greatly overblown

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If you believe in Christmas miracles – and, perhaps even more improbably, that in the next eight months America’s preeminent sports league and Comcast will resolve their differences in a way that puts the best interests of consumers first – it’s easy to take a quick look at the hot-off-the-presses 2009 NFL schedule and envision a late gift from Santa.

On Christmas night, the Tennessee Titans will host the San Diego Chargers to kick off the second-to-last weekend of the regular season. NFL Network will broadcast the rare Friday game, and if recent form holds, two of the AFC’s better teams will battle it out in a contest brimming with postseason implications.

Photo Merriman, bottom, takes down Vince Young during the Chargers-Titans playoff game in 2008.
(Lenny Ignelzi/AP Photo)

That means that for those of you lucky enough to spend the holiday in households which carry the still second-tier channel, you can help yourself to a fifth serving of ham, top off the eggnog with a nip of brandy and say “Lights Out” to your awkward conversation with weird Uncle Tony about the wonders of Levitra.

Then again, even projecting the healthy return of Shawne Merriman, this matchup may be totally limp come Dec. 25. For if there’s one thing we’ve learned about attempting to divine meaning from the unveiling of the schedule in this era of institutionalized parity, it’s that we shouldn’t even bother.

Given that we have no clue about how any of this is going to play out – and when I say we, I’m especially talking to all of you psychics who, a year ago, breathlessly speculated that the New England Patriots might go undefeated again (!) – I’m not particularly interested in the instant analysis about why so-and-so team got a break while another was consigned to a gauntlet of death.

I consume this chatter the way I would a trip to a carnival fortune teller: I’m interested and amused, but without any sense that the conclusions being drawn have a connection to reality.

Last year, to illustrate how silly this all is, I proclaimed that the Nov. 2 game between the Houston Texans and Minnesota Vikings would be the pivotal game of the regular season. My profound reasoning behind this was, Why the hell not?

As it turned out, wrong as I was about the Texans being a 2008 contender, the Vikings were good enough to merit my covering that not-so-epic clash. Then again, if I’d successfully predicted that the column in question would be filed from starting quarterback Gus Frerotte’s living room, you’d be justified in calling me Sage – and I don’t mean Rosenfels.

Among the other things I didn’t tell you would happen a year ago: Tom Brady would go down in Week 1; Kurt Warner would go back in time nine years (and his team 61 years); and the Miami Dolphins would go from 1-15 laughingstocks to AFC East champs. Nor did I peg the Philadelphia Eagles’ Thanksgiving night blowout of the seemingly fading Arizona Cardinals, or either of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ victories over the Baltimore Ravens, as conference-title game previews.

All of this puts me in a club of, oh, 6.77 billion people on earth, many of whom nonetheless felt compelled during the season to send grammatically butchered emails reading “Your an idiot.” But I digress.

The important things to remember are that we don’t know the future and that even the immediate past means very little. Other than that, looking at who’ll play who on which dates on which networks is like staring into a crystal ball.

So go ahead, dude and dudettes: Eyeball the games and look at flights and plan your weddings and rail against the injustices dealt your favorite teams and get your compression shorts in a bunch, if you must. It’s all healthy and perfectly understandable, as long as you gently remind yourselves that, on this glorious mid-April Tuesday, absolutely nothing of significance just happened.

It’s not as if the release of the schedule is some revelatory moment. Remember that, thanks to the league’s preset formula, each team’s slate of ’09 home and away opponents was already decided last Dec. 28, the day the ’08 regular season ended.

In other words, your favorite team was dealt its hand nearly four months ago – this is merely an exercise in shuffling, and one about as exciting as televised poker.

Still, we all have our daydreams, as I was reminded earlier Tuesday on a bike ride during which I nearly crashed into an oak tree while envisioning a storm-the-field celebration of Cal’s first Rose Bowl berth since 2100 B.C. But, once again, I digress.

