For many football fans, the summer - particularly in Arizona, where the heat is flesh-crisping and the AC bills are financially crushing - represents a dreaded sports lull, a void in which only baseball and the WNBA occasionally generate interest. Mostly, however, it's a months-long battle against adrenaline atrophy until the Cardinals report to Flagstaff and the real action of the next NFL season begins. But do we take the offseason for granted?
Obviously, in these sun-baked months, there's no live game action to watch every weekend (or Monday ... or Thursday, on occasion), but there's plenty of behind the scenes movement to keep an eye on, movement that impacts your favorite team directly. Free agency. The draft. Mini-camps. These events help shape the coming season via roster changes, coaching changes, scheme changes, and good old players-with-a-twitter-account-and-nothing-better-to-do drama.
The draft is one of the most exciting events in football, outside of the playoffs and, of course, the Super Bowl. Fresh-from-college doe-eyed, wet-eared players, full of football hopes and dreams, dollar signs, and entourages hoping for new cars. Desperate cellar-dweller teams, aspiring to hit gold on the next franchise-changing rookie who might ultimately become a bust and a wasted signing bonus.
Can so-and-so's vaunted scouting department find an underrated starter in the late rounds? Will so-and-so's inept front office mistakenly take JaMarcus Russell in the first round again? The tantalizing seduction of upside and potential is a powerful master and both general managers and fans get wrapped up in the quest for Tom Brady in the sixth round.
The draft is the best chance for snake-bitten teams to wipe the slate clean and start again. They can jettison their ineffective veterans and restock with fresh meat, untainted by bad habits and undeserved contracts. There are several teams in the NFL, including the Arizona Cardinals, that use the draft as the primary method of talent-loading and with the right scouts and personnel gurus, it's extremely effective.
On the other hand, if a team can't sniff a bust, paying first-round cash to a pine rider can equal payroll devastation. The draft is a lovely gamble, particularly for fans that don't have to deal with the cash repercussions of a bad dice roll.
The presence of partially guaranteed contracts makes free agency in the NFL more exciting than in some other sports.
There's more talent on the market, as teams are free to cut players on a whim once the guaranteed money is in the books. Free agent contracts are more outrageous, with ridiculous money front-loaded into signing bonuses and intangibles like escalators and bonuses that the player may never see.
Being that the NFL is the most successful professional sports league in North America, there's plenty of cash to go around, though the hard cap keeps things interesting. That the NFL takes great care to encourage parity amongst markets also encourages some creative wheeling and dealing to make numbers work. Free agency is a CBA junky's ultimate high.
Then there's the balance of power: Will Big-Name-Free-Agent signing with this team shift the power in a certain conference? What moves will traditional division rivals make to remain competitive with each other? What flashy name will Daniel Snyder overpay to obtain this year?
Included in free agency is the trading market, which continues all the way up to the October trade deadline. More and more in this economic situation, trades are done less for competitive reasons and more for salary relief, with able teams taking on salary in return for draft picks that may never materialize on a payroll. However, it's still a variable in the ever-shifting landscape.
This is where the fans can begin to see alchemy in progress. The moving parts of the offseason begin to grind together as a unified machine, one that hopefully runs smoothly. But part of the fun, however, can be sadistically watching the cogs collapse under their own incompatibility.
Have teams signed their draft picks? If so, are they present in offseason workouts and how are they looking? If not, is there a hold out brewing beneath the surface?
Are free agents meshing with their new teams? Is there a sense of buyer's remorse already percolating? Has Big Name Free Agent decided against buying a house in his new zip code?
Mini-camps, OTAs, etc., are the perfect time for building camaraderie and cohesion. Friendships and professional bonds are created and strengthened, bonds that will help carry a team through seventeen weeks of regular season grind that will hopefully culminate in postseason glory.
Participation in voluntary team activities can show a player's character just as his absence can show his lack thereof.
In this day and age, flooded with instantaneous information through social media like Twitter and Facebook, outgoing, overzealous, and bored players with too much time on their hands can quickly become epicenters for off-the-field drama.
Everything a player says and does is swiftly available for fan and media consumption. And boy, do fans and the media love to consume it. Even the tiniest bit of gossip minutia is played out in the e-public eye these days.
The Cardinals have had plenty of first-hand experience, with Matt Leinart's hot tub shenanigans and the recent Darnell Dockett interwebz shower. (What is it with the Cardinals and water-related troubles? Flagstaff's probably a bad place to train ... lots of streams and creeks.)
It's also a nice time to amplify standing player rivalries. Endless back and forth trash-tweeting has become a popular pastime for the more gregarious players in the league. The relative anonymity of the cyber world allows for braver boasts and harsher toasts until the words have to be proven on the field. The smash-mouth becomes that much more smash-mouthier after a healthy offseason battle of words.
While the offseason doesn't offer a whole lot of gridiron grit or blood-sweat-tears, there's still lots to chew on for the football connoisseur in us all. It's a time of aspirations and foolish pursuits in the name of glory ... or perhaps just foolishness. It's a chess match that can help define the success of a team through their 16 guaranteed games, and keep alive the hope for 20. (Doesn't mean we can't still wish it were September!)