And so the NFL's 92nd season, one that many feared might not happen at all, is upon us. After an off-season-less off-season and a news-packed August, here's what will stand out over the next five months.
The spotlight on Michael Vick
No NFL player has more pressure on him. In consecutive years Andy Reid has traded away starting quarterbacks Donovan McNabb and Kevin Kolb, clearing the way for Vick. Then in August the Eagles signed him to a contract extension with $40 million in guaranteed money, even though Vick struggled badly in the last three games of 2010. There's a durability question too: Vick has played a 16-game season just once since being drafted 10 years ago. "I'm not going to take unnecessary hits," says Vick, who was sacked 34 times and had 100 rushing attempts last season. "But playing quarterback, you're going to get hit."
Peyton Manning's status
Facing the possibility that their All-Pro QB could miss significant time because of the slow progress of his recovery from July neck surgery, the Colts spent $4 million to take Kerry Collins off his rocking chair. Indy has a rugged first four games—at division rival Houston, home to improved Cleveland and stalwart Pittsburgh, at rising Tampa Bay—and in Manning's absence the Colts could dig a hole they won't be able to get out of.
Destiny's darlings: Detroit
Much has to go right for the Lions, such as QB Matthew Stafford (who has missed 19 of 32 NFL games to injury) staying healthy. But the starting defensive front tormented teams in the preseason—end Cliff Avril sacked Tom Brady twice on Aug. 27—and is going to be tough to rein in. Unless injuries ravage the Lions, I'll be surprised if they don't finish north of .500 for the first time since 2000.
The Patriots' postseason problems
New England has won 35 games in the last three years—and has not won a playoff game in that span. The core of a team that last won a Super Bowl in 2004 is rusting. Will the newcomers—receiver Chad Ochocinco, guard Brian Waters and pass rushers Albert Haynesworth, Andre Carter and Shaun Ellis—be the tonic for what ails the Pats in January? Or has Bill Belichick lost his Midas roster touch?
Success in Cleveland
Not only does the West Coast offense of Browns president Mike Holmgren and rookie coach Pat Shurmur fit quarterback Colt McCoy to a T, but Cleveland has the power backs (Peyton Hillis, Montario Hardesty, Owen Marecic) to bleed some long drives. What's more, the Browns have only one 2010 winning team (Indy) on their schedule before December. Don't be surprised to see them in the division race on Thanksgiving—and maybe even leading it.
Struggles in Carolina
It's tempting to say the 49ers will have the hardest first year under a new coach. But Jim Harbaugh can Scotch-tape an offense together for QB Alex Smith, who is at least in a scheme he knows. Ron Rivera's Panthers are being built right, with defense and a ground game, but a team isn't going to sniff .500 with a rookie quarterback in a new system—especially because Cam Newton has had just seven weeks to prepare for an early stretch that has Dom Capers, Gregg Williams and Jim Haslett game-planning him and Clay Matthews, Julius Peppers and John Abraham rushing him.
The new kickoff rule: forgotten by December
Last year, when kickoffs were from the 30-yard line, the average kick landed at the 5½. Stands to reason that this year, with kicks moved up to the 35, the average would be near the goal line. In 2010, 16% of all kicks resulted in touchbacks. This season I doubt it'll be much more than 35%—and maybe significantly less, if teams take some risks to avoid starting at their own 20.
Green Bay's repeat bid
Only one team since 1998 (New England, 2003 and '04) has won back-to-back Super Bowls. The odds are, something will derail the Packers. But they're young, they've got a premier tight end (Jermichael Finley) back after missing most of '10, and they've got a quarterback who is outnumbering Brett Favre in his first few years as a starter. What's not to like?
Labor peace—except for drug testing
The NFL and the union agreed to testing for human growth hormone as part of the new CBA. But the players now are questioning the means and validity of such testing. If the union fights too hard, it will be seen as turning a blind eye to the use of HGH. And De Smith thought the drama was over.
The next TV negotiations
As I traveled through camps this summer and talked to owners, they seemed sure that the negotiations for the next TV deal will be historic. The price could be 50% to 70% higher—and if one of the current networks drops out (unlikely), another cable outfit such as Turner is more than ready to jump in. Good news for the players in 2014. The salary cap would skyrocket that year along with the TV rights.
YOUNG AND HUNGRY
HOWARD SMITH/US PRESSWIRE (VICK)
DREAM ON Philly has handed Vick the keys to the franchise, but after being hit plenty last season, he's got to stay upright to have an impact.