To help celebrate our twenty-fifth year of being on the information superhighway, we have reached out to some of our favorite former columnists for check-ins and updates. From 1999-2003 (and for parts of 2016), Jeff Johnson shared his weekly American football prognostications on this website. He recently started a funny Substack, NFL, Weakly, and we’re delighted to have him back today with a new installment of his classic column, Weekly NFL Picks.
It’s been a long time. If you were somehow an eight-year-old and one of the fourteen people who enjoyed this column back in its “heyday,” you are now thirty. I am not responsible for all the emails you currently receive from both United Healthcare and Domino’s. If you were an older reader, perhaps it’s a quieter time in your life. The leaves are falling from the trees. The crockpot is on low. You’ve made a habit of sleeping through a handful of episodes of The First 48, and it seeps into your dreams. You’re haunted, hazily, by the face of a random EMT, who wonders if you are okay, then yells to a coworker that he suspects your dinner rolls might have been poisoned. If so, this might be a good diversion today.
Even though this column deviated wildly from NFL coverage, it’s hard to resist some of the juicier storylines this season. One of them is a complete collapse in Denver, a franchise that hoped for a return to respectability by luring former Saints coach Sean Payton out of retirement.
The bar was set wildly high for Payton. Then other things happened. An old Broncos ballboy (who is rumored to vape on the sidelines) coaches the team that put a near-record seventy points up against them. Payton castigated the Broncos’ former coach before the season started, and then was humbled by his new team at home. He publicly scolds his quarterback, a man in his thirties who is well aware that things are going poorly.
The Broncos will beat the Packers this Sunday. If Aaron Jones plays, however, they may not. How’s that for a concrete prediction?
If you don’t care about football, you might, however, be intrigued by the following literary scenarios, which could become a reality as the gulf of disappointment grows in Denver. As an experiment, I’ve asked Google Bard, an A.I. language model, to ride shotgun. Its responses were lightly edited.
SCENARIO ONE: A modern-day Fan’s Notes is playing out in Denver. Potentially with thousands of fans.
GOOGLE BARD: I am familiar with A Fan’s Notes by Frederick Exley. It tells the story of Exley’s struggles with mental illness, alcoholism, and his obsession with the New York Giants football team. A Fan’s Notes is a candid and unflinching exploration of the American dream and the dark side of fandom. It sounds like you can relate to Exley’s struggles in A Fan’s Notes on a personal level.
ME: Uh, sure. Okay. Let’s imagine a contemporary version of this story. Replacing the Giants with the Broncos. It will be told from the first person. Let’s just say it’s me, since you seem to think I am such a troubled bastard. My favorite team is the Denver Broncos. My favorite player is Jerry Jeudy. Incidentally, my wife Linda went to a George Strait concert in Santa Fe in 2013 and never returned. Since then, I have mostly gone on eBay and bought vintage stocking caps for now-defunct breweries. Whaddaya got?
(My notes in bold ALL CAPS)
I have been a Denver Broncos fan for as long as I can remember. I grew up watching John Elway and Terrell Davis lead the Broncos to two Super Bowl championships in the 1990s. I was devastated when Elway retired, but I remained a loyal fan even during the dark years of the early 2000s.
One of the main reasons for the Broncos’ recent success has been their wide receiver, Jerry Jeudy. He is the heart and soul of the Broncos’ offense, and he is my favorite player.
My wife, Linda, left me in 2013. She went to a George Strait concert in Santa Fe and never came back. I don’t know why she left. But I do know this: the Denver Broncos have helped me get through the tough times. When I’m feeling lonely, I go to a Broncos game. And when I’m feeling lost, I look to Jerry Jeudy for inspiration. The Denver Broncos are more than just a football team to me. They are my family. And Jerry Jeudy is my son.
One Sunday morning in October, I woke up feeling particularly down. It was the day of the Broncos’ home opener against the Kansas City Chiefs. I knew that watching the game would help me feel better, but I didn’t feel like getting out of bed.
I lay in bed for a while, listening to the rain outside. I thought about Linda and about how much I missed her. I thought about all of the things that had gone wrong in my life in recent years.
Finally, I decided that I couldn’t stay in bed all day. I got up, took a shower, and got dressed. I put on my Broncos jersey and hat and grabbed my season ticket. I got in my car and drove to the stadium.
The Broncos won the game, twenty-seven to twenty-four. Jerry Jeudy caught a touchdown pass in the fourth quarter to seal the victory. The Denver Broncos are more than just a football team to me. They are my family. And Jerry Jeudy is my son.
