By Kerry Byrne
September 03, 2009

The interminable NFL offseason -- 221 days long this year for those of you keeping score at home -- is about to end.

With its conclusion comes a long list of statistical and historical storylines that we'll be watching throughout the 2009 season -- from Jay Cutler's chances to rewrite Bears history, to the effort of underappreciated Darren Sharper to give the Saints a fighting chance at the playoffs, to unknown San Francisco quarterback Shaun Hill's opportunity to become the next Tom Brady.

Here are eight we eagerly anticipate.

The Cutler story will be the great drama of the 2009 season.

At one end of the spectrum is the big-armed passer's opportunity to rewrite the Chicago history books. He could change an incredible half century of frustration for an organization that's traditionally so inept offensively that they consider Jim McMahon the second best QB in team history.

How bad has it been for the Bears? Let's put it this way: Cutler passed for 4,526 yards last year in Denver. If he can keep up that pace in Chicago, he'll need just 52 games to become the franchise's all-time passing leader (Sid Luckman, who last played in 1950, holds the franchise record of 14,686 yards).

At the other end of the spectrum is his opportunity to spin out of control in a fist-fight with the media, Mike Ditka and Chicago's feisty fans. There have already been some rocky moments with the Chicago press. In fact, Cutler seems to operate with the same media relations attitude once employed by Ryan Leaf -- except he can actually play.

If Cutler produces early and the defense dominates and Devin Hester returns to game-breaking form, it could create a mountain of hype and excitement out of the Second City. If he fails to produce early, it could turn ugly fast. Pass the nachos, this will be fun!

We're going to watch Favre this year only because we have a television and we sit in front of it quite a bit.

By now, you know the Cold, Hard Football Facts' take on Favre of recent vintage, on the desperate decision by Minnesota in signing him, and onthe nauseating coverage he generates from a compliant sports media that bows down to him like thirsty frat boys at the feet of the keg-delivery man. The media's Old Yeller Fever will reach pandemic proportions Nov. 1, when the gunslinging all-time interception leader walks into Lambeau Field in another team's uniform with the NFC North lead on the line.

Given no other option, we'll enjoy the drama, especially sometime late in the season, when the HMS Favre-tanic cracks up against an iceberg and another promising Minnesota season sinks into the deep.

The Chosen One steps onto the field for the first time in his prolific career with a rookie head coach (Jim Caldwell) and without his binky, the great Marvin Harrison. Granted, Harrison was something of a non-factor, by his standards, over the past two years (combined 80 catches, 883 yard, 6 TD), and Manning still managed to win MVP honors in 2008.

And, granted, as we noted earlier this offseason, Caldwell represents continuity more than an abrupt change: he's been a long-time fixture in the Tony Dungy camp. But these are big changes just the same. And the most interesting aspect of these changes will be how it impacts the sideline dynamics in Indianapolis.

The coach-QB dynamic there in Indy during the Manning-Dungy years was always a little bit different than it was on other teams. The quarterback seemed to carry an unusual amount of decisive weight, even when paired with a coach of the gravitas possessed by Dungy. Who could ever forget the image of Manning waving off the punt team on 4th and 11, during a December 2004 win over the Chargers?

We expect that Manning will come to dominate the always critical QB-coach relationship ... and what that means for the Colts will be fascinating to follow.

Sharper was a long-time fixture in the NFC North, where he played for the Packers and Vikings. The 13-year safety moves on to New Orleans this year as perhaps the most underappreciated defender of our time.

Well, people know he's good -- but maybe they don't know just how good. He's never generated the hype of a Rodney Harrison, Bob Sanders or Troy Polamalu, for example. (It doesn't help Sharper's case that those guys combined to win five Super Bowls this decade.)

But Sharper is the active leader in INTs (54) -- two ahead of Ty Law, another guy who's garnered a lot more headlines (but also enjoyed more postseason success). Sharper has also returned eight of those picks for TDs. With one more pick-six this year he'll join Aeneas Williams, Hall of Famer Ken Houston and future Hall of Famer Deion Sanders on the No. 2 spot all-time in this category, behind only 2009 Hall of Fame inductee Rod Woodson (12 pick-sixes).

Sharper is also an ironman at a brutal position: he's missed just nine games in his 12-year career, and none over the past three. Finally, we'll be watching Sharper because his Saints should move the ball all over the field on offense. The defense needs to step up to make New Orleans a Super Bowl contender, so Sharper will be a critical component if the Saints are to fulfill the promise of their gunslinging offense.

