FORT WAYNE, INDIANA, August 9, 2015 — For leatherheads, the agony is over. The waiting is over. The misery is over. The offseason is over.
The Pro Bowl and the Super Bowl are followed by events that look like football, but are not football. The NFL Draft is a bunch of people talking on the telephone and a bunch of announcers talking about the people talking on the telephone. Then comes minicamp, which at least involves a football field. Then comes training camp, which is something to somebody somewhere.
Then comes the Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony. While eight legends of the game now have football immortality, nobody hits anybody. Nobody wears pads. Guys make speeches about what they used to do.
Finally, one day after this ceremony, guys actually hit each other on a football field. Yes, it is only preseason, but it is something. The closest thing to real football anybody has seen in six agonizing months finally came to fruition.
Before the game, football fans everywhere took time out to mourn the loss of the great New York Giants legend Frank Gifford. Gifford passed away over the weekend at the age of 84. After his playing days he transitioned seamlessly into the Monday Night Football booth. The program that began in 1970 with Howard Cosell and Dandy Don Meredith saw Frank Gifford come aboard in 1971 and call games for 27 years. If there is ever a time for a Hall of Fame legend to depart to the football stadium in the sky, it is on the day a new group of potential heroes restart the tradition in Canton.
With Gifford watching from up above, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Minnesota Vikings kicked off the annual inaugural preseason game. The Steelers just inducted Jerome Bettis into the Hall of Fame. The Vikings inducted Mick Tingelhoff. On this day, those two retired legends got to see the 2015 versions of their respective teams.
The Hall of Fame Game is rarely pretty. Being in preseason form is not a compliment. Yet it is beautiful because it is professional football. Long after the score is forgotten, fans will just be glad the game we love has returned.
Vikings kicker Blair Walsh began the game with a touchback. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did not play, so fans got to see his backup. Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater did play, leading Minnesota to a fourth down and one at the Pittsburgh 10. Adrian Peterson did not play, leading to a backup running back failing to get the yard. The second quarter began with the Steelers fumbling and the Vikings missing a field goal.
A scoreless tie can make for a boring game, but it was far better than the torture of the offseason.
The Steelers would kick a field goal and the Vikings would get a touchdown pass from their backup quarterback for a 7-3 Minnesota lead. Late in the half Pittsburgh moved to a second and goal at the Minnesota one yard line. With a backup quarterback, handing the ball off is always an option. Instead, three straight pass plays meant three straight incompletions. Roethlisberger’s starting job is not in jeopardy. Late in the third quarter a 62-yard punt return down to the Pittsburgh one yard line led to the touchdown run for a 14-3 Vikings lead.
Many of the players in this game will not make the final NFL rosters. We may never know their names. Yet on this night in Canton, Ohio, they did make history. They played professional football. They reminded us all that the game is back.
With 2 1/2 minutes left in the game, fans saw a play that will hopefully never make its way into the regular season. On third and fifteen for the Steelers, a short pass lost two yards. This is called the West Coast Offense.
Mike Tomlin and Mike Zimmer are both hard-nosed guys who believe in throwback smash mouth football. They run the football and play tough defense. Neither of these teams will be mistaken for the 1974 teams coached by Chuck Noll and Bud Grant. Neither of these defenses are the Steel Curtain or the Purple People Eaters.
Both of these teams represent the proud tradition that is the National Football League.
For this alone, letterheads everywhere can be thankful. The Vikings won the game 14-3, but the real winners are those who love football. Football is back. After about 128 more preseason games, the real thing kicks off in September.