The first score of the Patriots' 2010 season came on their fifth offensive snap. Slot receiver Wes Welker shuffled two steps back from the line of scrimmage, caught a bubble screen from Tom Brady and followed tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Alge Crumpler for nine yards into the left side of the end zone, commencing a 38--24 victory over the Bengals on Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough. It was an unglamorous and bloodlessly efficient play, the white bread of touchdowns.
However, Welker's score—the first of his two on the day—was significant in a broader context. Seven months and 10 days earlier he had undergone reconstructive surgery after tearing two major ligaments, including the ACL, in his left knee on a gruesome noncontact injury during the regular-season finale at Houston. His recovery and return were not only uncommonly swift but also distinctly understated. Welker did not provide rehab updates on Twitter, because he does not tweet. He did not reveal his improving fitness on his reality television show, because he does not have one. Pressed for perspective in a postgame press conference, Welker—wearing a rumpled T-shirt, Chuck Taylors and a slightly goofy golf cap—called his momentous comeback "a cool thing," but then quickly downgraded it to "just another game."
His coach, the respected and relentlessly unforthcoming Bill Belichick, stayed even further from the dramatic in commenting on Welker's return. "I'm happy for Wes," said Belichick. "I'm happy for the whole team."
That would include Brady, who—three days after escaping a car accident unscathed, and on the heels of a four-year, $72 million contract extension—threw for 258 yards and three touchdowns and had a passer rating of 120.9. The performance looked much more like the presurgery Brady of 2007 than the recovering Brady of 2009.
In a locker room 100 feet away in the belly of Gillette Stadium, Cincinnati receivers Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens slowly dressed at nearly adjacent cubicles. Ochocinco has more than 1.25 million Twitter followers and T.O. more than a half million. Each has his own reality show, and before the game Ocho had suggested he might celebrate a touchdown by snatching one of the muskets that the costumed Minutemen fire when the Patriots score, and shooting it himself.
Within hours of their beatdown, a game in which the Bengals trailed 31--3, each had resumed tweeting:
@OGOchoCinco: Apologies to Cincy fans, tough loss today, only week 1, we've a long season ahead, all of you be blessed
@terrellowens: We will bounce back next week! All the haters keep it coming!! I'm lovin it! Continue 2 hate all year long!
Here, then, was Week 1 in the New NFL, where franchises can be separated by all the customary means—traditionally strong (Colts) versus traditionally weak (Lions); running (Steelers) versus passing (Saints); classic helmets (Bears) versus ugly helmets (Panthers); and now by another one as well: quiet versus loud. No game better exemplified this last paradigm than Patriots-Bengals, a culture clash pitting a team that almost never talks (with one future Hall of Fame exception; see below) against one that almost never shuts up. In the New NFL you are either a Welker or an Ocho.
It's difficult to say with certainty when the latest line that divides the NFL was drawn. The league has long thrived on a comforting homogeneity (there are a host of rules, down to the height of a player's socks, that effectively temper on-the-field individuality), but there have been notable exceptions, like the hard-partying Raiders of the 1970s and the Super Bowl--shuffling Bears of 1985. Yet in 2010 the outlandish are no longer outliers, and the opportunities for conflict between the old and the new—or to take the metaphor to an extreme, between good and evil—are more readily available on a weekly basis.