Whose football dreams will come true?
In theory, opening week of the NFL and college football season brims with the promise of championships, team milestones, and more wins than losses for every team.
The reality is that the favorites in the preseason often fulfill their aspirations for postseason and bowl game appearances, while only a handful of teams supersede the expectations of forecasters.
Alabama has rolled into every College Football Playoff since 2014, Clemson has advanced to the championship game three of the past four years, and those two teams captured all the first-place votes in the Associated Press Preseason Top 25 poll for 2019.
The earth will only wobble on its axis if one of those two powerhouse programs does not hoist the 24k gold, bronze and stainless steel championship trophy on Jan. 13, 2020 in New Orleans.
The Chicago Bears and Cleveland Browns are trendy Super Bowl picks this year, but the gauntlet of 16 regular season games and as many as four more playoff games have a way of creating separation among contenders and pretenders.
What is the basis for all the optimism surrounding the Bears and Browns?
In their first playoff game in eight years, the Bears lost a wild-card playoff at home to Philadelphia last January.
In 2018, the Browns won seven games for only the second time in 11 years.
Cleveland has attracted headlines with the signings of Odell Beckham Jr. and Kareem Hunt, but Freddie Kitchens will bear the burdens of an NFL head coach for the first time this season, after 20 years as an assistant on the college and professional levels.
The oven is a lot hotter when you’re the caretaker of the door.
Teams seldom appear from obscurity to win championships. In 1992, when Dallas trounced Buffalo by five touchdowns in Super Bowl XXVII, the Cowboys traded for Charley Haley, who had already earned two Super Bowl rings with San Francisco.
Many observers point to Haley’s acquisition as the final roster move that was pivotal to the team becoming the first in NFL history to win three Super Bowls in four years.
Quarterback Troy Aikman, not one prone to exaggeration, said, “I’m not so sure we would’ve won any of them if it weren’t for him.”
There are reasons why the Detroit Lions have not appeared in any of the 53 Super Bowls to date. Start with scouting and drafting and continue on with management and on-field performance.
At the opposite end of the spectrum are the Patriots. Love them or loathe them, you have to respect their historic run of championships — under the same owner, head coach and starting quarterback– and the organizational philosophy that fosters success despite roster turnover, particularly at running back.
Over the last 12 seasons, which includes six Super Bowl appearances and three championships, eight different players have led the team in rushing.
Even when two vastly superior teams with neutralizing strengths are matched, the result can hinge simply on opportunistic play. In the 1987 Sunkist Fiesta Bowl, No. 1 ranked Miami demonstrated statistical mastery over No. 2 Penn State.
The Hurricanes outgained the Nittany Lion 445-162, held a 22-8 advantage in first downs, and demonstrated complete air superiority, 285-53. But in the critical turnover-ratio category, Penn State was plus four, with the deciding touchdown coming on the heels of a Vinny Testaverde interception midway through the final quarter.
Years later, after winning two Super Bowls with the Dallas Cowboys, Miami head coach Jimmy Johnson acknowledged that his biggest disappointment in football still had been the loss to Penn State.
And then, there are outcomes that defy reason. For Oakland Raiders fans, there is “the Holy Roller” that Dave Casper pounced on in the end zone for a game-tying touchdown as time expired in San Diego during the 1978 season.
Dallas quarterback Roger Staubach gave a name to late-game desperation passes with his “Hail Mary” against Minnesota in a 1975 playoff game.
Three years earlier, in an AFC Divisional Playoff at Three Rivers Stadium, Franco Harris cradled the “Immaculate Reception” against Oakland. These are three pass plays that will forever be regarded by fans of those winning teams as simply divine.
At the dawn of this new football campaign, fans across the land are united by prospects of a glorious season, even if they’re living an alternate reality.
Jim Caltagirone resides in Altoona.