It’s almost time to go camping this summer, so here’s my take on the 10 juiciest topics as NFL training camps begin opening this weekend....
1. How will the Chip Kelly Show—starring Chip Kelly—play in Philadelphia?
It’s year three of Kelly’s always-interesting tenure and we’ve unquestionably reached the stage of the proceedings where it’s completely his program, his hand-picked players and his time to win big. And by big, we mean bigger than his back-to-back 10-6 finishes in the NFC East, with one one-and-done playoff trip to show for it.
I still am of the mindset that Kelly knows what he’s doing and what he's after in molding this Eagles team to his liking, but even the most died-in-the-wool Kelly believer has to admit he’s taking a huge gamble in staking his 2015 fortunes around the talented but oft-injured Sam Bradford at quarterback. The movie Unbreakable was set and filmed in Philadelphia, but it most certainly did not star Bradford, whose five years in St. Louis saw him endure a litany of physical woes.
2. There’s a new face on the Bills
And it belongs to Rex Ryan, the irrepressible former Jets coach who quickly transformed himself into the biggest Buffalo-loving guy you’ve ever seen upon being hired to replace the departed Doug Marrone in January. It’s great that Ryan looks better in blue than he ever did in green, but the question of whether he was the missing ingredient in Buffalo is the only one that matters.
Ryan talks a Hall of Fame game, but now his Bills have to deliver for him, and it won’t help them all that much that the likes of Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas have bought into what Ryan is selling. Still, hopeful signs are everywhere, and stop us if you’ve heard this one before, but Buffalo is loaded on defense and just some steady quarterback play away from returning to the playoffs for the first time since roughly a week after the Y2K scare failed to materialize. The Bills are due and let’s see if Rex is indeed the impetus of a franchise’s return to relevance.
3. The dawn of the Jim Tomsula era in San Francisco
Otherwise known as the 'Be Careful What You Wish For' chapter in 49ers history. If nothing else, I suppose we’ll find out definitively if there really is a world of difference between head coaching in NFL Europe (as Tomsula did in 2006 with the Rhein Fire) as opposed to the NFL.
Tomsula follows Jim Harbaugh’s tension-filled but largely successful act in San Francisco, and he inherits a roster that has been dramatically altered by retirements and free-agent defections in what can only be described as an ultra-eventful 49ers off-season. General manager Trent Baalke claims the team is reloading and not rebuilding, but I always brace for a team taking a significant step backward when I hear that kind of language invoked. Tomsula needs to establish early on this summer that he’s no puppet of management or over-matched novice.
4. The Young Guns at the top of the draft
The last time the NFL saw two quarterbacks go 1-2 in the draft, we were treated to a pair of wildly entertaining playoff-bound 2012 seasons by Andrew Luck in Indianapolis and Robert Griffin III in Washington. But the Colts really weren’t a bottom-feeder team the season before, just a club that didn’t know how to cope without Peyton Manning on the field. As for Washington, head coach Mike Shanahan’s club caught late-season lightning in a bottle with RGIII and rode his dazzling dual-threat skill set to a playoff berth in a weaker-than-expected NFC East.
So where does that set the bar for Jameis Winston in Tampa Bay and Marcus Mariota in Tennessee? Nowhere near legitimate first-year playoff contention in the estimation of most. Winston figures to have a better chance to significantly lift the Bucs’ win total, because of the division he plays in and because there’s a substantial amount of talent on hand in Tampa Bay. Mariota’s ceiling in terms of instant impact seems lower, and anything above five wins should be a solid first step toward respectability in Tennessee.
5. Johnny Manziel’s second act in Cleveland
Is there a legitimate career and personal turnaround story about to unfold in Browns camp, or are the good reviews Manziel has generated this off-season in terms of his maturity and decision-making just a false or overly optimistic reading of what his second NFL season holds? The Browns sound like they’re prepared to start veteran Josh McCown in 2015, and I get that in that it’s a win-now league and next year is never promised to anyone. But doesn’t Cleveland have to find out if Manziel is what it thought he’d be as a pro quarterback as soon as possible? What good could come out of Manziel not definitively answering the question one way or another of whether he can cut it on the field? If he’s at all competitive with McCown this summer, which is no given, he should be playing. The Browns do themselves no favors going another year in limbo with the 2014 first-round pick.
