Quarterbacks in the NFL always seem to lead the league in newsworthiness, and that’s true entering this season even more than usual. Not even New Orleans’ Bountygate scandal — the fallout causing coach Sean Payton’s year-long suspension among other penalties — can muscle the big QB stories off the top of the 2012 marquee.
One of those dramas is playing out in Miami, where Dolphins fans are more excited by Ryan Tannehill than by any rookie passer since Dan Marino in 1983. And yet, leaguewide, Tannehill might not even make the top-five biggest QB stories nationally.
No. 1, of course, is that Peyton Manning changed horses, moving his saddle from a Colt to a Bronco. Whether he can come off a year lost to neck surgery and rediscover his Hall of Fame form in Denver is the biggest story in pro football.
Rookie Robert Griffin III taking over in Washington and fellow rookie Andrew Luck taking over for Manning in Indianapolis run a dead-heat for next-hottest story at the position. Luck was the top overall pick to Griffin’s second, but the buzz and anticipation for RGIII seems greater going on. (Could it be the nickname?)
Let us not forget Tim Tebow, whose trade from Denver to the Jets weighs in fourth among our quarterback stories — though you would think it was first with no challengers based on the hyperventilating New York tabloids. Tebow could be the most discussed backup in history. (Poor Mark Sanchez might want to have earplugs ready after his first home interception lest the “We want Tebow!” chants sweep him off the field).
OK, I’ve delayed the inevitable long enough. My division-by-division analysis, playoff forecast and Super Bowl pick will appear Sept. 7 on the first of our Friday NFL prediction pages. For now, here is my annual ranking of the 32 teams, and as always those teams’ cooperation in helping to make this list as accurate as possible will be both hugely appreciated and thoroughly unexpected:
• 1. San Francisco 49ers (13-3 last season): The Niners are so strong that their perceived weakness is a quarterback, in Alex Smith, who threw for 17 touchdowns vs. only five interceptions last season. That’s a pretty strong weakness, no? A great defense returns all 11 starters, and nice adds on offense including WR Mario Manningham and RB Brandon Jacobs as a complement to Frank Gore.
• 2. New England Patriots (13-3): Pats came within one play of ending their seven-year Super Bowl title drought last season and should be better in 2012. Team lost RB Benjarvus Green-Ellis but Tom Brady still has lots of weapons and added a big one in deep threat Brandon Lloyd. Defense needed shoring so Bill Belichick spent his first six draft picks on D. Patriots also have NFL’s easiest schedule.
• 3. Green Bay Packers (15-1): Pack has won 21 of past 23 games — including playoffs and as long as Aaron Rodgers is healthy this is an elite, scary offense capable of outscoring any shortcomings by its defense. But Packers emphasized improving that unit in the draft, especially what was a weak pass defense in ’11.
• 4. New York Giants (9-7): Do not underestimate the defending champions. Those 22-1 Vegas odds have NYG too much a longshot to repeat. There also is disrespect in the prevailing notion Philly is the best in the NFC East. Eli Manning lost a couple of weapons in free agency but has lots left, and that pass rush looks awesome.