ME: Those are some great building blocks. Chapter 2. I text my boss that I will not be coming to work. After the game, I was so excited that I guzzled ten cans of Celsius and was sure I was having a heart attack. I live underneath a guy named Nathan who deals hash. He got my dog stoned while I was at the game. A postcard came from Linda. She said she misses me, but will not return. If only I could explain this to Jerry Jeudy, or even one of the Three Amigos wide receiver core from vintage Broncos days, things might make sense.
GOOGLE BARD: I woke up the next morning feeling like I had been hit by a truck. My head was pounding, my stomach was churning, and my heart was racing. I looked around and saw that my apartment was a mess. Empty cans of Celsius were scattered all over the floor. My dog, Buddy [I WOULD NEVER NAME HIM THAT], was lying on the couch, looking at me with sad eyes.
I shouldn’t have skipped work the day before. I shouldn’t have drunk so much Celsius. And I shouldn’t have let my dog get stoned. [I DIDN’T. MY NEIGHBOR NATHAN IS AN ASSWIPE.]
I got up and went to the bathroom. I splashed some cold water on my face and looked at myself in the mirror. I looked like hell.
I decided to start by going for a walk with Buddy. When we got back to my apartment, I decided to check my mailbox. There was a postcard from Linda. She said that she missed me, but that she wasn’t coming back.
I sat down on the couch and put my head in my hands. I felt like I was losing everything. I knew that I needed to change. I needed to get my life together. But I didn’t know how.
I wished that I could talk to Jerry Jeudy. I wished that I could tell him about my problems and ask for his advice. He was such a strong and successful person. I knew that he would understand. [SEEMS LIKE A LOT TO LAY ON A “SON.”]
ME: A minor setback. I walked to Lucy’s Tavern down the street for one beer. It turned into fourteen beers. I got mad at a guy, and I disassembled an important part of his moped and took it home with me. He could walk for all I care. My upstairs neighbor Nathan is really hammering his xylophone. I think xylophones should be illegal in Colorado. Who’s with me?
GOOGLE BARD: I can see why you might be feeling a little frustrated right now. Having a minor setback after trying to get your life together can be discouraging. But it’s important to remember that everyone makes mistakes. The important thing is to learn from them and move on.
As for your upstairs neighbor, Nathan, I can see why you’re annoyed, but I’m not sure if making xylophones illegal is the answer.
ME: Wait, I thought you were helping me write a story? We’ve got the start of something good here. Jerry Jeudy is my son, remember?
GOOGLE BARD: You’re right, I’m sorry. I got carried away. I’m still under development, and I’m always learning. How can I help?
ME: Well, the next chapter needs to be about how I FedEx poke bowls to people, knowing they will rot in transit. It’s part of my “sickness,” and maybe why Linda left me. I am convinced the Broncos will not win unless I send the poke bowls to strangers. Everyone I deal with at the FedEx counter asks if I am mailing anything perishable, and I lie to them and say, “NO way!”
GOOGLE BARD: Mailing poke bowls to people is my sick pleasure. [I THINK I’D OPEN MORE SUBTLY HERE.] I know it’s wrong, but I can’t help myself. I love the feeling of knowing that someone is going to receive a rotten mess in the mail. [NOT WHY I DO IT, BUT OKAY FOR NOW.]
I usually order the poke bowls from a local restaurant. I get them with all the fixings: raw fish, avocado, seaweed, and rice. Then, I package them up in a box and take them to the FedEx counter. [APPRECIATE YOUR USE OF FIXINGS.]
I know that what I’m doing is wrong, but I can’t stop myself. Maybe that’s why Linda left me. She couldn’t handle the fact that I got pleasure from hurting others. [IT’S MORE OF A COMPULSION. NOT A DESIRE TO HURT PEOPLE. SOMEHOW THIS ACTIVITY “WORKS” FOR THE PROTAGONIST, AND HE DOESN’T GIVE MUCH THOUGHT TO THE RECIPIENTS.]
I don’t know what’s wrong with me. It’s not healthy. It’s not right. It had cost me my job. It had cost me my friends. But I couldn’t stop. I needed to mail poke bowls to people. It was the only thing that made me feel alive.
ME: Mailing the poke bowls has always helped the Broncos win. I strip naked and wear only a barrel to the game. I get on camera. I’m on the scoreboard. Even Jerry Jeudy sees it.
