Ah, pro football. A draught of cold elixir on a steamy day in early fall. A bracing eye-opener on later Sundays when the darkness under blanket beckons. Twenty-odd weeks of predicting and boasting, guessing and toasting.
But let's forget the glorious anticipation that infects fans like me at this time of year. Let's put it all in a cool perspective. Even if you hate holding penalties, in-the-grasp calls and prevent defenses, consider the alternatives.
Boredom: On Oct. 14, for example, part of the country will be subjected to the Dallas Cowboys visiting the half-empty, sweltering stadium of the Phoenix Cardinals. By that time, perhaps Tony Dorsett will have come out of retirement, rising Nixon-like as he has threatened. To match him, the Cards may bring back Charley Trippi; at least he worked for the salaries they still like to pay.
Sure, the result will be stupefyingly dull. But when the NFL seems to hit its nadir, don't forget the recent summer's alternative. You could be watching World Cup soccer, the remarkable event that proved once and for all that one billion fans around the world can be wrong.
Off-Field Wrangling: Yes, there will be a few drug suspensions, a lot of chamber of commerce rhetoric about expansion, a few good feuds. But it is highly unlikely that we will be subjected to an ongoing soap opera like the one involving the owner of the New York Yankees. I hesitate to mention the man's name here, because I know how reticent he is about headlines. I am inclined to be generous toward him, because he did buy a hopeless, derelict franchise and win titles with it before things went awry. He also gave baseball media, especially in New York, a chance to submit an instant nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize. As we conjure football, sources indicate that the New York Times editorial board is narrowing a short list for the greatest person of the century. A tough choice: Mikhail Gorbachev, Mother Theresa or Fay Vincent.
Draconian Rule: Speaking of commissioners, the NFL's Paul Tagliabue has already shortened games -- even if that does mean fewer plays for the gouged fans in the stands. By decreeing that, God forbid, point spreads will not be uttered on NFL-related shows, he also has squashed the first amendment like a grape. But his early posturings are harmless indeed compared with the terribly swift sword wielded by the mighty NCAA this summer. Okay, they couldn't quite catch Oklahoma or Illinois. They're still bargaining with Florida. But they required no time at all to deliver severe penalties to that brazen, power-mad basketball juggernaut in Division III in New Jersey. They have made the world safe from Upsala.
Now that we realize how lucky we are to have pro football back, let's get on with some thoughts for the season. At this early stage, I've tried to form some vague themes for each division. This may not produce the winners, but as Damon Runyon used to write, a story goes with them.
NFC East: A kinder, greater place. Randall Cunningham offered to take a pay cut if it would get some key holdouts into camp. This did not precipitate a lemming-like rush over the hills into the West Chester, Pa., training camp of the Eagles. But the idea was warming. Things will get even hotter if holdout Keith Jackson and injured Mike Quick regain their form. Randall will rebound and the Eagles will threaten the 49ers for the title. The Giants are a genuine contender, as are the Redskins. But how many old running backs will the Redskins try before they find another John Riggins?
NFC Central: This division is Kuwait. All are ready to fire and fall back. The Packers, in racing terms, will bounce backward off their big year. Detroit's chic run-and-shoot may get shot down. The Vikings had a summer retreat to get to like one another -- and management. It didn't take. The Bears have noble tradition -- and the age that goes with it. In desperation, I'll take the desperados drafted by Tampa Bay.
NFC West: Elvis does like football. Jerry Glanville has dressd his Falcons in black and determined to get non-achievers like Aundray Bruce to tackle someone. GM Ken Herock pulled off the steal of the decade by unloading Jeff George in the draft. Can the Falcons win? Better luck finding Elvis. After all, they have to play two games against the Rams, who are very good, and two more against the Niners, who are preternatural. The Falcons will be the most improved team in the league, and maybe have extra victories to show for it.
AFC East: Magnum Force. Rightly or wrongly, the Dolphins have borne the label of a finesse team. Not this time. Their first draft choice, offensive tackle Richmond Webb, won the respect of the Bears' Richard Dent in his first game. Second choice Keith Sims, according to a salivating Dan Marino, merely drove Dan Hampton back 10 yards on his first play. At last, the Dolphins are going forward. And their division is either running in place or going backward with Eric Dickerson. The slump is over for Shula.
AFC Central: I made Merrill Hoge and I can break him. But not this year. The Steelers' running back from Idaho is my cult hero: a scrambler, a mudder, one of those rare guys who manages to get his uniform dirty on a carpet. Pittsburgh will win this division. The Steelers are only one stud pass rusher away from being a Super Bowl candidate.
AFC West: Beware the chic pick. This year it is Kansas City. The Chiefs have a terrific defense, a strong running game and a barely adequate passing attack. But are they a MOTO, a Master of the Obvious? After all, for all their Super Bowl embarrassments, the Broncos can play. The Chargers are dangerous, if they can believe in Billy Joe Tolliver. And there are always those guys in the Silver and Black. But I'll cast a shaky vote for the Chiefs.
And a strong vote for getting on with the action. The season has been lengthened by a week. Curmudgeons will say this is just one more example of overkill for the benefit of television and other dark forces. My view is, if you like 16 weeks, you'll like 17 even more. Week 17 might be the one when you happen to be walking around lucky.
Pete Axthelm is an analyst for ESPN specializing in pro football.