There is something wonderfully nutty about the beginning of the National Football League season — that outrageously hyped and often appallingly violent national, made-for-TV gladiatorial pastime — and this year, Baltimore is knee-deep in it. As defending Super Bowl champions (ah, to have a nickel for each time that phrase is used in this town), the Ravens play the Broncos to officially kick off the regular season Thursday night.
Naturally, the plot lines are thick and winding. For one, that the game isn't in Baltimore but the pre-game festivities are. Got that? As many as 75,000 fans are expected in the Inner Harbor for a Keith Urban concert sponsored by the NFL, and then what? They're going to stroll over to the Sports Authority Field at Mile High in Denver, a mere 1,700 miles away?
As defending Super Bowl champions (ka-ching) Baltimore should be hosting the game, of course, but fans will recall that such an arrangement couldn't be worked out because of a Baltimore Orioles home game. Imagine, we can shut down Baltimore for a race but can't inconvenience baseball fans for an event that will attract a bigger television audience than all the IndyCar races the city is ever going to host put together. Whether that's the fault of the Orioles or the notoriously arrogant National Football League we'll leave for others to judge. Let's just say Orioles owner Peter Angelos should be happy that all eyes this week are not on this snafu but on a giant banner of Joe Flacco.
Yes, you casual sports fans, you read that correctly. The big story of the week in Denver has been about how the NFL has hung a banner of the Super Bowl MVP that stretches several stories high outside Sports Authority Field. There's also one of that Broncos quarterback, what's-his-name, the older, brighter Manning brother with the neck pain, but that's hardly makes up for the breach of etiquette that the orange and blue nation is reading into the Flacco flag.
And speaking of the Ravens quarterback, remember how the team's march to the playoffs and Joe's near-flawless performance had definitively established him as an "elite" quarterback — and earned him a huge contract? Well, such respect must be fleeting because sportswriters aren't exactly predicting big things for him or the Ravens this season.
Here's but one example: NFL.com recently listed him as the league's 10th best quarterback, or what writer Gregg Rosenthal calls the "next level" behind the "best of the best" quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger. Ben Roethlisberger! So whatever elite status implies, it isn't much — more like second quartile status, perhaps. Joe is a gold American Express Card despite his top quarterback rating in the playoffs last season, and Mr. Roethlisberger is platinum because — oh, wait, he wasn't in the playoffs last year.
Meanwhile, the usual prognosticators — including the people this newspaper pays to write sports, not editorials — aren't exactly predicting back-to-back championships for the Ravens. Some don't even have them back in the playoffs, predicting they will be surpassed by the Cincinnati "Hard Knocks" Bengals. While we have to admit that repeats have become uncommon in the NFL (the last to pull that off was the New England Patriots in 2005) and the Ravens have undergone considerable personnel changes, we aren't willing to dismiss them so easily.
Call us hopeless homers, but we like our chances with any team that has an elite quarterback in his prime, the 2011 defensive player of the year who is actually healthy, a top-flight coaching staff and a personnel man with the track record of an Ozzie Newsome. Denver will be a good test to see whether the team has reloaded sufficiently to offset the loss of so many players from last year's squad. The Broncos, meanwhile, will be anxious to avenge their 38-35 overtime loss in the playoffs, which also took place at Sports Authority Field.
Are we forgetting anything? Oh, there's the matter of concussions and the $765 million the NFL recently agreed to pay former players who suffered head injuries. It's small change to a league that earns billions of dollars in revenue each year but is another sign that the game's future is uncertain — at least not if its players are to be spared chronic dementia and similar maladies. (Just don't expect "concussion" to be the buzzword of the day).
All in all, we're ready for some football, just not in Baltimore quite yet. After Keith Urban, the big game will just have to be viewed where professional football was always intended to be seen — in a bar, in the living room, or better yet, in the man-cave, on a flat screen with the action wedged between commercials for beer and car insurance. Welcome back, Ravens Nation.