The NFL season usually arrives with a bang; fireworks ablaze, 32 teams for whom the sky is the limit and 16 high-octane games crammed into a weekend to kick things off.
But America in 2017 is different, and the opening weekend of the season can’t even claim to have a full slate of games, with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ short trip to Miami postponed for ten weeks due to the impending landfall of the terrifying Hurricane Irma.
In Houston, where Texans defensive end and talisman J.J. Watt has led the fundraising charge and brought in over $20m to help his community so devastated by tropical storm Harvey, there will be football. But it’s sure to be a chastening, emotional occasion at NRG Stadium as the clean-up in Texas and south-east Louisiana begins in earnest.
Indeed, football is taking something of a back seat as the season rolls back into view, and as welcome as the NFL’s return is, there are bigger things at play here. Colin Kaepernick is an average quarterback but he’s a quarterback who is still unemployed – and anyone who tells you it is for any other reason than his protests against inequality and racial oppression is a liar.
The Baltimore Ravens came closest to bringing him back into the league. He continues to be better than their starting QB for the season opener and the coaching staff wanted to sign him. But gutless owner Steve Bisciotti decided it was necessary to “speak to fans and sponsors” before making the decision, something he didn’t do while standing by former running-back Ray Rice, who knocked out his girlfriend with one punch, or linebacker Ray Lewis, who stood trial for murder while a Raven.
Protesting the state of 2017 America will cost Kaepernick millions of dollars but he continues to fight his fight and donate to causes that need it. Fortunately for him, high-profile players who haven’t been blackballed by the league have grown louder and this could be one of the most politically-charged seasons of any sport in the 21st century.
Colin Kaepernick remains unemployed (Getty)
The voices are getting louder and, in a league where 70 per cent of the players are black but most of the owners and fans are white, something will eventually give. J.J. Watt’s incredible work in Houston shows why athletes shouldn’t ‘stick to sports’ as they’re so often told. Kaepernick is on the right side of history but, for now, the wrong side of the NFL sidelines.
These are peculiar and worrying times where exercising a constitutional right causes more problems than, for example, domestic violence. The league’s issue with DV is no secret and, indeed, reigning rookie of the year Ezekiel Elliott – the face of the league’s most popular team, the Dallas Cowboys – will miss six games for a violent incident involving his ex-girlfriend.
Elliott contends the charges and his season begins with the prospect of a lawsuit against the league he plays in which, fresh off the ‘deflategate’ controversy that saw Tom Brady begin last season suspended, shines further scrutiny on Roger Goodell as NFL commissioner.
Brady had the last laugh, of course, receiving the Vince Lombardi trophy from Goodell in Houston in February after the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history. They’re favourites to repeat that triumph but the constructed parity of the NFL, achieved through the draft system, should mean that any of 32 teams can win.
Tom Brady’s Patriots are expected to retain their Super Bowl title (Getty)
Yet this season you can’t even say that this is true, with two of the Pats’ division rivals, the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets, having completely given up on the season before it has even begun. The Bills’ decision to trade away all their talent for future draft picks came late but still appears better-planned than the hapless Jets, who may have the worst NFL roster in recent memory.
Both of these teams have clearly decided that it’s worth waiting for Tom Brady’s retirement before even attempting to win again but the ageless MVP continues to defy Father Time and Mother Nature.
The Patriots are arguably even stronger than last season but they will face competition in the AFC from the revitalized Pittsburgh Steelers who, on their day, can claim to have the most ferocious offense in the league.
The Tennessee Titans are a trendy pick to surge from the south, while the western division of the AFC should be one of the best in football. The Chargers are no longer in San Diego but Los Angeles, yet the move north hasn’t shaken the injury bug that destroyed them last season. If they can hold it off as the weeks go on then they’re the playoff team Philip Rivers has always deserved.
Derrick Henry in action for the Tennessee Titans last season (Getty)
In the NFC it’s far more wide open and it could be argued that five of the six best teams in the NFL come from this conference. Atlanta won it last year but the Seattle Seahawks, probably in the last year of the Legion of Boom era, are favourites to take their title back. Carolina and Tampa Bay will push Atlanta hard in the south and the latter should be very fun to watch.
The north will send the Green Bay Packers to the playoffs but Aaron Rodgers’ career is beginning to trend towards disappointing, despite being the best quarterback of the last decade. His team need to play up to his standards and the Minnesota Vikings are nipping at their heels in that division. In the east we’ll see Dallas regress and the New York Giants have one last hurrah in the Eli Manning era while the Eagles look to progress under second-year Carson Wentz.
And we’ve not even discussed the Cleveland Browns, who might just be the most interesting team in the NFL, or the Oakland Raiders, who were a Super Bowl contender until Derek Carr’s injury late last season.
Between the fireworks in Foxborough on opening night and the shower of confetti at the Super Bowl next February, the NFL will be the focus of America. For a variety of reasons, we just don’t know if that will be because of the football.