In spite of its obvious flaws — the most dangerous of which involve the long-term health of its players — the NFL has clearly done a lot of things right in the past few decades to earn its lofty position on the American sports landscape.
Those running the league understood early on what would become an insatiable public appetite for off-the-field news, and the NFL capitalized by turning itself into a 12-month machine complete with free agency, draft coverage, mini-camps and — oh, yes — the games themselves (with fantasy football, the first fantasy sport to really take off, fueling the frenzy during fall Sundays).
The NFL clung early on to the mantra of “any given Sunday,” a rallying cry that remains perfect. It means any team has a chance — specifically in one game and generally in one season. The latter part of that is due to something inherent in football — not something that is really controlled, but rather something that is necessary because of the nature of the game: it is a short season, with teams playing just once a week, getting 16 tries to win while players recuperate in between from all the violence. Every game is magnified, and even if the margin between a win and a loss is razor-thin it still gets marked on the ledger the same way.
In a season like that, a team can’t help but have hope. Sure, there will be an elite handful of teams every year more confident than others and another handful of downtrodden teams likely playing for better futures instead of meaningful presents. But the vast majority of NFL teams fall somewhere in that squishy middle, probably deserving to finish somewhere between 7-9 and 9-7. Some will do just that. Others will have some agonizing losses and finish a couple wins below that benchmark. Others will make a few plays and suddenly find themselves at 10-6 or 11-5 and in the playoffs.
Those who get the breaks one year can convince themselves it will happen again the next year. Those who fall short can say, “If we only made a few more plays, we would have been a playoff team” as a way to talk themselves into better times ahead.
The point is: in a 16-game season, with games often determined by a handful of plays (sometimes the feet of specialists), luck doesn’t always even out. A mediocre team can look good. A good team can look bad. Not even close to everyone gets what they deserve.
Major League Baseball, on the other hand, either suffers or benefits from the distinct impression that luck eventually does even out during the regular season. Playing 162 games — roughly 10 times as many as they do in the NFL — tends to do that. It certainly appeared to happen to the Twins this season. Through even half the 162 games this year, Minnesota was riding the wave of good fortune. Their run differential suggested the Twins weren’t a very good team, but their record said they sure could make the playoffs. If this was the NFL and they had that kind of ledger, they probably would be in the postseason.
Instead, here they are on Aug. 1, waving the white flag after a rough 10 days that took them from contention to “wait until next year” faster than Byron Buxton goes from first to third.
They stayed interesting, at least, until Vikings training camp. That’s more than we might have hoped for when the season started.
The Vikings, for their part, have the look of one of those middle-of-the-pack NFL teams that should finish somewhere close to 8-8. Frankly, that’s what they’ve been the past three seasons to varying degrees.
The 2014 version finished 7-9 and got about what it deserved. The 2015 version jumped up to 11-5, buoyed by a five-game winning streak in which four of the wins were dictated by a handful of plays. The 2016 group might have thought it deserved more after four critical toss-up games between Nov. 6 and Dec. 1 resulted in excruciating losses. In the end, they were 8-8 — left to feel like they were oh-so-close to being 11-5 again, giving them confidence heading into 2017.
This year’s team certainly could go 11-5. Or it could go 5-11. In baseball, the difference between 110-50 (approximately) or 50-110 would be massive. In the NFL, where the luck doesn’t have to even out, the gap between 5-11 and 11-5 doesn’t have to be all that much.
Maybe the Vikings truly will be good this season. Short of that, they could settle for lucky and — unlike the Twins — wind up just fine.