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.
• 5. Philadelphia Eagles (8-8): Eagles must soar above the hype yet again after last year’s supposed Dream Team went bust, but I don’t see many weaknesses. Losing LT Jason Peters for season to injury is big; LeSean McCoy will miss him. But Mike Vick has enough weapons to fashion a big comeback year. And Birds made a huge defensive add in MLB DeMeco Ryans.
• 6. New Orleans Saints (13-3): Don’t write off N’Awlins just because the team was socked hard by the league in Bountygate penalties. See that instead as major motivation. Pass-rush seems a bit suspect, but this Drew Brees-led offense remains capable of keeping Saints in every game.
• 7. Baltimore Ravens (12-4): Joe Flacco and Ray Rice front an offense that is plenty good enough, and I think this aging defense has a last hurrah in it. Old Canes Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are near the end but not there yet.
• 8. Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4): Ben Roethlisberger behind an improved offensive line gives this team another division title shot. So many distractions, though, including the holdout of WR Mike Wallace, RB Rashard Mendenhall not being ready to start the season following knee surgery, and LB James Harrison’s preseason injury. That’s a lot to overcome in a tough (well, except for Cleveland) division.
• 9. Houston Texans (10-6): I’m not as hyped on Texans (Miami’s season-opening foe) as some. Team lost a few big, key pieces especially on defense in DE Mario Williams and LB DeMeco Ryans. But as long as Matt Schaub, Arian Foster and Andre Johnson stay healthy, this is a dangerous offense leading what should be playoff team.
• 10. Chicago Bears (8-8): A healthy Jay Cutler could mean a breakout year for Brandon Marshall (whom the Dolphins sorely miss, on the field if not off it), and adding Michael Bush to Matt Forte solidifies the ground game. If Bears’ aging defense has a big year left in it, this could be a playoff team.
• 11. Detroit Lions (10-6): I like this team. Matthew Stafford last year threw for 5,038 yards and 41 TDs. He has best receiver in Calvin Johnson. Defensive front is stout. And this 10-win squad returns 21 of 22 starters. Wonder about Detroit’s secondary, though. Also, Lions are 2-10 past two years vs. division’s Packers and Bears.
• 12. Cincinnati Bengals (9-7): Andy Dalton to A.J. Green, a successful draft, the addition of RB Benjarvus Green-Ellis, and nine starters returning to a defense that ranked seventh in league. That’s a lot to like and to make you think Cincy can fashion its first back-to-back winning seasons since 1981-82. Team must find a way, though, to beat Steelers and Ravens; they’ve lost seven straight to their division’s kingpins.
• 13. Atlanta Falcons (10-6): So much depends on whether QB Matt Ryan, in his fifth year, can make that leap from good to great. Two new coordinators mean improvement was needed. Trade for Asante Samuel should help the secondary.
• 14. Denver Broncos (8-8): Broncos are way over-hyped (Super Bowl odds are only 16-1) solely because of Peyton Manning and the belief that, at 36, he will bounce back from his neck surgeries as good as ever. That’s a lot to ask, especially with an iffy running game and a young O-line. But Manning and a less-than-fearsome division at least give Denver a legit playoff shot.
15. Seattle Seahawks (7-9): A very solid defense and potentially strong ground game give Seahawks much to feel good about. Like their division chances. But the big question is at quarterback and especially whether Matt Flynn is ready to lead.
• 16. San Diego Chargers (8-8): Philip Rivers, Ryan Mathews and a healthy Antonio Gates spearhead plenty of offense even with the loss of Vincent Jackson. But Norv Turner saving his job with a playoff berth more likely will depend on much better play from the defense and offensive line.
• 17. Dallas Cowboys (8-8): Jerry Jones’ roster has much talent, but Tony Romo must excel behind a shaky O-line for Dallas to survive a strong division better than it has going 14-18 the past two years. Star defender DeMarcus Ware will have major help at cornerback from top free-agent Brandon Carr and top rookie Morris Claiborne.
• 18. New York Jets (8-8): No Super Bowl guarantee from Rex Ryan this year, and with good reason. NYJ’s defense looks super, but the offense now under Tony Sparano’s guiding hand could struggle to score. Mark Sanchez doesn’t have a lot of dynamic weapons; not sure Shonn Greene is the special runner they need him to be. May see a bunch of Tim Tebow/Wildcat simply because nothing else is working.
