The NFL Didn’t Take a Strong Stance on Kneeling…Does It Have To?

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If we learned one thing from this past weekend of national anthem drama, it’s that the NFL loves unity. Both the league and many of its teams chose to approach the situation by embracing that ideal, whether it be through a statement or locking arms on the field.

“The NFL and our players are at our best when we help create a sense of unity in our country and our culture,” Goodell said in his statement.

“Our country needs more unifying leadership right now, not more divisiveness,” the Miami Dolphins’ statement read.

After the Titans stayed in the locker room during the national anthem, one player explained the move by saying, “The NFL and our players are at our best when we help create a sense of unity in our country and our culture.”

Although some teams and owners used stronger language in their statements, the overarching message of the weekend was that the NFL was united with its players. While this made some feel good inside and have hope for the future of the league, others asked, “Well, what are we showing unity towards? Anger towards Trump? First amendment rights? Recognizing an inequality problem in the county?”

The answer to that question was less clear, as nearly every official statement avoided the real reason players knelt in the first place (racial inequality/mistreatment towards African-Americans) in favor of “pursuing positive change” or something similar. This didn’t sit well with too many people, leading them to challenge the NFL to take a stronger stance and acknowledge if there’s a race problem in our country. But should they?

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While it’s fair to say the NFL approached the situation through a PR lens, is it fair to bash them for it? The NFL, as well as its individual teams, all share a responsibility to their stakeholders (fans, owners, players, employees, etc.) and they did their best at finding an effective way to do that in an extremely tough situation. Perhaps the best example of just how difficult it was for teams to balance that line was when Jerry Jones and his Dallas Cowboys took a knee before the anthem and were still booed! Some fans are so hypersensitive to any sign of disrespect of the anthem that “unity” is just about the only reasonable course of action left. Conversely, vague displays of trust also leave many unimpressed.

Would it have been nice to see the NFL address the racial issues in our country or show support for the kneeling NFL players’ cause? Sure. Whether you agree with the extent of the issue or not, it would have been cool to see the NFL become a leader on a social issue like equality. But expecting them to is setting expectations a bit too high. Kaepernick’s fight is not their fight. By NFL standards, the move to call the President’s words divisive and disrespectful was pretty bold.

As a quick aside, I’ve never been one to complain about politics in sports. I also like players to be opinionated and unafraid to be their authentic selves. But in this case, I just can’t fault the NFL for staying neutral on this one (if that’s even what you can call it). The NFL doesn’t want to talk politics any more than fans do and that’s understandable. For once, I think the NFL’s statement was enough. It allowed players to approach the situation how they saw fit. It didn’t censor them. LeSean McCoy even stretched on the sideline during the anthem (vastly more disrespectful than taking a knee) and the league hasn’t said a word about it.

So where does the NFL go from here? I understand some still faulting the NFL for claiming to care about the interests of the players while catering to its fans and brand image more often. But this whole anthem situation really presents a great opportunity for the NFL and its teams to make a positive impact in society and come out looking fantastic after it’s all said and done. How can they do that? I don’t have that answer. But why not attempt to capitalize on all this “unity” and show that the league can be an agent for positive change (in anything) through actions, rather than statements? For once, the league and its players agree on something. That’s a rare and powerful combination. Let’s see if they use it for more than just fighting the President.

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The Battle Between Two NFL Fanbases

The NFL has a silent war on their hands.

We’ve all seen the news and worry over the recent dip in ratings the NFL has experienced over the past year or so. The culprit? Who knows? Election season is over and ratings continue to slide. Too many commercials? Low quality football? Is it Kaepernick’s fault?

The NFL has already made a lot of moves to address the issue, but the ratings decline has only expedited and magnified what has been an existing dilemma: who does the NFL cater to in this quickly-evolving viewership landscape? The way we watch and consume football has changed so much in just the past decade and with it, the way the NFL must position their sport. The problem is, the NFL is dealing with two starkly different types of fans. When the NFL makes one move to appease one side, it risks pissing off the other.

