In the world of mathematics, one of the seemingly simplest problems in existence is also one that has eluded humanity’s brightest minds for generations. The Collatz conjecture is a hugely impressive term for something so basic it hurts: 3x+1. Under scrutiny it’s held into the quadrillions that one simple number game will always come crashing back to the same inevitable loop.
Pick any number you can think of, anything at all. If it’s odd, then multiply by three and add one. If it’s even, you divide by two. Repeat the process. Eventually, without fail, you will always return to the same helpless loop: 4/2 is 2. 2/1 is 1. 1×3 is 3, +1 is 4. Repeat. It’s torment personified, agony realized, it’s Sisyphus pushing a boulder up a hill. The crushing reality that we can solve the world’s most complicated problems, but never manage to find a single number that can avoid the hopeless plummet to one.
So dawns the beginning of another NFL season. A fresh opportunity to try to find our own magic number. Ignoring the stark reality that we too will likely crash back down. The NFL is pain, and our agony is its muse. There’s good reason you’ll rarely find a happy NFL writer. We come in two breeds: Those young enough to keep trying to find that number, and those who have accepted the fate that when the NFL comes knocking it always demands a pound of flesh, and we’ve carved as much as we can in service of its cruel desire.
Yet, we keep returning. We keep crunching those numbers. We persist in trying to find a way to solve an unsolvable league, because once in a great while it’s happened. The carrot on the end of the stick has been reached. Each season one team, a shade over 3 percent of the league, gets to finish fulfilled. The rest of us say “better luck next year,” and pick a new number next year — knowing we’ll probably end back at one.
The NFL thrives on promise and mystique. It’s often said that the league is microcosm of America, and damn that’s true. Not because of some fluffy, lofty ideals of people from different backgrounds and races working together to achieve a common goal. Sure, that’s nice — but because it really represents what this country is all about: The unwavering reality that with hard work, effort, and skill, we can all have our talents exploited by a small group of controlling billionaires as a means of wealth distribution that always travels upwards. The American Dream of the financial elite that success, whether on the football field, or in the board room, means the ability to make more and more money.
Why do you think owners are so excited when their teams win the Super Bowl? Maybe a small part is the glory, but deep down they know it’s the justification they need to jack up ticket prices, sell more jerseys, and ink more endorsements. It’s enough to bring a tear to your eye.
The most beautifully cruel element of the Collatz conjecture is how it teases you. Mercifully the number 26 returns to one after 10 steps (26, 13, 40, 20, 10, 5, 16, 8, 4, 2, 1). Go just one number higher, to 27, and it takes 111 steps — swelling to 9,232 before falling once again. This is the great tease of the NFL compared to its college brethren. Those gloriously lucky sods can know as soon as Week 1 that their team’s season is over. Free from football’s icy embrace to open up their Saturdays to life, and love, and experience.
Big brother NFL is not nearly so kind. Like the number 27, we are gripped every single week of the now 17 game schedule, soaring and falling with the constant promise that maybe we can break free to infinity. Sometimes reality doesn’t set in until the very end, when we need the final month to determine whether hope is truly lost. We follow along, idly watching playoff chances wax and wane, doing all sorts of mental arithmetic on how our team can find a back door into the playoffs, where anything can happen. Of course, it’s futile. It’ll crash back down to one, because it always crashes back down to one.
We keep returning. Time, and time, and time again. Because, like the naive mathematician still trying to prove the Collatz conjecture and cement their place in legend, we too are addicted to history. The possibility that we will get to witness what others could not, that we can carry a torch sometimes lasting generations. Fandom handed down to us as a cruel birthright, to be upheld, cherished and celebrated — even when we get nothing in return. Detroit Lions fans have watched 778 regular season games since the AFL-NFL merger and never seen their team in the Super Bowl, let alone win the damn thing. That’s 2,334 hours (give or take). That’s 97.25 days of agony. Forget whatever miscredited quote about insanity and repetition, ask a mental health professional if you should keep willingly subject yourself to something that causes so much emotional anguish. They’ll all answer the same: Absolutely not.
Yet, we still live for this. We need the NFL — and when the reality of football is too much to bear we throw ourselves into the world of fantasy, where our dreams of victory on a pretend virtual field can somehow find a way to bring us even more pain. Why? Because the sweetness at the other side is simply too alluring. Maybe we’ll be the ones to finally solve the equation, and when we do we can be there in spirit, in history, to say “I was there.”
It’s for this reason I always found it hilarious when the raucous cacophony of Patriots fans screamed “You hate us because you ain’t us.” No, no, no, my sweet summer children. We hated you because you weren’t us. Bill Belichick and Tom Brady did the impossible. They solved the NFL’s Collatz conjecture. They found a way, through parity, bad calls, randomness and injury to make a modern dynasty. That is not supposed to happen. Nobody is supposed to avoid the pain of NFL fandom for that long, with that much reliability, especially in the modern era. You were supposed to go back down to one, but you didn’t — you just kept soaring, infuriatingly soaring and robbing 31 other fanbases for their fleeting chance to experience joy.
We hated you not for what you were, but what you weren’t: Miserable with the rest of us. Then Tom Brady went and found a way to do it AGAIN. If he repeats and hoists the Lombardi Trophy in 2021 he’s officially solved the equation once more.
If all this sounds horrible, and melancholy, and sad beyond measure, then good. It should. I’ll leave it up to willing throngs to tell you why this year is going to be your team’s year. The truth is: It probably won’t. At least, statistically speaking. I don’t care if your team upgraded its offensive line, or you signed that one key pass rusher that’s going to make the defense complete. Everything is one injury, bad play, or poor decision from everything going down the drain. That is the heart of the NFL. If something can go wrong, it probably will — and it’s so much easier to just say “well, there’s always next year” instead of thinking about the hours of wasted emotional investment into a game that never, ever loves us back as much as we love it.
So, once again we take a number. We multiply it by three and add one, and maybe we get lucky and get to multiple it again — but eventually, without fail, we will crash back down to one. The NFL has knocked on the door once more to demand its tribute, and we will pay once more — because at this point there is no other option.