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Eight subplots that could change NFL landscape in 2012

Associated Press
(From left to right) Darren McFadden, Robert Griffin III and Tony Romo will enter the 2012 campaign in the spotlight.

For all of you football fiends who have something on your mind besides the 40-yard dash and how many times some future backup linebacker can bench 225 pounds, this Bud's for you.

Let's put the NFL Scouting Combine aside for a moment. Just last week, I penned the last Exit Interview, closing out a two-month project that covered all 32 teams. With some help from colleague Steve Wyche, who wrote six of the Exit Interviews, we were able to rehash and reflect upon every team's performance in 2011 and spin things forward, too. (You can find a link to each team's Exit Interiew in the box to your right.)

But, that's all so last week.

What issues are hitting these clubs in the face now, as we enter spring and then summer?

Everyone knows the Colts' situation. The Matt Flynn sweepstakes will surely affect several franchises that lack the time, patience or wherewithal to develop a quarterback from scratch. The Giants must fight complacency, the disease that's afflicted nearly every Super Bowl winner since Vince Lombardi left the Packers 44 years ago.

Those are the obvious storylines. But beyond those are some intriguing organizational issues that, while not being quite as well known, could impact a team, a division and in some cases an entire league.

Here are a few such items that stick out ...

First-to-worstmania?

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Not to be a Negative Nancy, but if there is a club that could easily slip from the top to the bottom of its division, it's Denver. Think about it: the AFC West was already as tight as could be last season, with every team within a game of each other. Kansas City has Jamaal Charles, Tony Moeaki and Eric Berry coming back after missing most of 2011. Philip Rivers had the worst season of his career, and yet San Diego only lost the division on tiebreakers. Oakland also lost the division on tiebreakers, and hired former Broncos defensive coordinator Dennis Allen as its new head coach.

Meanwhile, Denver's new defensive coordinator, Jack Del Rio, must make the most of this offseason to implement his philosophies, without changing much of what worked for the team in 2011. Offensively, Tim Tebow has to similarly capitalize on this non-lockout spring to be the best OVERALL player he can be. Otherwise, it could be 7-9 and fourth place in the West (like Kansas City in 2011).

Rock and a hard place for Mularkey

By most accounts, Mike Mularkey did a bang-up job as offensive coordinator in Atlanta. The Falcons finished last season in the top 10 in both points per game and yards gained. In 2010, they finished fifth in points scored. While Mularkey's track record is proven, he inherits a whole new set of problems in Jacksonville.

The Jags have had troubles at wideout ever since Jimmy Smith hung 'em up after the '05 season. Meanwhile, Blaine Gabbert is no Matt Ryan. Could he be? Possibly. But the disturbing word from scouts was in plain view in 2011: he's skittish in the pocket. How do you teach a quarterback to keep his eyes down the field, and not blink? Some aspects of quarterbacking are easier to instruct than others, like footwork. Having courage under fire, as well as trust in a so-so offensive line, is as innate as it is absorbed. Gabbert wasn't Mularkey's pick, but he was the 10th overall selection just a year ago. That's a tough spot for a new head coach to be.

"RGIII" kinda sounds like a horror movie for Cleveland

Who wants to have to make the decision the Browns are faced with? In Cleveland's Exit Interview, I speculated on whether the Browns will junk the Colt McCoy project. (And if they do, whether they'll have to trade up from the fourth overall pick to prevent a team like Washington from moving up to get Robert Griffin III.)

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This quarterback situation is a minefield for the front office. Consider: McCoy has started only 21 games with no playmakers on the outside and an inconsistent ground attack. Not exactly a voluminous catalogue from which Mike Holmgren must base his judgment. If the team trades up and snags RGIII, he better be the real deal to warrant the lost pick(s). This also would be an acknowledgement the Browns misjudged talent and wasted the third-round pick it spent on McCoy in 2010. Not to mention, an impatient fan base likely will get another losing season with a rookie under center in 2012.

Granted, the third-round pick spent on McCoy isn't everything, nor is the pick(s) Cleveland potentially would spend to move up. However, for a team with as many holes as Cleveland has, all draft picks are valuable commodities. Not to mention, if the Browns -- who sorely need a great receiver -- take RGIII, that means they would have skipped over Justin Blackmon. Ironically, he might be just the guy McCoy needs to take the next step. Bear in mind, the list of great quarterbacks who were mediocre through 21 starts is long and distinguished (Rich Gannon, Dan Fouts, Drew Brees, Troy Aikman, Steve Young, Eli Manning, and on and on.) And if McCoy eventually enjoyed success elsewhere, this could provide a whole new headache for the downtrodden franchise.

The real threat to New England's AFC East reign

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Every season Rex Ryan promotes greatness for the Jets, while the media speculates whether they can leap over the hated Patriots in the AFC East. (Although, at the NFL Scouting Combine, we exprienced a humbled Rex Ryan.) Well, here's the truth about the 2012 AFC East race: New England's chief competition in the division likely will come from Miami, not New York.

