For me, it hasn’t really sunk in yet that football is back. Usually that takes until at least halftime of the first game, which is when I know definitively that there are no more lazy summer days to kill by discussing the hat choice of Colin Kaepernick, or each and every Robert Griffin III muscle twitch. Well, we’ll still do that second thing. A lot.
As a pumper/primer/get jacked exercise, I meandered my way through 10 compelling and rich questions to ponder as the 2013 NFL season begins in about six hours as of this writing. Six hours, guys.
1. Will Robert Griffin III really, truly, honestly be himself?
When we’re spreading our umbrella over the 2013 season, this is where we have to begin even though it’s a question that’s been asked repeatedly, and has no possible answer.
Here’s the deal: it’s easy for head coach Mike Shanahan to say that Griffin will be just the same and not even a little bit different. But what isn’t easy at all is seeing your first game action on a Monday night against a division rival, only eight months after your knee was shredded. There are no fancy stats to quantify that, and few case studies.
The instinct is to look back to almost exactly one year ago when Adrian Peterson was beginning his miraculous comeback season after a similar injury. But on every play, Peterson is always dictating the terms of contact by running towards defenders, and thus he has some element of control over how and where he gets hit. As a quarterback who enjoys a good run, Griffin often has that luxury too. But much more often he’s standing and stationary in the pocket, a target for blitzers to tee off on at will. I think we can expect two things: hesitation and some degree of tentativeness at first, and then much more ballin’ out weekly. Sliding and minimizing contact needs to happen much more often, though, even if the instinct to push for extra yardage is a difficult one to fight.
2. Does it really matter who is catching Tom Brady’s passes?
It matters, but does it matter? Will it matter less for Brady, and less for Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels? Remarkably, it just might.
Aaron Hernandez is as good at playing tight end as he is at leaving behind a museum of evidence, and starting the season without Rob Gronkowski for likely at least three games won’t be enjoyable either. Between those two and the safety and warmth provided by Wes Welker, the purge of Brady’s targets was vast this offseason, but it didn’t end there. Danny Woodhead is gone too, Brandon Lloyd remains unemployed, and even role/depth players like Deion Branch departed too. In total then, Brady will begin the season without the pass catchers who were on the receiving end for 360 of his 401 completions last year.
Youch? Well, if we assume that Danny Amendola can finally remain in one working piece, maybe not. He can be a younger and faster Welker, and Kenbrell Thompkins has already shown he can do a fine Lloyd imitation with his 116 yards on eight catches during Week 3 of the preseason. The most significant replacement effort will revolve around Hernandez, a role Shane Vereen should be able to fill since he’s only really a running back because we insist on calling him a running back. Vereen can be used all over the formation, lining up in the slot and out wide.
We could be preparing to watch either consistent offensive stammering in New England after what was essentially an offseason line change, or the height of the Brady/Belichick wizardry. And maybe nothing in between.
3. Is Wes Welker really Wes Welker without Tom Brady?
It feels like we don’t even know you anymore, Wes. It’s like you’re an entirely different person. Are you a different person? Can Wes Welker actually exist outside of New England?
I’ll go with yes, yes he can, mostly because Peyton Manning is quite skilled too. And more importantly, he also enjoys throwing to his slot receiver. But the question is still a worthy one to ponder, even if the narrative has become a little annoying.
Welker was only a little above a nobody when he arrived in New England to start the 2007 season. He was 26 then, which isn’t old for a wide receiver, but it’s still far from young. Over his two full seasons in Miami he had a modest 1,121 receiving yards. Then over his next six years in New England with the power of Brady compelling him, Welker averaged 1,243.1 yards and 112 catches per season. He’ll regress now in Denver, simply because with the presence of Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas, Welker is no longer the primary outlet through which the passing game runs (he had started to lose that title in New England too). The fall should be more of a stumble, though, as please recall that during the peak of his usage alongside Manning in Indianapolis, slot receiver Brandon Stokley caught 68 balls for 1,077 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2004.
4. Will the Dolphins successfully purchase wins?
Ahhh, the offseason darlings. Because as we all know, winning a championship that doesn’t exist in March always leads to real trophies in February.
With an abundance of cap space and the burning desire to become relevant again, Dolphins owner Stephen Ross paid for the building of a team through a mountain of bills, highlighted by the signing of Mike Wallace to a $60 million contract with $30 million guaranteed, and an average annual base salary of $12 million. Brian Hartline was also retained, but the rest of the offensive overhaul is either broken (Dustin Keller), or pretty horrible and expendable (Brandon Gibson). The goal was to give sophomore quarterback Ryan Tannehill support beyond Hartline, but since the almighty hand of our football overlords is wicked, Wallace and Hartline will now have to suffice as his primary options.
Defensively it’s Dannell Ellerbe, Philip Wheeler, and Brent Grimes aboard to improve a unit that allowed 356.8 total yards per game last year (21st).
