Analysis

2021 NFL season preview: Fifty-six things to watch on the road to Super Bowl LVI

This NFL offseason was all about getting back to normal. We saw vaccine education, vaccine enticement, vaccine threats, vaccine mandates and vaccine clinics. There was the push to have stadiums at full capacity and protocols to free vaccinated players from many of last season's restrictions.

But how did we really know we were getting closer to the way things used to be? We spent the entire offseason obsessing over a quarterback psychodrama in Green Bay!

Thank you, Aaron Rodgers, for reminding us that even as the NFL continued to grapple with COVID-19 -- and as the thorny topic of vaccine resistance made its way into locker rooms -- fractured relationships between management and superstars can still be riveting.

While Rodgers' future in Green Bay appeared tenuous right up until he stepped off a private plane under cover of darkness for training camp, the rest of the NFL feels like it is on much firmer footing than it was at this time last year. In July, the NFL warned teams about the possibility of forfeits if there is a COVID outbreak among unvaccinated players that causes a schedule disruption that cannot be solved. The NFL had offered plenty of carrots for those vaccinated, and then it threatened the stick. But after the NFL got through 2020 without a cancelled game in the teeth of the pandemic -- remember, the league made the Denver Broncos endure a game without a true quarterback and played games on every day of the week -- it will be a surprise if the NFL is confronted with such a dire scenario in its new 17-game regular season.

COVID-19 will still certainly impact this season to some degree. The frustration of some coaches with the unvaccinated is telling, and breakthrough infections among the vaccinated are something to watch. But the high vaccination rate among players -- and the return of fans -- gives the NFL a decent chance of keeping the pandemic from becoming the all-consuming headline story of the 2021 season. That means there is plenty of time for our 56 suggestions of things to watch on the way to Super Bowl LVI.

THE BIG FOOTBALL ISSUES

1) Does the introduction of the 17th regular-season game lead to pronounced load management for players at some positions?

2) And with 17 games, will a team that is running away with a division rest key players for more than one week?

3) Will there be a 2020-style COVID-19 outbreak on any team big enough to force a game to be rescheduled?

THE TRENDS TO WATCH

4) Home-field advantage has been decreasing each season since 2006, but it plummeted in 2020, dropping by more than a full point from 2019, presumably because fans were largely absent from games. According to the NFL Football Operations website, the 1.30-point average spread last year means home-field advantage was worth less than half of what it was in 2006 (3.30). And home teams were barely above .500, going 127-125-1 (excluding three neutral-site home games for San Francisco). Will home-field advantage bounce back now that fans are back and every utterance can't be heard?

5) Offensive holding penalties were way down last season -- 462 were called in 2020, an average of 1.80 per game, compared to 724 in 2019 (2.83 per game) and 708 in 2018 (2.77 per game) -- part of the broader reduction in flags, after complaints that too many penalties were making games unwatchable. But coaches complained last year that infractions went uncalled. How will the games be called this season?

6) Related: Scoring was through the roof last year, with a total of 12,692 points, obliterating the previous record by more than 700 points. With fans back -- and cheering making it harder to hear signals -- will scoring slow?

7) Keep your program handy. The NFL relaxed the rules for the numbers players at certain positions can wear. Running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, defensive backs and linebackers can all wear single-digit numbers now.

THE RULES TO KNOW

8) Incremental change to replay review. The replay officials who sit in the press box now have the authority to offer referees advice on what they see on broadcast replays related to possession, completions and interceptions, players down by contact and the spot of the ball relative to the out of bounds lines. They will not be able to reverse calls on their own or tell referees to throw flags.

9) We might see more successful onside kicks. In a one-year experiment, the NFL will allow only nine players from the receiving team to be allowed within 25 yards of the ball. Only three onside kicks were recovered last year in 67 tries, the lowest rate of recovery since 2001.

10) Knock it off! Taunting is now a point of emphasis for officials. That doesn't mean celebrations will be restricted, but the NFL doesn't want players standing over each other and having acrimonious exchanges on the field.

WELCOME BACK

11) The biggest news of the season: Fans are back, with local officials allowing full stadiums in every NFL venue. One big question: How many fans will be reluctant to return?

12) And that means, a year after they opened, we'll finally see what crowds are like in the NFL's newest stadiums, SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles and Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas.

13) Nearly 70 players opted out because of the pandemic last season. No players have opted out this season, and no single player's return may be more impactful than Dont'a Hightower's in New England. The quarterback of Bill Belichick's defense was badly missed.

14) So many stars are returning from injuries. Dak Prescott, Saquon Barkley, Joe Burrow, Devin Bush, Christian McCaffrey, Odell Beckham, Derwin James and Nick Bosa are among the franchise-changing comebacks.