• 19. Oakland Raiders (8-8): Erratic though still star-capable Carson Palmer and healthy Darren McFadden give Raiders attack some pop as post-Al Davis era begins, and defensive front is stacked. Teams’ first winning record in 11 years is in reach.
20. Kansas City Chiefs (7-9): RB Jamaal Charles and S Eric Berry are healthy again, and OT Eric Winston and RB Peyton Hillis are nice additions. Chiefs could have a postseason shot if QB Matt Cassel is good enough, a serious question.
• 21. Buffalo Bills (6-10): I’m not all in on the hype out of Buffalo that Bills are poised to make playoffs for first time since 1999. Adding Mario Williams and Mark Anderson give Buffs one of deepest D-lines in league, but I don’t trust inconsistent QB Ryan Fitzpatrick (23 picks in 2011). And Bills are 2-10 vs. AFC East past two years.
• 22. Carolina Panthers (6-10): Cam Newton 2.0: Strides toward superstardom or sophomore slump? Center Ryan Kalil’s full-page ad in the Charlotte Observer promised a Super Bowl, but Cam’s season will tell whether even playoffs are likely. LB Luke Kuechly looks like a rookie of year pick, but myriad other holes on D.
• 23. Washington Redskins (5-11): Skins beat champ Giants twice last year and add a ton of high-cost hope in rookie QB Robert Griffin III, but he doesn’t have a ton of elite talent around him. Defensive front seven is strong but secondary much less so.
24. Arizona Cardinals (8-8): Birds ended last season on a 7-2 run, and wisely drafted WR Michael Floyd to pair with Larry Fitzgerald. But the choice of Kevin Kolb or John Skelton at the most important position serves to dampen enthusiasm.
• 25. MIAMI DOLPHINS (6-10): New head coach. Two new coordinators. New schemes on both sides of scrimmage line. A rookie QB in Ryan Tannehill. This is a lot of “new” not to expect a transitional season with its share of lumps. Run defense should be stout, but not as sure vs. the pass. And Miami has a weak receiving corps for that new uptempo offense. Dolphins seem turned right and building toward something better, but I feel like the playoffs are at least a year away.
• 26. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-12): Bucs are better than the squad that ended last year with 10 consecutive losses. Made nice free agent adds in WR Vincent Jackson, OG Carl Nicks and TE Dallas Clark, then emphasized defense in the draft. Key is big improvement by QB Josh Freeman (22 INTs in ’11).
• 27. St. Louis Rams (2-14): Rams are 15-65 past five years but big improvement is ahead. Jeff Fisher (who turned down Miami) is solid coach and Sam Bradford is ascending QB star. Healthy RB Steven Jackson will be key. Have some nice defensive pieces — including Chris Long and James Laurinaitis, but run-D better be better.
• 28. Tennessee Titans (9-7): I expect a nice bounce-back season by RB Chris Johnson, but Titans’ tough early schedule makes an 0-4 start very possible. And that Matt Hasselbeck/Jake Locker choice at QB won’t have many fans thinking Super Bowl.
• 29. Jacksonville Jaguars (5-11): Maurice Jones-Drew’s contractual holdout was a mess this team didn’t need. Defense is reasonably solid, but offense could be a fright unless Blaine Gabbert displays immense improvement. He has nice wideouts in Justin Blackmon and Laurent Robinson, but can he get them the ball?
30. Indianapolis Colts (2-14): No. 1 rookie QB Andrew Luck makes things interesting but he has negligible surrounding talent after aging WR Reggie Wayne. Huge roster turnover puts Indy in a more obvious rebuilding mode than any other team.
• 31. Minnesota Vikings (3-13): Will RB Adrian Peterson be his old self after major knee surgery? Better be, as Vikes clearly are rebuilding and clearly are worst-by-far in a tough division. Christian Ponder is more a question than answer at QB, and after Jared Allen there isn’t much talent on a defense that allowed 34 TD passes last year.
• 32. Cleveland Browns (4-12): Hope rests on two ifs, both rookies: If QB Brandon Weeden is the real deal right away, and if RB Trent Richardson is the draft’s best back since Adrian Peterson as some say. But even if so, a perpetually awful run defense looks miserably bad once again.