A Step Back: The State of The Patriots and the NFL

FOXBORO, MA - And so it begins.

I have a confession to make, everyone. I got a little misty eyed today.

I don't consider myself an overly emotional or sentimental guy. I don't sit in circles and discuss my feelings or attend retreats run by married couples in matching flannel shirts. My mantra is usually "life sucks sometimes, so suck it up and deal with it" when it comes to personal problems. I don't cry at movies or tear up when Maury Povich locates some yokel's long-lost sister. It's just not my thing. It drives people nuts, and my friends insist it's some act I put on to try and prove my manliness to the world, but that's honestly just how I am, and so far it has suited me just fine.

But I almost shed a tear this morning. If the girlfriend found out that I got emotional today after falling asleep during The Notebook and giggling when I found out her cat got eaten by a coyote, she'd probably never speak to me again. But that's okay, because she - like most people - doesn't know what a special time of year this really is. As I was sitting at my computer today, adjusting my fantasy rosters for the thirtieth time and counting down the hours until tonight's game, it finally sunk in. And I mean it really sunk in, as fast and deep as Rosie O'Donnell's face in the mashed potato trough at a Home Country Buffet.

The NFL season is finally here. In a short number of hours, the first kickoff and ensuing touchback of 2011 will be in the books. After all the drama, the uncertainty, and the buildup, the season is upon us. And it's gonna be a whopper.

The cliché is that you don't know what you got till it's gone. But clichés are considered clichés for a reason, and never before have I been so excited for a football season to start. And it's not only because there was a legitimate chance that the 2011 season was going to be canceled. It's also because, if you sit back and look at the bigger picture, there has never been a more a glorious time to be a football fan.

From a business standpoint, things have never been better. The future of the NFL is secure for the next 10 years. Revenues and television viewership are as high as they have ever been. The salary cap is firmly in place to allow for maximum parity, corporate sponsorship is booming, and in spite of these tough financial times, fans still find a way to crack open their wallets to forget about real life with an afternoon making fools out of themselves at stadiums nationwide. Money makes the world go round, and the NFL is rolling in it.

From a sheer talent standpoint, I personally think that this game has never seen anything like this current crop of athletes that strap on the helmet every Sunday. Think about it - has the NFL EVER had a group of quarterbacks like this? Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Michael Vick, Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers, Philip Rivers - that's seven elite quarterbacks headed by two first ballot Hall-of-Famers, both of whom will go down as among the best ever to play the position. The closest comparison I can think of is the Montana/Elway/Marino era, but even those years didn't have a group of QBs like we have now. Quarterbacks aside, the NFL is just loaded with game-changers, explosive players in every position on both sides of the ball, and for anyone who appreciates the game, this truly is a special period.

And most importantly, from a fan standpoint, it's one helluva time to be alive. Great media coverage. Live-action scoring updates from around the league. The explosion of fantasy football allowing us to fanatically care about every single game. The option to subscribe to a service that shows us every single game each week and allows us to access those games on our laptops, cell phones, and IPads from anywhere in the world. 96 inch LCD HD televisions with split screen capabilities and live fantasy trackers allow us to never miss a down or lose sight of a spectacular play.

And let's not forget that yellow first down line. How the hell I ever watched football without that is beyond me.

To make things even sweeter, in this magnificent time to be a football fan, we can all call ourselves supporters of The New England Patriots. As Patriots fans, we've been unbelievably spoiled for a solid decade now. After so many years of dominance, it's easy to forget the Pete Carrol era or the 2-14 season in 1992 that gave us the first pick of the '93 draft and the beginning of the Bledsoe years. The Patriots we most recently remember have been synonymous with excellence, unshakable confidence, and the team-first attitude that the rest of the NFL can only hope to emulate. The Pats are the gold standard of the National Football League by which the rest of the league measures its success. We haven't had a losing season since 2000, a season we followed with an 11-5 regular season, a Super Bowl Championship, and the emergence of some gangly kid from Michigan nobody had ever heard of named Tom Brady. We are the greatest franchise in this league, and as a result one of the most hated. Other fans HATE the Patriots - and not because of SpyGate or our slightly prickly coach. No - people hate us because we are good. We have been good for years, and we are going to be good for years. The Patriots are perennial playoff and Superbowl contenders, and that chaps a lot of fan asses - especially those asses who freeze to the bleachers as their team puts up a stinker on its way to yet another 7-9 finish. We are the only team whose coaches get Gatorade baths after beating us in the regular season. It seems as if we spend as much time defending our coach and his consistent record of excellence as we do rooting for our team and cheering when they rack up yet another win.

We don't mind, though, do we? No, we don't. Because admit it - hating another team is almost as much fun as rooting for your favorite team. It adds to the excitement and makes victory that much sweeter (boy does Hal have something coming to him if the Pats sweep the Jets this year).

But for now, though, let's forget about all that. We have 4 whole months ahead of us to argue back and forth, badmouth each other's teams, and read yet ANOTHER Brady vs. Manning debate on every sports website currently in existence. (Memo to the world: it's Brady. End of debate). There's plenty of time for it all. For now, before things get hectic and emotions start to run high, I invite us all to take a moment and reflect on just how wonderful this great sport of football really is and how lucky we as Patriots fans are to be a part of the greatest franchise of the modern NFL era.

Sure, this league is far from perfect. I miss the hard hits. I'm really not a fan of the new kickoff rule, nor do I like the way overtime plays out. I don't like how a parent who wants to take his/her kid to a game will likely have to drop upwards of $500 for parking, tickets, a burger and fries, and a few souvenirs when all is said and done. Elaborate end-zone dances are a thing of the past. And worst of all - it seems that the cheerleaders' skirts get longer and longer every year.

But the good far outweighs the bad. America loves the NFL like no other sport, with a passion and fanaticism unparalleled anywhere else in the world (that means you, soccer. You can have all the riots you want, NFL fans still have you beat). We will follow our teams to hell and back in hopes of achieving heaven. Because that's exactly what winning a Lombardi trophy is - something we Patriots fans know all too well. It's sheer heaven. It makes every loss, every failed season, every draft bust, and every past heartbreak worthwhile. And now, sitting here on the brink of what promises to be one of the most exciting seasons of all time, kicking off on the tenth anniversary of one of the darkest, most sorrowful days America has ever seen, I for one am going to take a moment to be thankful. Thankful for my beloved New England Patriots - all the joy, the sorrow, the frustration, the elation, and the happiness they have brought me over the years. Thankful for my bitter rivals - The Colts, the Jets, the Steelers - may their seasons be fraught with losses and more embarrassing foot-fetish scandals. Thankful for the teams I don't even care about - have a great season, Seattle. But most of all, thankful to be a part of something bigger than myself, bigger than all of us, really. I'm thankful for the NFL.

So put the beer on ice, wash out the snack bowl, and finalize the list of excuses why you can't go antiquing with your significant other this Sunday. Dust off your jerseys and clean off your grills. Prepare your "just because Daddy swears at the TV, that doesn't mean you can" speeches. Because football is here. And football is one of the things that America still does very, very right.

Here's to America, here's to the NFL, and here's to the New England Patriots.

Here we go, boys. Welcome back.

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