Just as tuning into the draft allows us to close our eyes and fantasize about transformative injections of talent that may or may not come to pass – for every Matt Ryan there’s a Vernon (The Ghost) Gholston – seeing the schedule for the first time takes fans on a whimsical journey through the heat of Indian summer, the autumn foliage and the chill of winter, inevitably ending in a packed stadium next to Angelina Jolie on a sublime Super Bowl Sunday. (Hopefully, South Florida’s weather gods will be a bit more obliging next February than they were to the Indianapolis Colts and Chicago Bears three years earlier.

This is the beauty of the 21st century NFL and, when you get right down to it, the reason that the unveiling of the schedule has taken on such counterfeit significance among the masses. Fans of any team can dream of grandeur, and because it’s impossible to tell who’s good and who isn’t, any game on the slate can be spun as winnable.

For instance, if the team you love is facing the Cardinals in late November, will it be tangling with the red-hot offensive powerhouse that was the product of Warner’s amazing ’08 revival, or will it encounter the same old lame birds who, prior to January, had won one playoff game since 1947?

Who’s to say whether a game against the Ravens is a tough or easy matchup? Here’s what Baltimore has done since beginning the decade with a Super Bowl championship: Made playoffs (2001); losing record (2002); won division (2003); missed postseason (2004); losing record (2005); won division (2006); losing record (2007); made AFC championship game (2008). Among those who have displayed more stability than Steve Biscotti’s team during that stretch: Amy Winehouse, Terrell Owens and General Motors.

Maybe you regard a date with the Kansas City Chiefs (losers of 23 of their past 25 games) as a sure thing.

Photo Tony Gonzalez and the Chiefs have won just six games the past two seasons.
(Charlie Riedel/AP Photo)

Weirdly enough, I’m fairly sure that the Chiefs, with new coach Todd Haley and a slew of talented young players they began stockpiling a year ago, will be a team nobody wants to play come November. And I’m saying that even though the Chiefs will have to face opponents from the NFC East – gasp – on four consecutive Sundays in September and October.

Why am I throwing out such a radical prediction? Because in today’s NFL, the only thing we know for sure is that the status quo will not be maintained from year to year.

In 2008, seven of the 12 playoff teams – including five of the six NFC entrants, all but the Giants – had failed to reach the postseason the year before. Of the eight division winners from ’07, only the Chargers and Steelers repeated.

Was last year a fluke? No. In the past 10 years, each playoff field has featured a minimum of five newcomers, and the average annual turnover rate has been 6.4 out of 12.

When you’re trying to figure out a league in which more than half the championship contenders are flushed from year to year, you might as well whip out a blindfold, pin and tail and hope that mom doesn’t spin you so much that you collapse from dizziness.

This isn’t to say that the schedule shouldn’t be open for discussion. I’ll revisit it again a little more than four months from now, as the first week’s slate of regular-season games draws closer.

More specifically, I’ll revisit one-seventeenth of the schedule (Hint: That Titans at Steelers Thursday night opener looks awfully enticing, as does the Jay Cutler-Aaron Rodgers Sunday night clash at Lambeau), and then I’ll take it week-by-week from that point forward. As I’m in the business of planning flights on just a few days’ notice, and I’m already married, looking ahead won’t be a huge priority.

The only thing I can tell you with absolute certainty is that, on Sunday, Jan. 3, I’ll try to cover either the Washington Redskins at Chargers or Ravens at Oakland Raiders. After all that partying over New Year’s with my fellow Golden Bears in Pasadena, I’ll be too thrashed to leave California.

TRIPPIN’ ON E(MAIL)

“Where the [expletive] are you?”

Joe H.
San Mateo, Calif.

If you must know … I woke up in a Soho doorway. A policeman knew my name. He said, “You can go sleep at home tonight, if you can get up and walk away.” I staggered back to the Underground and the breeze blew back my hair …


“Hey Michael, Big fan, always happy to read an analyst who tells it like it is. I’m a football player at Colorado College, a Division III school in Colorado. Last week the administration here decided to cut the football program without ever coming to anyone for ideas of how to raise money to save it. The situation has been terrible for the players, coaches and alumni as the decision was announced after most transfer deadlines for other schools have past. Therefore, most of the players here have been scrambling trying to submit applications to places that are still accepting them. In an effort to save our program, we are doing a number of things to try and raise money and bring pressure on the school. I was just wondering if it would be at all possible for you to either mention our plight in one of your articles or to post this comment in one? As much of a football fan as I am, I must confess the only column I read on a regular basis is yours and I know that there is a large following of loyal football fans who read you and who would understand the terrible situation my teammates and I have been put in. If it is at all possible to bring any attention to what has happened here, I know I speak for everyone on our team when I say we would greatly appreciate it. Regardless though, thanks for at least reading this, and don’t stop what you’re doing. Keep up the great word.”