To make things easier, I’m going to ultra-generalize these two fanbases to the point where we can treat them as a single, representative fan. For instance, let’s use “Marcus” as our NFL fan representing a younger generation. Marcus is in his 20s and is as big an NFL fan as anyone. He has a fantasy team and follows many of the games on his phone or computer (he doesn’t have cable). However, he recognizes that football is a dangerous game and doesn’t mind the league putting in a few safety measures to protect players a little better. He loves the different personalities in the game and often laments the strict celebration rules, calling the NFL the “No Fun League” for banning bow-and-arrow gestures. His problems with the NFL front office extend to off-the-field issues as well, as he bashes the league for their inconsistency with punishments and overly-strict rules regarding marijuana use. As far as social issues go? He could take or leave the Kaepernick stuff and other anthem protests. He doesn’t mind them protesting, but could do without constant coverage flooding the sport broadcasts and analysis. Overall, Marcus is your typical young, forward-thinking, and connected fan and is constantly looking for cheap, convenient ways to watch his favorite sport. However, tons of commercials, penalties, and NFL front office blunders chip away at his will to tune in.

Screen Shot 2017-09-16 at 9.49.30 PMThen, let’s take Joe. Joe, in his 50s, is a much different type of NFL fan, but his love for the game matches Marcus’ and is rooted in memories of watching countless games with his father when he was young. He relishes the aggressiveness of football and its undeniable tie to American culture. However, the game today is far different from the one he watched as a young man. Safety precautions have turned the game “soft” in his mind and he often quips that “they’ll be playing flag football in a few years.” He watches the game the only way he knows how, on regular and reliable cable. He also makes a point to attend a couple of games in person each season. Similar to Marcus, he too notices the much-too-frequent commercial breaks and thinks the sport has gotten way too “corporate.” Another thing that bothers Joe is the boisterous and arrogant players that have populated the league. He prefers players to “act like they’ve been there” when scoring and crediting the team, rather than soaking up the adoration of fans. His biggest complaint? The NFL and media’s apparent tolerance of Colin Kaepernick’s anthem protest, which went against everything he stands for. He wanted the NFL to rebuke Kap’s actions and vehemently believes the dip in ratings is due many feeling the same disgust that he feels. Despite all this, Joe still watches the NFL and roots as hard for his team as he did 30 years ago. However, each season Joe is hesitant to pour more money into tickets as the league changes from what he once knew.

Before moving forward, it’s important to note once again that these are obvious and extreme generalizations. In reality, the overlap between the Marcuses and Joes of the world is large. There are many fans that think the NFL is going soft, while also agreeing with Kap’s protest. Or fans who are in their 20s and still prefer watching on cable, and vice versa. The differing and overlapping sensibilities of these fans extend across race, gender, age, and much more. However, ratings continue to fall and the NFL is scrambling to make sense of which fans are more important, or rather, how to please all. So with that in mind, we’ll deal with Marcus and Joe as they come. These two avid fans are at war, yet it’s the NFL that hears complaints from one side for any decision they make to appease the other.

So is it time the NFL pick a side and stick with it? We saw them recently make a few changes that would please the “Marcus” type of fan. They laxed their celebration penalty rule, allowing teams to use the ball as a prop again and plan group celebrations (dunking the ball and violent gestures are still not allowed). Also, we’ve seen an interesting decline in the extra point-commercial-kickoff-commercial sequence that enrages any millennial in need of constant stimulation. We’ve also seen them give Marcus easier ways to watch by streaming games for free on Twitter (in 2016) and Amazon Prime (this year). It would appear the NFL is extremely interested in courting and keeping their younger fans, the obvious aim for any sport interested in existing long into the future. However, these aren’t exactly tough moves to make. There’s no Joe that will stop watching altogether because of lenient celebration rules and will benefit from the decline in commercials and added viewing options.

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Neither Joe nor Marcus is particularly happy with how Goodell has managed their favorite sport.

So how about those tough decisions? Whether it’s contributing to declining ratings or not, the Kaepernick issue matters to a lot of fans and are watching to see exactly how the NFL handles it. The difficulty of balancing this line can be perfectly illustrated by Goodell’s politic-speak when asked about Kap. “The national anthem is a special moment to me,” Goodell said. “It’s a point of pride. That is a really important moment. But we also have to understand the other side, that people do have rights and we have to respect those.” You can almost imagine Goodell teetering on a tight rope in his own head as he risks pissing off large swaths of its fanbase with each passing sentence.

