Every NFL team's training camp will be underway by the end of the week, and fan optimism is in overdrive all across the country. Training camp represents a sacred place for the glass-half-full sect, a time when potential team strengths easily overshadow fatal roster flaws. Now is the moment for fans -- no matter how blessed or how downtrodden -- to pound their chests and declare this to be the year it all clicks. After all, your words won't have any consequences until the leaves are changing color. By then, who will remember what you said anyway? The bill never comes due.
This alluring, electric glow of enthusiasm is especially fun in regions orbited by multiple teams. As a kid growing up in the suburbs outside New York City, Jets and Giants trash talk was always at its peak in the summer months. The dissenting opinions built to a fever pitch until mid-August, when the two Gotham teams clashed in Week 3 of the preseason. Seriously, when you were 10, that game had massive, destiny-altering stakes. A full pack of Strawberry Bubblicious was known to change hands over the contest's outcome!
With that in mind, let's check in with some teams and fanbases that share the same air space. Who owns state bragging rights right now? Who will own them by the end of January? And if you're thinking to yourself, How could this possibly matter?, well, I've got over 1,400 words of written content below that says it absolutely does.
Baltimore and D.C. don't share a state (hence the asterisk), but they're separated by less than 40 miles and there's a unique district situation involved (annoying), so let's just lump the local teams together. Entering 2018, the region is up for grabs. Both the Ravens and Redskins have existed in a state of mediocrity for the past few seasons, but there's reason for hope for both teams. The Ravens just brought in a very promising draft class -- including first-round pick Lamar Jackson -- so I'm tempted to ride with them as the team most likely to capture the area's imagination. Then again, here's Alex Smith's record as a starting quarterback with the 49ers and Chiefs dating back to 2011: 13-3, 6-2-1, 11-4, 8-7, 11-5, 11-4, 9-6. That's 69-31-1 over the past seven seasons. I'm not saying Smith is a genie in a bottle destined to reunite the Hogettes and save our country from toxic partisan buffoonery, just don't be stunned if Washington is hanging around in the NFC East come December. Al Smith knows what he's doing back there.
This one is pretty easy. The Jags are coming off a hugely successful season that included a division title and a near trip to the Super Bowl. (Forget "Dez Caught It", I'm all about "Myles Wasn't Down.") The Jags still have that Blake Bortlesthing going on, but are otherwise stacked and fully capable of another deep postseason run. On paper, the Bucs have a lot of talent. It's the same reason so many people (myself included) got sucked into the hype by the end of "Hard Knocks" last summer. Of course, the team cratered last season, and Jameis Winston's suspension has thrown cold water on any repeat attempt at summer enthusiasm in 2018. The Dolphins are trapped in the AFC Patriots division and have question marks all over the field. Duval County is expanding.
Promotional materials attached to one of these teams foretold a "Fight for L.A.!", but that doesn't seem to be the case at the moment. It's a bummer, too, since both the Rams and Chargers have talented rosters that should put them in contention to play meaningful January football. The Rams, of course, already made their move with last season, rolling off 11 wins and capturing the NFC West. The eternally snake-bitten Bolts probably should have approached that same territory, but they caught fire a little too late, winning six of their final seven games after starting 0-4 -- they lost three of their first four contests by a total of seven points. After a noisy offseason, the Rams hype train is rolling at full speed ... at least from a national perspective. As a Los Angeleno myself, I can't say that Rams fever has overtaken the Southland, but they certainly have a bigger footprint on the region than the Chargers, although perhaps the gap will begin to narrow this year. The Chargers have built a squad that can win the AFC West, but for now, they remain the new kid at school, all gawky, tentative and unsure.
We'll only get to enjoy this rivalry for a couple more years before the Raiders pack up and head to Vegas. That sucks. Anyway, a year ago this would've been no contest: The Niners entered the season looking like one of the worst teams in football and the Raiders had Super Bowl aspirations with Derek Carr recovered from his broken leg and Marshawn Lynch in the fold. Oakland ended up as one of the league's biggest disappointments, and it cost Jack Del Rio his job. Fast-forward to the present and the rivalry is headlined by two newcomers: For the Raiders, it's new (old) head coach Jon Gruden. For the Niners, it's new quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. Jimmy G led the Niners to five straight wins to close out last season and -- after some notable offseason additions headlined by Jerick McKinnon and Richard Sherman -- the team is being positioned by many pundits as a playoff contender. The Raiders are fully capable of making a playoff push of their own in the wide-open AFC West ... but it just feels like the Niners have the juice right now. Call it the Kiara Effect.