Joseph Karwin
Colorado Springs, Colo.

That sucks, dude. I am totally sympathetic to your plight, and while I know these are tough times, I hope a less drastic solution can be found. Please keep me posted. In the meantime, let’s turn our attention to Colorado’s equally cheery pro football landscape …


“Michael, Can you please promise me that Denver is not going to become the Chargers of the ’90s, the Raiders of the past seven years or the Chiefs of, well, the Chiefs since the mid 1970s. [Mike] Shanahan needed to go, but we certainly didn’t need to bumble the situation with [Jay] Cutler … I need a Don Julio shot, and for none of the right reasons.”

Joe G.
Plano, Texas

Yeah you do … and sorry, no promises.


“Mike, We have to talk. I always love your work, but your article about the Cutler trade could have been an all-time great but … Honestly, I was nodding my head throughout the first few paragraphs, saying ‘Yes, Michael is so right.’ Then you threw in [the] line ‘… McDaniels, who came in acting a lot like Bill Belichick and Bill Parcells – minus the credibility and track records …’ and I was ready to declare this the GREATEST ARTICLE EVER. Honestly, that line is what I’ve been saying to my poor wife [who is a saint to listen to my giddy rants since she couldn’t care less about football]. But then, you had to ruin it all and change Cutler’s alma mater to Tulane. I shook my head in disapproval, saying ‘No Michael. No. No …’ Then I sighed and went to bed. Mike … you almost had a Pulitzer moment and then you go and do this. That comment was the equivalent of giving up an infield bunt in the ninth inning of a perfect game. It’s a mistake that is below you, and yet … there it was. The fact that Cutler went to Vanderbilt is one of the most identifiable facts about him. It sets him apart from the two football factory QBs drafted ahead of him. Seriously, I’m a huge fan [and] an article like this is why. You didn’t just go with the ‘chalk’ story that Cutler is a big baby and he should shut his mouth and listen to the people in positions of ‘authority.’ While there may be some truth to that, there is more to this story and I’m glad you saw through some of the clichés and delivered [not for the first time] an outstanding article.”

Lou
Boston

You speak the truth, my friend – as did the 8,432 others who alertly noted the unconscionable mistake in my initial posting. Two words come to mind: Brain fart. Is that Simon Cowell I hear in the background? “Utterly atrocious.”


“Cutler went to Vanderbelt not Tulane!!! Might want to check your facts before you give us your option. Why should I lesson to you?”

Tyler
Dever, Colo.

Two words come to mind: Brain laxative.


“omg i cant believe this. wen i was watchin espn yesterday afternoon this really blew up. like wow he just went to the bears. and my parents are divorced right. my mom all the way broncos fan dad fullest bears fan and then they startd textn each other talkn about it. my dad said the broncos went from penthouse to outhouse so from good to totally[expletive] ty. idk if id take it that far but hey jay got what he wantd so whatever. but its all bout dem broncos”

Gabrielle Walker
Aurora, Colo.

Ha, fo sho … lmao … ttyl


“The Kings of Leon altered lyric is pure genius. I always suspected, but this confirms it!”

Arianna Tsoukalas
Nashua, N.H.

Thanks. I feel slightly redeemed after the Tulane/Vandy fiasco. Is that Simon Cowell I hear in the background? “Utterly brilliant.”


