We have reached the peak of Hope Season in the NFL.
It took long enough to get here. We had to power through the combine, free agency, the draft, OTAs, minicamps, training camp and the infernal preseason. A tedious "Dancing With The Stars" season and senseless Tim Tebow baseball tryout were mixed in. We met Jags Lady, which was actually pretty awesome. But now we're here, at the precipice of watching a full Sunday slate of games that count.
The season always seems to go by in a blink, but that wait to get to the first Sunday feels infinite. I swear I was one more Dak Prescott think piece away from moving to a remote part of the Pacific Northwest, growing out an insane splotchy beard and storing jars of my own pee in a pantry.
Week 1 is good like that, though. It takes forever to get here, but it always shows up just in time. No need to disinfect your kitchen storage areas, Aunt Anita.
Hope. It's a special thing. Some say it can be a dangerous one. But I say do your best to enjoy this special time of year, when the air gets crisper, the leaves begin to change and your team is tied for first place.
One can understand those fans who enter the season wearing a cloak of cynicism. After all, for a league that's been routinely praised for competitive parity, there's no denying things have gotten a bit, shall we say, stale at the top.
The Patriots have won the AFC East every season since 2009, securing a first-round bye in six consecutive years. The Broncos' regular-season win total by year since 2012 goes like this: 13, 13, 12, 12. The Packers haven't missed the playoffs during the entire Obama presidency. The Seahawks have gone into the divisional round or deeper in four consecutive years. The Bengals have hoarded a playoff spot in six of seven years -- not that they've done much with those lotto tickets.
Then you have that second tier of contenders who seem to find their way into the playoff mix more often than not -- teams like the Steelers, Ravens, Cardinals and Colts. These are all familiar January entities, and it can have the effect of making it feel like a Skull and Bones secret society of contenders have been mixed in amongst a larger, blissfully unaware developmental league.
Jason Lisk over at The Big Lead authored a compelling piece earlier this year outlining the sneaky oligarchy that's taken hold behind The Shield.
In the past five years, only 17 of the league's 32 teams have reached the divisional round, or the postseason's final group of eight. In the past 15 seasons, only 22 of 32 teams have advanced to the conference title game. Compare that to Major League Baseball -- a league without a salary cap and an (unjust) reputation for parity issues -- where 26 of 30 teams have qualified for the American League or National League Championship Series in that same period.
There are two ways to look at this as we look to a new season. We're either headed for another year of the same handful of teams competing for the Lombardi or -- and I like this better -- we're well overdue for a shakeup in the status quo. A disturbance in the force. A Mr. Robot-like uprise by the downtrodden.
If that second possibility plays out, we'll have some brand new teams in the mix. On the Around The NFL Podcast, we've been kicking around some options for months ...
The Titans, who have a dynamic young quarterback in Marcus Mariota and a potentially scary backfield with DeMarco Murray and rookie Derrick Henry. The Jaguars, who have been dreadful forever, are loaded with playmakers on both sides of the ball and have a young franchise star in Blake Bortles poised to barge into the top-10 QB debate.
Speaking of promising young quarterbacks, how about the Jameis Winston and the Bucs? After watching his fiery halftime speech at the FSU game on Sunday, I'd follow that man anywhere -- whether it be a burning building, front line of battle or the premiere of a Marlon Wayans comedy. And why not get pumped about the Raiders? Reggie might finally have the team. Lord knows Scar deserves it.
Me? It's another year of believing in the Jets. That the 47-year Super Bowl drought ends here. That Broadway Joe walks out of the tunnel at NRG Stadium in Houston clutching the Lombardi in both hands as green and white confetti rains down on a newly curse-free franchise. Joe Willie hands Todd Bowles the trophy and Queens, Long Island and Northern Jersey shake.
Sounds like a fantasy? Yeah, maybe. But this is peak Hope Season. Dreaming is not just allowed, but encouraged. Leave that cynicism cloak in the closet and think big.