6. The Giant question in New Jersey
Simply put, are we about to watch the rebirth of the Giants defense under new/old defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuola—who earned his chops leading the 2007 G-Men defense—or are we preparing to witness the end of the long Tom Coughlin era in the Meadowlands? Because that particular either/or is about how things shape up this season for New York, which hasn’t made the playoffs in five of the past six seasons and just logged consecutive losing seasons for the first time since the 2003-04 failures ushered out Jim Fassel and installed Coughlin.
The Giants are betting, or at least hoping, that Spagnuolo can do his best Cher impersonation and, you know, turn back time. To the tune of eight years. But that might be too much to ask, given New York finished a distant 29th overall in yards allowed, 30th in rushing allowed and 22nd in points. And defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul’s July 4th fireworks accident did nothing to help put the Giants defense on the fast track to a turnaround in 2015.
7. Denver’s still all in, but is Peyton Manning all done?
Was what we saw late last season the start of the inevitable demise of Manning and his brilliant career, or just a blip, brought on by the toll the long season can take on an 38-year-old quarterback? I’m not betting against Manning playing well again this season, but he did look arm-weary and every bit his age in that ugly playoff-opening loss to the visiting Colts, a defeat that prompted big changes in Broncos-land.
Denver is promising to lighten the load on Manning this season under run-game-loving Gary Kubiak, the team’s new head coach, and that should help. But there are some effects of time that can’t be compensated for in game plans alone, and Manning has to be feeling the pressure that comes with taking one’s last, best shot at winning a career-capping ring.
8. Who exactly are the Saints these days?
Has Sean Payton’s team, fresh off its wildly underachieving 7-9 season of a year ago, re-invented itself overnight, undergone a minor renovation or re-tooling, or is it actually in the first stages of a significant rebuilding project? Nobody knows for sure, but Jimmy Graham, Kenny Stills and Pierre Thomas and several others are gone, and the new faces are everywhere, even on the coaching staff, where the re-hiring of ex-Raiders head coach Dennis Allen as the secondary coach at least puts defensive coordinator Rob Ryan on notice that a possible replacement is on hand if that unit starts slowly.
As always, the Saints will follow Drew Brees’ lead, and it’ll be interesting to see how quickly Brees adjusts to life without a target like Graham. Even sans Graham, the offense still has enough firepower to win the weak NFC South, but it’s all about how much improvement the defense can make in this year of change in New Orleans.
9. Super Bowl quarterback questions
No one is suggesting that the perennial playoff powerhouses in New England and Seattle deserve sympathy for where they stand as the new season beckons, but there are atypical issues involving Tom Brady and Russell Wilson that must be faced as camp looms. The matter of Brady’s four-game league suspension and potential litigation in the wake of the Deflategate case adds an element of uncertainty to the defending champs’ quest to repeat (Calling Jimmy Garoppolo!). And Wilson’s ongoing contract issue threatens to be a protracted showdown that challenges the Seahawks’ vaunted team-first approach and puts too much of the focus on the difference of opinion that apparently exists in regards to the quarterback’s value (Does No. 3 want to be the NFL’s No. 1 in salary?). All in all, the league’s two most recent champions have some matters to work through at the game’s most pivotal position.
10. Can they all get over last year's heartbreak in the NFC?
I’ve already written about the potential for Seattle’s catastrophic last-minute Super Bowl meltdown to loom over 2015, but let’s not forget the chain of heartbreak and dejection that defined the NFC playoffs last season. Can Detroit use that controversial loss at Dallas in the first round to its motivational benefit this season? Can Dallas come back strong after falling in such bitter fashion at Green Bay in the divisional round? (C’mon, we all know Dez caught the ball. The rule is just dumb.) And can Green Bay pick up all those shattered green and gold pieces and shake off the devastation of giving away a near-certain Super Bowl berth to Seattle in the NFC Championship Game?
The Packers probably will never line up for an onside kick again without conjuring up that nightmare against the Seahawks. The notion of a Super Bowl hangover doesn’t quite tell the whole story in the NFC this season. If you throw in Arizona, which saw its mostly superb regular season shrivel and die late, followed by that hideous loss at Carolina in the first round of the playoffs, the NFC’s 2014 playoff field has plenty of page-turning to do this year.