Analysis  

 

XLVIII things to watch throughout the 2013 NFL season

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Each year, it feels like the run-up to the new NFL season grows longer and busier. "Offseason" is really a misnomer -- there is no "off" button when there are months of headline-making player acquisitions, obsessively-covered injuries and recoveries, detailed reviews of snap counts and, this year, a tragic intersection with the law.

Finally, in the coming week, the games will seize attention again as the countdown to Super Bowl XLVIII begins. In honor of a Super Bowl that has managed to generate controversy long before we even know who will play in it -- and to delay for a few more column inches the start of the Doppler-radar watch for snow -- here are 48 things that should keep our attention this year:

THE STORYLINES WE'LL BE TALKING ABOUT THROUGH DECEMBER

I. The speed. The secrecy. The soundtrack. Chip Kelly's offense with the Philadelphia Eagles has it all, with a dash of Michael Vick thrown in for good measure. Can Kelly's warp-speed approach -- don't look down or you'll miss the next snap -- work in the NFL? And how quickly will other teams try to copy it if it does?

II. Manning and Welker: Wes Welker goes from Tom Brady to Peyton Manning, and Manning gets the fearless over-the-middle receiver to complete a stellar Denver Broncos corps. How quickly can their timing develop?

III. Brady and Amendola: And Danny Amendola steps into Welker's old spot with the New England Patriots. Everybody has always considered Amendola a Welker clone -- now we'll find out how much he actually resembles Brady's former favorite receiver. How quickly can their timing develop?

IV. The Clowney Crusade: You remember the "(Play Really Badly) for Luck" fan campaigns of two years ago? If it becomes clear that defensive superstar Jadeveon Clowney will leave South Carolina after this college football season, you had better believe suffering fans of struggling teams will be crossing their fingers for a race to the bottom of the standings -- so that their team can be at the top of next May's draft.

V. Eventually, the New York Jets will pick a quarterback, and he will take the snaps. Think that'll be the end of one of the oddest -- and perhaps most mismanaged -- quarterback competitions in memory? This figures to be a season-long drama, one with overarching implications for the future of coach Rex Ryan and the entire franchise.

VI. The first time Adrian Peterson lowers his head to plow a defender backwards as he crosses the goal line to score a game-winning touchdown for the Minnesota Vikings, does he get a flag? The crown-of-helmet rule adopted in the offseason might produce as many arguments as it does penalties.

VII. Returned from his season-long suspension, New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton is back in Drew Brees' ear, and probably with something to prove. Beware, opposing defensive backs.

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VIII. Former Eagles coach Andy Reid will take his Kansas City Chiefs back to Philadelphia. Former Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis goes with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers back to New York. Wes Welker will travel back to New England. Peyton Manning journeys with the Denver Broncos back to Indianapolis. None of these visits should be accompanied by the enmity that surrounded Brett Favre's return to Green Bay in Minnesota Vikings purple, but it's worth asking: Can you go home again in the NFL?

IX. Defensive coordinators went to school on the read option this offseason, and Robert Griffin III's injuries might serve as a cautionary tale. But colleges continue to churn out the kinds of athletic quarterbacks who can run it. This season might give an indication as to whether this offense is sustainable or, as Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin thinks, merely "the flavor of the day."

X. Everybody was spoiled by the instant impact of quarterbacks Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson and RGIII as rookies last season. Sophomore slumps aren't uncommon, but these three might be good enough to avoid going through one.

ONE STORY WE'RE STILL HAPPY NOT TO BE HEARING ABOUT


XI. Lockouts. Hallelujah! No worrying more about labor lawyers than linebackers.

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XII. Get your Farmers' Almanac, your groundhog and your weather radio, and join the Super Bowl rush by channeling your inner Jim Cantore.

THE CURIOSITIES

XIII. Video from the locker rooms: The NFL is experimenting with cameras in locker rooms to give in-stadium fans a sense of what goes on inside the inner sanctum. Hint: They're likely to see as many snoozers as stemwinders.

XIV. Hip and thigh pads: The NFL insists pads will limit the hip and thigh contusions that bedevil players. The players suspect the equipment will slow them down. Are either -- or both -- right?

XV. After Dustin Keller's knee was blown out by a direct hit -- and after defensive players said they now hit low to minimize the risk they will incur a fine for hitting too high -- the league is likely to closely monitor to see if the knee becomes a target point, and to see if a rule that already generates so much anger and confusion from defensive players has to be refined further.

XVI. Whither Tim Tebow? If the Patriots release the quarterback, does he get picked up? If the Patriots keep him, do they use him? Is this the end of the NFL line for one of the game's most compelling -- and vexing -- players?

XVII. Falsely accused of rape and wrongly imprisoned, Brian Banks finally got a chance to try to make it in the NFL at age 28. Though it doesn't look like that will happen with the Atlanta Falcons, whether he tries again elsewhere or ultimately resumes his non-football life, Banks is a staggering example of resilience.

THE GAMES

XVIII. Baltimore Ravens at Denver Broncos, Sept. 5: The Rahim Moore revenge game gives us our first look at the Super Bowl champions post-Ray Lewis/Ed Reed -- and our first look at the Broncos with Welker and without the suspended Von Miller.

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XIX. Green Bay Packers at San Francisco 49ers, Sept. 8: Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick absolutely shredded the Packers' defense in a divisional playoff game last season. This should provide an early hint as to whether or not teams have caught up to the read option.

