Starting this Wednesday and continuing every Wednesday up to the Super Bowl, Brian Billick will write a weekly column looking in depth at different aspects of the modern NFL, and discussing experiences and insights he gained while coaching and broadcasting. Make ‘Wednesdays with Billick’ part of your weekly reading.
When the Baltimore Ravens began the 2001 season as the NFL’s defending champions, we started the new campaign with … just another home game — a 1 p.m. ET kickoff on Sunday, Sept. 9, 2001, against the Chicago Bears.
No national TV.
No prime time.
The only thing that happened out of the ordinary is the team raised its world championship flag before the kickoff. Then we went out and played football. We beat a very good Bears team 17-6. It was a terrific game and a great matchup — both teams would go to the playoffs that year — but only the people in Baltimore and Chicago saw it.
A lot has changed in 11 seasons. When the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys kick off the 2012 season Wednesday, they’ll do so four days ahead of the rest of the league in a swirl of glitz and pageantry, in front of a prime-time national television audience.
All the trappings surrounding the season’s first game are part of the new, high-profile reality of the modern NFL. The league inaugurated the Kickoff Game concept (opening the season on the Thursday night after Labor Day) in 2002, and settled on its present incarnation — the defending Super Bowl champions playing at home —in 2004. This year, of course, the game is a night earlier, so as not to conflict with President Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention on Thursday.
Marquee games to open the NFL season are even older than I am — the two-time defending NFL champion Philadelphia Eagles opened at home against the four-time All-America Conference champion Cleveland Browns, in a night game that marked the Browns’ NFL debut way back in 1950.
But the addition of the Super Bowl champions hosting the Kickoff Game adds a couple of key variables to the equation. One of the defining characteristics of the NFL is the premium placed on the concept of competitive balance. Back in the 1950s, when commissioner Bert Bell regularly composed the schedule at his dining room table, he liked to start the season by scheduling the previous year’s better teams against one another during the first few weeks. His reasoning was that the tougher starts for the strong teams — and easier starts for the weaker teams — would help extend the races in each conference.
The NFL schedule is much more complicated today, but there’s still an aspect of it that hews to Bell’s original vision. Just take a look at some of the other opening-weekend matchups: San Francisco at Green Bay, Pittsburgh at Denver, Cincinnati at Baltimore. (Of course, since the ’70s, there have been factors built into the schedule to not merely front-load but actually increase the frequency of strong vs. strong and weak vs. weak matchups. The six division games are set, as are the rotating games against other divisions both within and outside a team’s conference. But the last two games of each team’s schedule are determined by slotted positioning — last year’s first-place teams play other first-place teams in their conference, and fourth-place teams play other fourth-place teams.)
In that context, the Kickoff Game is in some ways consistent with the push for competitive balance (forcing the Super Bowl champion to open against a tough opponent), but in other ways more forgiving (the defending champs always open at home, and then get a long week to rest before the second game).
Since the present system began with the Patriots hosting the Colts in 2004, the defending Super Bowl champs have yet to lose a Kickoff Game, and those teams have gone on to win their second game of the season four of the past five years, with only Pittsburgh, in 2009, tripping up after the long rest before Week 2.
For the road teams in the Kickoff Game, it has been a sobering story, often a dark portent of a long season ahead. The Saints, coming off their storybook 2006 season, were torched by Indianapolis in 2007, en route to an 0-4 start. In 2010, Brett Favre’s second season in Minnesota, the Vikings suffered a hard-fought opening loss at defending champion New Orleans, en route to an 0-2 start and a 6-10 record. In fact, the road team in the Kickoff Game has begun the year 0-2 five of the past seven seasons.
So Wednesday, both teams will be fighting history. While the Cowboys obviously will be gunning for an early win on the road against the defending champions, you can also imagine that Jason Garret is just as concerned with salvaging a win when the Cowboys travel to Seattle (another tough place to win on the road) for their second game 11 days from now, so that Dallas can come out of the first pair of games standing at least 1-1.
New York’s road is, in many ways, even tougher. Though the Giants get to revel in their stature as champions before kickoff Wednesday, they’re also aware of the simple truth that no one has repeated as NFL champion in eight seasons. There are numerous obvious reasons for this: the pressure of trying to repeat, the reality that every team you play is giving you its very best shot, and the challenge of keeping a championship team together in the free-agency era all weigh heavily. But the defending champions’ schedule doesn’t help either. When the Ravens marched to their Super Bowl win in 2000, we played every game on Sunday, and 12 of our 16 regular-season games at 1 p.m. ET. Football teams are creatures of habit, and it’s easier to feel like you’re gaining momentum if you go into each week with a similar schedule.
The Giants won’t enjoy that advantage this season; they play five night games, twice on Monday, once on Wednesday, and once on Thursday, and they never get more than two games in a row at home. Take a look at their first four games: They’ll play in the opener, play another game in 11 days (at home, again, against Tampa Bay), then play their third game just four nights later (at Carolina), before going on the road 10 days later to play at Philadelphia. In a real sense, they won’t have a routine during the first month of the season.
But they’re a veteran team with a savvy coach, and everybody in the NFL has to deal with distractions. Champions just have to deal with a few more.