Kaepernick is far from the only issue. How about how the league handles marijuana use? The NFL has a bad (or good, depending on your view) reputation for handing out severe penalties (often a 4-game suspension) for players caught using marijuana. To someone like Marcus, these punishments are absurd when juxtaposed to the one- or two-game suspensions of Josh Brown and Ray Rice, both of whom admitted to domestic abuse (they were both later suspended longer amounts, but only after extreme public outrage). As for the NFL’s future view on the issue? This time, Goodell was much more decided. “Listen, you’re ingesting smoke, so that’s not usually a very positive thing that people would say. It does have addictive nature. There are a lot of compounds in marijuana that may not be healthy for the players long-term,” Goodell said. It’s safe to say the league’s substance abuse policy isn’t changing anytime soon. And while we’re at it, how about legalized betting (for fans of course, not players). Once again, Goodell knew where he stood. “The integrity of our game is No. 1. We will not compromise on that,” Goodell said about the prospect of legalized gambling. As far as these issues go, it’s clear that the NFL is erring on the side of Joe, whether intentional or not.

And finally, and perhaps more important than anything, how about the sport itself? Both Marcus and Joe complain about the quality of what they’re watching. Marcus is sick of the dink-and-dunk offense and yearns for deep routes and heavy blitzes, fake punts and two-point conversions. Joe longs for the days of skull-rattling hits and the power running game, and he screams at his TV every time a “roughing the passer” is called when the QB was “barely” dinged in the head. This is perhaps the NFL’s toughest challenge. They can’t rollback safety measures after the massive settlement they just paid to former players for head injuries. And changing the rules of the sport to encourage more exciting plays is as risky a move as they come. A mere tweak to the extra-point distance was met with resistance and anger on all sides (although, with social media today one could argue that any change could be met with resistance at first, only to be accepted later). The NFL finally hired full-time referees in an attempt to improve the officiating, a common grievance from fans in the 2016 season. Still, we continue to hear the complaint that the “NFL isn’t what it used to be” and somehow this is coming from both Marcus and Joe, which has to be maddening for the NFL.

It would almost seem easier for the NFL to just commit to a position and stick with it. But of course this is an impossible ask. Fans like Marcus are the key for the NFL to maintain longevity, but they don’t bring in the money or fill stadiums at nearly the capacity that Joes do (yet). Filled stadiums and high cable ratings, both things that Joe helps out with, were and are still the key for the NFL to score gaudy sponsorship and broadcasting deals. The NFL is far from losing sponsors altogether, but what they do stand to lose is the leverage to justify the exorbitant amounts these deals are worth. With each type of fan on different ends of the spectrum on many issues, the NFL is navigating its toughest period yet.

This, of course, is far from a unique problem for a sports organization. The NBA, MLB, NHL and others are all struggling to determine how to position their league in the best way possible. Some leagues are arguably doing a better job than others, putting even more pressure on the NFL to get this right.

Maybe you, the reader, identify partly with Marcus and partly with Joe. What can the NFL do to keep you interested? Keep an eye on the NFL’s moves this season and the near future to see who the NFL is speaking to: you, or someone else.

 

2017-18 NFL Predictions

Never forget one of the NFL’s longest standing tenets: it’s hard to repeat success. Obvious, right? Well when the defending champion New England Patriots are favored to win every game this season, it can be hard to forget. With seemingly (key word) no strong competition in the AFC, the Patriots seem to have yet another easy path to the Super Bowl. They have already begun sending their season ticket holders tickets to the AFC Championship game! Can you blame them? They’re a great team with a QB that has shown no signs of slowing down despite reaching 40 years of milage last month. They make winning look easy. Too easy. And this is why they won’t win the Super Bowl for the second year in a row. In fact, I don’t think they’ll make it there. When a team makes winning look as easy as they do in the NFL, something isn’t right. This year will be a true test of how hard it truly is to repeat success in the NFL. My official predictions are in the image below along with some notes:

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Extra Points:

-Ben Roethlisberger may be getting up there in age (and may retire after this season), but his offensive corps is as electric as ever. Defensive concerns still remain, but don’t forget that this team won seven straight to end the season last year and actually ended up top 10 in points allowed. This is still a really good team and yes, they have what it takes to beat the Patriots.

