It's been an off-season filled with unexpected developments, so what can we expect when the first game of the 2015 NFL season kicks off in 100 days?
Musings, observations and the occasional insight 100 days out from the showcase that will be the NFL’s 2015 regular-season opener, Pittsburgh at New England, on Sept. 10 in Foxboro...
• Five years later, the roles have been somewhat reversed. In 2010, it was a different multiple-Super Bowl-winning quarterback who faced a four-game suspension and missing the first month of the season due to a league-issued suspension. So while Ben Roethlisberger can no doubt feel Tom Brady’s pain, there is a bit of symmetry at work in having Big Ben’s Steelers in line to possibly benefit from the Brady-less Patriots as the season gets underway at Gillette Stadium.
Roethlisberger, of course, sat out the early weeks of 2010 due to his involvement in a matter far more significant than the inflation level of the footballs. He was suspended for six games (later reduced to four) for a violation of the NFL’s personal conduct policy, after being accused—but never charged—of sexually assaulting a 20-year-old Georgia college student in a Milledgeville, Ga., nightclub in March of that year.
Brady may have his Deflategate suspension shortened as well once his appeal process concludes, but it still looks entirely likely that he won’t be on hand to go head-to-head against Roethlisberger for the eighth time in their stellar careers. And that’s very good news for Pittsburgh, given the Patriots are 5–2 when those two quarterbacks face off.
For those who tend toward the sky-is-falling end of the worry meter in New England, it’s also instructive to note that no Roethlisberger didn’t equate to no chance for the Steelers in 2010. Pittsburgh went 3–1 without their suspended star, with Charlie Batch and Dennis Dixon starting two games each in his absence. After a Week 5 bye, Roethlisberger returned to action in Week 6, just as Brady is in line to do if the league makes him serve the full four games (the Patriots have a Week 4 bye).
And don’t forget, Pats fans, the 2010 Steelers went 12–4 in the regular season, won the AFC North, and advanced all the way to the Super Bowl, where they were beaten by Green Bay, with Pittsburgh nearly pulling off the come-from-behind win after a second-half rally. Perhaps the month spent without Roethlisberger set a resilient tone for the rest of the year, and taught the Steelers that there are different ways to win a game. Would anyone be really surprised if the Patriots found a way to prosper and use the challenge of a banished Brady to their advantage?
I didn’t think so.
• The NFL’s Thursday night regular-season opener is usually an opportunity for the defending Super Bowl champions to hang a banner and take one last bow before getting back to work, but this year’s game is shaping up as the Suspension Bowl. Brady and running backs Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount all are in line to miss the game due to suspensions. Clearly anyone whose last name starts with a B is not welcome.
Bell (three games) and Blount (one game) received suspensions for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy, after being arrested together last August on marijuana possession charges (Bell also drew a DUI charge because he was driving). Now the ex-Steelers teammates will be sidelined on Sept. 10, with Pittsburgh and New England not being able to count on the runners who are expected to lead their team in rushing this season. Blount, the former Patriot, was released by the Steelers last November and wound up re-signing with New England in time to be an important cog in its Super Bowl run.
When you add in that Stevan Ridley (Jets) and Shane Vereen (Giants) left New England in free agency, the running back position in the Patriots-Steelers Week 1 showdown won’t have much if any carryover from 2014. DeAngelo Williams and Ben Tate are expected to carry the load in Bell’s absence, while Jonas Gray and James White figure to get most of the work while Blount sits.
• I don’t like the Seahawks’ chances of shaking off that devastating Super Bowl loss and returning to the NFL’s biggest game for a third consecutive season. But if Seattle succeeds at that daunting task, it’ll represent a rarely seen slice of history. Only two previous teams in the league’s Super Bowl era have qualified for the game three consecutive years, and there is no example of a club going win, loss, win in three straight Super Bowl trips.
The 1990-93 Buffalo Bills were 0–4 in Super Bowls, of course, and the 1971-73 Miami Dolphins lost to Dallas on their first try in Super Bowl VI, and then won back-to-back titles against Washington and Minnesota in Super Bowls VII and VIII.
