Pro football has become America's favorite sport--and I don't mean the kind of football that David Beckham plays. The NFL captivates its fans with the perfect mix of bone crushing violence, fast paced action and sophisticated strategy as coaches maneuver their players into position like grandmasters deftly deploying their pieces for a checkmating attack. The NFL season has a heightened urgency to it that is difficult for other sports to match for two reasons: (1) the very real possibility that a key player could be injured on any play; (2) the season is only 16 games long, so the significance of every game (and every play) is magnified. As I noted in my season preview, those reasons also explain why in one year NFL teams can easily go from worst to first (or vice versa).
The NFL used to start its regular season without any particular fanfare on a Sunday early in September. All the teams played that day except for the two teams that faced off on Monday night. That changed in 2002 with the inaugural "NFL Opening Kickoff," which included performances by Bon Jovi and Alicia Keys and which marked the one year anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The San Francisco 49ers defeated the New York Giants 16-13 on a Thursday night in the Meadowlands and the idea of having a special season opening extravaganza went over so well that the NFL decided to turn it into an annual event. Major League Baseball used to have an Opening Day tradition: the season always began in Cincinnati. Now the MLB season begins in several cities at once and "Opening Day" has lost its charm. The NFL has completely stolen MLB's thunder by transforming the start of its season into a celebration of the sport that lasts for an extended weekend, starting with a Thursday night game, continuing with a full slate of Sunday games--capped off by a special Sunday night showdown--and concluding with a doubleheader on Monday Night Football.
The 2007 "NFL Opening Kickoff" began with performances by Kelly Clarkson, Faith Hill and John Mellencamp and culminated in the raising of the Indianapolis Colts' championship banner. The Colts and the New Orleans Saints are supposed to be two of the top Super Bowl contenders and their matchup lived up to that hype--for a little more than a half. The score was 10-10 at halftime and just 17-10 Indianapolis deep into the third quarter but some turnovers by the Saints and tremendous offensive execution by Indianapolis resulted in a 41-10 decision in favor of the Colts. Peyton Manning finished with his usual outstanding numbers (18-30, 288 yards, 3 touchdowns), while his counterpart Drew Brees had one of the worst yards per completion averages for a game in NFL history (28-41, 192 yards, 2 interceptions). NBC's John Madden said that the way Manning took apart the Saints' defense was "surgical." The pairing of play by play man Al Michaels with Madden is perhaps the best current sports announcing team. Michaels is still at the top of his game, always in command of his facts and impeccable in his delivery. I love the way that he hesitates ever so slightly to allow a play to conclude before calling it; less polished announcers end up saying things like "It's caught--no, it's bobbled--and now it's been picked off." Rarely does Michaels let his call get ahead of the action. Madden has always done goofy shtick--though he seems to do it less now than he used to--but he has never let his "Boom!" or his "turducken" get in the way of breaking down the action on the field. Younger fans think of him as the video game guy but Madden is a Hall of Fame, Super Bowl winning coach and his analysis always adds to the broadcast.
Indianapolis lost several starters from its championship team but we learned that at least one of them is not likely to be missed. Apparently, "Jason David" is Creole for "burnt toast," as the former Indianapolis defensive back was repeatedly torched by Manning. The Colts look even better than they did last season. We will have to wait to see if the Saints were simply overpowered by a superior team or if they are going to experience a serious decline after their fairytale run last season. Meanwhile, the 2007 NFL season is off and running and the 16 week countdown to the playoffs has begun.