Here's what former Jets coach Rex Ryan had to say about the battle for New York in his 2011 autobiography: "Some people like to say the Giants are the big brother team and the Jets are the little brother team. I know it's going to piss off every Giants fan to hear this, but here you go: I really don't care. We came to New York City to be the best team in the NFL, not just the best team in New York City. And I have news for you: We are the better team. We're the big brother."
Miss that dude. Anyway, the Giants won the Super Bowl nine months after Ryan's book, "Play Like You Mean It", hit shelves, soooooo yeah. The Jets flirted with taking the city over during Ryan's first two seasons in 2009 and 2010, but it's been all Big Blue this decade, just as it's been for most every decade before it. There's special intrigue connecting the two teams in the present day after the Giants passed on USC quarterback Sam Darnold to select Penn State running back Saquon Barkley with the second pick in April's draft. The Jets, of course, were thrilled to grab Darnold one spot later and anoint him as their DFS (Designated Franchise Savior). Even following last season's 3-13 nightmare, the Giants are the New York team with the most buzz entering 2018. Barkley and Darnold will ultimately decide who owns the town for the next decade ... their parallel (and entwined) career paths will be a fascinating watch.
The state that houses the Pro Football Hall of Fame also claims ownership to two of the most star-crossed football teams in NFL history. Is that ironic? (Sorry, a Canadian pop star robbed my comprehension of that word in 1996.) The Browns went 0-16 last season and are 1-31 since the start of 2016, so they're about as far from state ownership rights as any team will ever be. We've had an especially ripe Browns Hope Season this spring and summer, however, and a lot of people who know Xs and Os better than myself say Cleveland has the talent to be legit right now. Those same know-it-alls have erroneously predicted Browns revivals before, of course. Meanwhile, is there a team with less buzz around it than the Bengals right now? I guess Joe Mixon still has huge upside, and I suppose John Ross could shake off his rookie doldrums, and I imagine Andy Dalton could regain his 2015 form, and I hope Tyler Eifert won't shatter into 10,000 pieces the next time he's tackled ... but that's a lot of things that have to go right for the Bengals. When's the last time that happened?
C'mon, what's more Texas than the Dallas Cowboys? (Distant voice in the background: "The state's storied high school football culture!") OK. (Distant Voice No. 2: "Our large collection of vaunted college football programs!") Uh, sure. (Distant Voice No. 1: "Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose!") OK, you're drunk, sir. Anyway, the Cowboys are arguably the most Texas thing. When the Cowboys are good, they don't just capture the imagination of their state, they stir up the entire country. Love 'em or hate 'em, "America's Team" moves the needle. This is the type of impact that all NFL teams -- including the Texans -- aspire to achieve. The Cowboys disappointed last year, and the Texans have a potential franchise-changing impact star in young quarterback Deshaun Watson. If things break right for Houston -- Watson returns from injury to dominate, J.J. Watt recaptures his three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year form, etc. -- the Texans could ride that wave into the postseason, but this should remain Cowboys country for the foreseeable future.
Two current league superpowers located on opposite ends of the state. I'll save a more nuanced conversation for my "Pennsylvania Is Sneaky Big" column scheduled to run later this year. (Counterpoint: It's not.) For now, I'll just say that there is no real rivalry between the two teams and the distance between them (a 310-mile ride on I-76 separates Heinz Field and the Linc) renders any (already nebulous!) "Who owns the state?" conversation especially superfluous. As reigning Super Bowl champions, the Eagles are obviously Pennsylvania's most successful professional football outfit at this moment, but no franchise has captured more Lombardi Trophies than the Steelers (six), and they remain a perennial title contender. I believe we have stumbled into the bottomless vortex of this particular thought exercise.