-My NFC side looks awfully familiar to what it was last year as far as teams go and this is where I expect to have the most issues. The NFC is full of teams looking to bounce back (Eagles, Panthers, Bucs, etc.) and is constantly surprising the league with the playoff outlook. Despite my predictions, don’t be shocked if the NFC looks vastly different than last year.

-I say it nearly every year, but this has to be the year Aaron Rodgers makes it to another Super Bowl. He’s just too good not to get another chance. If the Packers disappoint this year (i.e. lose in first round of the playoffs or worse), I would fully expect coach Mike McCarthy to be out of a job after the season. Rodgers was so close last season and I think he has unfinished business this year.

From Chiefs to Lions: Is it a mirage?

Someone famous and cool once said the NFL doesn’t truly start until Thanksgiving. Well Turkey Day has come and gone and what we’re left with is a deep field of teams that look poised to play “real” football. Four teams in particular—Chiefs, Dolphins, Giants, and Lions—are a few of the hottest teams in football. It’s a typical NFL trope: who these teams are and how they win makes us skeptical of their potential. But just because it’s typical doesn’t mean it’s not worth discussing. Nobody likes to be made a fool. Is what we’re seeing with these four teams a mirage? A closer look may reveal what we should expect in a post-Thanksgiving world.

First, let’s play a game. It’s that really awful game where any football broadcast takes some impressive stats, but puts a question mark over the owner of those stats. When the question mark is taken away, we’re all shocked!

“The guy ranked 2nd in first downs and 4th in rushing touchdowns is…Melvin Gordon??? How can that be?!”

Anyways, there’s a team in the NFL that is scorching hot. They are 18-3 in their last 21 regular season games. Some might call that the beginning of a dynasty. (Most people wouldn’t, but some might!)

Here we go, the big reveal…..it’s got to be the Patriots, right? They’ve been great for seemingly forever, with or without Tom Brady. But nope, not them.

Then maybe the defending champion Broncos? Think again.

Cowboys or Panthers?? They both lost just one game either this year or last year, so it’s not totally unreasonable. Except it’s not them by a long shot.

The answer, if not already given away by the title of the post, is…the Kansas City Chiefs! Shocked?? Ah, see, the game works!

Yes, the Chiefs are on a hot streak that has seemed to slip somewhat under the radar. Many Chiefs fans demand respect! Question is, do they deserve it? The idea of combining Alex Smith and Super Bowl triggers some cognitive dissonance. The way they win isn’t easy to trust. I believe Smith ranks just above WR Willie Snead in passes over 20 yards this season. TE Travis Kelce has consistently been Kansas City’s leading pass-catcher, snagging countless 10-yard seam routes. The defense has been consistently solid, ranking in the top 10 in points allowed for four straight years and never allowing more than 20 points per game in that span.

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The regular season is Alex Smith’s favorite time of year.

So why does it feel like KC is going to cruise into the playoffs, only to be knocked out by a “real contender?” They’ve beaten both the Raiders and Broncos already this year. At what point do we accept that they could make a run? Perhaps the latter part of their schedule could be a more in-depth litmus test for a playoff performance. They play @Atlanta, Oakland, Tennessee, Denver, and @San Diego (combined record 33-22). That’s a tough road to navigate, but if KC manages to squeak out just three, they’ll be sitting at 11-5 and almost surely in the playoffs. Even then, they’ll need to nab a couple playoff wins for people to take this team seriously.

