Blast From the Packs: Panini’s Absolute-ly fine football offering

I’m just a simple caveman — er, an old-school sports card collector who’s re-emerged, as though frozen in ice these last 25 years or so, into a hobby that bears little resemblance to the one I left as a high schooler in the late 1990s. Many of the new trends are still, even after a few months of immersion, confusing and intimidating to me. Chief among them: The price inflation for packs and boxes of cards, particularly the “hobby” packs/boxes/blasters/etc.

When I was younger, I didn’t see much of a difference between hobby and retail product, nor did I really care: I bought what was available and affordable. Nowadays, there’s less available and even less affordable. So I delved into it: Why are prices so high? Why are some boxes and packs of a product less than half the cost of other similar boxes of the same product? The answer really does seem to come down to the hobby/retail difference.

Nowadays, hobby product is MUCH more laden with the expensive, sought-after inserts such as autographs and game-worn memorabilia, the super-short print runs all the way down to 1-of-1, meaning if you pull it, you’re the only person in the world who has it. In some cases, the retail product (i.e. the stuff sold at Walmart, Target, Walgreens, etc.) doesn’t even have the super high-end stuff inserted in it.

So while the prices may be eye-watering, the reality is if you can afford/stomach it, the hobby stuff is much more likely to give you that “return on investment” that so many current collectors are looking for. If you spend $600 on a “box” that has four packs in it, but there are three guaranteed autograph cards in there, and those cards are averaging $200 (with outliers up to $2,000 or more) on the market, those are decent odds for recouping your investment, right?

All that said, I can’t afford that. It’s a gamble I can’t take. Plus, I’m more of a collector than I am an investor (I haven’t yet sold a single card since I’ve started buying again). But I do keep my eye out for affordable modern product, usually in the form of retail blaster boxes (small sealed boxes with four to 12ish packs inside), because I do still like ripping packs even though I’m increasingly aware that I’m better off cruising eBay for singles of my favorite players and sets than I am opening packs and hoping to get those cards.

A few weeks ago, Panini released its 2020 Absolute Football set. It’s 300 cards (a pretty small set, which I generally interpret as having fewer scrub players) with the usual modern lineup of inserts and a rainbow of parallel sets with different colors of foil and varying scarcity. I found what turned out to be retail blaster boxes of eight eight-card packs on eBay for $32, or $4 per pack. That is indeed more than my caveman self is used to paying at retail for new packs of cards, but compared to most modern product, including the hobby versions of these boxes, which I’ve seen offered for as much as $350 a piece, it’s an absolute (heh) bargain. So I got one.

As you can see on the box, it claims you’ll find “1 autograph or memorabilia card per box, on average.” On another side, it mentions that each box tends to have three parallel cards, on average.

Interestingly, now that I’ve opened all the packs, I can say that both of these promises were true in my experience. In fact, each pack I opened had a sort of pattern to it:

  • First three cards are standard base cards
  • Fourth card is either a parallel (in my case, green, the most common one for retail product) or an insert
  • Fifth through eighth cards are all rookies, and in one pack I got a green parallel rookie among them

The only pack that deviated from this pattern at all was the one which held the lone memorabilia card of the box. That card, a Rookie Force jersey insert for Raiders WR Henry Ruggs III, showed up in the third card spot, taking the place of one of the base cards.

On another note, one other part of the modern hobby that confounds me is card thickness: When I was growing up, every card I could buy, including the ones from the thicker, premium sets, could fit in a standard penny sleeve and toploader case. Some of the thicker ones, like Fleer’s Flair cards, would be a tighter fit, but they did still fit. Now, cards like this one, with a little slice of a player’s jersey on them, are VERY thick, like the thickness of four or five standard cards, and you have to buy special toploaders, cases, sleeves, binder pages, etc., to account for the different thicknesses. And thicknesses are NOT standard. I only have a few jersey cards in my collection, and I believe so far I have at least three thicknesses represented. This particular card is very snug in the 78-point toploaders I bought specifically for these jersey cards, but the “thick card” penny sleeves I bought fit loosely on it. So for right now, I have this baggy sleeve on the card inside a tight toploader, and it’s created a situation not unlike when you wear boxer shorts underneath skinny jeans. Kinda lame, folks!

Back to the set, though, I did receive three green parallel cards (where the silver foil on the base cards is replaced with green foil … not terribly exciting, really) as promised on the box, alongside the different inserts in each pack. And I didn’t get any duplicates at all, which is frankly astounding.

Since this is my first review of a current set that people can still find in stores, I’ll go a bit farther with my reviewing than I have with my earlier posts about 30-year-old sets. I’ll break my experience of these cards down on four key categories, rating them out of five, and then we’ll do an average overall rating out of five at the end. I’m treating each of these categories as equally important to the overall enjoyment.

