Opening Night, or, Hope Springs Eternal

It’s kind of crazy to look back now and think that 20 teams passed up on Randy Moss in the 1998 NFL Draft before the Vikings made him their first pick.

Sure, he was not without a rap sheet in college, but talent usually wins out in the minds of executives, general managers and coaches who crave a winner. You can always mold a personality and change perceptions, but you can’t teach talent; or so the thinking goes.

For a while there, talent did win over everything in Minnesota.

Moss’s first game with the Vikings: four catches for 95 yards and two touchdowns, including this incredible catch where he tipped the ball to himself in full sprint. The 1998 team would set all time NFL offensive records, put up a 15-1 record, but fall short to the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship because their kicker — who was perfect on the year up to that point — missed a chip shot that would’ve clinched the game late.

I bring this all up because the arrival of Randy Moss in Minnesota is a good representation of the optimism that accompanies every team at the start of each season.

On the other hand, the fact that their season was cut short because of a missed kick shows just how precarious it can all be; the hope that your team can go on that magical run. It exists, but in a shrinking window.

Whether it’s the arrival of a new quarterback, the influx of new management and coaching staff, or simply a better strength of schedule; it’s a long checklist of reasons to think your team could end up playing in January.

Things change so much within the four months of the regular season.

Strong starts followed by a slow fade to the finish line; case in point, your co-leaders of the AFC East after Week 9 last year: Jets, Patriots and Bills at 5-3.

Regular season dominance all erased with one disappointing playoff performance; just ask the Packers last year, the Patriots before that, or the Colts all those years before and after their only Super Bowl with Peyton Manning.

Or inconsistency followed by a month long streak that ends with a Super Bowl win; No one even considered the New York Giants to be anywhere near close to competing for a Super Bowl in Week 17 of last season. At that point, they were just a .500 team needing a win just to guarantee themselves a spot in the tournament. A month later, they were champions.

Everywhere you look, there’s reason for hope. And that hope is legitimate. If only because anything not only can happen, but it actually does.

There’s Peyton Manning in Denver, who have already been tagged as a potential Super Bowl participant in some circles. Manning’s old team in Indianapolis is counting on their rookie phenom to start another dominant era, while everyone in Washington hopes Robert Griffin III is the answer to a decade long question at quarterback.

All around the league, teams have their own reasons for believing that it is them that will end up in New Orleans competing for the Super Bowl.

And even Randy Moss, 35 years old and a year removed from football, is part of this ring of optimism. If it all pans out, he might just be the missing piece in San Francisco, who already have a dominant defense that is championship caliber. Leaps of faiths, and turning maybe’s into truth, it’s all part of what we all hold onto as the season starts.

Success will fall unexpectedly into the laps of certain teams, while failure may surprise many just the same. It’s the process of getting to those endpoints that will make these next four months, and really every single season of the NFL, well worth watching.

You can draw up the storylines however you like, but new narratives will emerge starting tonight.

I’d be remissed if I didn’t set aside my excitement for just a second to acknowledge the fact that there are problems within the sport that needs fixing: from the temporary issue of the replacement refs to the lingering long-term effects of concussions.

The head issue will continue, but I take solace in the fact that there are people who are confronting it and making us understand it better, which will eventually take us to a better place.

And when that ball is placed for kick-off tonight, for just an hour or three, it’ll be great for football to just be back again.

Let’s kick this thing off.

photo via SI Vault

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