With the 2009 NFL season set to begin Thursday night in Pittsburgh, here are the top 10 storylines to follow this fall:
1. Tom Brady's knee
The New England Patriots' All-Everything quarterback survived training camp and the preseason (although there was a brief scare when Albert Haynesworth, the Washington Redskins' behemoth defensive tackle, landed on Brady's throwing shoulder). Now we'll see if Brady's surgically repaired left knee can remain intact through 16 games. You know that opponents, beginning with the Buffalo Bills on Monday night, will try to blitz Brady as often as possible in the hopes of keeping him focused on his knee rather than finding Randy Moss or Wes Welker downfield.
2. Brett Favre's shoulder
The quarterback admittedly was damaged goods when he ended another retirement and joined the Minnesota Vikings last month. After his body broke down a year ago, he became a severe liability to the New York Jets. Favre has undergone surgery to help relieve pain from a torn biceps, but the procedure revealed that he also has a tear in his rotator cuff. Favre still received medical clearance to play and was told by a doctor that the damage couldn't get worse. Nevertheless, Favre will be 40 in October, and his health will be closely scrutinized. So, too, will his role in helping the Vikings realize their potential -- based largely on Adrian Peterson's running and a solid defense -- to be a serious Super Bowl contender.
3. The Steelers' psyche
They won Super Bowl XL, then suffered a meltdown the following season. Avoiding a similar fate after winning Super Bowl XLIII won't be easy, but the Steelers have a couple of factors in their favor. One, their Super Bowl triumph that capped the 2005 season ended a drought in the big game dating to the 1979 campaign, so there was more relief after that victory (especially on the part of former coach Bill Cowher) than the overwhelming self-assurance the Steelers displayed after winning their sixth Lombardi Trophy last February. Two, current coach Mike Tomlin does an exceptional job of keeping his players (particularly quarterback Ben Roethlisberger) focused on the task at hand.
4. Can Stafford and Sanchez be like
Ryan and Flacco?
Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco elevated the bar for rookie quarterbacks with their amazing performances for the Atlanta Falcons and Baltimore Ravens, respectively, last season. It's only natural to expect Matthew Stafford and Mark Sanchez to do the same this season, although that might be expecting too much. Stafford carries himself with a great deal of confidence and maturity, but the No. 1 overall draft pick had an unspectacular preseason and faces enormous pressure after becoming the Detroit Lions' starter following their 0-16 season. Sanchez brings considerable charisma that the Jets know can sell big in the nation's media capital. The question is, with limited experience as a starter at USC, is Sanchez ready to manage an NFL offense whose primary mission is to avoid turnovers and control the ball for a team that expects to consistently win with a playmaking defense?
5. How will Ryan and Flacco follow up?
First-year coaches Mike Smith and John Harbaugh received plenty of credit for guiding their teams into the playoffs, and they were greatly helped by strong running games and solid defenses. However, neither the Falcons nor the Ravens would have gone very far without exceptional quarterback play that will be hard to duplicate. That's because opponents are far more familiar with Ryan and Flacco after studying one season of film.
6. Which coaches won't finish the season?
Coaches are fired every year, and seeing one or two bounced before midseason isn't anything new, either. However, there is a sense in various corners of the league that a higher number of coaches could make an early exit this year. The unprecedented firings of three offensive coordinators at the end of the preseason has been widely interpreted as a sign that teams, worried about the impact of a soft economy, are feeling greater pressure to respond to fan and sponsor unrest. Coaches presumed to be on the hottest seats this season are Buffalo's Dick Jauron, Dallas' Wade Phillips, Minnesota's Brad Childress, Jacksonville's Jack Del Rio and Houston's Gary Kubiak.
7. How will Josh McDaniels handle the turbulence?
The coach's Denver Broncos tenure started off badly with the ugly departure of franchise quarterback Jay Cutler. Now McDaniels is at odds with the most talented of his remaining players, wide receiver Brandon Marshall, who has turned himself into a major distraction. Other players are still trying to adjust to the increased tension since McDaniels replaced the fired Mike Shanahan, and questions linger about just how well Kyle Orton will do in Cutler's place. Of course, everything will quickly settle down if the Broncos win. But if they lose …
8. Can Jay Cutler live up to his billing?
Cutler is good, and the Chicago Bears' new quarterback has strong support from highly talented running back Matt Forte. But this will not be an easy task. It's hard to tell whether the Bears' defense can hold up its end, which is essential to Cutler's success. And, with the Vikings and surging Green Bay Packers also in the mix, the NFC North is shaping up to be an extremely competitive division.
9. Michael Vick's impact on the Eagles
Will Vick enhance Philadelphia's offense with the additional packages that can be created because of his athleticism and versatility? Will he become a major distraction if Donovan McNabb struggles and Eagles fans call for Vick to take over at quarterback (as they already did during the preseason)? Or will Vick see so little playing time that his presence won't generate much conversation at all?
10. Negotiations on a new CBA
The 2011 season, which is threatened by the outcome of the labor talks, seems like a long way off, but developments on a new collective bargaining agreement have been discouraging thus far. In the wake of minimal progress, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell went on record as saying that an uncapped 2010 season, resulting from the failure to get a deal done before then, is a "strong reality." NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith is on record as saying that he's convinced team owners will lock out players in 2011. Such negative banter, which seems to be escalating, makes this entire situation worth closely watching, even when most of the focus will be on the field.