Football is back, at least for now. The unlikely season is about to begin.
Until today, sports hasn’t seemed real with games being played in bubbles in front of cardboard cutout fans amid a pandemic.
And now we’re about to begin an NFL season that will really hit home Sunday when the Panthers play the Raiders.
The Las Vegas Raiders.
So assuming for just a second that this actually works, that we get a full 16-game season from all 32 teams and then a Super Bowl playoff run after that, just what are we getting ready to watch?
Here in the Carolinas, where the virus has used I-85 as a highway to hell and back, we’re going to have a football game in front of zero fans having seen a Thursday game between the Super Bowl champion Chiefs and the Houston Texans with about 22,000 people in the stands.
This is how the unlikely season will begin.
Aside from all the hoops and hurdles yet to be navigated by the NFL, what will it feel like? Will it feel real? Or have we already put an asterisk on sports in 2020 that will forever mark it as something to be forgotten?
In that sense, will the rebuilt Panthers get a free pass?
They might need one. This doesn’t have the feel of 2001, when Carolina went 1-15 and then went through a total rebuild. That season ended the short reign of George Seifert and brought Julius Peppers and John Fox to Charlotte.
This season begins with new coaches, new coordinators, new players and new hope for brighter seasons ahead. That will likely not be this season.
Carolina has one of the toughest schedules in the league with games against the Chiefs, Chargers, Vikings, Cardinals and Packers in addition to its NFC South division rivals.
So this is probably not going to be a season to remember anyway. Scraping out four or five wins might be the best they can hope for.
This might be hard to watch, not just because we’re going to watch some games with fans and some with crowd noise piped in, probably all on television with no hope of driving down I-85 to see them in person.
It’s also going to be jarring to see Cam Newton in a New England uniform.
This is going to be surreal, and for many NFL fans it will be too bizarre to fathom. Until now, the idea of professional athletes slamming into each other for our entertainment and money has been a weird dream. Now we’re going to watch it play out before us in real time, in real games in the middle of a real pandemic.
The crowded airplanes will begin shipping players and coaches and doctors and trainers and support staff all over the country as cities from Charlotte to LA curiously anticipate teams from all over the continent bringing teams and equipment and God knows what else into their ZIP codes.
Some players will kneel before the games. Some will have personal statements of protest that will inspire some of us and infuriate others as we await a real NFL response to the social justice movement across the world.
We have no idea what we’re about to see.
Everything will change once the Texans slam into the Chiefs as football fans and epidemiologists look on in wonder as America takes another step into a crazy nightmare.
When we wake up again, will any of it be real?
This might be the perfect season for the Panthers to slip through without notice. This might be a season to forget anyway.
For now, we’ll sit back and watch and wait and worry about just what is coming out of the sky, testing the theory that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.
We can only hope that’s true.
We can only assume this will end well when deep down we fear it won’t.
The unlikely season is upon us, descending from above like a bubble blown in by rolling thunder.
We can only pray it doesn’t burst.
Contact Ed Hardin at 336-373-7069, and follow @Ed_Hardin on Twitter.
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