Man Getting Hit By Football: Week One

The NFL is back, for better and worse and Jaguars-ianly meh. Might as well take a stab at predicting the week's outcomes, then?
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We know what the NFL is, and we watch it all the same. While none of us know what will happen on any given Sunday/Thursday/Monday, Harry Cheadle is at least willing to guess. He'll be doing so all season.

Baltimore (+7.5) at Denver

Football is a hard game to love. It’s always been surrounded by bullshit—the worst kind of fighter-jets-and-flags patriotism, the commercials where men yell about trucks and bros signal their heteronormativity through light beer choices, the endless breaks in the action, the overserious announcers telling viewers that that. Young. Man. Is Just. A. Football. Player. In. The. National. Football. League.

But there is also the concussion thing. We now can’t pretend we don’t know that playing in the NFL causes brain damage, or that the people in charge of the league covered that fact up for years before grudgingly paying a relatively insignificant sum to the victims of the sport in order to avoid admitting any wrongdoing. You can say that today’s NFL Gridiron Warriors (or whatever) are aware of the risks, and that if they choose to shorten their lives in exchange for millions of dollars and fame, well, there are worst deals you can make.

But then there are the young men and boys who play football in college, high school, and youth leagues—the kids who also go out there and slam their heads into each other and permanently harm themselves and don’t get paid? Isn’t that partially the NFL’s fault? And even if it’s not, isn’t it fucked up to watch a game where men are injuring themselves like that?

My only answer is that the game itself—that 11 or so minutes when the players are actually playing—is occasionally beautiful the way basketball or soccer but never golf is beautiful. Watching two groups of almost impossibly large, fast, coordinated men perform intricately timed sequences of movements isn’t unlike ballet, except there is a ball and the dancers hit each other. It’s also more fun to watch.

When a football team is playing at a really high level, when everything is clicking—when, say, Peyton Manning and whoever's on his team is executing that simple yet impossible to beat offense against a good defense like the Baltimore Ravens—you remember why you come back to this sport, the sheer pyrotechnic athletic prowess of the thing. It’s not an excuse for the lives that have been wrecked for the sake of entertainment, and we should remember that the NFL is run by suits who have no problem profiting from human misery. But it is at least a reason to watch.

PICK: Denver

New England (-10) at Buffalo

None of this rather bleak throat-clearing about how awful football can be has anything to do with how the players act off the field. After Aaron Hernandez was arrested for murder, some newspaper columnists dusted off their won’t-somebody-think-of-the-children-esque rants about how all pro athletes are criminals and need to be “disciplined.” But NFL players actually get arrested less than their peers. The truer, less column-friendly story is that young men mess up and have run-ins with the cops all the time—and some, like Hernandez, find themselves going horribly wrong for reasons that have nothing to do with their jobs. Anyway, his old team is playing the Bills, and yet:

PICK: Buffalo

Tennessee (+7) at Pittsburgh

And some young men mysteriously find themselves quarterbacking the Tennessee Titans. “Are you sure?” Jake Locker asks. “I wasn’t very good last year—I had more interceptions than touchdowns, and I don’t know that, like, I’m all that good at throwing accurate passes, which is pretty much the job description here.” The Titans shrug. It’s not like they have anyone better.

PICK: Pittsburgh       

Minnesota (+5) at Detroit

Before I go on to make some judgments about teams with the next couple picks, I should mention that for the first few weeks of the season, it’s very, very hard to sort out who the good teams and bad teams are. I might as well just be flipping a coin out here. So:

PICK: Minnesota

Atlanta (+3) at New Orleans

A fairly popular sentence to write is some variation on, “The Falcons were just one play away from the Super Bowl last year!” They were also one play away from losing to the Seahawks at home and enduring months of people griping about how they were chokers; they also were not a great team last year according to some advanced stats. Meanwhile, Steven Jackson, their big free-agent signing, is a 30-year-old running back who has carried the ball nearly 2,400 times in his career, mostly behind a St. Louis offensive line comprised of beefy sad guys who bounce at neighborhood bars during the week. What I’m trying to say is that I hate everyone who is from Atlanta or roots for the Falcons.

PICK: New Orleans

Tampa Bay (-3) at New York Jets

Maybe the biggest secret of the NFL is that the Jets haven’t been that bad during their period of flaming reality show ridiculousness. Their record over the past three years is 25-23, and they went 6-10 last season, after losing Santonio Holmes and Darrelle Revis (that is, their best skill position players on offense and defense, respectively) to injuries.

