It’s back-to-school time across America for many, which, in the calendar, the sports fan is accustomed to, lines up with the return of football.
One of the largest metaphorical battlefields of public school is the lunchroom cafeteria.
Who you sit with, what you’re doing, and what you’re eating gives many an insight into who you are, fair or not, from afar.
So, in the same way, that we make snap judgments in that particular environment, let’s evaluate who is sitting at what table doing what across the landscape of the NFL ahead of this year.
The Senior Jocks // Chiefs, Buccaneers, Ravens, Bills
The guys with the lettermen jackets walk around, heads held high, knowing they rule the palace of kids 18 and under every Friday night. That’s how these teams view themselves. You have the reigning champion Bucs, who have the greatest quarterback to play the game coming off a Super Bowl with the same roster, and the Chiefs with Mahomes, the league’s future with back-to-back AFC Titles.
Two teams look confident about themselves enough to believe they can leap this year: the Bills and the Ravens. Josh Allen took his play to an MVP-caliber level last season as they were SO close to making the Super Bowl, and he’s back looking to have more of the same success with a similar roster in Buffalo.
Meanwhile, even though the Ravens and Lamar Jackson’s offense have seemingly been “figured out” in the postseason every year after incredible regular seasons, Lamar at his peak is one-of-one, and the Ravens find a way to win every year and are still one of the most respected organizations.
Overly // Involved Students Studying- 49ers, Rams, Browns, Chargers
As the teachers peruse the lunchroom, seeing the table of often-spectacled youth with calculators, books, and pencils in hand next to their cartons of chocolate milk, they often think, “wow- these kids are the future,” due to the work ethic and appearance looking unbelievably bright at such a young age.
All of these teams have that glamorous optimism. The 49ers, Rams, Browns, and Chargers all seem to be following a similar formula that started with the Rams hiring the young, analytics-based nerd, stud of a coach seen as the future, Sean McVay. All are baby coaches around age 40 that have significantly made an impact wherever they go. This will be Staley’s first year as a coach with the Chargers, but he was the defensive coordinator of the Rams when they were ranked first and appears to be a McVay disciple.
On top of the next generation of coaches, all of these teams’ personnel have so much reason for optimism, be it the Rams now with Matthew Stafford and Aaron Donald looking to contend, the rookie and sophomore quarterbacks Trey Lance and Justin Herbert looking promising on the Niners and Chargers, or Baker Mayfield and the Browns coming off of winning their first playoff game since 1994 under Kevin Stefanski’s first year. These squads are the future.
Goths // Texans, Eagles, Bengals, Lions, Raiders
Dressed in all black. Heads hanging low. Headphones in, blaring screams or mellow-dramatic ballads to embrace the darkness.
These teams are already swallowed by that same gloom at the lunch table on a daily basis before the season has even started, resigned to the probable losing year. Everything is possibly wrong in Houston, from Deshaun Watson to the front office, to their roster makeup, to being run by a former team chaplain. The Eagles and Raiders fans are actively embarrassed by the front office and coaching blunders from a public relations standpoint. The Bengals, while Joe Burrow looked like the future of the franchise, will be coming off of a trainwreck of an injury with an incomplete roster, and the vibes surrounding their top draft pick, receiver Ja’Marr Chase, have been anything but positive thus far with his plethora of dropped passes.
Finally, the Lions will have fun with new coach Dan Campbell’s press conference quote. Still, for a franchise that’s been as miserable as Detroit for their entire existence, you can’t expect the end of the Matthew Stafford Era to be saved by Jared Goff with a team that could potentially lose the most games this year.
Pain. Darkness. Scream-o.
The New Kids in Town Other Kids Whisper About // Jets, Jaguars, Patriots
When a new kid transfers, sitting alone in the lunchroom often to start their year at a new school, murmurs swirl around them from various other groups. “Is that kid new??” “What do you think he/she is like?” “Where are they from??”
Those are the Jets and the Jaguars, who will be debuting new first-time head coaches that are VERY different, Robert Saleh in New York and Urban Meyer in Jacksonville, along with the top two picks starting their rookie seasons at quarterback, Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson. It won’t be hard to be better than the Jags’ 1-15 record and the Jets’ 2-1. Still, we truly have no idea what they’ll be like until we sit down with them at the table and get to know them better despite the vibes surrounding the clubs being overall positive given how abysmal they’ve been.
