NFL preseason games start next week….

The airwaves are crackling hype at the advent of NFL team summer camps. Every year, about a million young men and a hundred or more young women play tackle football at every level. They’re all starting the season about now. 

Fewer than 2,000 of those players are in the National Football League. The NFL is a forced marriage of sports and show biz, but it’s our only national platform for those of us who are hopelessly devoted to a sport that changed our early lives. Having played, coached, and been a part of a son’s decade of playing through college, I can confidently state that the sport I love, deeply, is not a cable TV show, despite the shrill whine of the NFL. 

This is the time of sweat and bruises at every level. The bond and ecstasy of the human spirit found in football is offered up in glitzy gloss by the NFL and by this week’s full hero-worship of the Hall of Fame inductions and endless coverage of the preseason. Baseball now seems somehow…old. The NFL has an entire network or two, and hundreds of web venues, with thousands upon thousands of hours of complete explication and exposure 24 hours a day.

Despite my lifelong love of the lower game—high school, small colleges, the humans and their unpublished dedication with no reward beyond the unalloyed joy of play—like everyone else, I have a relationship with the 32 NFL teams. I am guessing you do too. An effort at profundity by a football grunt like me would be a joke—I am but a consumer, and I have seen the NFL grow to a cultural flood, so a thumbnail overview might amuse and provoke.

The league is laughably star-centric: and the absence of any strategy beyond “Put the Good Guy where he can do things” means the stars are actually the starting point of every conversation. It’s persona over purpose: spirit may be the ultimate facilitator of excellence, but here, it’s all about the stars. So here is my NFL “rap” on each team—best to worst in each division: distilled (mostly), invented (some), often indefensible, but lustily offered for ridicule, laughs and a head scratch or two. 

NFC EAST

The Dallas Cowboys: The Cowboys are proof of the value of sacrificial devotion: their league-greatest Offensive Line (at least now) grinds out overwhelming places for everyone else’s Glory. The team Babies—QB Dak Prescott and RB Ezekiel Eliot—are infants who should grow and glow in their incubator.

The Washington Redskins: The screaming cry for appreciation of QB Kirk Cousins almost makes up for the team’s inability to live up to their fans’ ardor. And it does not hurt that TE Jordan Reed was knocked to the ground in 2007 by my son as he lofted a touchdown pass when he was QB’ing for his high school team, which unceremoniously dismantled my son’s.

The New York Giants: Who is weirder than goat-eyed Eli Manning? It may be the chief media diva WR Odell Beckham whose one-hand grab is still the single one-off signature vid for the entire league. Beckham’s Rooster Bleached Hair Head has served to inspire an infinite number of young admirers and (maybe) draws attention away from Eli trying to spell “Elite” without his name… 

Philadelphian Eagles: QB Carson Wentz is a Poster Boy of Documented Skills and his carefully scripted screenplay has new supporting actors. WR Alshon Jeffrey will catch Wentz’s machine-precise passes, and RB LaGarrette Blount will take his ancient 30-year-old bod into being another target for opposing defenses.

NFC NORTH

Green Bay Packers: QB Aaron Rodgers is the bizarre human that is both fearless and effortlessly skilled. But he is 32; so is his fave, WR Jordy Nelson. LB Clay Matthews is also approaching antiquity at 31. Others are younger, but in the NFL the drink is stirred by the Star Straws. Will the skills have the durability required when the sinew becomes brittle? “That’s why they play the game.”

Minnesota Vikings: The oft broken QB Sam Bradford is now in charge, and RB Adrian Pedersen took his three decades to New Orleans, leaving unknowns in his wake. Offensive Co-Ordinator Pat Shurmer sez he is “Opening up the offensive,” meaning, “What the hell do we have to lose?” (They already lost Adrian.)

Detroit Lions: At last report Megatron (receiver Calvin Johnson) is still retired. So there you go. QB Matthew Stafford is left forcing footballs down the throats of his remaining receivers. Defensive freak Ziggy Ansah was injured a bunch last year but, if healthy, might allow a fresh venue for Motor City hero worship.

