Thank heavens, football is back.
The Giants closed out last season's improbable run with another Super Bowl championship, making this year's opener a celebration of 2011 that coincides with the beginning of a campaign to defend their crown.
For the Cowboys, the season opener means a chance to finally put the nightmare of last year behind them. The Cowboys had a chance to make the playoffs—to win the NFC East—with a victory over the Giants in the regular-season finale. Instead, Dallas left MetLife Stadium in dismay after one of the most miserable and demoralizing losses in recent memory.
It may be 213 days since the NFL (and the Giants) took a meaningful snap, but the Cowboys have waited a whole lot longer. Two hundred forty-eight days must feel like an eternity for Dallas.
When your team misses the playoffs at the hands of a bitter division rival and the NFL scheduling overlords decide to start the following season at the scene of the crime, those extra 35 days off surely seem like forever.
It probably feels like forever for a lot of teams, as 20 different NFL franchises haven't played a full-squad, competitive game in over 35 weeks. Even the teams that made the playoffs have been off for more than seven months. It's finally time for everyone to get back to football.
"Back to Football" is the slogan you see a lot on NFL promotional materials. The 2012 season will be the third or fourth year the NFL has used the slogan, and each year, it seems to take on a totally different meaning.
In advance of the 2010 campaign, I was invited up to the NFL offices in New York City, where marketing executives explained their exciting Back to Football campaign. The original spots tugged on the nostalgia of going back to school and how kids hate the time of year when summer ends and responsibility begins. Parents love the fall because the kids get out of our hair all day. That and, of course, football, which gives parents and kids something to look forward to on the weekends (and now, every Thursday and the occasional Wednesday).
You may have to go back to school or work or life, but at least you get football back every week, too.
The original Back to Football campaign was a real success for the NFL, playing on all the right notes for a league that really didn't need to win over any more fans with catchy slogans. The NFL was a juggernaut, promotional campaigns notwithstanding.
Things changed before the 2011 season. The offseason was filled with collective bargaining and union declassification and litigation and everything you can think of other than football. We just wanted football back.
It didn't matter which side won the lockout, so long as we got our game back. One could certainly make the case that both the players and the owners won the lockout, splitting a pie so big that nobody really knows what to do with all of the pieces.
Last year, the Back to Football mantra was a rallying cry from the league to put the lockout behind them. They were back, damn it—even if they were never really gone.
See, the NFL and NFLPA played out their labor dispute so publicly that they were able to quell any potential acrimony from "millionaires fighting with billionaires over our money" in favor of fans high-fiving that we thankfully didn't miss any regular-season games. Football was back before it was ever gone, but the NFL's catchphrase still took on a whole new meaning.
Back to Football. Phew.
This season, the slogan takes on yet another meaning. Perhaps in contrast to the never-ending news cycle of last year's offseason, it feels like this offseason has taken forever to end. Back to Football sure feels like the slogan is being used as it was originally intended—we are finally back to competitive football after a long, football-deficient offseason.
Having said that, this year's break did not come without its own kind of tumult. The NFL is still embroiled in a heated negotiation with the referees union, leaving replacement officials slated for the opening weekend's games. And that whole "Bountygate" thing held a bit of a black cloud over the league for much of the offseason, too.
The New Orleans Saints bounty scandal left the NFL with a rather huge black eye this year—"I wonder how much a black eye would pay," he wrote in a cheap and easy joke —making the Back to Football marketing campaign somehow even more important to drive home. The NFL cannot be seen as a league of barbarians where players and coaches reward each other for stepping outside the rules in an attempt to injure other players. The game is played on a field, not in a ring or an octagon, after all.
The NFL, as a governing body, needed to distance itself as much as possible from the unethical concept of rewarding players who hurt the other team to gain competitive advantage.
The NFL needed to get back to football, not whatever the bounty program represents. The league needs us to believe they are above that nonsense; that we are above that nonsense. Back to Football is actually, finally about getting back to football.
It is quite amazing how much staying power such a generic marketing slogan has. Usually, sayings like Back to Football are one-hit wonders with a new buzzworthy phrase taking its place the following year. Back to Football as a tagline, though, managed to change, in and of itself, based on the context of each offseason that preceded it. The NFL fell into a bit of accidental genius with one three-word phrase.
In a way, the Giants fell into a little accidental genius last year as well. Taking advantage of a weak division, the Giants made the playoffs with a 9-7 record after beating Dallas two of the last four weeks of the season. The Giants made the most of their postseason berth by beating Atlanta, Green Bay and San Francisco en route to toppling New England in the Super Bowl.
Eli Manning was one regular-season loss away from entering this year as the NFC's version of Mark Sanchez—can he get it done enough for New York—and he ended the year as a two-time Super Bowl champion whom people (including me) are projecting for the Hall of Fame. It may not have been an accident, but the way the Giants ended the year was pure genius.
For the Cowboys…not so much. Tony Romo enters this season facing the same questions he faced the year before and the same questions Manning avoided with that Week 17 victory (and subsequent run through the playoffs): Is he good enough to win?
Is Romo good enough to lead the Cowboys back to the playoffs? Can Romo win a Super Bowl? Cowboys owner Jerry Jones spent the offseason talking about the Cowboys' window closing—a topic Romo wants no part of anymore—but was the window really ever open?
Romo took over the starting job in Dallas in 2006 and has one playoff win to his name. Dallas has won more than 10 games just once in the last four years. What window?
That is precisely why Romo wants to get back to football, too. The talk of Super Bowl windows and playoff failures will dissipate as we become more focused on each week of the long, grinding season.
For Romo, getting back to football is a safe haven from an offseason full of questions.
For Manning, getting back to football is a chance to reaffirm what his team accomplished last season.
For the NFL, getting back to football is as important as ever. Nobody could have imagined that Back to Football would possibly mean so much.