The start of something real(er)

The NFL offseason is an increasingly swelling wave of speculation and forecasting, stretched out thin over the spring and summer months. The calendar’s undercurrent washes news bits and pieces ashore — even if, in terms of actual football, little is actually happening — then crests and barrels into the regular season, where real outcomes and performances (thankfully) take over.

The Green Bay Packers’ training camp started, at our publish time, a little over two weeks ago. Family Night has already come and gone. The team’s preseason schedule is about to begin its annual tradition of erasing itself slowly from our Things To Do chore list that, as fans, we for the most part just sort of get through more than anything else.

Still, training camp in the heat and sitting in the crowded stands of Ray Nitschke Field, watching players practice and coaches yelling into megaphones, is the best thing going right now. It’s reason to be excited until exhibition starts, which, with its sloppiness and vanilla-flavored play-calling, is football but not exactly. And still, it’s the next step so it’s welcomed. Further, it’s a glimpse, maybe, at someone we don’t know yet who could make an impact when the games really do matter. It’s Packers football and mostly stress-free save for the constant toe-and-finger-crossing, hoping that no one suffers a serious injury in games that truly, in the end, do not matter one iota.

Preseason football also highlights some general concerns about the NFL. Namely, tickets to games that feature more than your usual helping of three-yard rushes, incomplete, quacking, passes and yet-unshaken rust cost the same as a regular season Sunday Night Football contest, the two maybe not offering the same entertainment value or quality of play. There is, as mentioned, the chance for a player to get injured, which is always bad and all the worse if it takes place during the four-game exhibition portion of the schedule.

But despite the NFL’s obvious money-sopping business strategies, oftentimes wince-inducing play and the looming risks that always come with this sport, the Packers are back, and that taken as a whole is always a great thing. (This is also why the NFL can’t really lose, as it turns out.)

Over the next month or so, the city gets a chance to get back into the steady rhythm of the season, too. Wait, wait, wait, then a game, wait another week, another game and so on. Training camp opens and the unmistakeable buzz is back in the state. RVs appear near the stadium. Kids bring their bikes and gigantic men ride them away. People practice their smoky tailgates and Old Fashioned recipes because practice is important for any situation; local bars and restaurants get out their parking lot tents and prepare for their first bracing and, I’m sure, welcome surge of extra traffic. New parking signs are painted and private driveways again become public used car lots. The raspy cheer of Lambeau and the hum of the public address announcer hang over surrounding neighborhoods like late-afternoon humidity. Wherever you are in Central or Northern Wisconsin, the team is back with you. It’s the Packers’ ripple effect, an understood change in the air.

On the field, position battles take their forms, somebody shows up out of shape but most everyone arrives with something to prove, ready to go. This season the Packers have an overhauled offensive backfield with the drafting of Alabama’s Eddie Lacy and UCLA’s Johnathan Franklin, and that almost demands excitement. They’ve got the next generation becoming the current generation at wide receiver, with James Jones, Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb officially ascending to the top of the depth chart. They’ve got first-round pick Datone Jones and the return of Nick Perry to hopefully splinter opponent’s singular stare at where Clay Matthews is lining up, and they’ve got Johnny Jolly, a force on the interior for the Packers before legal troubles and a prison sentence derailed his career three years ago, hoping to complete his unlikely pro football comeback by making the 53-man roster.

For the fun that comes with another year, there’s also our old friends stress and frustration back again once the calendar flips to September. The regular season is never an easy road for blood pressure; the highs are, of course, higher but the lows are accordingly lower and get harder every time to separate from stubbing all ten of your toes at once. That’s a reality of the fan investment. Right now, training camp and preseason are finally bringing with them something of substance, the sort we haven’t seen since OTAs or the NFL Draft, but at the same time there’s nothing on the line in the Win-Loss sense. It’s still summer vacation for spectators.

That’s what, I think, training camp and preseason offer fans more than anything else. They offer glimpses of the team, but not quite the team they’ll be in Week 1. They are essential to the Packers’ process of getting ready. Fans, the city of Green Bay and everyone around the state use this span of time for getting ready, too, albeit very differently and hopefully less seriously.

The next month or so is the tune-up, for everyone. For those not in pads or game planning or making important personnel decisions, it can get dull, we can wish it to be over faster, for the real games to start. That carefree football feeling, though, serves its purpose. When it’s gone we may not want the muggy August nights or random uniform numbers or highs not-quite-as-high back for awhile. But unlike most of the offseason, it’s here and it’s fresh and something’s happening. For the moment that rising tide is hard to beat. And the retreat of this wave is never as good as the crash.