Da Bears: Who is there? Hello? A dude name “Trubiskey” is a rookie, and unless he is in a wheelchair will be the Bear QB. When the Tight End position is stated to be “the strength of the team,” the team is probably going to be pretty weak. The Monsters of the Midway will be in the stands, wincing at the learning curve…

NFC WEST

Seattle Seahawks: The good news is that QB Russell Wilson was not killed during last year’s beatdown. He is both alive and ready to crush it. The vaunted “Legion of Boom” DBs may have some explosion left, and since I once urinated in the San Francisco airport next to the Seahawks’ starting center Justin Britt, they remain one of my favorite teams.

Arizona Cardinals: Like other teams, the Cardinals’ stars here are old, and getting older. WR Larry Fitzgerald may be so old he can simply will himself into a reception, but QB Carson Palmer is even older, 37. The coach, Bruce Arians, may be the coolest 64-year-old in the league, but he is no Jedi—and The Force is needed.

The (somewhere) RAMS: St. Louis is so far away it’s not in their rearview mirror. LA is so long ago, no one can remember where the stadium is. So they are building a new one. The QB Jared Goff may be good enough to make you forget how ugly the uniforms are. But probably not.

San Francisco 49ers: The 49ers won 2 games last year, and had the most socially responsible haircut by any player in the NFL. QB Colin Kaepernick had the best fro seen in the 21st Century. Anywhere. However, his play did not live up to his hair, and he may become a Raven. His hair remains the star of the team.

NFC SOUTH

Atlanta Falcons: So the man-on-man coverage of the Patriot receivers worked for a super half…then fatigue made The Evil Empire look Invincible. But the gist of the Falcons is still there. Maybe Gatorade is right: maybe the Falcons will “make defeat their fuel.” Oh, and they have a player named Nkemdiche—Leader Trump may deport him on that basis alone.

Carolina Panthers: Superman LIVES. QB Cam Newton is still large, strong, intense, and was fairly crunched last year. His cohort LB Luke Kuechly was not debilitated either: but they need help to get back in to Super Land.

New Orleans Saints: The only thing worse than a small QB is an old one. Drew Brees is wee, and is now, well, old at 38. He has lost the great cohorts who got him to a Super Bowl. Mark Ingram at running back helps: but he is old too… 

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: QB Jameis Winston was not named for a missing book of the Bible, but the team labors in similar obscurity. He has DeShawn Jackson to catch passes, but the defense is not there yet: So we will find out on “Hard Knocks” on HBO.

AFC SOUTH

Houston Texans: Any team that has linemen Jadeveon Clowney and J.J. Watt on defense will wake people up on the couch. But with Deshaun Watson at QB, the Star Density forces those who project NFL gravitas to rank this team with great fear and love. But injury has made the mighty disappear: and it was tough last year.

Tennessee Titans: QB Marcus Mariota has now lived through expectations to have RB DeMarco Murray by his side. He has the vintage relic from the Broncos’ Super Year, Eric Decker, to disappoint his fans, and with a Head Coach named Malarkey, any erroneous optimism can be definitionally excused to the promise of his name.

Indianapolis Colts: There has never been a more ironic name in any sport than Andrew Luck last year. I am guessing he was writing a textbook on QB injuries and wanted to write it in the first person. But he is risen. WR T.Y. Hilton is wee, but terrifying. Watch out. 

Jacksonville Jaguars: Who knows? QB Greg Bortles may be helped by rookie RB Leonard Fournette, but, well, no. Maybe their extremely disconcerting one-color-on-each-side (front black/rear gold) helmets may distract their opponents. Maybe Jacksonville will spontaneously develop hills.

AFC EAST

New England Patriots: With Sheev Palpatine as head coach for the last 129 years, The Dark Side has fully empowered The Patriots to simply win when they want to. Clearly The Emperor loves his son, Tom “He Cannot Catch the [Expletive] Ball Too” Brady, so unless others have a Death Star, see you in February. 

Miami Dolphins: So two years ago lineman Richie Incognito was the Steve Scaramucci of the Dolphins, but shuffled his bully game back to Buffalo, missing a crucial cross-promotion opportunity: Ryan Tannehill is still the “Going to Be Great” QB, but he has the fleet RB Jay Ajaye: so it’s second place to the Evil Empire.

