Changing seasons: 2014 regular season kicks off in Green Bay
This story appears in the September 2014 issue of Packerland Pride magazine. Subscribe to the magazine here.
In a strictly mathematical sense it can never balance itself out. 17 weeks cannot equal the rest of the year. And yet that’s what we expect from the NFL’s regular season on an annual basis. In terms of what gets crammed into those 17 weeks, and the postseason afterwards, there may not be a way to balance out the measure of time versus the insane hyper-focus it undergoes. You could probably stretch the season out longer on the calendar. I’m not sure any of its intense craziness would go away.
During the time from when it ends until now, as it starts again, the NFL of course doesn’t go anywhere, either. But there’s a shift from the offseason to the real and stakes-building one. Actual events with outcomes grow out, finally, from the practices and events of summer we quickly bury. Guesses about what this development will mean or how that player could impact the future remain, but in the richer context of wins and losses. The prognosticating of those off-months serves its purpose in keeping us going while we wait for real nourishment – the outcomes. The twists and turns of the live, unknown events we’ve spent so much time thinking about and can still never predict: That’s the part we wait for, the part where anything could happen. That’s a different idea than the offseason, where, sure, anything could happen.
As it has the last three seasons, this offseason started in a familiar way: sooner than anyone wanted, but later than it was, for a long time, expected. 2013 was a unique sample. An injury-ravaged and oft-ragged team dragging its non-functioning limbs to a division crown and playoff berth despite all the evidence seemingly piling up suggesting they’d be dead on the side of the road by December.
Consider all the unlucky and not-great things from that season and they probably shouldn’t have gone as far as hosting a freezing playoff game. That didn’t stop us from imagining what could happen, now that they were rounding into a healthier form with revenge in their collective conscious. The discomforts of home supposedly set to their advantage.
Give us time and we’ll get our hopes back up to full. That’s our takeaway here, no matter what happened before or what the future looks like down the road. They could’ve and very nearly beat the 49ers. And then who knows? That’s a question for forever, for a day next offseason, maybe, when we need a surface wound to pick at. We’ll always have those days, because we’ll always have the offseason.
It will always be easier to wonder than watch. There are no limits to wondering, time doesn’t run out. Injuries don’t occur, or they’re overcome. Opponents’ strengths are neutralized. The plan works. Lambeau Field is where visitors’ dreams go to sleep forever. The last stop always made, third-and-long barely converted. Wondering: It can always work out, some way or somehow.
Watching gives that all up. In return we get the possibilities of surprise and shock, spontaneous greatness becoming possible memories forever. Between those, we watch and wait and deal with it. It’s not as easy as wondering; the stakes are greater. For 17 weeks, if you’re lucky, they get greater and greater.
In short, we need the offseason. We need the break. To recharge and forget about all the big little details that consume us during the days and weeks and months of the real season. The stuff that could drive you batty, or possibly guide you into the professional football coaching field, or maybe both. The offseason is important because of how little actually is during those months.
No matter what you think of your team’s selections, regardless of the grade someone attached next to the logo, the NFL Draft pumps new blood into the league, year after year. New players equal new reasons, previously unavailable for inclusion into our best case scenarios, to see good things coming this way soon.
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix provides that before he plays a down of meaningful football. He offers a new-look before anyone’s able to see anything real. Before rookies get a chance to be more than ideas in a scheme they have long, visible shadows and real expectations. We don’t really know a thing about Richard Rodgers and how he’ll do in the offense. But we can still see the reasons why it could work.
We get training camp and rookie camp and preseason to stoke these ideas. These are the same glowing embers of a season ago, when we wondered how Eddie Lacy would work in the offense and who David Bakhtiari, this new starting offensive tackle, was. The embers are poked into lively flames again, renewed with another class of names and faces.
Even for the most highly-touted in the draft, the process is inherently a risk. A risk for the team, taking a chance on a player yet to play professionally. A risk for the player, trusting in his new team that they’ll train him right, prepare him and implement him effectively, in a way that makes the best use of his abilities and strengths. In almost any unknown, here, is the belief that this pairing could really make a difference, that this player could be a force of nature on the field, that maybe he’s what was missing a year ago.
Free agency isn’t the draft. Many of the players available are, to some extent, known for what they could do for a team because of what they’ve already accomplished. They’re available for any number of reasons: age, off-field issues, a dip in production, a contract stalemate. Free agents can be evaluated and placed into your custom roster like the middle piece in a jigsaw puzzle. It’s even easier to see them, and their track record, and how they’d make your team better, or not. It’s easy, real easy, to say Let’s Sign This Guy.