New England's revamped defensive backfield will get tested more often than Lance Armstrong's urine this year. The tests begin with the Monday Night Football opener against Buffalo and its new star receiver, Terrell Owens.

It's critical that this unit perform well. Even with Tom Brady back and at full strength, the battered secondary (pathetic 89.5 Defensive Passer Rating last year) needs to improve to give the Super Bowl favorites a legitimate shot at actually fulfilling those expectations.

Put most simply, the Patriots play for Super Bowls when they field a decent pass defense. The Patriots take an early vacation when they do not field a decent pass defense.

• The Patriots have reached the AFC title game five times in the Belichick Era. Their average defensive passer rating in these five seasons was 68.9.

• The Patriots have failed to reach the AFC title game four times in the Belichick Era. Their average defensive passer rating in these four seasons was 85.5.

But the schedule looks like a difficult one for any pass defense. After trying to tackle Owens, the Patriots stare down Jets rookie Mark Sanchez and 2008 quarterbacking phenoms Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco in consecutive weeks. The schedule also includes a pair of showdowns with Miami's Chad Pennington, who historically does well against the Patriots, second meetings with Sanchez and Owens and -- oh! -- a mid-November showdown on the road against Manning and the Colts.

Colts-Patriots has been the great rivalry of the past decade: Manning has proven he can abuse a sub-standard New England secondary, and the winner of this regular-season battle has had the inside track on the AFC title almost every year since 2001. This will be big.

The 0-16 Lions were dead last in many of our Quality Stats last year -- Offensive Hog Index low among them. The Lions not only ranked 32nd in this indicator, but also ranked 32nd in one of the key components of the indicator: Negative Pass Plays.

The Lions suffered a Negative Pass Play (sack or INT) on 12.7 percent of dropbacks -- a tremendously poor rate. To put it into perspective, the team with the top Offensive Hogs last year, Denver, suffered a Negative Pass Play on just 4.7 percent of dropbacks.

That's not a good situation to walk into for either veteran newcomer Daunte Culpepper or rookie No. 1 pick Matt Stafford. This decade has already produced one highly touted quarterback (Joey Harrington) who was victimized by the institutional inability of the Lions to field a decent offensive line. We'd hate to see Stafford become the second. But we see little reason to believe he won't.

We're not going to sit here and tell you we've watched a lot of Shaun Hill game film over the years. We haven't. But the performances of this pigskin persona non grata leap off the stat sheet in his brief NFL career (10 starts).

• The 49ers are 7-3 over the last two years when Hill starts.

• The 49ers are 5-17 over the last two years when somebody else starts.

The competition he's faced has not been particularly stout -- the wins last year came against the Rams (twice), Bills, Jets and Redskins. But there is obviously a big difference in the 49ers with and without Hill at the helm.

His individual numbers are pretty damn good, too.

• 181 of 288 (64.0%), 2,547, 6.9 YPA, 18 TD, 9 INT and 90.5 rating.

Would you take that performance out of your young new quarterback after 10 games? Of course you would. Jets fans, Lions fans, Browns fans -- any of them would be ecstatic if Sanchez, Stafford or Brady Quinn put up those kind of numbers through Week 10.

So we want to see what becomes of this budding little star. The 2009 season will go a long way toward telling us if Hill is the next Brady -- an unheralded quarterback who comes out of nowhere -- or just another flash in the 49ers pan.

Talk about a guy who inherits big problems.

Mangini takes on an organization with a frustrated fan base -- the Browns are the only AFC team other than the 1995 expansion Jaguars and 2002 expansion Texans who have never reached a Super Bowl.

Mangini takes on an organization with a real-life quarterback controversy -- and you know what the say, if you think you have two No. 1 quarterbacks, it's because you don't have one.

Mangini takes on an organization while bringing his own personal baggage to the table -- including a dysfunctional relationship with the leading coach in the game today and a spotty track record during his three years with the Jets.

And finally, Mangini takes on an organization in need of a massive institutional overhaul on offense. The Browns have finished in the top 10 in scoring just once since 1988 -- a period of 17 seasons. That's a pretty sad record. Last year, Cleveland ranked 31st in scoring, with just 232 points -- roughly the same number of points the Patriots will put on the board through October. To put Cleveland's 232 points into perspective, the 0-16 Lions scored 268 points last year.

Other than that, what could go wrong for Mangini this year? Whether he proves himself the Man-genius or crashes and then burns like the Cuyahoga River, it will be a fun story to follow.

You May Like