In the deep AFC, the Chiefs are hardly the most interesting story at this point in the season. Many would likely hand over that title to the Oakland Raiders, but one scorching-hot team may be giving them some competition. That team is the Miami Dolphins, winners of six straight and now 7-4 on the season. There was a time when Miami was 1-4 and life made sense. This, once again, wasn’t a team we could trust and we could finally write them off early and move on with our lives. Jay Ajayi had different plans. Behind an offensive line that finally meeting expectations, Ajayi and the Dolphins have found a winning formula. They pound the rock with hard-hitting Ajayi and then toss the ball up to a budding superstar in DeVante Parker. Their defense is doing a better job of getting to the passer recently, but they still struggle to stuff the run game. One problem I have with this team that gives me pause is that they don’t seem to do anything spectacular. They are pretty good at a lot of things, but we often picture solid playoff teams with two or even one thing they’ve mastered. However, unlike the Chiefs, Miami may not have to be spectacular to find themselves playing in January. They face @Baltimore, Arizona, @Jets, @Buffalo, and New England (combined 28-26). Aside from the finale with the Pats, those are all games they could win with how they’re playing now.

Now let’s travel over to the NFC, where the Cowboys own the conference but their toughest competition might be found in their own division. New York (8-3) owns the 2nd best record in the NFC and are just two games out from the division lead. They won the crucial season-opener over Dallas and have another matchup (at home) approaching soon. However, even with the six-game win streak and the proximity to Dallas, something feels off. The expectations for this team before the season rested heavily on the defense. Many (including myself) figured that if those highly-paid free agents could just elevate that defense to average, a high-powered offense could carry them to interesting places.

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Not exactly the formula for a playoff contender.

Well, in true Giants fashion, the defense has done their job (16th in total defense), but it’s the offense that is struggling mightily. An offense with a two-time Super Bowl MVP QB, Odell Beckham, Victory Cruz, and Sterling Shepherd only ranks 22nd in total offense. To be fair, the passing game itself ranks 13th. But you can see the difficulties on the field. Punt after punt after punt against the Bears and Browns doesn’t exactly scream Super Bowl contender. With the offense still figuring it out 12 weeks in, we’re left with a similar question to Miami’s: what is this team actually good at? If you want to tab “clutch defense at the end of games” as reliable trait, then maybe that. Game after game the defense holds the opponent from that back-breaking touchdown that cost them so many games last year. That’s the real difference this year, isn’t it? New York isn’t that much different of a team from last year, they’re just winning the close games with a slightly-more-reliable defense. For New York, December looms as a potential wake-up call. They’re @Pittsburgh, Dallas, Detroit, @Philly, and @Redskins. Something tells me those teams won’t forgive stalled drives as much as the Bears and Browns.

Finally we come to the black magic that’s disguised as the Detroit Lions. In a division we expected Aaron Rodgers to control, but then thought Minnesota would run away with, the Detroit Lions hold the lead at 7-4. How are they doing it? Oh, you know, that old fashioned football strategy where you win seven games after trailing in the 4th quarter. Think about that. In all 11 games this season, Detroit has trailed in the fourth quarter. They’ve won seven of those games. It takes a brighter mind than I to figure out how they are getting away with that. Keep in mind this is all without star receiver Calvin Johnson Jr. We’ll see if they can manage to keep a lead against their upcoming schedule of @New Orleans, Chicago, @Giants, @Dallas, and Green Bay. It wouldn’t surprise me if Detroit begins to drop some of these late game. Their matchup with New York should be especially interesting given both those teams’ ability to close games out this season.

The NFC and AFC are incredibly deep this year, filled with many more interesting teams than just these four. However, there’s a great chance more than one of these teams gets into the playoffs on the back of their hot start. It may be hard to imagine now, but teams like these just need a few wins in January to luck into a Super Bowl birth.

The Denver Broncos are winning the old-fashioned way and it may pave the way for the future

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It doesn’t seem to matter who the Broncos put in at QB, they keep winning games.

For some reason, I can’t seem to learn. The Denver Broncos have been good, no, great, for over a year now and I continue to deny them the credit they deserve. I picked against them a lot in big games last year, throughout the playoffs, and in the Super Bowl. My most egregious error, however, was previewing the AFC this offseason without even mentioning them.

Why? Why do I keep making this mistake? It’s because they haven’t had a QB I can trust. I’ve strongly believed (and still do, to a lesser extent) that the QB position is by far the most important position in today’s NFL and if you don’t have a great QB, you won’t win a Super Bowl. The Broncos proved me wrong last year and have carried their winning streak into 2016 with two rookie QBs, neither of which we have reason to believe are spectacular talents (yet). At 4-0, the Broncos are proving they can do it again without a great QB. They could very well not win the Super Bowl this year, but their sustained dominance gives us a look into something much more profound: with all the other pieces in place, teams don’t have to “get lucky” with the QB position.

