There's more pro football coverage than ever before, and that's a good thing. I grew up in an age when you'd read game stories in the Monday newspaper, then pretty much have to wait until Sports Illustrated and The Sporting News arrived at the end of the week to get any further coverage of what was next.
Today, of course, it's much different. As America's most popular sport, pro football is covered exhaustively and around the clock on NFL Network, NFL.com, team websites, all the major networks, talk radio, podcasts, fan sites, blogs, Twitter, Snapchat, etc. There are a million hot takes out there, from one week to the next.
While its regular season is shorter in both duration and number of games than all the other major professional sports, the NFL regular season is still a long and grueling marathon. A lot can happen over the course of a season -- teams can mature, players can develop and coaches can adapt. On the flip side, teams can lose their way, players can get injured or slip back into bad habits, and coaches can make the wrong decisions. The NFL landscape is an ever-evolving liquid state that changes from week to week more than any other sport.
- 2017 NFL SCHEDULE RELEASE
▹ What you need to know
▹ Toughest schedules
▹ Easiest schedules
▹ Top 7 revenge games
▹ Nine best prime-time games
▹ Top 17 games of '17 season
- SCOUT'S NOTEBOOK
▹ Coach: Chiefs can win SB with Smith
▹ Malcolm Butler worth first-rounder?
- 2017 NFL DRAFT
▹ AFC Draft Needs:
▸ West | North | South | East
▹ NFC Draft Needs:
▸ West | North | South | East
▹ Draft Do-overs:
▸ 2008 | 2011 | 2015
▹ Debate: Number of Round 1 QBs
- END AROUND
▹ Bucs on 'Hard Knocks'? Giddy up!
That confluence of factors -- the small sample size, the week-long void between games and the intense interest, along with the explosion of media outlets -- leads to a severe case of jumping to conclusions and snap judgments that can turn out looking pretty foolish over the course of a four-month season. In practical terms, it means that in addition to all the other challenges that coaches and players face, they also have a nearly-constant duty to contend with trumped-up narratives from the media and fans, either delusions of grandeur (two-game winning streaks result in questions about Super Bowl hopes) or nightmare scenarios (two-game losing skids often lead to questions about whether the quarterback, the coach, the GM -- or sometimes all three -- need to be replaced).
A recent example of this came when Green Bay got off to a 1-2 start in 2014, and Packers fans and media decided that the sky must be falling. After the first three games of that season, the Packers' offense ranked 28th in total yards and Aaron Rodgers hadn't eclipsed the 200-yard passing mark in two of the three games. Then Rodgers caused a ruckus when he had the temerity to suggest that it might be a good idea for everybody to relax. So what happened the rest of the year? The Packers finished the regular season with a league-best 12 wins and led the NFL in scoring with a total of 486 points (the second most in franchise history). Oh, and Rodgers was named the league's Most Valuable Player.
The Packers were once again in the snap-judgment crosshairs this season, as they lost four straight games against the Falcons, Colts, Titans and Redskins. In doing so, the Green Bay defense gave up a total of 153 points. The dominant storyline at the time was that the Packers were doomed and defensive coordinator Dom Capers was about to lose his job. In the four games since, Green Bay has given up just 63 points total for an average of just over two touchdowns per game, while forcing 12 turnovers. And just as Rodgers made a proclamation in 2014, so he did again this year. On Nov. 26, after losing their fourth game in a row, Rodgers suggested that the Packers could "run the table" and finish 10-6 and still qualify for the postseason. They are unbeaten since then and, with two games left, they look like a good bet to complete the mission -- and recapture the NFC North title to boot.
Another classic example this year has been Dak Prescott. The rookie sensation stepped in after injuries to Tony Romo and Kellen Moore, and he was surprisingly adequate the first month of the season. Based on that brief glimpse, most observers saw promise there, but assumed that when Romo was healthy, he'd be back under center in Dallas. But then we got into October and November, and Prescott's production increased, while the Cowboys kept winning. That evolution was covered well by the media, and many who were wrong in their original assessment of Prescott's ceiling (myself included) admitted as much.
By the time the Cowboys' win streak reached 11, people were talking about Prescott not just as an Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate, but also as an MVP candidate, given that he was exhibiting preternatural poise and composure. Then came the inevitable, as the Cowboys faced a marauding Giants team in the Meadowlands two Sundays ago and finally lost a game for the first time since Kickoff Weekend.
That left this bizarre scenario: the rookie Prescott had led the Cowboys to an 11-2 record and the inside track to the No. 1 seed in the NFC ... and then, after their first loss since September, people were calling for his head. Prescott finished an underwhelming 17-for-37 for just 165 yards and one touchdown compared to two interceptions against the Giants. Media members pounced and ignited the quarterback controversy once again. Even Cowboys owner Jerry Jones didn't squash the debate when he had the chance. They all seemed to forget it was the first time this season Prescott had thrown more interceptions than touchdowns in a game, and though he completed a season-low 45 percent of his passes, he still had seven games on his brief resume in which he was better than 70 percent. (And let's not discount the Giants' strong defense in this equation either, as they have routinely made opposing quarterbacks look pedestrian and did so once again last weekend when they held potential league MVP Matthew Stafford to a season low in points.)
The calls for Romo didn't last long, as Prescott responded with a 32-of-36 performance against another hot defense in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday night. Prescott's 88 completion percentage was a career high, and while he didn't have a passing TD, he did score on the ground and refrained from turning the ball over. So what's the narrative now? The overcorrection goes the other way, and this week is full of stories about Romo being done in Dallas.
There are other examples of snap judgments that have come back to bite us this season. When Tampa Bay kicker Roberto Aguayo, a second-round pick, started the season a disgusting 4 for 8 on field-goal attempts while also missing an extra point in each of the first five games of the season, many called him a bust and insisted he should be cut. But since the Week 6 bye, Aguayo has made 16 of 19 field goals and has been perfect on extra points. And while I will never fully stomach using a second-round pick on a kicker (a position I have gotten in hot water for suggesting isn't even occupied by full-fledged football players), Aguayo simply needed time to adjust to the pressures of the NFL and has settled in comfortably.
The reality -- in the case of Rodgers and the Packers, Prescott and the Cowboys, and Aguayo and the Bucs -- is that almost any story that is covered in the NFL today is going to be, by definition, over-covered, and any storyline will be overplayed. We have more information than ever before, but we in the media -- and those who are serious fans of the game -- need to be better at discernment. It was a little premature to give Rick Spielman the GM of the Year award when the Vikings started 5-0. It's also a little premature to call for his job when they fail to make the playoffs in a year in which both their starting quarterback and star running back were placed on IR.
The smart observers know that football is a highly-competitive, zero-sum game that can fluctuate drastically from one month to the next. In that spirit, it's worth keeping in mind: If you've got an All-Pro quarterback like Aaron Rodgers, he probably didn't become awful overnight. Teams slump, performances wax and wane. The game is difficult, and it can humble even the best coaches, players and teams for a while. Or, as Chuck Noll once explained to a young free-agent defensive back named Tony Dungy, "Tony, if it was easy, there'd be 80,000 people doing it, and 47 people watching."
Follow Brian Billick on Twitter @coachbillick.