A dozen games in, we're two-thirds of the way through a pre-season marathon of sorts, the 18 games in 18 days served up in the revamped NAB Challenge a feast of February football, even if there's no prize at the end of it this year.
''It's only pre-season'' is the inevitable mantra that accompanies virtually any observation about what's transpired thus far. But it doesn't render what has occurred irrelevant, either.
Here's just a few things we have already gleaned from this February's football.
FEAST OR FAMINE
There's been little in-between with this year's NAB Challenge thus far, a series of good-standard thrillers punctuated with a few uncompetitive blowouts.
The Geelong-Collingwood opener last week was considered by many to be one of the better games pre-season has seen in recent times. Indeed, Magpies skipper Scott Pendlebury believed the intensity was higher than NAB Cup grand finals he had played in.
The Richmond-Melbourne, North Melbourne-Carlton and Gold Coast-Essendon clashes were also quality affairs, and tight; the aggregate winning margin in all four games was just 24 points. Hawthorn, meanwhile, smashed Brisbane by 131, then North Melbourne by 65, West Coast carved up Fremantle by 84, and Adelaide pantsed Port by 10 goals. Club analysts, however, have remarked on a generally greater urgency in many games to date, with more numbers around the ball and a greater emphasis on quicker ball movement than we've been used in Februarys past.
If the compacted pre-season competition and an earlier start to the premiership season have done anything, it's been to give us a more watchable start to our seven-month footy fix.
THE NEXT SLEEPING GIANT?
West Coast's preparation may have been significantly more advanced than its opponent's, but you had to be impressed with the 84-point demolition job that the Eagles, coached for the first time by Adam Simpson, did on 2013 runner-up Fremantle at Joondalup last Tuesday.
Hawthorn pick-up Xavier Ellis was super-impressive in midfield and sweeping up across half-back, as were midfielders Sharrod Wellingham and Chris Masten, who contributed six goals between them.
What's different under Simpson? Already you could detect a more methodical approach bringing the ball out of defence with a much greater and Hawthorn-like preparedness to find uncontested targets. Opposition analysts also suggest Simpson will be prepared to run a larger roll call of players through the midfield, including mobile talls such as Jack Darling.
The Eagles averaged only 200 uncontested possessions per game in 2013, which ranked 16th. Against Freo, they recorded 267. That was 65 per cent of their total possessions as against last year's 58 per cent, a sign of things to come.
Few popular premiership fancies have disappointed like the Eagles did last year, but already there's plenty of pundits wondering whether Simpson's outfit might be the biggest climber of 2014.
AS FOR ANOTHER GIANT …
Whatever happened to the tradition of the reigning premier easing into the pre-season? Hawthorn has shown that, unlike the aftermath of its last premiership, it intends to be up and about when the real stuff starts, with two commanding wins by a total of nearly 200 points. The Hawks have fielded strong line-ups but also found time to blood some highly promising talent, most conspicuously Will Langford, who was terrific against the Roos, running with Jack Ziebell, picking up 19 possessions and booting three goals. Derick Wanganeen, Alex Woodward, Tim O'Brien, Jon Ceglar, Angus Litherland and Kurt Heatherley have all shown enough flashes to suggest Hawthorn's list in 2014 runs as deep as anyone's.
WHO TRIMMED EDDIE'S SHORTS?
Was it an optical illusion provided by Adelaide's red, yellow and blue horizontal stripes, or are they saving on fabric at AAMI Stadium? When Eddie Betts took to the field for the first time as a Crow, those familiar cargo pants posing as footy shorts seemed clearly to have had a nip and tuck.
Not that the reduction in length curbed his powers. Indeed, in Adelaide's thumping win over local rival Port Adelaide, Betts' five goals loomed largest, the arrival of the former Blue as a free agent an early candidate for most valuable pick-up.
Kurt Tippett's departure and Taylor Walker's injury cut deeply into Adelaide's scoring power in 2013, but so did the absence of a quality small forward at the feet of the big men, Patrick Dangerfield having not only to hold the fort midfield but chip in with the goals as well. Betts' ominous start as a Crow already looks likely solving more than just one problem for Adelaide.
ANOTHER AFL CULT FIGURE
In an age of increasingly homogenised footballers, it doesn't necessarily take a lot to be a cult figure these days; a sleeve of tattoos or a wacky haircut. St Kilda recruit Eli Templeton has the latter, but fortunately also seems to have the ability to back it up.
In some pretty heavy going at Simonds Stadium last Wednesday, the shaggy-haired 18- year-old Tasmanian worked hard, won a bit of outside ball, and ended up with the two most creative goals of the evening, the first out of mid-air, the second a very calmly taken chance off the ground from far enough out in slippery conditions.
As a rookie-lister, Templeton may have a few youngsters in the queue ahead of him, but he's already shaping as a fan favourite, and when he does get his chance, St Kilda supporters certainly aren't going to have any problems picking him out.
WHAT WAS BRISBANE PLAYING AT?
If the Lions' NAB Cup success last year proved to be very much a false dawn, new coach Justin Leppitsch certainly did everything he could at the selection table last week to help hose down any expectations about 2014.
Few pre-season teams in recent times have been as short on experience as was the Brisbane combination that was pumped to the tune of 131 points by Hawthorn. No Brown, Adcock, Rockliff, Redden, Rich, Moloney, Hanley, Merrett or Patfull meant the Lions fielded just two players with 100 AFL games under their belts. Brisbane fielded a much stronger team for its second hit-out, against Gold Coast on Sunday, but after an off-season racked by player departures and internal strife, most would have expected the Lions to come out this pre-season all guns blazing, and their failure to do so certainly raised a few eyebrows.
DEMON HOPE ON THE HORIZON
Hard to go past Melbourne's exciting win over Richmond as the ''feel-good'' story of the pre-season to date. You certainly didn't have to look hard to find the positives out of the Demons' first outing under Paul Roos.
Players getting their hands on the football for a start: Melbourne racked up 445 disposals to the Tigers' 262. There was an immediate impact by senior recruits Bernie Vince, Daniel Cross, Dom Tyson and Viv Michie, and an exciting three-goal debut by goalsneak Jay Kennedy-Harris. And a much more measured approach with the ball in hand and a greater commitment to the contest. Melbourne finished a distant last in the rankings for both contested and uncontested possession in 2013. Against the Tigers, it won both categories handsomely.
All of this, too, without the considerable presence of key forward targets Mitch Clark and Chris Dawes, boom youngster Jesse Hogan, and Jack Watts. The next assignment for Roos' Melbourne will be considerable tougher - Geelong in Alice Springs on Friday. But the Demons would have to stink it up really badly to completely wipe the smile on their fans' faces.