That may sound really obvious, but it should be a comfort to many teams like Cleveland or Los Angeles. The Browns in particular have been searching for “that guy” for two decades now, using top pick after top pick on draft busts. They watch as teams like the Patriots and Steelers have struck gold with franchise QBs, allowing them to build a great cast around them on the way to multiple Super Bowls. They’ve also watched the Seahawks and Ravens find amazing QBs late in the draft, when they weren’t even looking for a franchise guy. Maybe one of these years the Browns will get lucky and find their Russel Wilson. Or maybe they can do it like Denver and pad their defense and offensive cast using the deep pool of talent from college.

This obviously isn’t as easy as it sounds. Realistically, teams like the Browns and Rams are already trying this and have to suffer through 6-win seasons and high coach turnover. It’ll be tough for a lot of teams to get it right, but we’re already seeing signs that a few are on the cusp. The Cowboys, Eagles, and Vikings (combined 8-1) have had amazing success out of the gate without elite QB play. Yes, Dak Prescott and Carson Wentz look very good so far, but do they look like instant franchise guys? They could turn out to be, but the point is they don’t have to be. Prescott and Wentz are helping their teams win games through ball protection and sustained drives. Neither rookie has cracked the top 15 in passing yards or TDs, but both lead the league in fewest interceptions thrown (none). More to the point, the Minnesota Vikings look like a top 5 team with Sam Bradford at the helm. We know Bradford. He hasn’t changed, but his team has. He now has an unbelievable defense behind him and a great coach to give him the plays necessary to succeed. Instead of the Rams looking for Bradford to guide them, it’s now the Vikings looking to guide Bradford. In the past, it didn’t appear this has been the “way” to win the Super Bowl. Now the Broncos have done it this way and so far it doesn’t appear to be a fluke.

It’d be great to see a league emerge where QBs can be relied upon less than they are now. It’s not particularly fun to see the Browns search for a QB year after year. With the college system producing so few NFL-ready QBs these days, it’s almost necessary to see teams win a different way. The Broncos may not have a Tom Brady or Big Ben, but they’ve been the best team in the NFL for a while now. It’s up to the rest of the league to catch up.

Can the Vikings really survive this season?

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Are we about to see Sam Bradford’s career defining year?

The past month has been a roller coaster for the Minnesota Vikings. Coming off an impressive NFC North title over their dominant rivals from Wisconsin, the Vikings and their fans had nothing but optimism heading into the 2016 season.

Adrian Peterson, 31, showed no signs of slowing down, despite the feared ceiling of 30-year-old running backs. The 2013 MVP led the NFL in rushing yards last year (1485 yds) and he cracked 10 rushing TDs for the eighth straight healthy year (11 TDs). Coach Mike Zimmer took over in 2014 and quickly delivered results. Minnesota improved upon their 5-10-1 record in 2013 with a 7-9 campaign in 2014. They turned this modest improvement into a huge leap in 2015, going 11-5 and winning the division. Zimmer emits an intelligence and resolve that has Vikings fans appropriately hopeful for the future.

Nobody, however, is more important to the Vikings’ immediate future than Teddy Bridgewater. Bridgewater didn’t show overwhelming signs of greatness in his sophomore season, but he showed encouraging signs of growth. Even with Peterson aging, he has time to grow and make the team his. Heading into 2016, it wasn’t unreasonable to think a greatly improved year by Bridgewater could lead the Vikes to do something special. And that’s why his season-ending injury in the offseason cast a dark cloud over the fans’ sunny optimism for the next five months.

What followed made things even cloudier, but not immediately darker. Minnesota traded for Sam Bradford, an enigma of a starting QB. Bradford, known for his injury woes, has started a full season twice in his budding career and has thrown for over 20 passing TDs only once. And yet, in the past three years, he’s seen two different teams (Eagles, Vikings) trade quite a haul to bring him in. Minnesota gave up a first-round pick in 2017 and another conditional pick in 2018, causing fans and the media to wonder why Minnesota was putting their bright future at risk for such an unproven QB. Like all questions in sports, this one has been quickly put to rest because of winning (for now).