This also goes for the Patriots in New England now that Mac Jones, the rookie who beat out Cam Newton that everyone seems to think embodies the next coming of Tom Brady since they’re both pocket-passing quarterbacks that come from winning systems. Belichick is the best coach in NFL history, and all Mac did in college was win every game, so we’ll certainly find out.
The Nostalgic Video Game Kids // Cowboys, Cardinals, Steelers, Titans, Giants, Falcons
While the styrofoam lunch tray sits in front of them in a social cafeteria, there’s a group with a focus that is intently on the Nintendo product in hand, often playing games from franchises that thrived in the ’90s like Pokemon, Mario, or Sonic that all continue to thrive today. These students still embrace the enjoyment our childhoods gave us from that small magical screen in our youth.
While that particular brand of nostalgia is wonderful, this nostalgia might be merely staying the same in a stalemate for these NFL teams. We’re overall going to get the same middle-tier teams that are running it back. We’re still going to get the same Dak-led Cowboys, Big Ben-Steelers, Tannehill-Titans, Matt Ryan-Falcons, Daniel Jones-Giants, and Kyler-Cardinals that are either in that same tier or are going to get disappointed by the real contenders once again.
The “Floaters” // Saints, Broncos, Colts, Panthers, Football Team, Dolphins
There’s frequently a group of people, likable or not, that doesn’t necessarily have a “group,” which can be positive or negative. They can sit at whatever table they want because everyone likes them! They don’t feel confined to sitting in the same spot every day! That could also mean they’re not liked enough to have a consistent friend group, but that’s outside the point. They don’t have identification and are in the middle socially, and won’t necessarily commit.
This group certainly can’t commit or are indifferent with their commitment. The Washington Football Team might be the happiest about adding Ryan Fitzpatrick as he’s going to be an upgrade to their passing attack from last year, but he’s 38 years old on a one-year deal- that isn’t a commitment for a young roster.
Then you have a plethora of quarterback competitions- mediocre Teddy Bridgewater vs the young and inconsistent Drew Lock in Denver, and the high-ceiling low-floor Jameis Winston against a man who might not even be a quarterback, Taysom Hill, in New Orleans. Meanwhile, we’re not even sure if the Colts’ Carson Wentz can stay on the field, given his injury history and current concerns. While the Dolphins drafted Tua last year, he was often subbed out for Fitzpatrick, not taking many risks downfield. They were swirling in the Deshaun Watson rumors this offseason as if they wouldn’t be totally opposed to just going ahead and upgrading.
In Carolina, they’re just hoping and praying that Sam Darnold was drinking poisoned Gatorade by Adam Gase on the Jets this entire time and he can salvage a career after trading for him as a low-risk move.
Everything is in the ether.
The Couples Arguing // Packers, Vikings, Seahawks, Bears
You look across the table, and sitting by themselves at the end seats is the dramatic couple. Someone is trying to apologize and make up with the other, or one is yelling, crying, or ignoring the other. The next day, they might even be fine because that’s the nature of the inconsistent and theatrical roller coaster of grade school relationships, but the awkward tension at the table always seems to be present from at least one pair.
Though for varying reasons, there certainly is tension in these organizations’ camps. The Packers were the biggest story of the offseason when Aaron Rodgers, the reigning league MVP, openly requested a trade and bashed the organization. Still, they agreed apparently that they would just continue to hate each other one last year until they can move him for a reasonable price.
Russell Wilson took a half-measure approach to the Rodgers method when, after being unhappy with his offensive game plan and being sacked all of the time, he said, “Yeah, IF you were going to trade me, here’s a list of places where I would like to go…” so if nothing changes this year in Seattle, his dissatisfaction is only going to grow.
Meanwhile, in Minnesota, coach Mike Zimmer wants to murder his quarterback, Kirk Cousins, for his refusal to just get vaccinated so he won’t miss time.
The Bears fans are clamoring for the stud rookie Justin Fields to start, and Matt Nagy is adamant that the most milquetoast veteran of all-time, Andy Dalton, is the starting quarterback. It’s odd that the Lions are the only NFC North team with no drama surrounding their quarterback.
Featured Image: Tennessee Titans