While the Jets sort out Sanchez-Holmes II and whether or not Shonn Greene is the right man for "Ground & Pound," the Dolphins have limited (outgoing) free-agent issues and a defense that got much better as 2011 progressed. If new coach Joe Philbin gets Matt Flynn or Peyton Manning to work with, this is no longer a 6-10 ballclub.

Chicago hope lies in a new front office

Bears faithful didn't exactly shed a tear upon hearing the news of former general manager Jerry Angelo's departure. In comes Phil Emery, with the task of keeping one of the NFL's signature franchises in contention. A long-time scout, Emery is on record as saying he will remain heavily involved in evaluating college talent. That's music to the ears of those who deplored Angelo's drafts, strategy and general avoidance of fortifying the offensive line over the years (Gabe Carimi selection aside).

The thought here is that Emery must get it right -- immediately. The case can be made that the window is closing on a team so heavily reliant on its defense. Unfortunately, the three best players on that unit -- Lance Briggs, Julius Peppers and Brian Urlacher -- are 31, 32 and 33, respectively, with a lot of wear and tear. Emery has to do better than Muhsin Muhammad and Roy Williams as far as adding a wideout in free agency. Perhaps more importantly, Chicago must grab offensive line help (particularly a tackle) in April's 2012 NFL Draft, something Angelo was historically reluctant to do.

Jay Cutler is signed through 2013. Matt Forte is at the height of his career. The core of the defense ain't getting any younger. The time is now in Chicago, thus truncating Emery's learning curve.

To be or not to be for Run DMC

Sorting through the Raiders' issues is like creeping around Facebook looking at exes. There are some nice sights, but at the end of the day, you see the same old issues. The jury is still out on whether Oakland has the right quarterback, and the club still can't stop the bleeding with the refs. But the real conundrum for the franchise -- something that will play itself out over the next few weeks -- is what to do in the backfield.

Darren McFadden is as explosive and productive as any running back in the NFL ... when he's healthy. That's the operative phrase for a player who missed 12 starts the past two years and has never played a full season. Unfortunately, one of the best backups in the league is a free agent. If the Raiders pay Michael Bush to stay, how much money will they have tied up in one position? The answer is around $14 million. That is, if the Raiders don't deal McFadden (Dennis Allen has indicated they won't), and they franchise Bush (at $7.7 million).

If new GM Reggie McKenzie doesn't franchise Bush and lets him walk, then backup Taiwan Jones better have more than just potential, because Run DMC likely will be in a walking boot at some point in 2012. And if Oakland doesn't have a viable alternative in the backfield, that would doom the Raiders' playoff chances.

Farewell to the franchise back

Obviously fans are focused on their own team, as opposed to league-wide trends. But if you look at your favorite team's backfield situation, chances are it probably resembles everybody else's. There is an absolute dearth of franchise running backs in the NFL right now.

Taking health into account, several players who in theory are 300-carries-per-year guys are coming off major injuries: Adrian Peterson (knee), Matt Forte (knee), Fred Jackson (leg), Jamaal Charles (knee), Darren McFadden (foot) and Ryan Mathews (well, he's always hurt). To be honest, even if these players were healthy, hardly anyone logs 300 carries these days. In fact, only Maurice Jones-Drew and Michael Turner eclipsed that mark in 2011. Just five years ago, there were 10 backs who eclipsed 300 attempts.

Everyone is opting for the running-back-by-committee approach. The problem is many teams have trouble closing out games. And all the great tailbacks will tell you that they were more effective after their 20th carry, when they had worn out the defense and gotten a "feel" for the game. That part of the NFL is long gone.

The Romo conundrum

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Consider this a real forward-thinking blurb. While delving into the mythology that Romo is not a top-10 quarterback in the Cowboys Exit Interview in early February, I breezed past a tangential question mark involving Dallas' franchise quarterback ...

After Jerry Jones' remarks saying that Eli Manning was the difference between the Cowboys and Giants, what happens if Romo puts up huge numbers and Dallas goes 8-8 again (with some late-game losses)? How long will the Cowboys be OK with having, say, the seventh- or eighth-best quarterback in the league and having nothing to show for it?

I'm not suggesting that the organization is down on Romo, but how "up" on him are Jerry and Stephen Jones? They've said they aren't drafting a quarterback this year. OK, keep in mind Romo can hit the market after the 2013 season. That will be his last big chance to make serious dough. At some point the Cowboys must gauge where they will go with No. 9, and consider drafting a potential starter. In the meantime, drafting a backup to compete with Stephen McGee, who doesn't appear to be a big-time player, makes sense now. What if Romo gets hurt and can't just wear a flak jacket to get back on the field?

Editor's Note: Stephen Jones addressed the issue of Romo's contract on Wednesday.

Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @Harrison_NFL

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