PHILADELPHIA — This was supposed to be the NFL’s breather.
After an exhausting offseason, Thursday night’s 2018 season opener was a chance to shed the grime building up from months of tedious and unpopular rule alterations, policy discussions and the ever-present fear that politics were about to consume the landscape again.
The game was set up for entertainment: An Eagles team celebrating one of the biggest Super Bowl upsets of the last 25 years against Matt Ryan and Julio Jones. Prime-time placement amid a television landscape offering little outside of two brilliant women’s U.S. Open semifinal matches and the Antiques Roadshow. A horde of newly optimistic fantasy footballers and legal gamblers in the palm of the NFL’s hand, ready to watch for the first time in months.
And then, like it tends to do during the bad times, the skies opened up. A kickoff delayed almost an hour as thunder and lightning passing through the Philadelphia area bled into an atrocious first half. A befuddled Falcons offense folding at the goal line, and a puttering Eagles team led a quarterback who suddenly returned to earth. Sixteen penalties. No touchdowns in three combined red-zone trips. A team booed by their own fans, roughly 25 regular season minutes after dropping a World Championship banner.
Four minutes into the second half? A catch rule controversy. The first touchdown didn’t come until after 11 p.m. eastern time. More flags dotting the field like dying leaves. Had it not been for the eternal cheekiness of Eagles head coach Doug Pederson, calling the same quarterback reverse-throwback that Tom Brady dropped against Philadelphia in the Super Bowl, there may have been a revolt-by-apathy inside Lincoln Financial Field.
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And yet, an hour later, there the Falcons were, down by six with a chance to win it as time ran out. Atlanta had first-and-goal on the five-yard line with one second to go, and an illegal contact penalty draws them within one play of a miniature exorcism on the same goal line where their season ended a year earlier. In an empty backfield, Ryan stares down a phalanx of Eagles defenders all roaming around the goal line. Mohamed Sanu runs the pick route that would allow Jones to body up Ronald Darby. The ball lands in the grasp of the game’s best receiver and for a millisecond, we’re left wondering if Jones will land in bounds.
On Thursday night, there was so much brilliance baked into the grind. Watch Kamu Grugier-Hill hold after two monster hits to stonewall Devonta Freeman on an early fourth-and-goal to deny the Falcons of any points in their first red-zone trip. Watch Darren Sproles continue to defy physics and gravity and old age. Watch the way both Pederson and Falcons offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian slowly tipped their hands at the type of innovations the league will be buzzing about this offseason.
Still, it was impossible to appreciate all that amid the notion that the preseason was still lingering; that whatever offseason these teams had is not enough to dismiss the notion that this was still a dress rehearsal, warts and all.
An admission: There is almost no way the game can satisfy us now, and we should admit that to ourselves. The league has gotten too good. Too big. Too fast. Too incredible. It feels maxed out. Our need for high-quality football is too high, and without a new drug, it will always feel a little like something that was better back then, when we were just a little bit younger.
After watching Thursday’s opener, no one can blame professional wrestling for scripting all the highwire jumps and heel turns. There is much less stress involved in debuting a product where everything is choreographed. There is no need for a breather.
The NFL managed to fend off the idea that this could be The Bad Year for one more week. Even in the ugliest moments, there is still a beauty that can’t be replicated. It won't be enough to sustain them all season, but sometimes, there are moments that can bring us back.