But they’re in New York, so the media won’t accept that they are a mediocre team with a lousy quarterback. So, instead, they have to be THE WORST, MOST DYSFUNCTIONAL TEAM IN THE HISTORY OF FOOTBALL #BUTTFUMBLE. Admittedly, when there are stories circulating about Holmes playing up his injury to increase his trade value, that kind of plays into the narrative. Oh well. J-E-T-etc.

PICK: Tampa Bay

Kansas City (-3.5) at Jacksonville

Things could be worse for the Jets, as anyone who is involved in this game knows. Lord.

PICK: Kansas City

Cincinnati (+3) at Chicago

One of the nerdier joys of football is that so much happens on every play, which means there’s level after level of complexity to dig into. Ben Muth’s preview of the Bengals’ offensive line on Football Outsiders essentially breaks down the protection scheme on a single play against the Cowboys last year—and it’s great. After reading it, I felt like I learned something, which is more than you can say for all of the “debates” on ESPN over whether Ben Roethlisberger is the fifth-best NFL quarterback. Seriously, that is a thing well-paid people have discussed.

PICK: Cincinnati

Miami at Cleveland (Pick ‘em)

A moment of silence, please, for the Dolphins’ logo, which was once a fun little sea mammal with a helmet. It was great. It had character and a streak of very un-NFL cuteness that mixed nicely with the Dolphins orange and teal team colors, which always looked like they should be decorating a hot air balloon rather than the pads of gridiron warriors. The new logo, unveiled earlier this year, lost the eyes and the helmet that made it fun—it looks like an abstract smear of teal, or a Nike swoosh with a tail, or a slightly malformed penis. It’s a bummer.

PICK: Cleveland

Seattle (-3.5) at Carolina

I wonder how the NFL would have dealt with its concussion problem if brain damage marred players’ physical appearances and made, say, photo shoots of hot young quarterbacks like Russell Wilson in designer sweaters that much more difficult. I have a hunch they would be a little more alarmed by it.  

PICK: Seattle

Oakland (+9.5) at Indianapolis

This game is going to be the football equivalent of eating nothing but a bunch of almonds for lunch because you were out of food and too lazy to go to the store and then you feel sick and weird and ashamed and later fart a lot.

PICK: Oakland

Arizona (+5) at St. Louis

And this game is going to be the football equivalent of watching a couple get into one of those whispered fights on the bus that makes everyone really tense.

PICK: Arizona

Green Bay (+4.5) at San Francisco

The NFL TV schedule continues to be extremely unfair. To wit: there are two late afternoon games this Sunday, so some people are going to be watching this showdown of the champions of the gridiron while some people watch Arizona and St. Louis trade incompletions.

PICK: San Francisco

New York Giants (+3.5) at Dallas

Everyone, however will get to see this Sunday night game, because everyone, as NFL and NBC executives well know, cares passionately about the NFC East and in particular the Dallas Cowboys, a “marquee” franchise that has gone 8-8 for two straight seasons and has one playoff win since 1996.

PICK: “New York” Giants

Philadelphia (+3.5) at Washington

When I watched the playoff game between Washington and Seattle last January in New York City’s Seahawks bar, there was an obnoxious drunk woman whose rooting was pretty much limited to snarling, “Hit himmmmm—hit him!” every time a Redskin touched the ball. Later, when Robert Griffin III, the most exciting quarterback in the entire sport, reinjured his knee horrifically, a sizable portion of the bar cheered.

Most of the NFL’s awfulness starts at the top, but there are a lot of fans who could give a shit about concussions and just want to get hammered and watch people get hurt. Football is the most popular sport in America because people want to see some fucking blood, not because it is “like ballet” or whatever that intellectual BS I was spouting way up at the top of this column. I know that. I just didn’t see any sense in bumming anyone out before we got to Monday’s game.

PICK: Washington

Houston (-4) at San Diego

This week SB Nation came out with its NFL season preview, which, like a lot of the stuff that site does, is very snazzily designed. It features win-loss predictions for each team, submitted independently by the bloggers who cover them, and if you add them up, the league will collectively go 290-222. A little early-season optimism can be forgiven though—football is back, and that’s exciting despite everything.

PICK: Houston

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