APPOINTMENT VIEWING

15) Dallas Cowboys at Tampa Bay Buccaneers | Week 1, Sept. 9 (Thursday night): A blockbuster whenever it would be played, but particularly big because it will show us where Dak Prescott is in his recovery, and how muscular the Bucs' push for a repeat will be.

16) Green Bay Packers at New Orleans Saints in Jacksonville | Week 1, Sept. 12: Offseason drama at quarterback for two perennial contenders? Sign us up! And the game was moved to a neutral location due to Hurricane Ida.

17) Miami Dolphins at New England Patriots | Week 1, Sept. 12: It's Mac Jones' time. And it's Tua's time, too. Bill Belichick's overhauled defense is a good test for Miami's playoff-caliber team.

18) Tampa Bay Buccaneers at New England Patriots | Week 4, Oct. 3 (Sunday night): The most eagerly awaited game in several years. Watching Belichick match wits with Brady is the NFL at its very best.

19) Buffalo Bills at Kansas City Chiefs | Week 5, Oct. 10 (Sunday night): We'll watch any Chiefs game we can, but this is the AFC Championship Game rematch -- and a potential preview, too.

20) Kansas City Chiefs at Washington Football Team | Week 6, Oct. 17: The WFT defense will be a perfect test for the Chiefs' rebuilt offensive line.

21) Pittsburgh Steelers at Cleveland Browns | Week 8, Oct. 31: If earlier games against the Bills, Packers and Seahawks haven't provided enough evidence, this game should tell us if the Steelers will rebound from their devastating slide to end last season and be a division contender again.

22) Green Bay Packers at Kansas City Chiefs | Week 9, Nov. 7: Rodgers vs. Mahomes, filling quarterback highlight reels for years to come.

23) Seattle Seahawks at Los Angeles Rams Week 15, Dec. 19: How much does Matthew Stafford's presence in L.A. reorder the NFC West?

24) San Francisco 49ers at Los Angeles Rams | Week 18, Jan. 9: The first Week 18 in NFL history gives us all division matchups. Assuming the 49ers do not suffer the same horrific injury luck they had last season, this could be the most important of those games.

ANSWER THE QUESTIONS

25) With the very different day-to-day life of vaccinated and unvaccinated players, will the vaccine debate roil locker rooms?

26) Have the New Orleans Saints found their long-term replacement for Drew Brees in Jameis Winston?

27) How does the Saints' offense make up for Michael Thomas' absence?

28) Will Tua Tagovailoa play well enough to end questions about the Miami Dolphins pursuing another quarterback next year?

29) How fast does the Urban Meyer/Trevor Lawrence era produce results in Jacksonville?

30) How does the New England offense look with Mac Jones, and does Cam Newton get another chance to start elsewhere?

31) Does Trey Lance unseat Jimmy Garoppolo in San Francisco?

32) Is Justin Fields finally -- FINALLY -- the heir to Sid Luckman in Chicago?

33) And Zach Wilson the worthy successor to Joe Namath?

35) Does the Vikings' revamped defense make them a threat to the Packers in the NFC North?

36) Will Sam Darnold resurrect his career in Carolina?

37) How much will Carson Wentz's mobility be affected by his foot surgery?

38) Will Baker Mayfield enjoy a Josh Allen-like leap in completion percentage this season?

39) Does Matthew Stafford complete the Los Angeles Rams?

40) What does Justin Herbert do for an encore after winning Offensive Rookie of the Year?

41) And what does Ben Roethlisberger do for a swan song, if this is even his swan song?

42) Does Dan Campbell's passion and Jared Goff's presence finally make the future brighter in Detroit?

43) Will the NFC East champion finish above .500?

44) Does the Giants' revamped receiving corps translate to a breakout season for Daniel Jones?

45) Will the total reboot in Philadelphia work?

46) After a massive free agency makeover, do the Patriots resume their place atop the AFC East?

47) What will defenses do against Derrick Henry now that they have to account for Julio Jones, too?

48) Can J.J. Watt help the Arizona Cardinals keep pace in the pass-happy NFC West?

49) Is Russell Wilson happy in Seattle?

50) Is the quarterback of the future on the Denver Broncos' roster?

51) Will Philip Rivers be lured from retirement?

52) How badly do Matt Ryan and Arthur Smith miss Julio Jones?

53) Does the heat get turned up on Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock if the Raiders don't make the playoffs?

54) What impact will Dan Quinn have on the Cowboys' defense?

55) When the firing-and-hiring cycle begins, will coaches of color get more chances?

56) Where does Aaron Rodgers play next season?

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter.

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