5. Will the Ravens successfully heal their exit wounds?
Early in fee agency, we assumed there wouldn’t be anyone left to play defense for the Ravens. A narrow space between general manager Ozzie Newsome and the cold, cruel wall that is the cap led to the exits of Ellerbe, Ed Reed, Paul Kruger, Cary Williams, and Bernard Pollard, in addition to the retirement of Ray Lewis. For those keeping score, that’s six starters who vanished from the defense of the defending champs, a team that’s historically been pretty good at, well, defending. Toss in the retirement of Matt Birk and Anquan Boldin, and surely the Ravens are set to not only fizzle fast, but also be relegated to a lesser league, right?
Welp, enter Arthur Brown and Matt Elam, the Ravens’ top two draft picks. Enter Elvis Dumervil, whose struggles with basic fax machine operation will allow him to replace Kruger’s pass rushing. Enter Michael Huff, the Raiders castoff who will move back to safety. Now, the fall from grace may be only a mere stumble.
6. The read-option: whatcha got, defenses?
It’s a gimmick, a fad, and a goofy formation. It won’t last, because defenses are too smart and stuff, and the NFL will shun this trickery while reverting to its standard form: drop back, throw, repeat.
Yeah, that’s exactly what happened in college football when the read-option first surfaced, oh, a few decades ago. It’s here to stay, and it’ll continue to be pioneered by the likes of Griffin, Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick, and now Michael Vick under Chip Kelly. But it had such a sizzling burn in 2012 because like most offensive or defensive innovations in the NFL, the read-option’s emergence was sudden. Abruptly, defenses were dealing with an unblock defensive end, and trying to figure out how to neutralize his vulnerability. The read-option froze the defense’s best pass rusher and made him useless, as Clay Mathews learned last January while he did graceful pirouettes, and Kaepernick ran for a playoff record 163 yards on 12 carries, including a 56-yard run.
What will be interesting to watch now is the defensive adjustment, and exactly how it takes shape. Alabama head coach Nick Saban said that NFL coaching staffs were contacting him throughout the summer, seeking read-option defense advice. His response? Shift the focus from the quarterback to the line of scrimmage. Or more simply, from pressuring, to containing.
Of course, like any brain scrunching defensive problem, there are multiple solutions (or potential solutions). Film guru Greg Cosell provided another one recently:
I’ve talked with coaches [about the read-option], going back to Michael Vick when he was really the only one doing it in 2003-2004. Coaches would tell me that they would encourage Vick to run, and in fact make him run to a specific area, and they’d have the defense set up in that area.
7. New geniuses, same problems?
Nope, probably not.
In this corner (*points dramatically, summons inner Michael Buffer*) we have Marc Trestman, the former pride of maple syrup country. The quarterback whisperer is now tasked with coaxing something that resembles consistency out of Jay Cutler, who has been one of the most maddening quarterbacks in recent memory due to his unique ability to thread a throw through traffic, and then dump one off his back foot. Trestman’s west coast offense will give Cutler more high percentage throws, which will end in Matt Forte being featured even more prominently in the passing game. There will be an abundance of trips and bunch sets, which in turn lead to open space and running room with the sudden changes in direction difficult to defend. In theory.
Then there’s Chip Kelly in Philadelphia, the man who will change our perception of time forever. Famous for his uber-uptempo offenses in Oregon, at times during preseason test runs Kelly’s Eagles had only 18 seconds between plays. Deception and isolation are often the main drivers of the Kelly offense, with quarterback Michael Vick usually appearing as though he’ll run on every play, which opens up areas downfield. With Kelly, the read-option isn’t isolated to focusing on a defensive end either. Ask Vince Wilfork.
8. Will Rex Ryan be the Jets’ head coach by Week 2?
Santonio Holmes isn’t at full health yet, Mark Sanchez won’t be ready until at least Week 3, Geno Smith doesn’t quite understand the dimensions of an NFL end zone, and Bilal Powell is the starting running back. Some of it was his own doing (gotta win them preseason games with the potential starting QB, Rex), but mostly, there’s never been a head coach set up to fail more blatantly than Rex Ryan in 2013.
9. Is this the year that the Browns finally matter?
No really, this could be a thing. Offensively, there should be vast improvement once Josh Gordon sits out his suspension, because then he’ll resume being stupid fast. During the preseason he finished with 200 yards on nine catches, which came after he had a stretch last year between weeks five and nine when he averaged 27 yards per catch. Then there’s everyone’s fantasy super sleeper Jordan Cameron, who had two touchdowns on just six catches throughout August. Rob Chudzinski and Norv Turner are thinking vertically, and they have all the right offensive pieces in place, anchored by the strong-armed Brandon Weeden.
10. Will we finally see some of that USC swagger from Reggie Bush?
For the past two years, Reggie Bush was often misused in Miami. Asking a running back with his open-field elusiveness to run between the tackles instead of putting him in space reduced his effectiveness. Now with the Lions, Bush will revert back to his Saints usage, a glorious time when he had a single-season high of 88 catches in his rookie year.
Head coach Chuck Schwartz said Bush will likely catch between 60-80 balls, while also making this important distinction: he’ll get the ball on the Lions’ terms, and in situations best suited for his skillset rather than running into eight-man fronts.