1. How much has the culture changed concerning concussions?
Coaches and general managers say all the right things. But when a coach or GM on the bubble sees a big head owweee as perhaps costing them a job-saving win or two — and most coaches see every injury to a starter that way — let’s see how many put someone’s head before their own wallet. Watch for those concussions that somehow just wind up being called an ambiguous “head injury,” thus allowing a player to reenter a game or dress the following week after mysteriously missing practice.
2. What if you get an arctic Super Bowl?
The NFL put Super Bowl XLVIII in the new New Jersey home of New York’s NFL teams. All previous Super Bowls played in the north benefited from a roof and central heating. Here, a serious cold snap could bring us Ice Bowl II (or III, if you count the 2007 NFC Championship Game), leaving the swells in the stands whimpering. Season-ticket holders in places like Green Bay or New England slap on the thermal wear, pound hot fluids and warm themselves by the fires of friendship and fandom. Those people don’t often wind up with Super Bowl tickets. And what if we get a cold weather team vs. a warm weather team? Could weather decide the game?
3. What’s the long-term viability of read-option based offenses?
NFL defenses snapped the Wishbone like Joe Theismann’s leg (or, more appropriately, Jim Plunkett’s shoulder). The Run ‘N’ Shoot ran for a few years before quarterback punishment shot it down. Now comes the read option, The Pistol, run by Colin Kaepernick, RGIII and quarterbacks like them — athletes who combine running ability with NFL quality passing ability. In other words, Steve Youngs with a scheme that takes advantage of both skills fully. Some NFL coaches consulted with their college pals on how to stop teams like San Francisco from rolling up points by the peck. Look back at the start of this paragraph, though. Read-option offenses proliferation likely stops with the second or third major quarterback injury. In that same vein.
4. Will Chip Kelly’s fast break offense be this generation’s wishbone or Fun ‘n’ Gun?
Chuck Fairbanks stampeded the Big Eight and Texas with the wishbone. Got snapped in the NFL. Steve Spurrier strafed the SEC with the Fun ‘n’ Gun, saw it reduced to popgun by the NFC East. Philadelphia brought in Chip Kelly, who accelerated the pace of college offenses, college scoreboards and the fortunes of Oregon with his innovative offense. Fairbanks and The Old Ball Coach found offensive innovation truly overwhelms opponents when you have better personnel across the board. That doesn’t happen often in the NFL, although the Eagles’ skill position personnel looks suited for Kelly’s offense.
5. What’ll happen on kickoff returns to push them toward or away from extinction?
With each rule change designed to cut down on the plethora of head-on collisions that occur on every kickoff return, the NFL keeps shuffling toward eliminating the play entirely. A player getting paralyzed or suffering a debilitating concussion might provide the final impetus toward a no kick return league. On the other hand, a kickoff return that swings the result of a key regular-season game or a playoff game keeps the play a part of NFL football for another few years.
6. Which generation-defining quarterbacks continue to emerge?
Somebody among Washington’s Robert Griffin III, Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck and Seattle’s Russell Wilson must suffer a “sophomore slump,” right? Maybe not. Maybe Carolina’s Cam Newton gets it back together and San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick keeps it together. If so, these five could comprise the best chunk of marquee quarterbacks — national jersey sellers, mainstream fame — to come to prominence within a year or two of each other since Terry Bradshaw, Roger Staubach, Bob Griese and Ken Stabler in 1971-72.
7. How much longer will the rest of the NFL have New England’s Tom Brady and Denver’s Peyton Manning to kick them around?
Speaking of quarterbacks of an age, these two men of a certain age can see the end. Maybe we can see it, too, in the way Manning’s late playoff game throws against Baltimore burned more grass than receivers’ hands or the way Brady suffered a mild injury in training camp. Football’s a team game, but Manning vs. Brady prompted more NFL talk and arguments since 2001 than any team rivalries. Denver’s rebuilt quickly around Manning, getting Brady’s bread-and-butter receiver Wes Welker, while New England’s trying to reconstruct a pass catching group for Brady. Manning’s 37, Brady’s 36. This year might see their last showdown shootout against each other.
8. What’s Adrian Peterson’s follow-up to 2012?
Less than a year after turning a knee into shredded wheat, the motor in Minnesota’s offense rumbled almost to an NFL record with 2,097 yards rushing, 6.0 yards per carry. Defenses designed to stop him proved annoyances. None of the six previous 2,000-yard runners led their conference in rushing the following year. They averaged a dropoff of 49.9 yards per game and 1.55 yards per carry. That would leave Peterson at 1,299 yards and 4.45 yards per carry or almost identical to his numbers for his last full pre-knee injury season, 2010 (1,298 and 4.59).
9. Has Baltimore peaked?
That wasn’t a breeze you felt on your neck in February but the exhale of a Ravens franchise that got the second Super Bowl it felt so close to several times before. Then, odyssey over, time to go — linebacker Ray Lewis and center Matt Birk to retirement, safety Ed Reed, linebacker Danell Ellerbe, defensive end Paul Kruger other places via free agency, safety Bernard Pollard released, traded wide receiver Anquan Boldin to San Francisco for a sixth-round draft pick. Even though some signings make up for the losses on paper, especially high octane pass rusher Elvis Dumervil, this feels like a team retooling and trying to embrace a new identity.
10. How much difference will head coach Sean Payton make back on the New Orleans sideline?
In six seasons with Payton overseeing the offense and offensive play-calling, the Saints won one Super Bowl, the franchise’s only two NFC title games, only two 13-win seasons, four division titles and two 5,000-yard passing seasons by quarterback Drew Brees. While Payton spent last year serving his NFL suspension for BountyGate, the Saints went 7-9. The offense tick-tocked just fine without Payton, however, finishing No. 2 in the league while Brees put up another 5,000-yard season. Defensively, no team gave up more yards and only one gave up more points. Payton paying more attention to his defense might lead to the biggest impact we’ll see this year in his return.