“Michael, Normally when I read your articles I find that whether I agree or disagree with your opinion that I can respect it, and enjoy the article. It was with surprise, then, that I found an opinion I can neither respect nor agree with in your Lies, Lies, Lies section of your April 3 article. DUI is not ‘a mistake’ and I find any mention to the contrary to be flat wrong and unable to be supported. DUI laws aren’t arbitrary and at what time does one need to rely on quick reaction time more than if someone runs onto the road in front of us? If it was a child rather than a grown man who met his unfortunate demise that day I don’t think you could be spurred into a depravity comparison to the Michael Vick situation. Regards, PM.”

Peter McPhee

On the contrary, we completely agree on this issue. The “opinion” I gave, being that it appeared in the Lies, Lies, Lies section, was in fact the opposite of my actual view on the subject. As most of you who’ve been paying attention know by now, I don’t believe a DUI fatality is in any way a “mistake,” and I find the crime far more heinous than the killing of dogs. Given that you and fellow readers George, Glen Melnyk and Greg Dugan all took my words literally, perhaps I should’ve gone with a more direct approach. So from now on I’m changing the name of the category in question to “Lies, Lies, Lies – I Am Not Saying What I Actually Believe To Be True.” (Or maybe that, too, was a lie …)


“Yo, Mike. You know you’re going to get killed for writing [Donte] Stallworth is a lesser evil than Vick, although your stance on the humans versus animals argument has been clearly stated &hellip Twice now, I might add. You just can’t win, brother. Also, while you linked the urban dictionary with your usage of the word ‘poon’d,’ I’m afraid it, and you, are slightly mistaken. Correctly used it would be pwnd. (Supplant the o with a p, via typo, and you have the birth of an internet meme.) In my experience, ‘poon’ and ‘pwn’ are two different things. And you can’t link the former on a family website. Love it when you join Murph and Mac on KNBR, wish you guys could make it a more regular occurrence. Stay up!”

Kelly Smith
San Francisco

The distinction is duly noted. I probably should’ve asked Marshawn Lynch for some guidance before I put it in the song.


“Bears make playoffs and go to Super Bowl! First on record of saying so! Macharo, rapper from Memphis, Tenn., by way of Chi-Town! It’s going down damit!”

Macharo
Memphis

Duly noted. (I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that Macharo also could’ve told me the correct spelling for ‘pwnd.’)


“‘Dig in like a Mike Vick pit bull … Go Green Death.’ Soccer ball – $20. Uniforms – $50. A Mike Vick pun in an e-mail to parents of a 7-year-old soccer player – Priceless.”

Tom Hughes
Washington, Ind.

I’m a dorky soccer dad, and I definitely thought it was funny.


“Long-time reader, first-time e-mailer. I have to commend you on the terrific article about Thomas Dimitroff and the Atlanta Falcons. Your article was on the money about the AJC’s cynicism about my beloved team, but it’s the same way about the ‘Hotlanta’ fanbase. I haven’t been this excited about a team since our 1998 Falcons led by Jamal Anderson, a young [Keith] Brooking, and veterans [Chris] Chandler, [Terance] Mathis and [O.J.] Santiago. Thanks for the history on TD and all the references of our current players. As always, top-notch writing and even better responses to asinine e-mailers. I’ll buy you a shot if you can find Mt. Airy from Calif. Peace.”

Rodney P.
Mt. Airy, Ga.

I looked up Mt. Airy on the web, and it seems one Ty Cobb found the small town in northeast Georgia after he retired from baseball, and made it his home. So I’m thinking shots are definitely in order.


“Just a comment on Thomas Dimitroff. A couple of the AM sports radio stations located in Atlanta were commenting last summer during camp about Dimitroff wearing cargo shorts, t-shirts and boat shoes. They just didn’t think he fit the mold of the big time NFL GM and that Mr. [Arthur] Blank had made a mistake. Several of us had a good laugh about that. I appreciate the piece on the hole-in-one and his new nickname. I’m looking forward to this season just as I did last year. Why? Because I know my Falcons are finally in good hands from top to bottom.”

Edgar Godfrey
Cleveland, Ga.

I commend him for not going with the time-tested flat-front khaki spandex shorts and team-issued white T-shirt look.