Buffalo Bills: When your name is Tyrod, there is lot to live up to and the even alliterative last name, Taylor, does not help: but he has “Shady” (RB LeSean McCoy) and WR Sammy Watkins to distract others from his insufficiencies. Oh, and Richie Incognito. 

New York Jets: This team was so bad that they fired Perpetual Blowhard PR Juggernaut Coach Rex Ryan (and his twin bro), which could have distracted everyone from the fact that 30 years ago they had the worst coach in human history, Rich Kotite. Now it’s time to actually look at the team: Ouch. 

AFC WEST

Kansas City Chiefs: I may be able to throw the ball farther than QB Alex Smith, and at 61, I may be younger; and the Chiefs drafted a QB, Patrick Mahomes, 10th overall. But this is a rarity, a true team in the NFL. While everyone has about 50 stars, KC seems to have an impact greater than its Q Factor.

Oakland Raiders: WAIT, they are not in Oakland. No, they are. But aren’t they in Las Vegas now?—Oh, next year. A team without a country, the Raiders are scary. They have insanely proficient QB Derek Carr, a new hammer RB Marshawn Lynch, and a terror on defense, Kahlil Mack.

Denver Broncos: It is hoped that the final sharpened toothbrush self-surgery on his own neck by Peyton Manning will both end the confusion with Chelsea and give the Broncos an NFL quarterback again. However, this does not appear to have happened.

Los Angeles Chargers: Having an aging A-Hole at QB makes losses for those who loathe him very happy. Thank goodness Philip Rivers has only gotten worse. But now the entire team was so embarrassed they moved hundreds of miles north to Los Angeles. They will still suck.

AFC NORTH 

Pittsburg Steelers: QB Roethlisberger should have an umlaut over the “o” in his name, but he plays with American keyboards. He is a large, stiff meat-bag who wins, even in antiquity, but is hanging it up, maybe next year: maybe this moves the meat, as will the greatest enigma in sports, LB James Harrison (he’s baaaaack—for a 15th year). 

Baltimore Ravens: Terrell Suggs is an old, funny, mean LB. The QB may be Colin Kaepernick (or not). But the good Harbaugh, John, is the coach. The resilience and focus of these Purple People means they will not be quoting any birds this season.

Cincinnati Bengals: When you have a Faulty Star in the NFL, it’s not good. Andy Dalton is tall, sometimes deadly, but seems to have a stripped fifth gear. He has a great receiver in A.J. Green, and a weird PR distractor in Pac Man Jones at DB, but this is a confused place of inadequacy. Until it isn’t.

Cleveland Browns: I can’t wait to see Johnny Quarterback play! Manziel is sooooo awesome! Wait, what? 

Football is pain. It is violent. The sport is tribal. It’s dangerous. The NFL hype that makes so many rich has been jiu jitsu‘d into a guilt-factory of correctness about brain damage terrorism by the “tut-tut” crowd. A new study finds 99% of NFL players have brain damage. Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger sez he will quit soon so he can converse with his kids when they grow up. Frontline examines the inhumanity of unwitting victims of an evil machine making money on the cranium devastation of NFL players. 

All true.

But those who play or have played already know that. You could have practiced for one minute of live hitting at any level and know the dangers. Motorcyclists know similar truths. So do smokers. I am fat. This is not a “Safe Space,” but despite the caricatures of the costs and potential liabilities of the many choices we all make, bacon is still legal. 

In this place of outrage, almost everyone who played deeply loves the football devotion in our young lives. Because it is deeply painful, because it is dangerous, because football directly connects us to what we are as humans, we know the love we feel. Irrational devotion may be the definition of love. Connection may be the guts of what makes us human. I would love it if the whole disgusting and vicious wrecking of That Guy two thousand years ago did not happen. No one deserved that. The subdural hematomas kids get every day, right now, playing any sport are just nasty, too.

But the love that they feel and know is true and changes their lives: that transcending fever of devotion allows for incoherent and core connection. For life. For me.