With all the focus on Brady vs. the NFL, we’ve lost sight of Winston vs. Mariota—a historic matchup between the rookie quarterbacks  

By Don Banks
September 10, 2015

The historic showdown has been looming for months, but now that it’s upon us, it feels almost like an afterthought. In simpler times, Jameis Winston versus Marcus Mariota—the NFL’s first ever season-opening matchup of rookie quarterbacks who went No. 1 and 2 in the draft—would be the story of the league’s kickoff weekend. It would be the kind of showcase event that reminded us why we’re hooked on this game, representing the hope that springs eternal with each new football season.


The NFL once revolved around the fundamental tenet that a pair of 2-14 teams from a year ago could draft a quarterback and dream of remaking themselves into winners overnight, turning “worst to first” into a catchphrase that perfectly summed up a league that preached and thrived on the gospel of parity.


But who has the time to focus on such quaint storylines these days? There are so many more weighty “integrity of the game’’ issues that command our attention, enough to almost continually overshadow the actual games.


After the events of the past two weeks, with court rulings and investigative stories carrying the day, the NFL’s pithy mantra of “Back to Football’’ sounds more like a pie-in-the-sky pipedream than reality. We’d love to get back to football, but we’re not exactly sure where we can find it about now. You have to fight your way past the mind-numbing legal war that is Tom Brady v. the NFL, absorb the endless journalistic examinations of possible Patriots’ misdeeds, stay current on the big-money relocation shell game that rages in St. Louis, San Diego and Oakland, and try to keep track of the 40 or so player, coach and club executive suspensions that dot the league’s landscape.

Winston versus Mariota? Oh, yeah. Let us know how that one turns out.

Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota. (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)


Add up all the off-field drama that currently dominates the discussion, and you could easily make the case that the NFL is primed for its worst start to a season since . . . last year. And therein lies the problem. The league’s new “normal” is a barrage of issues, crises and headlines that bury too much of why we care about football in the first place. Outside of the Tampa Bay and Tennessee markets, Winston versus Mariota has been avalanched by the never-ending Deflategate story and its various tentacles. And that’s a demoralizing and damaging loss for the league before the games even begin.


The NFL, of course, deserves plenty blame for allowing this overblown saga to drag on for seven months and bleed into the new season. But that’s what happens when you give “independent’’ investigator Ted Wells carte blanche to keep the meter running on his billable hours-mobile. Whereas Roger Goodell somehow found it possible to both rule on the Patriots’ Spygate punishment and order the evidence destroyed within four days in September 2007—four days!!!—eight years later, the league needed months and months of more due diligence in this case. And this story ain’t over yet, folks.

The focus is long overdue to shift back to the field, and fans must be given what they bargained for in a relationship that has grown rather one-sided. If Goodell really cares about the integrity of the game as much as he constantly professes, he’ll start realizing that he runs a league that has consistently managed to step on its own product, clumsily drawing attention away from the games themselves. Careful, Mr. Commissioner. Lofty ideals or not, it has been proven that you can destroy a village in an attempt to save it.


Come to think of it, Goodell is understandably staying away from Foxboro on Thursday night, but he didn’t even get his alternate Week 1 travel plans right. He opted for Packers-Bears in Chicago rather than the glamor game that features two of the league’s fresh young faces squaring off in Tampa. Another opportunity missed by the league office.


In the 24/7 media climate, it’s sexier and no doubt more profitable to give Deflategate saturation coverage, blanketing every aspect of the story with a sense of importance and drama previously reserved for the Army-McCarthy hearings. But after seven months of unending focus on the Patriots drama, let’s not miss the unique moment in time that is finally at hand: Winston and Mariota launching their NFL careers in a head-to-head encounter is only going to happen once. Where’s the weeklong buildup for a quarterback matchup that has no precedent? Let’s inflate that angle for a change. Because I think after Sunday, when the Heisman Trophy winner picked No. 2 outshines the Heisman Trophy winner who went first overall in a Tennessee upset victory, a bit of Mariota-mania might well be in store.


But for now, as it was last September, when the Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson firestorms dominated the league’s attention and the media’s coverage for weeks and weeks, the games almost feel secondary at the dawn of the 2015 season. And the worst part is, we’ve all started to get accustomed to that sorry state of affairs.


Back to football? Now there’s an idea, NFL.

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