“Greetings from WVU, Mr. Silver. Loved the column on Dimitroff. It’s amazing what a person can achieve in a short amount of time. I’ll be supporting the Falcons for years to come. With all of the teams this year in rebuilding mode, which of them do you think has the best chance to turn it around quickest? P.S.: Hope it was nice to have good grammar for once!”

Mitch Boggess
Morgantown, W.V.

Which team? The Kansas City Chiefs. I’ll explain myself as we get closer to the season.


“Hey, Mike, I just read your article on Jeff George and there were several articles underneath it, one of which was the story on JaMarcus Russell not being at training camp. I know with the Raiders’ record over the last six years, it’s easy to bash them every chance you get, but if they’re so bad, can’t you bash them without making up [expletive]. [Tom] Cable’s whole comment wasn’t critical of JaMarcus; the question was actually what could make him a better QB. Also it doesn’t say that Russell has been at the team’s facility and working out before the voluntary workouts, and that they meet every Wednesday, also Cable knew when Russell would be in. It’s not like he just didn’t show and didn’t say when he was coming in. I’m glad the Raiders don’t reveal the info they have or clear any thing up with the press because it just shows how loose you guys are. I hope you get hit by a car, you piece of [expletive].”

Zach

You Raiders fans are so eloquent when you’re enraged. Really, it baffles me as to why you have the reputation you do. Thanks for the kind wishes. I’ll be sure to look both ways the next time I’m walking to my car at the Coliseum.


“Not a question, but a reply for one of your emails in your column. Jerry Logan went off a bit on Jerry Jones being somewhat of an idiot, and I did a little statistical research to put things into perspective. I compared the Cowboys with their arch-rivals, the Redskins, and with the current darling of football pundits everywhere, the Patriots, and here is what I found. In the 20 years that Jerry Jones has owned the Cowboys, their record is 173-147, with a playoff record of 12-9, three Super Bowl wins and no losses. In that same time frame, the Redskins record is 155-164-1, with a playoff record of 7-5, one Super Bowl win and no losses. The Patriots meanwhile compiled a record of 175-145, with a playoff record of 17-7, three Super Bowl wins and two losses. While the Patriots definitely have a better playoff record, it’s not enough that Jerry should be labeled ‘a moron, an egomaniac and an obstructionist to his team’s success.’ I’ve been a Cowboys fan all my life and unlike some others out there, I still appreciate that during my life, the Cowboys have been to the Super Bowl eight times and won it five. I wonder what some fans from other teams would give to have that kind of a record to look back on [Detroit, New Orleans, Arizona, Tennessee, Philly, etc. …]?”

Patrick Kammerer
Bryan, Texas

Thanks for doing the research – and for being able to appreciate the good times, even when the present is a bit frustrating. That’s the true measure of putting things in perspective.


“Don’t you stinking liberals ever stop bashing George W. Bush? You must not have much to write about if you insist on criticizing him more than two months after he has left office. Since it is a well known fact that the egg-sucking, communist-loving democrats in Washington started this economic mess, namely Barney Franks and Christopher Dodd, along with other clowns like Maxine Watters, Barack Obama and Jim Boy Carter, you might spend some time slamming them. And how about all those bonuses from creeps like Jaime Goerelick and Franklin Raines? Sure would be nice if your Democrat pals demanded that those bonuses be returned.”

Steven L. Toth
Mesa, Ariz.

You radical right-wingers are such lovable losers. I didn’t know there was a shelf-life on Bush-bashing, and I’m pretty sure I won’t be the only one who piles on in the years to come. In the meantime, you might want to start wrapping your head around four words: Hail to the Chief.


“‘Dubya has books?’ Of course. ‘Hop on Pop.’ ‘Where’s Waldo?’ ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas.’ Probably a couple pop-up books … Hmm. Too easy. I could throw in ‘All Things Possible’ just to tweak you a little, but I won’t. Take it easy and thanks for your stories.”

Chuck
Tempe, Ariz
.

Ouch. I deserve that, but what can I say? Kurt Warner’s journey from stock boy to Super Bowl hero is, indeed, a hell of a story.