The NFL Is Reminding Us Why Expectations Are a Bad Idea
Editor's note: Welcome to the Weekend Read, SI's weekly newsletter. Click here to subscribe and receive pieces like this in your inbox every Friday.
No one talks about this, but Charles Dickens’ epic novel Great Expectations is actually about the NFL offseason. The opening scene occurs in a graveyard full of fans’ dead hopes from the year before. The book then takes readers on a journey of rebirth that ultimately ends in dejection for anyone dumb enough to care about football (unless you’re a Patriots fan, which Dickens famously was).
Psych! Everyone knows Great Expectations is about a boy who rescues a golden retriever that turns out to be great at basketball. But my point still stands—believing that your team will live up to your expectations is usually an exercise in futility.
Take the Browns. Quarterback Baker Mayfield spent the entire summer saying, and I’m paraphrasing here, “I’m invincible and we’re going to win the Super Bowl.” People bought in: the networks gave Cleveland four prime time games this year. The hype was somewhat justified, seeing as last season Mayfield led the Browns to their best record since the Precambrian period. Here at Sports Illustrated, we even put the team on the cover of the dang magazine, an honor which has always worked out well in the past.
The energy in Cleveland was electric ahead of the Browns’ home opener, but despite a beautiful first drive, everything soon fell apart and the Tennessee Titans destroyed the Browns at home. Fast-forward to Week 2: the Browns won! They looked better! Except that “better” is a relative term, because playing the Jets while quarterback Sam Darnold is out indefinitely with mononucleosis—shoutout to college—isn’t exactly a test. To be fair, the Cleveland team from two years ago would’ve found a way to lose that game, so maybe this is progress.
Cleveland and the Jets aren’t the only teams that might not live up to fans’ desires. The Saints suffered a huge blow when Drew Brees tore a ligament in his thumb last weekend playing against the Rams (Saints fans are like, “It’s a league conspiracy!!”) and will be out for at least six weeks. The injury derailed what many saw as a potential Super Bowl season for New Orleans. And over in Pittsburgh, Ben Roethlisberger is sidelined for the year with a ruined elbow. The Jaguars’ shiny new quarterback Nick Foles broke his collarbone in Week 1, further proving that Jacksonville can’t have nice things, except for Gardner Minshew’s mustache. With the exception of LaMar Jackson’s brilliance in Baltimore (I’m not going to talk about the Patriots, don’t worry), lots of high hopes aren’t panning out.
We've built an entire world around the NFL where we guess, speculate, decide and pontificate about who will win and lose. Fantasy football literally translates from sportsspeak into English as “here’s what I’m guessing will happen this weekend.” But then football goes ahead and does whatever the heck it wants. What we expect is usually completely off base, often leads to more pain and says more about our own projections than our team’s ability. Browns fans were dying to believe in something. So they did. They do.
But that’s the whole point. We should have high expectations, even when we have an inkling the bar might not be cleared. Being deeply pessimistic about everything is about as enjoyable as thumb surgery. That unpredictability is what makes sports electric. Crazy games—hearts pounding, beers spilling off flipped tables—are what people remember. The pain of dashed expectations is worth something. It makes the highs higher, even if they take decades to arrive.
Look, 2019 may be a year where football just... stinks. Hopes and dreams seem to be crashing and burning. The NFL giveth and the NFL taketh away, and it gaveth a lot of great games in 2018. Maybe this is the pendulum swinging back, water finding its level, and so on. But here I go again with the expectations. Off a sample size of two games! This column will probably end up being just another reminder of how quickly things can change. In the words of Charles Dickens, “Dream on, you crazy football dreamers.” It’s so stupid and much more fun that way.
• A range of accusations against Antonio Brown, including a new account of sexual misconduct from an artist who was hired to work in his home, depict a disturbing pattern. (By Robert Klemko)
• Stuck in the Stone Age offensively for too long, LSU has finally joined the list of blue blood programs embracing the spread. (By Ross Dellenger)
• A forgery of the American dream? Every athlete’s worst nightmare? The ultimate scam artist? According to her former pro athlete clients, Peggy Ann Fulford checks all the boxes. (By Alex Prewitt)
• "He shouldn't be here. He's a big leaguer." Such is the life of Rusney Castillo, who signed for a lot of money that's trapping him in the Red Sox' minor league system. (By Stephanie Apstein)
• The Cowboys have always leveraged their brand. How might that approach play into the Dak Prescott negotiations? (By Conor Orr)
Best of the Rest
Editor's note: Below are some of our favorite stories of the week not published by SI. This week's list is curated by Charlotte Wilder.
• This story by Aishwarya Kumar for ESPN about how chess grandmasters lose an alarming amount of weight when they play is absolutely fascinating.
• Diana Moskovitz at Deadspin wrote a really thoughtful piece about the allegations of sexual assault against Antonio Brown and how we talk about them.
• It’s definitely the Boston in me, but I teared up reading Chad Finn’s tribute to Fenway at then end of a year when the Red Sox won’t make the postseason.
• Rachel Axon at USA TODAY did important investigative work into how many coaches in the NFL have histories of domestic and sexual violence.
• Eli Manning was benched for rookie Daniel Jones this week. Neil Paine at 538 crunched the veteran QB’s extremely average numbers.
Editor’s note: What kind of stories and content would you like to see in the Weekend Read? Let's chat at SIWeekendRead@gmail.com.