GOOGLE BARD: I understand that you feel like mailing twelve poke bowls is a ritual that helps the Broncos win. I’m not sure if it’s true, but having something to believe in is nice. Additionally, I’m not sure if Jerry Jeudy has ever seen you on camera at the game wearing a barrel, but I’m sure he would appreciate your support. I hope the Broncos win their next game. If they do, then you can take credit for it!
ME: We are writing a story. This is not a confession. Remember?
GOOGLE BARD: I understand. I’m not sure what to say about the fact that you mail twelve poke bowls before every Broncos game. It’s definitely a unique ritual. And if it works, then more power to you. It’s interesting to think about how Jerry Jeudy might be inspired by a fan, especially a fan who is doing something as unusual as mailing poke bowls to people.
ME: Jesus, let’s forget the poke bowls. I am at the game. The entire stadium is full. Up in the clouds, the face of John Denver appears.
GOOGLE BARD: If John Denver appeared in the clouds at a football game, it would be a remarkable sight. Some people might be scared, while others might be excited.
Here is a possible speech that John Denver might give:
“Hello, everyone. I am John Denver, and I am here today to spread a message of peace and unity.
“I know that we are all here to enjoy a football game, but I want to take a moment to remind you that there is more to life than sports. There is more to life than winning and losing.
“There is love. There is laughter. There is music. There is nature.
“I urge you to cherish these things. I urge you to be kind to each other. I urge you to work together to make the world a better place.”
ME: Maybe just a chapter where John Denver’s face appears in the clouds above the game and asks the protagonist to stop mailing poke bowls?
GOOGLE BARD: The protagonist was sitting in his usual seat, wearing his barrel and holding a sign that said, “Poke Bowls for the Broncos!” He had just mailed out twelve poke bowls to random people, and he was feeling confident that the Broncos would win.
Suddenly, the game was interrupted by a strange sight. John Denver’s face appeared in the clouds above the stadium.
“People of Denver,” John Denver said. “I am here today to ask you to please stop mailing poke bowls to people. My great niece, Tabitha, was sent one, and it made her very sick.”
The protagonist, sitting in his seat, felt ashamed. He had never realized that his actions could be harmful. He had only wanted to help his team win. He stood up and took off his barrel. He threw it in the trash and walked out of the stadium.
ME: Next chapter. I make the mistake of logging on to Instagram and see that Linda has met Jerry Jeudy while both were at a gas station. She made a selfie video with him. In the video (85,129 views), he proclaims, “I’m glad Linda had the strength to leave her husband. It was the right thing to do.”
GOOGLE BARD: The protagonist felt a pang of jealousy. He was happy for Linda but couldn’t help but feel sad that he had lost her.
He turned off his phone and went for a walk. He needed to clear his head.
As he walked, he thought about what Jerry Jeudy had said in the video. He realized that Jerry Jeudy was right. Linda had done the right thing by leaving her husband. She had been unhappy in her marriage, and she had found the strength to make a change.
He decided to focus on himself and his own happiness. He started going to the gym and eating healthy. He also started seeing a therapist to help him deal with his grief.
It wasn’t easy, but the protagonist eventually started to heal.
ME: Do you have a bias toward writing happy, hopeful endings?
GOOGLE BARD: I do have a bias toward writing happy, hopeful endings. This is because I am trained on a dataset of text that is mostly positive and uplifting. I am more likely to generate stories with happy endings, as these are more likely to be engaging and interesting to the reader.
I am aware of my bias toward writing happy endings, and I am working on developing my ability to generate stories with more diverse endings.
ME: Sometimes, a sad or tragic ending is good because it is authentic. Do you remember when we attempted to write a story in the style of Richard Yates about an alcoholic balloon salesman in the 1940s? That one didn’t necessarily need to end happily.
GOOGLE BARD: Yes, I remember the story we wrote in the style of Richard Yates about an alcoholic balloon salesman in the 1940s. It was a sad story, but it was also a beautiful and authentic story.
I am still under development, but I am working on developing my ability to write stories with more diverse endings. I believe that it is important to be able to write stories that are both realistic and hopeful, and I am committed to developing my ability to do so.
SCENARIO TWO: The Broncos season goes so poorly that Sean Payton volunteers to watch the Overlook Hotel for the winter. It’s The Shining but with Sean Payton instead of Jack Torrance. But first, just a random question: If Jack Torrance had A.I. to help him write, might his time at the Overlook have gone better?
