Print and Go Back ESPN.com: NFL [Print without images]

Tuesday, September 6, 2011
A game day like no other

By Ross Tucker
ESPN.com

There's nothing like the opener. Not in the regular season, anyway. Whether it is the unbridled optimism that comes with the promise of a new beginning or just the excitement of finally getting started after a long offseason, the first game in the NFL is unique.

Sure, that same feeling permeates every locker room at each level of football from Pop Warner through college football. The difference is that at the lower levels, those same youthful, enthusiastic vibes are usually readily apparent on every single game day throughout the season whereas in the NFL that is simply not the case.

In the NFL, game day is more like a workday and is typically treated as such. There is not a tremendous amount of fanfare or excitement in the locker room. It is, simply put, time to take care of business.

But the first game isn't like that. The first game of an NFL season is the only game that feels like high school football all over again. Some of the players are downright giddy, while others have the type of butterflies that aren't as readily apparent in Weeks 2-17. It is not just the day of the game that is different, either. There is a palpable increase in the intensity of practice as the starters begin to take the lion's share of the reps after a week or so in which they really took a backseat to the backups as they prepared for the fourth and final preseason game. The roster is finally set, but the players at the bottom of the roster who make up the scout team recognize how fortunate they are to have those spots and know that they, too, need to keep their intensity up to stay on the team for the rest of the season.

Maybe the excitement stems from the fact that a new season is on the brink and the joy that all the players have of having secured a spot on the roster. Or it could be the reality that the real paychecks are finally on their way, as players get paid their entire salaries over the 17 weeks that make up the regular season.

The key factor, however, is the promise of a new beginning and a fresh start. No matter where we were picked to finish, I distinctly remember believing, as everyone else on the team seemed to, that the team had a chance to be really good and have a special season. Maybe that is just the pro athlete mentality and it is the same in all other pro sports; I don't know. Or the somewhat special recent NFL history of teams like the 2008 Cardinals and others seemingly coming out of nowhere to get to the Super Bowl. Some of those teams were not very talented, and several finished 9-7 or worse, yet we all truly believed that it could be our year.

At least heading into the opener.

From the inbox

Q: Isn't it reasonable to assume, now that the NFL has capped the amount of full contact practices, that a typical NFL season of the future will start "slower" in Sept. and Oct., but will conclude in Nov., Dec. and January with a higher level of play than we have ever seen before? Bill Walsh severely limited contact during practice, and that was always the trajectory his championship teams took.

Scott in Fresno, Calif.

A: That is certainly very possible, and I wrote a column recently detailing why I think we are headed toward the worst September any of us has ever seen. I must admit, however, that the preseason was not quite as sloppy as I thought it would be, and it remains to be seen whether September will be as bad as I thought it might be. It is very possible that players could be fresher and healthier later in the season than they typically are, and that could positively affect performance.

Q: This offseason the Houston Texans quietly improved their defense with some key additions of Johnathan Joseph, Danieal Manning, J.J. Watt and Brooks Reed. With an improved defense, is this the year the Texans take that next step and make the playoffs, or should we expect a similar season to last year with high-powered offense and no defense to help?

Sean in Longview, Wash.

A: I'm beginning to think, when looking at the complexion of the AFC South and what is going on with the Colts and the other teams in the division, that if the Texans aren't able to break through and win the division this year, they never will. Their additions that you noted look fantastic, but my biggest concern would be how quickly they are able to adapt to the 3-4 defense they will operate under new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. That ultimately will determine whether the Texans can finally get over the hump.

Q: What is your opinion of either Landry Jones or Matt Barkley ending up in a Colt uniform next year, and which would you like better in this situation?

Dom in Chesapeake, Va.

A: How about neither? First of all, the Colts recently gave Peyton Manning a contract that will pay him $23 million a year for the next three years, including $54.4 million guaranteed. He will be their quarterback for at least the next three years barring this injury being one that prevents him from playing football again, which I doubt. If your point is that the Colts need to think about life after Manning, I understand. But to me, that means using a midround pick to develop someone in the next two or three years or waiting two or three years and selecting a quarterback in Round 1 or 2 at that point.

Q: How many special team aces (not including K, P or LS) that don't contribute on offense or defense do teams really keep on their final roster? The Lions have KR/WR/RB Stefan Logan, WR Rashied Davis & SS John Wendling. I know special teams is VERY important, but don't you need special teamers that can also contribute regularly on offense or "D"? Especially when you only have 46 game day players. Does 3 specialists seem normal, above or below average for a team?

Steven in Brick, N.J.

A: The guys you are referring to are called "core" special-teamers because they are the best players a team has in all four phases of special teams: kickoff, kickoff return, punt and punt return. Because there are typically 12 to 25 of these plays a game, that becomes a very significant part of each contest in particular and the season as a whole. Outside of the 25-28 players who get a large number of snaps on offense or defense, the remaining players do very little outside of special teams unless a starter gets injured. The thought process is that having guys who make a real impact on those 12-25 special-teams plays is much more important than having perhaps a better player ready to come on the field in the event of an injury, which might or might not happen.

Ross Tucker, who played on the offensive line for five teams in a seven-year NFL career, writes regularly for ESPN.com.