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Peterson didn’t have a great rushing start to the season, but his injury still leaves a huge hole to fill.

The Vikings won their season opener without Bradford (who was still picking up the playbook), but then thrust him into the challenging role of beating Green Bay. They asked not only he win over their hated rival, but that he do it in the first game of their brand new stadium, a structure as symbolic of Minnesota’s bright future as anything or anyone.

He won that game and played great while doing so. He looked as good (likely better) as he ever had in St. Louis or Philly. Adrian Peterson was injured during the game, but for a brief time, things looked great for the Vikings again. That optimism has once again been put on hold after news on Wednesday confirming a torn meniscus for Peterson, an injury that will require surgery and put him out for 3-4 months.

Peterson is out and Bridgewater is gone. Even without just those two, the team looks and feels very different from the one Minnesota fans expected this season. Yet so far, the results have been perfect. Other pieces of the team like the defense and Zimmer have held steady on this wild roller coaster. How long can Minnesota continue to survive?

It feels as if the darkness is still coming, even if beating Green Bay feels like a Super Bowl win. A lot of it rests on the shoulders of Bradford and the defense, but nobody has a tougher job than Mike Zimmer. In the coming weeks and months, we’re going to find out a lot about who he is, who this team is, and who they might become down the road.

For once, Week 1 offers little in the way of surprises

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Using players we’ve never heard of before, New England picked up where they left off.

Week 1 of the NFL has a knack for shattering expectations and throwing a wrench into the status quo. We’ve gotten so used to the shake-ups from the first Sunday, that Overreaction Monday is practically an NFL holiday at this point. This year, however, we were surprised by the lack of surprises out of the first week of football.

The “same old, same old” should be music to the ears of Patriots fans. Not only have they dominated their division for the past 13 years, but they’ve earned six straight first-round byes with records no worse than 12-4. On Sunday night, they traveled to face the Cardinals without Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski and looked poised for a little shake-up (called losing). Instead, Jimmy Garoppolo led the Pats to one of their more impressive regular season wins in a few years. It took a missed field goal by Arizona late in the game, but New England nonetheless survived, and that’s a story the AFC East is all too used to hearing. After the Jets, Dolphins, and Bills lost their season openers, the Pats are alone on top and that’s nothing new.

The same old story is a painful one for the Cleveland Browns and RGIII. Against a rookie QB and an uninspiring Philadelphia Eagles team, the Browns had reason to be optimistic. Instead, Cleveland relived the disappointment of the past two decades with an abysmal loss. Even worse, Griffin will miss an extended period of time after sustaining an injury. He took a huge hit near the sideline after he failed to slide. Sound at all familiar? Week 1 did nothing to quell the fears of a long season for Browns fans.

Cleveland wasn’t the only team to be dealt a familiar dose of disappointment. The San Diego Chargers were a different team last year after Keenan Allen sustained a lacerated kidney in Week 8. This year they’ll find out what it’s like to miss him for an entire season after Allen tore his ACL in Week 1.

Both the Saints and Colts showed eerily similar signs of the struggles they faced last year. A poor defense costing an elite QB the win is the losing formula we saw time and time again for the past few years.

Perhaps one Week 1 surprise was the Giants topping the Cowboys in a season opener. As shocking as that was, the real story was the Cowboys’ inability to overcome the missing veteran leadership and play of Tony Romo. Will Dallas be able to string together any wins without him? Even in the loss, Dak Prescott showed he’s a vast improvement over the replacements Dallas trotted out last year.

And how can we forget about the Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos. Week after week we (myself included) refused to take this team seriously in 2015. They had a struggling Peyton Manning as their QB trying to see how far he could get on the back of a fantastic defense. This time, it was untested rookie Trevor Siemian with the great defense behind him against a Panthers team itching for revenge. I fell for it again and picked the Panthers. Then I watched as Denver’s defense thoroughly dominated and allowed Siemian to control the game with smart, safe passes. Why should I have expected anything different?

Week 1 looked awfully familiar and that makes me uneasy. Should we get ready for a repeat of 2015? Or is the NFL just setting us up to look like fools halfway through the season?