The joy of having football again
You could hear the difference. After months of fake crowd noise, first in Korean baseball, then the major leagues (to say nothing of sparsely attended Group of Five match-ups and the deathly silence of the BYU-Navy game), there was no mistaking the sound of 17,000 very real enthusiastic fans at Arrowhead Stadium on Thursday night during the NFL season opener between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Houston Texans. If only it had been 70,000.
Despite the best efforts of the NBC production staff, who seem to be laboring under the impression that a single living person cares about the league's attempts at security theater, I and millions of other Americans were able to forget about the last half year and enjoy a football game.
I would be lying if I said that this was one for the ages. It was a beatdown, like so many others the Chiefs have inflicted over the last two years. After scoring a touchdown on their second drive, the Houston offense was shut out until garbage time while Patrick Mahomes and the boys proceeded to score 31 unanswered points. By the middle of the second quarter the outcome was not seriously in doubt.
Most of the fun came instead from watching Andy Reid's brilliant offense evolve in front of our eyes: not just the usual gimmickry with motions and pitches to tight ends and receivers but true old-fashioned option plays, a (no doubt temporary) shift away from the deep passing game in favor of short completions, a fullback dive that would make Bo Schembechler proud, and, astonishingly, an almost exact 1:1 ratio between running and passing plays. Clyde Edwards-Helaire, the rookie running back out of LSU, rushed for 138 yards on 25 carries. (On the other side of the ball, his fellow rookie L'Jarius Sneed, a fourth-round pick from Louisiana Tech, looked like an absolute steal playing corner.) Reid and his staff are wizards.
Then there was Mahomes. The completion to Travis Kelce, who was surrounded by no fewer than four Texans, for his first of four touchdowns was the sort of thing that should long have stopped seeming amazing long ago, but somehow it never does. Mahomes is just as exhilarating in his third year as a starter as he was during that Monday night game against the Broncos in 2018 when his left-handed pass to Tyreek Hill — a first-down completion made with Von Miller wrapped around his lower body — convinced me and millions of others that the the former Texas Tech system quarterback was the most talented football player of his generation.
It was also nice to see the referees treat football as something other than a flag-throwing contest. Holds, a blatant facemask, and even one painfully obvious false start went unpenalized. Two interesting exceptions were pass interference calls that involved the overturning of what would have been a pair of endzone interceptions for Mahomes, who is already beginning to receive Tom Brady-like deference from officials. Clearly the league has been doing its market research.
Or has it? I was somewhat surprised by the booing during the moment of silence that preceded the game. These arm-locking ceremonies are about as likely to bring racial justice to the United States as I am to replace Mahomes as the Chiefs' signal caller. But sooner or later the "respect the flag" crowd is going to have to make up its mind about what — if anything — is an acceptable form of protest. It would be hard to imagine anything more innocuous than what we saw on Thursday night.
This is the part where I should say something about masks. Baseball has prepared me for the absurdity of watching sentient adults pretend that there is any public health benefit in allowing these moisture-soaked coverings to come on and off and on and off and on and off again, as if the coronavirus agreed to take a timeout whenever a coach needs to shout at a referee. If these Golden Bough-like rituals are the temporary price of having football again, I am willing to see them observed. Besides: Watching Reid attempt to squint through his glasses and the double-pane riot visor with which he was outfitted in order to see his play sheet was hilarious. (By the end of the fourth quarter, he seemed to have given up and lifted the shield anyway.)
I have a serious sinus infection. My wife's right foot is in a cast boot. And Thursday night was the most fun we have had since March.
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