Our impulse at this time every year is to expend copious amounts of energy trying to figure out how all the blanks get filled in over the next few months, from the constant info-gathering and guesswork that surrounds the unfolding of the NFL Draft (mockers unite!) to the 200-piece jigsaw puzzle that is the league's looming free agency signing season (start with spicy rumors, add a judicious visit or two, then bake until you have a solid agreement in principle, and at last, serve up a delicious done deal).
But you only need to review the recent past to tell just how ridiculous it is to try to predict the future in the NFL. Think back to a year ago right now, and look at how much of the league's landscape has dramatically changed. They don't call it the "off''-season because of how deadly accurate we all are.
In early March 2011, would you have believed it if I told you these 10 things:
-- Clemson defensive end Da'Quan Bowers will not go first overall in the draft. In fact, he wouldn't even go in the first round, falling all the way to Tampa Bay in the second round, 51st overall. And if you had Nick Fairley, Blaine Gabbert or Von Miller atop your mock, you weren't on the right track either. At this point in last year's draft season, we were still weeks and weeks away from Cam Newton becoming the consensus top pick of the Carolina Panthers. You can look it up.
-- Peyton Manning already has played his final game in Indianapolis, and his future as a Colt is on a countdown to separation from the only NFL organization he has ever known. That's because neck injuries are a whole 'nother world in football, and all Manning's new five-year $90 million contract last summer ensured was his eventual divorce from the town and the team he helped put on the NFL map.
-- Matt Flynn will be the Green Bay quarterback everyone is talking about at season's end, not that friend-of-Ryan-Braun guy, Aaron Rodgers. Flynn, he of the boffo two-game starting track record, is a free agent to be this month, and he's the kind of blank slate that any number of teams can't wait to fill in. Flynn is about to be very in. As in, in the money.
-- The Bengals will cut ties with Terrell Owens, Chad Ochocinco and Carson Palmer, and thrive all the way to the playoffs. Nobody has lost that much baggage at one time since the Titanic went down, but it was all dead weight in Cincinnati. Hope floats again in the Jungle, thanks to Andy Dalton, A.J. Green, Jay Gruden and Mike Zimmer's tenacious defense.
-- The key to San Francisco getting back on the road to the Super Bowl is getting quarterback Alex Smith re-signed before the 2012 season. Yep, Alex Smith. Never has one franchise and its quarterback showed so much patience with each other, but it finally paid off in Year Seven of the 49ers' Smith era, with rookie head coach Jim Harbaugh and Smith wondering where each other has been all their lives?
-- The Colts will self-destruct with a remarkable first-to-worst run of almost unprecedented speed and dimension. They stood as the only sure thing in the NFL, with a record nine consecutive playoff trips, but once Peyton Manning went missing, the Colts came apart. Things got turned so upside down in Indy that Bill Polian went from running the show and guarding state secrets in Colts-dom to working in the media in a dizzying span of two months. It was an alternate reality kind of year in Hoosier-ville.
-- Stanford's Andrew Luck is about to go 0-for-2 in his quest for a Heisman. Cam Newton beat him out for the iconic hardware in 2010, and Baylor's Robert Griffin III came from way back in the pack to stiff arm him in 2011. That makes Luck the best college quarterback prospect to never win college football's biggest prize since ... wait for it ... Peyton Manning.
-- The Rams and Bucs aren't quite on the upward trajectory that we presumed in the offseason, when they reigned as the chic picks of 2011 with us in-the-know types. Uh, check that. After going a combined 17-15 and narrowly missing the playoffs in 2010, St. Louis and Tampa Bay plummeted to 2-14 and 4-12, respectively, canning head coaches Steve Spagnuolo and Raheem Morris, respectively, in the process. The Rams will pick second in April's draft; the Bucs fifth.
-- The next Super Bowl champions will establish a host of precedents. Maybe disbelief would have been your response if you knew the Giants' championship run involved the following: First Super Bowl winner to be outscored in the regular season; first Super Bowl winner to endure a four-game losing streak in the regular season; first Super Bowl winner to lose twice to the last-place team in its division. Something very real and very significant has stopped making sense in the NFL playoffs in recent years.
-- Tim Tebow will go from ridiculed backup in training camp to pop culture phenomena/national obsession by November. Saw that all coming, did you? Right. Even the most ardent, died-in-the-wool Tebow fanatics could not have dreamed the way his 2011 season metastasized with a series of late-game comeback wins and a playoff trip. I'm sure there were other topics we were talking about in the NFL last season besides the lightning rod who plays quarterback in Denver, but I really can't remember any of them.
That was the unpredictable year that just was in the NFL, and the only given is that there are more curveballs coming. We'd do well to remember all of these unexpected plot twists as we head into the personnel acquisition phase of the league's offseason, when the goal is to divine what's going to happen and who's going where. Free agency and the draft will help remake the look of things, and by the time camps open in late July and the games begin again, we will have already replaced what we think we know now with what we think we know then. The surprise factor is what keeps us hooked, and coming back for more.
Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we wrap up the week in the NFL and look ahead to the rest of March...
