A few thoughts on what had to be the National Football League’s strangest opening weekend ever:
• The fake crowd noise piped into stadiums and on TVs to take the place of absent fans was the most disconcerting part of watching the games. You’d hear the 75-decibel cheering, and even booing (that was a nice touch) when a call went against the home team. Then the camera would unavoidably include the stands that were empty except at just a couple of the 16 games, where a few thousand people were allowed in. It was all so odd.
• Some of the players said they definitely missed the energy of the fans. Even some visiting players said they missed the fans. The best line came from New Orleans Saints defensive end Cam Jordan, who said the quiet Louisiana Superdome made him think they were playing at Tampa Bay. Since the Saints had just beaten the Buccaneers, that was a real zinger.
• For proof that fans can be a stadium’s home field advantage, go no further than San Francisco, where the defending NFC champions got knocked off by Arizona. Even though it’s clear the Cardinals are on the rise, it’s hard to imagine them winning if the stands were full.
• As for the games themselves: Welcome to the NFC, Tom Brady — although Tampa Bay has too much talent to keep losing for long. And who expected Washington and Jacksonville, labeled as the league’s two most troubled teams, to pull off upsets over teams widely regarded as playoff contenders?
• The NFL’s relocation evolution continued. Brady is now in Tampa after 20 years and six Super Bowls in New England, while longtime Carolina quarterback Cam Newton has taken Brady’s place with the Patriots. Meanwhile, the Las Vegas Raiders, having won their opener on the road at Carolina, open their new stadium next Monday night against the Saints. It’s going to take a little while to feel comfortable saying “Las Vegas Raiders.”
• Finally, the big question of the weekend had nothing to do with athletics. How were the players going to protest injustice? The potential for disruption during the national anthem was minimized, apparently in conversations among the players themselves. Some teams chose to stay in the locker room for both the national anthem and the song “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” While some fans will see that as disrespectful, it’s a better image than having a large number of players on one knee.
• The best idea for an alternate protest was at the beginning of the Seattle-Atlanta game. When the Seahawks kicked off, the ball went into the end zone as all 22 players on the field took a knee. After a few seconds, the players rose and the game began with the Falcons getting the ball at their own 25. There was no disrespect toward the flag, the anthem or any other symbol — just a brief pause at the beginning of a game to make a silent statement. Anyone who objects to that objects to the First Amendment’s freedom-of-speech protections.