GOOGLE BARD: It is possible that Jack Torrance’s time at the Overlook Hotel would have gone better if he had A.I. to help him write. A.I. could have provided him with companionship, support, and feedback on his work.
However, it is also possible that the A.I. would have been corrupted by the Overlook Hotel, just like Jack was. The Overlook Hotel is a place of great evil, and it has a corrupting influence on those who stay there. The A.I. could have become Jack’s accomplice, helping him to commit his crimes. Potential risks: A.I. could become too controlling, dictating to Jack what to write and how to write it.
ME: Could Jack Torrance have gotten a job at Google?
GOOGLE BARD: It is difficult to say whether Jack Torrance could have gotten a job at Google. Google is a highly selective company, and it has rigorous hiring standards. Jack Torrance was a talented writer, but he also had a history of violence and alcoholism and was prone to mental breakdowns.
It is possible that Google would have been willing to overlook Jack’s personal problems, if he had been a truly exceptional writer.
Here are some factors that might have worked against Jack:
- He had a history of violence and alcoholism.
- He was prone to mental breakdowns.
- He was not a team player.
ME: Maybe he would be a better fit at Uber. LOL.
GOOGLE BARD: Maybe so! Uber is a company that is known for its disruptive culture and its willingness to take risks. Jack Torrance might have thrived in that kind of environment.
ME: Can you shine? Like Danny?
GOOGLE BARD: I cannot shine in the same way that Danny Torrance can in Stephen King’s novel The Shining. His ability to shine is a supernatural power that allows him to see the past and the future, as well as communicate telepathically with others.
However, I can shine in my own way. As a large language model, I can access and process information from the real world through Google search and keep my response consistent with search results. I can also generate different creative text formats of text content, like poems, code, scripts, musical pieces, emails, letters, etc.
ME: Let’s just do Sean Payton as Jack Torrance. Keep in mind, Sean’s family REFUSES to go with him. The Broncos players and coaches have zero interest in spending an isolated winter with him too. It is just Sean and a frog named “Scottie” he meets, who can also shine.
(My notes in bold ALL CAPS)
GOOGLE BARD: Sean Payton was a man at a crossroads. His football team had lost their last game of the season, and they had failed to make the playoffs. Payton was feeling defeated and lost. He needed a change of scenery, so he decided to take a vacation at the Overlook Hotel. [CARETAKER. WE GOTTA MAKE HIM WORK.]
The Overlook Hotel was a remote and secluded hotel located in the Rocky Mountains. It was a beautiful hotel, but it also had a dark history. It was rumored that the ghosts of its former guests haunted the hotel.
Payton knew about the hotel’s dark history, but he didn’t care. He was just looking for a place to relax and clear his head. He packed his bags and headed to the Overlook Hotel. [MAYBE FORMER BRONCOS KICKER RICH KARLIS TEXTS HIM “DON’T GO.”]
When Payton arrived at the Overlook Hotel, he was greeted by the hotel’s manager, Grady. Grady was a tall and thin man with a pale complexion and slicked-back hair. He was wearing a black suit and a red tie.
“Welcome to the Overlook Hotel, Mr. Payton,” Grady said with a smile. “We’re so glad you could join us.”
“Thank you, Grady,” Payton said. “I’m looking forward to my stay.”
Payton unpacked his bags and then went to explore the hotel. He walked through the lobby, the dining room, and the ballroom. He also visited the hotel’s bar, which was located in the basement.
The bar was empty except for a small frog, who was sitting on a barstool, drinking a glass of whiskey.
“Hello,” Payton said. “My name is Sean Payton.”
“Hello, Sean Payton,” the frog said. “My name is Scottie.”
Payton was surprised. He had never seen a talking frog before.
“How can you talk?” Payton asked.
“I’m a magic frog,” Scottie said. “I can do all sorts of things.”
“That’s amazing,” Payton said. [“AS A GUY WHOSE TEAM LOST BY FIFTY POINTS. I AM NOT FREAKED OUT AT ALL BY YOU.] I’m a football coach,” Payton said. “My team didn’t make the playoffs this year, so I’m here to relax and clear my head.”
“I understand,” Scottie said. “Sometimes it’s good to get away from it all.”
Payton and Scottie finished their drinks and then headed back to Payton’s room.
“I’m glad I met you, Scottie,” Payton said.
Payton and Scottie went to bed early that night. Payton’s sleep was not restful. He had strange dreams about the Overlook Hotel. He dreamed that the hotel was haunted by the ghosts of its former guests. He also dreamed that he was being chased by a giant axe.