This period in Green Bay often doesn’t go how you might want to picture it. Though maybe not as static as reputation suggests, the Packers don’t often make splashes, either. They slice through water like an Olympic diver, tiny ripples and a minor disturbance usually all that’s left behind.
This year wasn’t that. Julius Peppers slipped into Green Bay and signed a deal with the quiet ease of a ghost making a sandwich in your kitchen. The ripple effects had the impact of a boulder falling into a tranquil lake. Peppers brings with him the kind of real expectation and excitement that only a career as disruptive as his can bring. That it was about as unexpected a signing as we could have forecasted adds another layer or two of anticipation to the whole season. We never thought we’d be here, watching Julius Peppers in Packers training camp.
If it sort of seems silly to be rehashing this, well, maybe it is. Part of cramming some immeasurable amount of time’s worth of energy into 17 weeks is that sometimes you’ll lose track of what you expected in the first place. Every season takes on a life of its own. And in that evolution we forget about the innocent times. When we can let our minds wander thinking about the awesome possibilities.
The reality of the season is often harsh and always glaringly over-the-top. Reality is the good and the bad, the luck and the lack thereof, the bounces and the yellow flags that go your way, the ones that do not. We react to those, our emotions going where they go based on what we see. Before that first kickoff, all we’ve got are the possibilities. The unknowns. I don’t know if I ever miss those after they disappear with Week 1, probably because I stop thinking about them.
The point is that there might be a time this year when we’ll be talking about situations like Peppers on the Packers defense as if it has always been this normal thing. Like what he provides has always been an option. Like Casey Hayward wasn’t missing for most of last season. Like Jarrett Boykin was always on this level. Like this sort of offensive balance is a given.
Before the season starts is the best time to remember that these things weren’t always this way. That something like free agency, especially a Green Bay free agency, doesn’t promise anything and certainly doesn’t always deliver a player like Julius Peppers. That, on a longer scale, Ted Thompson or Mike McCarthy won’t always be around. That stability isn’t guaranteed. That football always promises injuries and detours on the path. It’s easier to take all of the knowns for granted when reality strikes, because reality always serves up the next most pressing thing to worry about.
You try remembering all that, and, of course, football happens, again and again. Every regular season is made of random movements and moments, all generating eventually into a play, game, a season. Little outcomes and one-on-one wins or losses all over the field building to a resolution then a bigger, final conclusion.
It’s just crazy – and again, this might be obvious, but when do we really think about these things during the season? – if you think about all the twitches and instant decisions that are made, the heavy consequences they can carry, only some of those we truly understand at the time.
John Kuhn’s memory and muscle memory moves him to a point he so often has been – coming across the pocket to cut a defender in front of Aaron Rodgers, who slips outside and spots an open receiver down the field, also a fairly reliable action sequence of the recent past – and from it springs the hope of another playoff run. Disappointment beating down harder on the roof when it sputters shortly thereafter. Expectations again rising back to their overflowing levels after a few weeks of picking at 2013’s corpse.
Is it all because of a block? Probably not. But nothing goes that way again if Peppers sacks Rodgers on that play. Is Peppers here now? And who isn’t anymore?
If Morgan Burnett gets a finger or two on a pass he probably very often gets a finger or two on against San Francisco, do the entire NFC playoffs change? What if Micah Hyde can pull in that interception?
None of it matters anymore, really, for the purposes of whatever 2014 is bringing. Peppers is here now for a mixed bag of reasons veteran players decide to go anywhere. Burnett has new friends in the secondary, and Hyde is the future of flexibility in the defensive backfield. Rodgers is healthy again, leading an offense with potential saturating the depth chart.
And expectations never waver here anyway, not under Thompson and McCarthy, not with Rodgers. Change can often keep our hopes up high – where they’d be anyway – but it helps when the future looks as good as it does in our heads. There’s room for some shifting built into the foundation. Being on that solid ground keeps it possible.
That kind of hope comes from real things happening before kickoff. It comes from a lot of places. From families and history, expectations you’re born into, maybe trying to cash in on decades-long perseverance as a fan. Mostly, though, it just comes from it being time to start this all again. Like there was ever another option but waiting for next time.
Waiting and hoping are partners on the same trip to the regular season, one getting stronger as the other fades away. It starts over from the same spot. And somewhere, between nothing and reality, we realize that for all the guessing and thinking and talking of the offseason, for the comforts and ease in thinking about the best possibilities, the only thing left to ever do is watch. Watch as the flawed, too-big, incredible game we’re hopelessly connected to takes over again.
Eventually you can feel the change in Green Bay. Time goes from off to on, measured in Weeks with a capital W, and not months. We are as ready as we always are.