1. ARE THE SAINTS IN FOR A LETDOWN?
Drew Brees's most impressive accomplishment of 2010 might not have been his surreal second half in Super Bowl XLIV in February, when he completed 16 of 17 passes with two touchdowns and a two-point conversion to rally the Saints past the favored Colts. No, maybe it was finding time in the off-season to pen a memoir that debuted at No. 3 on The New York Times's best-seller list last week.
In between appearing on practically every major television talk show; shooting commercials for diapers, soap and a video game; visiting troops in the Persian Gulf; attending a players' association meeting in Maui; throwing out a first pitch at Yankee Stadium; and golfing with Jack Nicklaus in Florida, Brees pulled back the curtains on his personal and professional life in Coming Back Stronger: Unleashing the Hidden Power of Adversity. The book was meant to offer hope and inspiration to readers, but on a more immediate level it provides a figurative shoulder for the Saints to lean on while trying to defend their title.
Recent history says they'll need it. Of the 11 previous Super Bowl winners, five failed to qualify for the playoffs the following year and three lost their first playoff game. The last reigning champion with a victory in the postseason the next year was Super Bowl XXXIX--winning New England, which routed Jacksonville in its first playoff game in January 2006 before losing at Denver. "You can't pretend like there's nothing there," Brees says of the Super Bowl champs' recent fate. "The numbers don't lie."
If that's not enough to kill the Saints' buzz, this might be: Since the NFL went to eight four-team divisions in 2002, no NFC South champion has finished higher than third in the division the next year. New Orleans was the runaway winner in 2009 with a 13--3 record.
Arguably no player stares down adversity better than Brees. When a Chargers assistant told him the day before the 2004 draft that the team was going to take a quarterback No. 1 overall, Brees, who was coming off a disappointing season, calmly said it would be the biggest mistake in the franchise's history. After then Dolphins coach Nick Saban told Brees he doubted his ability to return to top form after the serious shoulder injury Brees suffered at the end of the 2005 season, Brees passed on the chance to sign a free-agent contract with Miami and instead joined the Saints. Two years later he led New Orleans to its first NFC Championship Game, and last season he brought the long-suffering city its first Super Bowl title.
Over the past four seasons no quarterback has had more attempts (2,355), completions (1,572) or passing yards (18,298) than Brees, and only Peyton Manning has as many touchdown passes (122). No, the numbers don't lie—meaning it could be another season to remember in New Orleans.
2. CAN CHRIS JOHNSON MAKE HISTORY?
In only his second year, the Titans' speedster set an NFL mark for yards from scrimmage (2,509) and became the sixth player to surpass 2,000 yards rushing. No one has ever rushed for 2K twice in a career, but Johnson has the tools and the confidence. He surpassed 100 yards in each of his final 11 games and averaged an astounding 5.6 yards a carry. To chase history he needs to be on the field and happy, and on Monday, Johnson and the Titans reportedly agreed on a new deal. Full speed ahead.
3. CAN MIKE MARTZ FIX JAY CUTLER?
Cutler's arrival was supposed to end the Bears' eternal quarterback quest, and in his first season in Chicago he threw for 27 TDs and 3,666 yards. But he also had a league-high 26 interceptions. Now it's up to new offensive coordinator Mike Martz to hone Cutler's game and eliminate the mistakes. Their partnership could be stunningly good—or explosively bad. Cutler is a "see it, throw it" guy, meaning he prefers to watch a receiver come out of his break before releasing, believing his powerful right arm can fit a ball into the slightest of openings. Martz preaches timing and intuition and often demands that passes be released before the receiver has turned around.
Much hinges on whether Cutler has more trust in his arm or in Martz's system. Chicago has missed the playoffs for the last three years, and CEO Ted Phillips strongly suggested that another down year won't be tolerated, saying, "We expect to win now, in 2010. This isn't a long-term project in my eyes." The Bears brought in free-agent defensive end Julius Peppers and running back Chester Taylor, but the key to their season is the Cutler-Martz marriage, and whether Cutler, who has yet to lead a team to the playoffs since being drafted 11th by the Broncos in 2006, can turn into the franchise QB the Bears expected him to be.
4. WHO IS THIS YEAR'S BREAKOUT BACK?
The Cardinals relied heavily on their passing game the past two seasons, but with Kurt Warner retired, coach Ken Whisenhunt will be more balanced in his play-calling, at least until replacement Matt Leinart shows he can carry the offense. In the meantime second-year running back Beanie Wells (right) will shoulder the offensive load. He ran for 793 yards and seven TDs while splitting time with Tim Hightower in 2009, but Whisenhunt provided a glimpse of the future last December when Wells had at least 13 carries in four straight games, while Hightower had more than six just once. Looks like Beanie's the man in Arizona.
5. WHICH TEAMS ARE THE POTENTIAL DARK HORSES?
Two seasons ago the Falcons went 11--5 and made the playoffs in their first year under coach Mike Smith and G.M. Thomas Dimitroff, but last year they slipped to 9--7 and watched the postseason from the sideline. Dimitroff and Smith believe Year 3 is critical to establishing the Falcons as a perennial playoff team. Quarterback Matt Ryan will assume more ownership of the offense; running back Michael Turner has been challenged to regain his form of two years ago when he ranked second in the league in rushing; and the D should be bolstered by free-agent cornerback Dunta Robinson and two top draft picks, linebacker Sean Weatherspoon of Missouri and defensive tackle Corey Peters of Kentucky.
