We have entered my favorite month of the year. July is only my favorite month because it signals a new beginning for all 32 teams and a new year in the NFL for all to enjoy.
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It's July, the month when training camps begin. Before you know it, we'll have real issues to analyze, real teams to watch -- real action on the field.
Breaking down teams since the 2012 NFL Draft, many thoughts have run through my mind about the 2012 season. Some were about players, some were about teams and some were about the future.
Here are five topics that have piqued my interest:
1. How will Peyton Manning react when he takes his first hit in a regular season game? Like most fans, I am extremely excited about Manning's return. But I'm not excited about watching him during Denver Broncos practices, nor in preseason games -- those will be too scripted, too staged. I'm most interested to see how his mind and body will react after he gets knocked down. This is not because I am looking to see if he will get re-injured, but rather to see how he will react to contact after being away from the game. How will the speed of the game affect him? Anyone expecting Manning to be on fire in September does not understand how hard it is to adjust (and re-adjust) to being back on the football field. The Manning project in Denver will take time -- time for him to adjust to his new teammates, time for him to adjust to the speed of the game and time for him to adjust to getting hit again. No one -- not fans, not staff, not Manning himself -- will know if No. 18 is back to his old form until the middle of October, no matter what transpires before.
2. Which 2011 playoff team will fall apart in 2012? Every year, there is a playoff team from the prior season that cannot handle its success. Instead of coming back and building momentum with another playoff appearance, the team just completely falls flat and has a horrible campaign. NBA icon Pat Riley calls this problem "The Disease of Me," because winning creates more selfish behavior among players and organizations as a whole. Players don't work as hard as the year before. While the schedule gets tougher, the hunger for respect is gone and teams have a hard time overcoming any adversity during the season. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers played this role in 2011, following up a promising 10-6 2010 campaign with a 4-12 debacle last fall. Who will it be this year? The San Francisco 49ers? (More about them below ...) The Cincinnati Bengals? The Detroit Lions? The Houston Texans? The Broncos? Based on their offseason actions and the difficulty of the NFC North, the Lions look like they could be this team. Head coach Jim Schwartz must conduct a demanding camp to send a message to his players and eliminate any thought that they can just turn it on when they need.
3. Can Alex Smith and the San Francisco 49ers take the next step? I don't think the 49ers will be a team with "Disease of Me" symptoms, but they must get more passing production from their quarterback if they are going to take the next step in 2012. Their defense is big, fast and explosive, and they have improved at wide receiver, but the big question remains: How good can Alex Smith be? And don't think the organization is not asking the same question, because if the Niners thought Smith was perfect, they would not have secretly spent time with Peyton Manning. Smith was perfectly managed last year, only throwing five interceptions and not being asked to win games with his arm. But the schedule is tougher this year and teams will have prepared for the 49ers more in the offseason. Therefore, Smith will have to raise his level of play. For a team to take the next step, everyone must improve 10-20 percent from the year before -- players, coaches and general staff. My concern for San Francisco is that Smith cannot play any better than he did last year, which means the 49ers won't be able to improve against the best teams.
4. Franchise quarterback or franchise mistake? In the past two drafts, eight quarterbacks have been picked in the first round. The Colts, Redskins, Dolphins, Browns, Panthers, Titans, Jaguars and Vikings all looked to address quarterback questions for the foreseeable future. But have they all really found a solution? Will all eight be stars? Will all eight lead their team to Super Bowl titles? We all know Super Bowl expectations are unrealistic -- and more than likely, half of those eight teams will be looking for a quarterback soon. But how soon? And which teams? Which teams will be willing to admit a mistake and move forward? By 2013, two of these teams will be looking for another answer. My guess: Jacksonville and Miami.
5. Michael Vick, Philadelphia Eagles at a crossroads. Three years ago, the Eagles had quarterbacks Donovan McNabb, Kevin Kolb and Michael Vick on the roster. Now, only Vick remains. And we all know Vick has a hard time staying healthy for 16 games. He is at a crossroads of his career in terms of proving he can lead this team to a Super Bowl, despite durability concerns. Vick's inability to consistently make plays from the pocket, particularly throws down the field, is disconcerting. Last season, Vick completed just 22 of his 75 throws of 20-plus yards -- ranking 27th in the NFL -- with 11 interceptions on those attempts. And what happens to the Birds if Vick goes down? With no real viable backup on the roster (sorry, Mike Kafka), the Eagles could be like the Colts and Bears of last year -- if they lose their starter, they could lose their season. What if they reach the conclusion that Vick just is not the guy to lead the team to a Super Bowl? This could have a long-term effect on the franchise, since Vick's eventual replacement is not on the team right now.