XX. Philadelphia Eagles at Washington Redskins, Sept. 9: Who runs faster: the Eagles' offense or Robert Griffin III on a rebuilt knee?

XXI. New York Jets at New England Patriots, Sept. 12: It doesn't even matter if this game is competitive. This remains one of the league's most ridiculous rivalries. After all, it gave the world the butt-fumble; you cannot look away.

XXII. Denver Broncos at New York Giants, Sept. 15: Manning Bowl III. Unless Eli and Peyton meet in the Super Bowl, this could be the last time they play against each other, because of the way the schedule rotates. Peyton is 2-0 against Eli.

XXIII. San Francisco 49ers at Seattle Seahawks, Sept. 15: Remember when the NFC West stunk? This one could be a preview of the NFC Championship Game. It definitely will be a showcase for two of football's best defenses and scintillating quarterbacks.

XXIV. Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers, Oct. 20: The status of the NFL's most bruising rivalry is often a telling indicator of the eventual AFC North champion.

XXV. Denver Broncos at Indianapolis Colts, Oct. 20: Peyton returns to Indianapolis to face Luck. The winners? Colts fans, who will be reminded of how incredibly fortunate they are to have cheered for both.

XXVI. Green Bay Packers at New York Giants, Nov. 17: Think these two teams like being overlooked in the NFC sweepstakes? This game could go a long way toward determining which of these squads will be in prime playoff contention.

XXVII. Dallas Cowboys at New York Giants, Nov. 24: The NFC East is one of the toughest divisions to predict; this game almost always determines a playoff spot.

XXVIII. Denver Broncos at New England Patriots, Nov. 24: There won't be many more Manning-Brady games. Savor them while they last.

XXIX. Indianapolis Colts at Cincinnati Bengals, Dec. 8: Two young, rising teams who are likely to have playoff roles for many years. Can the Bengals' defense slow Luck?

XXX. Atlanta Falcons at San Francisco 49ers, Dec. 23: A reprise of an instant classic NFC Championship Game.

XXXI. Green Bay Packers at Chicago Bears, Dec. 29: Of course, this is a classic rivalry, but even if it weren't, don't you want to see what new Bears coach Marc Trestman does with Jay Cutler?

XXXII. Baltimore Ravens at Cincinnati Bengals, Dec. 29: Almost certainly will determine a playoff spot in the AFC's best division.

XXXIII. St. Louis Rams at Seattle Seahawks, Dec. 29: The Seahawks are in nearly everyone's postseason predictions, but the Rams are on the rise. Their only divisional loss last year? To the Seahawks. In Seattle. On the final day of the season. Hmm.

THE PEOPLE

XXXIV. Dr. James Andrews. The famous surgeon's management of RGIII's knee injury and the quarterback's rapid return have made Dr. Andrews nearly as recognizable as Dr. Phil.

XXXV. We miss Gronk. Please, come back, Gronk.

XXXVI. But in the meantime, rookie free-agent tight end Zach Sudfeld has given the Patriots a nice surprise and a name -- that's Stud-feld to you -- we can work with.

XXXVII. The Rams aren't even trying to pretend that they are keeping rookie receiver/returner/whatever-else-he-wants-to-do Tavon Austin under wraps. Please, free Tavon, Jeff Fisher.

XXXVIII. When it comes to Chip Kelly, there probably hasn't been a more heralded coaching arrival in the NFL since Jimmy Johnson. No pressure, Chip; you're merely expected to usher in an offensive revolution while winning in Philadelphia, one of the league's pressure cookers.

XXXIX. We had never seen anything quite like Cam Newton when he got to the NFL -- fast enough to outrun defenders, big enough to absorb their hits -- but now he is essentially ignored in the conversations about the game's young quarterbacks. He is too talented to be lost, and it will be fascinating to see how new Carolina Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula deploys him.

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XL. The Saints' defense has taken some big injury blows during their rebuilding process, but they do have a rookie safety, Kenny Vaccaro, who could be the next great don't-take-your-eyes-off-him playmaker.

XLI. Maybe you've forgotten how electric Reggie Bush can be when he catches the ball out of the backfield. The Detroit Lions and Matthew Stafford are going to give you a chance to remember in the latest stop in Bush's peripatetic career.

XLII. It's superfluous to mention Adrian Peterson, right? You were going to watch him without me reminding you, weren't you?

XLIII. Ziggy Ansah could be this year's Jason Pierre-Paul, a raw pass-rushing talent who could energize the Lions' defense. Boy, does that team need it.

XLIV. The Miami Dolphins spent a mind-boggling amount of money in free agency, but all the focus will be on receiver Mike Wallace, and the chemistry he develops with Ryan Tannehill. This team needs some pop -- on offense and in terms of fan interest -- and Wallace could be the answer.

XLV. Can we just watch J.J. Watt bat passes out of the air all day?

XLVI. Mark Davis, the Oakland Raiders owner, might be the most unpredictable boss in the league right now. His team is in the middle of a massive rebuilding effort, but it's almost impossible to divine if Davis will allow Reggie McKenzie to continue to manage it after what many are expecting to be another terrible season.

XLVII. Welcome back, Darrelle Revis. The feud with Richard Sherman is fun. The play is even better.

XLVIII. Love him or loathe him, Rex Ryan provides compelling theater. He began the season by turning sideways during a press conference. His relationship with Jets general manager John Idzik is a thread that will stretch throughout the season.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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