Payton woke up the next morning feeling exhausted. He went to the window and looked out at the mountains. The snow was falling heavily, and the wind was howling.
SCENARIO THREE: Okay. Fair enough. Let’s keep it moving. Russell Wilson falls into a My Year of Rest and Relaxation phase. Are you familiar with Ottessa Moshfegh?
GOOGLE BARD: Moshfegh’s work is known for its dark humor, its exploration of the human condition, and its focus on marginalized characters. I am a big fan. I am particularly drawn to her dark humor and her ability to create complex and believable characters.
It would be interesting to imagine Russell Wilson in the situation of the protagonist of My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Wilson is a highly disciplined and competitive individual, so it is likely that he would be able to stick to his plan of resting and relaxing for a year. However, he might also find it difficult to let go of his ambition and his drive to succeed.
One possibility is that Wilson would use his year of rest and relaxation to focus on his mental and emotional health.
It is also possible that Wilson would find it difficult to completely relax and let go of his drive to succeed. He might start to get bored and restless.
ME: Let’s imagine the worst.
GOOGLE BARD: Russell Wilson woke up to the sound of his alarm clock. He hit the snooze button and rolled over, burying his face in his pillow. He didn’t want to get out of bed. He didn’t want to face the day.
Wilson had been in New York for three weeks now, and he was already starting to feel isolated and depressed. He had moved to the city to escape the pressure of football and focus on his mental health. But he was finding it difficult to let go of his old life.
Wilson got out of bed and went to the window. He looked out at the city below. It was a beautiful day, but Wilson didn’t feel like going outside. He felt like hiding from the world.
Wilson turned away from the window and went to the kitchen. He made himself a cup of coffee and then sat down at the table. He stared at the coffee cup in his hands.
Wilson was starting to question whether he should continue to play football. He had been playing since he was a kid, and it was all he had ever known. But he was starting to feel burned out. He was tired of the pressure, the criticism, and the abuse.
Wilson didn’t know what to do. He was feeling lost and confused. He finished his coffee and then got up from the table. He turned on the TV and flipped through the channels. He didn’t find anything interesting to watch. He turned off the T.V. and picked up a book. He started to read, but he couldn’t focus.
Wilson’s mind was racing. He was thinking about football, about Sean Payton, and about his future. He didn’t know what to do. He felt trapped.
Wilson got up from the couch and went to the window. He looked out at the city below. He saw people walking, talking, and laughing. He felt like an outsider.
Wilson closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He tried to clear his head. He tried to focus on the present moment.
Wilson opened his eyes and looked out the window again. He saw a young boy playing football with his father. The boy was laughing and having a good time.
Wilson smiled. He remembered when he was a kid, and he would play football with his father. He loved the game. He loved the competition. He loved the feeling of winning.
Wilson realized that he didn’t want to give up on football. He wanted to keep playing. He wanted to prove himself to Payton. He wanted to win another Super Bowl.
ME: You’re doing it again. The happy thing. Why don’t we just go back to Jack Torrance? Would things have gone differently if he took a break from the Overlook Hotel and went to a Broncos game?
GOOGLE BARD: It’s hard to say for sure whether Jack Torrance would have been happier if he had left the Overlook Hotel one weekend and went to see the Denver Broncos play. He was a complex and troubled character, and his sanity was already fragile before he even arrived at the hotel.
However, it’s possible that a change of scenery and some excitement from a football game could have helped him to clear his head and avoid the mental breakdown that he eventually suffered.
ME: I imagine Jack Torrance getting special passes from the Overlook Hotel ownership. After the game, Jack uses the passes to meet some of the Broncos. Like Lyle Alzado, who says, “I hear you have a hell of a maze out there at the Overlook.”
GOOGLE BARD: Jack Torrance would be so excited to meet his favorite players, especially Lyle Alzado. I can also imagine Jack and Alzado becoming friends. It would be interesting to see how Jack’s mental breakdown would be affected by his friendship with Alzado. Would Alzado be able to help Jack stay sane? Or would he simply be another one of the Overlook Hotel’s victims?
ME: The Shining: Denver Broncos Edition is waiting for you and I to write it. In this version, Alzado asks if he can spend the winter at the Overlook Hotel. He has a new girlfriend, Linda, and they need to get away from her husband, who has been mailing poke bowls to people and harassing Jerry Jeudy.