Finally, football is back! And not a moment too soon. I'm talkin' real football -- football that counts!
I can't wait for the 2014 NFL campaign. Over the next six months, we'll be taken on another roller-coaster ride, with unexpected twists and unbelievable turns. Who knows how the league's 95th season will play out?
Well, actually, I do.
Let's dust off the Schein Nine crystal ball and examine what we'll be talking about after this season.
1) Jay Cutler has truly arrived.
Come January 2015, the Cutler conversation won't be riddled with questions about his demeanor, toughness, talent or value. No, the only question will be: Has Jay Cutler joined the elite class of NFL quarterbacks? Yes, the "elite" debate is a silly media creation. And I'm not suggesting Cutler will be among the top five quarterbacks in the league. But I foresee the Chicago Bears QB answering his critics by playing a complete season and thriving under the watchful eye of Marc Trestman.
I think Cutler will achieve greatness this fall, maximizing the bevy of weapons at his disposal (including Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery and Matt Forte) and superbly guiding Chicago into the playoffs. A polarizing figure his entire NFL career, Cutler will enjoy an offseason filled with praise after 2014 is in the books.
2) Miami Dolphins going big-name hunting at head coach.
The Miami Dolphins will not make the playoffs this season. I'm not exactly going out on a limb with that prediction -- none of our 11 analysts project a postseason bid for the 'Fins. And when this ultimately happens, Joe Philbin will become ex-coach of the Miami Dolphins. Frankly, after last season's bullying scandal -- which, as colleague Judy Battista wrote at the time, did not reflect well on him -- and the way Miami choked away a spot in the playoffs, I'm surprised Philbin is still coaching this team right now.
Dolphins owner Stephen Ross craves the big name. So far, he has swung and missed on Jim Harbaugh and Jeff Fisher. Whether it is the hot college name (Kevin Sumlin? Bob Stoops? David Shaw?), the former NFL coach with a big-time pedigree or Harbaugh again, Ross and the Dolphins will be linked to the candidates that create a splash next offseason.
3) Bill O'Brien's the real deal.
I've written it many times this offseason: I think the world of Bill O'Brien. This isn't Houston taking a flier on a college guy -- O'Brien's a pro coach who went into the college ranks and admirably guided Penn State to a pair of winning seasons amid unparalleled adversity.
Houston was the toughest omission from my AFC playoff picks. I think O'Brien will have the Texans competing for a playoff spot all season long. And going forward, free agents will want to play for O'Brien and the great Texans organization. This is a team -- and a coach -- on the rise.
4) A major shakeup for the Dallas Cowboys.
My prediction: Jerry fires Jason, and Stephen talks Jerry into firing Jerry.
Don Van Natta Jr. did a brilliant job diving into Jerry Jones in his recent "ESPN The Magazine" piece. With fantastic access and skillful storytelling, Van Natta went deep into Jones' mindset. And after consuming the article, Dallas Cowboys fans have to come away scared.
Jerry is still pining for Johnny Manziel? He thought Johnny Football would've kept Dallas relevant for 10 years? Jerry wants to be known as a "football guy," and the suggestion of giving Jimmy Johnson credit makes him cringe?
If Stephen Jones can (rightly) convince his father to pass on a backup quarterback for O-line help, then he can convince his dad to hire a general manager.
Dallas is one of the worst teams in football, with a defense that could sink even lower than last year's No. 32-ranked unit. The Cowboys will miss the playoffs for the fifth consecutive season, and coach Jason Garrett will lose his job.
And the 'Boys will need an adept football guy in the GM position to attract an adept head coach.
5) A major shakeup for the New York Giants.
After a painful 2014 campaign, I think coach Tom Coughlin retires, and we'll be talking about his eventual place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I think general manager Jerry Reese is understandably replaced, given this talent-poor roster. And I think Eli Manning follows up the least-distinguished effort of his career with an even worse campaign, leading us to question the future of a two-time Super Bowl MVP.
6) Will Jon Gruden go back to the Oakland Raiders?
Yup, get ready for that juicy question.
Raiders coach Dennis Allen and general manager Reggie McKenzie are in a make-or-break season, and I just can't see either guy saving his job. While the Raiders improved this offseason -- and suddenly appear to be a legitimate NFL team for the first time in years -- the other three AFC West teams remain superior to Oakland. Back in February, owner Mark Davis said there are no more excuses. So what happens when the Raiders end up in the divisional cellar once again? I think we both know the answer.
If rookie starter Derek Carr flashes signs of being a franchise quarterback -- and I think he will, despite my otherwise gloomy outlook on the Raiders -- will Gruden be tempted to return as a conquering hero?
7) Patrick Peterson is the shutdown corner.
I always love the braggadocio of the top NFL cornerbacks. Richard Sherman is a bona fide star. Darrelle Revis was unquestionably the guy before his knee injury. Joe Haden rightly got paid in the offseason. And I think all three will enjoy a huge 2014.
But Patrick Peterson, never shy when it comes to his own abilities, will win the war of words on the field by taking home Defensive Player of the Year honors. Yes, this award rarely goes to a cornerback -- somehow, even Revis has yet to grab it -- but Peterson is about to emerge as a superstar in Year 4 with the Arizona Cardinals. He'll prove his worth on a schedule that features a number of elite wide receivers, including Calvin Johnson, Dez Bryant, Demaryius Thomas and Julio Jones/Roddy White.
8) The Cincinnati Bengals need a quarterback.
It's a story we're all too familiar with -- a story that'll play out for the fourth consecutive season.
If you only look at Dalton's career regular-season numbers -- 85.7 quarterback rating, 30-18 record -- you can definitely understand why the Bengals just handed him a lucrative extension. But of course, you have to look at a quarterback's postseason figures, as well. And those -- 56.2 QB rating, 0-3 record -- ain't pretty for the Red Rifle.
9) Where will the Green Bay Packers build Mike McCarthy's statue?
In the front of Lambeau? In the atrium? Will the statue have a marker tucked behind one ear?
This will be the conversation in Titletown after Green Bay wins its fifth Super Bowl.
It's a legacy-definer for McCarthy, Ted Thompson and Aaron Rodgers.
Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.