Likewise, Miami surpassed expectations in 2008 by reaching the playoffs in its first season under G.M. Jeff Ireland and coach Tommy Sparano but backslid last year. The similarities don't end there. Miami running back Ronnie Brown is seeking a return to his Pro Bowl form of 2008 after missing seven games because of injury, and the Dolphins brought in Broncos Pro Bowl wideout Brandon Marshall to address a major need. Both Atlanta and Miami are young, talented and well-coached, and those are the makings of a winner.
6. WILL THE MCNABB TRADE PAY OFF?
The biggest gamble of the off-season was Philadelphia's trade of Donovan McNabb to Washington. Teams typically shy away from dealing big names within the division because they don't want to strengthen a rival's hand or face one of their own former stars twice a year. Maybe the Eagles decided they weren't going to re-sign McNabb beyond 2010, the final year of his contract. Or perhaps they felt compelled to give 2007 second-rounder Kevin Kolb a shot because Kolb is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in 2011. The upshot is that the Eagles got rid of a quarterback who won 92 starts over 11 seasons and took Philly to five NFC title games and a Super Bowl. What's more, he was coming off one of the best seasons of his career and had an explosive target in DeSean Jackson. If McNabb can stay healthy—always a question—the Redskins get the savvy veteran leader they've long been looking for, while the Eagles start from scratch in the NFC East with a quarterback who has just two career starts.
7. WILL THE THIRD TIME BE THE CHARM FOR PETE CARROLL?
Saying that Carroll, the Seahawks' new coach, failed in his two previous NFL head coaching stints is harsh, considering he had a 33--31 mark in four years with the Jets and the Patriots and twice took New England to the playoffs. But the perception lingers, in part because Carroll's teams failed to improve. The Jets were 6--10 in 1994, his only season with New York, and the Pats fell from 10 wins in '97 to nine the next year and eight in his final season. Why did Carroll make the switch back to the NFL after his championship-laden tenure at USC? Was it to finally prove himself on the pro level, or a calculated move to escape NCAA sanctions? Whatever the motivation, Carroll will soon realize that the cupboard was better stocked at USC than it is in Seattle, where the Seahawks were 9--23 the past two seasons.
8. WILL THE JETS SOAR?
The Jets' personnel moves this off-season were as brash as coach Rex Ryan's boasting. Rather than stand pat after a surprising run to the AFC title game, New York brought in two Hall of Fame--caliber veterans in outside linebacker Jason Taylor and running back LaDainian Tomlinson, a Super Bowl MVP in wideout Santonio Holmes and a former Pro Bowl cornerback in Antonio Cromartie. In April the Jets spent a first-round pick on Boise State's Kyle Wilson, whom some scouts ranked as the No. 1 cornerback in the draft. The moves brought more star power to Broadway, but significant questions as well: Do the aging Taylor and Tomlinson have enough left to be productive? Will Cromartie, a finesse player, hold up in Ryan's attacking defense—let alone against the onslaught of passes he'll see opposite All-Pro corner Darrelle Revis? And can the immensely talented Holmes (right) stay out of trouble? He already is scheduled to miss the first four games while serving a suspension for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy.
The Jets had great chemistry during their playoff run, but locker-room favorites Thomas Jones (the team's leading rusher) and Alan Faneca (a physical, experienced guard) were released, popular multipurpose threat Leon Washington was traded to Seattle, and starting safety Kerry Rhodes was dealt to Arizona. If those aren't distractions, several key starters' unhappiness with their contracts could be. Revis already has the team guessing as to whether he'll report to camp if he doesn't get a new deal. Say this much for the Jets: They won't be boring.
9. WILL THE BELL TOLL FOR THE STEELERS IN BIG BEN'S ABSENCE?
After the sordid story of Ben Roethlisberger's night in Georgia became public, reports surfaced that Pittsburgh was considering trading their two-time Super Bowl--winning QB. In case the Steelers are still wondering what life would be like without Roethlisberger, the answer will come when he sits out the first four to six games while serving a league suspension. The situation isn't completely dire—eighth-year vet Byron Leftwich (left) is a capable replacement, and coach Mike Tomlin had planned to lean more heavily on the run even before Roethlisberger's suspension made that a necessity. Still, the early schedule is daunting, with home games against Atlanta and Baltimore and a trip to Tennessee in the first four weeks. After the Week 5 bye come the Browns, then trips to Miami and New Orleans. The Steelers still have the talent to make a postseason run, but they'll likely be playing catchup in the season's second half.
DERICK E. HINGLE/US PRESSWIRE (SAINTS)
FACING FATE Super Bowl champs of late have not fared well the following year, but the ever-poised Brees (9) doesn't seem susceptible to a slump.
MICHAEL C. HEBERT (BREES)
[See caption above]
MARK HUMPHREY/AP (JOHNSON)
SCOTT BOEHM/GETTY IMAGES (CUTLER)
BEARING DOWN Cutler, who led the league in picks last year, will get a Martz makeover.
MATT YORK/AP (WELLS)
TODD KIRKLAND/ICON SMI (RYAN AND TURNER)
TAG TEAM Ryan (2) will have more responsibility in the Atlanta offense, while Turner tries to return to '08 form.
NICK WASS/AP (REDSKINS)
GIMME FIVE McNabb (in yellow) gets to face his old Philly friends twice in '10.
AL PEREIRA/N.Y. JETS (HOLMES)
FRED VUICH (LEFTWICH)