• It'll only take one interested team to extend Hines Ward's career into a 15th season, and others have already theorized that either Jacksonville or Arizona -- both of whom are coached by ex-Steelers coordinators -- make sense as a landing spot for the veteran Pittsburgh receiver.
But when I look at Ward, I see a guy who has battled concussions or concussion-like symptoms the past two seasons, will turn 36 later this year, and is being released by the Steelers into a market already expected to be heavy at receiver. That doesn't add up to a bidding war.
Ward has always struck me as one of the more intelligent and thoughtful players in the NFL, but if he squeezes another year or two out of his career as his skills continue to diminish and his health heads in the wrong direction, what price glory?
• Between Peyton Manning's anticipated departure from Indianapolis and Peyton Hillis about to test the free-agent market, perhaps ending his up-and-down career as a Browns running back, it's not the best name to have in the NFL these days. When you toss in Sean Payton's unexpected issues with getting his own franchise quarterback signed before free agency, the bad mojo just gets amplified.
I still think the Saints and Drew Brees find their contractual common ground, with or without the franchise tag being used short-term, but this week's story about whether New Orleans general manager Mickey Loomis considers Brees to be "great'' or "very good'' isn't the road these two parties should be traveling down. It serves no useful purpose other than to potentially anger Brees and make both sides hunker down in negotiations.
Brees has great value to the organization and in the city of New Orleans. He deserves a monster payday. But the Saints are likely trying to avoid the mistake the Colts just made with Manning, making such a huge investment in their quarterback that it impacts the salary cap and what kind of team they can field around him. If Brees and the Saints are $5 million a year apart, they need meet somewhere in the middle and get back to the business of chasing a Super Bowl. At the level of compensation Brees is in line for, nobody's life is dramatically changed if they get paid $20.5 million per year instead of $23 million. The Saints and Brees are a marriage that works, and both sides need to realize how good they've got it.
• To repeat, I think Philadelphia and Denver make the most sense as a mystery team in the RGIII sweepstakes, because the Eagles can get out of their Michael Vick contract after 2012, and John Elway is said to be impressed with Griffin and his pass-first, run-later skill set. The No. 15 Eagles and No. 25 Broncos could be motivated enough to join the likely suitors of No. 4 Cleveland, No. 6 Washington and No. 8 Miami.
On other quarterback fronts, I'm still hearing the Redskins consider Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden a strong fall-back option if they don't land either Peyton Manning or RGIII. But Washington would likely try to trade down in the first round to take Weeden, believing No. 6 is too high to make that pick. But the Redskins could also be in play for Texas A&M's Ryan Tannehill at No. 6, and I don't see any way Tannehill falls lower than No. 12 Seattle.
• How long have the Minnesota Vikings been chasing an answer to their stadium issues? Shortly after I took the job of covering the team for the Minneapolis Star Tribune in mid-1996, then-team president Roger Headrick sat down with me and explained why the franchise needed a replacement for the Metrodome, which was only 14 years old at the time but already badly out-dated in terms of current NFL stadiums and their revenue streams.
That was just shy of 16 years ago and the Metrodome is turning 30 this year, with a roof, you may have heard, that has endured its share of issues recently. This week, in yet another step in the team's long stadium quest, a deal to build a new $975 million home for the Vikings in Minneapolis was announced. But if you think that means this story is finally over, you haven't been paying attention. The state legislature must still approve the bill partially funding the stadium, and perhaps the Minneapolis City Council. As with everything in this saga, there's some debate over whether that last hurdle is required, and it could wind up being legally challenged before the state's Supreme Court.
Until every legal, logistical and financial road block is cleared, I'll keep the Vikings new stadium under the heading of believe-it-when-I-see-it.
• Is it really noteworthy that Jerry and Stephen Jones both say they'd rather have Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo than either Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III? What are they supposed to say? "Shoot, yeah, we'd gladly dump Romo if we could somehow get our hands on either the first or second overall pick.''
Dallas picks 14th overall, and barring a Herschel Walker-blockbuster offer, the Cowboys aren't going to have to wrestle with the Romo versus Luck/RGIII debate. So why not throw your full and unequivocal support behind the quarterback you will have to go to work with again in 2012? Is there any other choice to be made?
• You hear a lot of interesting stuff at the combine every year, but I'm not sure I've ever heard a scouting report quite like the one I heard about Montana cornerback Trumaine Johnson. A draft-nik type of guy who I had never met walked up to me, introduced himself, said a few nice things about my flailing mock-draft efforts, and then proceeded to tell me to keep an eye on Johnson, a rising prospect.
He went on to describe Johnson's various strengths as a player, telling me about his coverage skills, good speed and ability to consistently break on the ball, etc... Then, almost casually, in the middle of that rundown, he mentioned the following: "Now, he was tasered by the police, that's true,'' before proceeding to tell me how good the kid's footwork and hands were.
I'm pretty sure "been tasered by the police'' is not a plus when determining one's overall draft grade, but then I'm old school. And Johnson isn't even the only cornerback in this draft who has that distinction in his background file. North Alabama cornerback Janoris Jenkins was tasered by police as part of his arrest for a 2009 bar fight while he was still at the University of Florida.