Design: 3 of 5

The fronts are a little busy, all told, but still manage to feel clean and fairly open despite all the elements (two diagonal team-color ribbons on two corners, with a team logo in the lower right and a larger sublimated logo underneath for some reason, a white border on the other sides with football laces on two sides, PLUS a carbon-fiber style gray stripe with two foil lines and the player name in foil, phew!). It’s an admirable accomplishment.

The backs, similarly, are a bit busy, though not to a degree that makes me think it’s ugly. Lots of team color, just one year of stats (for non-rookies, plus a career totals line) and a good amount of flavor text for each player. The carbon fiber stripe and football lace design elements carry over from the front.

Every rookie card is a full-foil silver treatment (with different colors for different parallels, of course) of the base design. It works pretty well, though it is hard to photograph, since it’s essentially a mirror.

Inserts are pretty varied, from what I saw. I had a Fantasy Throwback card featuring retired Chargers legend LaDainian Tomlinson that was pretty standard, design-wise, a CeeDee Lamb Rookie Introductions card that I liked a little more, though still had a pretty standard look to it, and my favorite, a Lamar Jackson card from the Stargazing subset. I’ve seen Panini use Stargazing as a subset in their basketball sets as well, and the designs are always creative and sleek. The design on the Ruggs jersey card pictured above is also pretty attractive and distinct from the base set.

Card feel: 4 of 5

This is obviously intended to be a widely accessible set, something young collectors can appreciate (and afford) as well as older collectors. It’s not totally overwhelmed by foil and holographic elements, it’s not super thick card stock. But even the base cards, to me, still feel very solid, sturdy, and premium. The gloss on the fronts is high, with more of a satin finish on the backs. The cards aren’t THICC, per se, but they do feel thiccER than most of the standard sets I’m used to. It might be a mirage created by the thick layer of gloss on the front, but it still feels good in the hand and looks good in sleeves and cases.

Photography: 3 of 5

I think Panini, overall, does a good job on photography. I’ve been impressed with the level of photography and color processing on all the Panini/Donruss/Score/etc. cards I’ve seen. This set does a fine job on that front.

The one thing I’ve noticed with Panini, however, is that they do have a tendency to reuse photos across different sets. That feels kinda lazy to me, and I saw one example of it in this set, when I pulled a card for one of my favorite players, Cardinals WR DeAndre Hopkins, and noticed that the photo was the same as a Panini Mozaic Hopkins card I had sitting just a couple feet from me.

Yep, that’s the same photo.

It’s a good photo, and I’m sure it doesn’t help that Panini puts out so many sets each year and designers are dipping into the same limited pool of good action shots of each player (particularly in cases like this, where a player is in his first season with a new team), but I don’t know that they deserve a pass for it. Demerit for photo reuse, but otherwise, I’m generally positive on the photography here.

Fun factor: 3.25 of 5

I did my usual Andrew Taylor Recommends Excitement Index ratings with this smaller box and found that it was indeed more fun to open than anything else I’ve opened so far, with an average pack rating of 3.25 on a scale of 5. As a quick summary, I rate each pack I open as I open it on a 5-point scale, with 5 being “this is an amazing pack of cards, one of the best I can remember” and 1 being “this was pretty dismal.” Technically, I’ve also deployed zero-ratings for packs in the past, but no packs here scored lower than 2. With fewer scrub players, more inserts, more rookies, and a nice overall look to the set, there was just less of a chance for overall disappointment than there is in these bloated 700-plus-card sets of the early 1990s.

Plus, although I didn’t pull any crazy rare cards worth hundreds of dollars such as any of the very rare Kaboom! subset (so far the most expensive card I pulled, a Chase Young rookie, is going for as much as $40 on eBay, depending on who’s doing the listing), I was happy with what I got! I got a few of my favorite players (DeAndre Hopkins, Lamar Jackson, Julio Jones, Christian McCaffrey), a few top rookies (Tua Tagovailoa, Antoine Winfield Jr. and Chase Young among them), and I was even fairly happy with the big “hit,” the Ruggs jersey card. It’s only worth $20 at this point, but if Ruggs has a good start to his career, that could easily triple relatively soon. And with four rookies per pack, I can hold onto even the ones who are injured or just barely on squads in case any of them pan out in the next few years. Plus, as I mentioned before, no duplicates! Excessive duplicates, for me, are the biggest drags on the fun of opening a given pack, and a big reason for the lower ratings on earlier boxes I opened.

Overall rating: 3.31 of 5

In total, 2020 Absolute Football is a solid, affordable, attractive set to collect. There are plenty of inserts, parallels, and special relic-style cards to chase, and the price isn’t as gutbusting as some of the other sets out there. There are prettier sets with better inserts and more collector interest (which drives prices higher) out there, so you might ask why one would bother spending their hobby dollars on this. Absolute is a good entry-level to middle-of-the-road option, though, and in that sense, it’s pretty rare in this hyperinflated market. If you are interested in buying any, you may want to act quickly: As of November 23, I notice prices for these boxes are creeping up to $40-plus per on eBay from the $30-ish I paid on November 10.

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