Predicting the 2013 NFL season
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:
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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?
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.
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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."
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XI. Lockouts. Hallelujah! No worrying more about labor lawyers than linebackers.
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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.
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.
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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.
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.
XXXII.Baltimore Ravens at Cincinnati Bengals, Dec. 29: Almost certainly will determine a playoff spot in the AFC's best division.
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.
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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XLII. It's superfluous to mention Adrian Peterson, right? You were going to watch him without me reminding you, weren't you?
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.