Last night the NFL served a starved fan base its first spoonful of football in 2020, and after an awkward opening, it was delicious.
In a year of conflict and oddities, our nation double-teamed by a pandemic and political unrest, the NFL served up several versions of patriotism, from the national anthem to an alternative song to players sitting in locker rooms for both. The NFL figures it can wade into these deep political waters without the risk it invites during a normal year. So you can either see the opening ceremonies as a well-intentioned attempt at smoothing America's ruffed fur, or you can see it as the NFL swerving outside its lane with a ham-handed PSA about unity.
But once the ball was snapped, and we saw the mastery of Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs' nuclear offense, we quickly recalled why we love this game so much.
After kickoff, the only sideshow was a running comedy about the fogging windshield wrapped around Andy Reid's face. We saw DeShaun Watson, the second-richest man in the NFL (behind Mahomes), struggle for much of the game.
Watson either buckled under the weight of his new epic contract, or missed his All-Pro target DeAndre Hopkins, or the Chiefs defense simply kept him in check.
– but whatever it was, even after two garbage-time touchdowns made the score more respectable, the outgunned Houston Texans lost at Arrowhead Stadium, 34.20.
Meanwhile, the Chiefs, at least for one night, reminded us why they won the most recent Super Bowl, and why they are the talk and chalk to return this year. And unlike the NBA and MLB, which has nothing but cardboard fans and piped-in applause, the Chiefs played before a decent freckling of fans - the official number was 15.895, or 21 percent of capacity, but they were plentiful and loud enough to give the game a pro football motif.
And, of course, the Chiefs took care of the rest. If the defending champs weren't already loaded with the best quarterback (Mahomes), the best tight end (Travis Kelce), and the fastest wideout (Tyreek Hill) in the sport, they've added absurdly gifted rookie running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire. Mahomes is so singularly sublime he can have an average game by his standards - completing 24 passes for just 211 yards - and still toss three touchdowns against zero picks, and finish with a beefy 123.3 passer rating. And, his new wingman can rush for 138 yards (on 5.5 yards per carry) and a touchdown.
Some wonder what this opening NFL game portends for the league and the season. For the sports fan, the obsessed football devotee who can't get enough football six days a week and ten times on Sunday, you saw a fine performance from a fine team, and a very reasonable facsimile of what you watched last year, the year before, and the decade before.
Ratings are sagging across the sports world. The first round of the NBA playoffs were down 27 percent from a year ago and 40 percent from two years ago, according to Nielsen, and nearly 40 percent of people in a Harris Poll said the political gestures are keeping their eyes away from the hardwood. After a monster rating for opening day between the Yanks and Nats, baseball viewership has dipped, though nothing close to NBA numbers. In fact, some say MLB is doing better than before in the key demographic, while the Daily News wrote in August that Yankees viewership on YES was down 10 percent.
The NFL is king for many reasons. Frankly, it's the best game in the world - an entirely subjective view, but one shared by millions and backed by stratospheric TV ratings - and it tends to avoid the sticky issues that can turn casual viewers to other sources of entertainment. This is not an attempt to judge or even debate the merits of any movement, but the truth is that most folks watch sports for the pure joy of artistic, athletic excellence. They know where to find their inflamed debate shows and the pseudo-journalistic faces who really are far from neutral reporters. We all know who and where they are, on both sides of the aisle, and most Americans would like to keep them there, not have ideology leaked onto the gridiron.
Likewise, yours truly is just an obtuse sportswriter who delights in the sheer brilliance of a Patrick Mahomes pass, or a spinning move by DeShaun Watson, or an acrobatic catch and spastic dance by Travis Kelce. You don't need this blowhard to lecture you on cultural or political movements. This site is here because you love sports. WFAN is still the biggest and the best because you love sports. Radio.com broadcasts sports talk because you can't get enough of it.
The NFL will be fine. It has decades of tiptoeing through cultural and political landmines, going all the way back to the assassination of JFK. So we, the provincial sports fans, will be fine. It doesn't matter who gets elected in November, as long as Patrick Mahomes and DeShaun Watson don't get hurt.