The Patriots will attempt the back-to-back feat this season, hopefully becoming the eighth example of consecutive Super Bowl championships. New England was the last franchise to turn that trick, winning rings in the 2003 and '04 seasons.
• I find the thinking a bit curious in Denver this season, with the Broncos in win-the-Super-Bowl-or-bust mode as the twilight of Peyton Manning’s career unfolds. When I do the math, it seems wise to prepare for disappointment again in Denver.
The Broncos are hoping new coach Gary Kubiak and new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips help Manning and Co. get over the hump, and both men have had their share of regular season success and are well-respected coaches. But in the playoffs, it’s another story. Kubiak went 2–2 in the postseason in his eight years as Houston’s head coach, never making it past the divisional round. Phillips led three teams as a full-time head coach, and took them all to the playoffs, for a total of five postseason trips in his 8 1/2 seasons on the job (he was also an interim head coach for three other teams). But his record in the playoffs was a dismal 1–5 and he too never even reached the conference title-game round.
Manning knows plenty about playoff failures, having lost an NFL-record 13 of his 24 career postseason games, with a stunning nine one-and-done playoff trips in 14 postseasons. Add it all up, and between them, Manning, Kubiak and Phillips account for a 14–20 record in the playoffs, which doesn’t inspire supreme confidence that the Broncos’ Super Bowl victory drought is about to end.
• For as much activity and change that takes place in every NFL offseason these days, it’s as if you can count on some things to remain the same, like death and taxes. Take the franchises with quarterback questions/situations to figure out. In case you slept through 2014, teams dealing with issues at the game’s most pivotal position from last summer on included Cleveland, Buffalo, the Jets, Houston, Washington, Tampa Bay and Tennessee.
Roughly speaking, all the same teams have unknowns again this year at quarterback, with new faces having arrived in many cases, but no certainties in place. The Bucs and Titans hope Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota are their long-term answers, but time will tell. The Browns like Josh McCown more than Johnny Manziel, but they liked Brian Hoyer more, too. The Jets are giving Geno Smith another shot, but they have backup plans again. Same goes for EJ Manuel in Buffalo and Robert Griffin III in Washington. And in Houston, it’s Hoyer battling it out with Ryan Mallett and youngster Tom Savage.
Same old, same old. It’s like quarterback instant replay for about a quarter of the league.
• We’re always prone to think we’ve got the coming season pretty well scoped out by the time June rolls around, but of course we don’t. Last year at this time, conventional wisdom said the Dallas defense would be a historically gruesome train wreck. Last year at this time, Odell Beckham’s right hand wasn’t world-wide famous yet. Last year at this time, Kyle Orton wasn’t even signed by Buffalo, let alone having announced his retirement. Last year at this time, we thought Justin Forsett was just a low-budget insurance policy to get the Ravens through the two-game Ray Rice suspension.
Shoot, last year at this time, the Saints looked loaded on both sides of the ball and ready for a Super Bowl run, and we thought Chip Kelly couldn’t possibly pull a bigger stunner than when he summarily released Pro Bowl receiver DeSean Jackson in the spring of 2014.
So remember. It’s the NFL. We don’t know anything for certain. Surprises are in store.
• Speaking of those always newsy Eagles, as monstrous as the release of Jackson looked at the time, it was just the tip of the iceberg for Kelly. Still to come this year were the LeSean McCoy trade, the shocking Sam Bradford-Nick Foles trade, the DeMarco Murray signing after a swing and a miss on Frank Gore, and the addition of Tim Tebow to the team’s quarterback mix.
For some clubs, the head coach winning a showdown/power struggle with the general manager (Howie Roseman) would have been the blockbuster story of the offseason. But in Philadelphia, that’s almost a distant memory by now and doesn’t even make the top three in terms of impact developments.
• Has there been an NFL team in recent memory that lost more ground, and lost it faster, than the 49ers? A minute ago, San Francisco was one play away from winning the Super Bowl, and then about 20 seconds ago, the 49ers were one play away from winning a classic of an NFL Championship Game in Seattle.
But after the Super Bowl-or-bust 2014 season went bust in San Francisco—as many thought it would—the defections started en masse. For a team that stood 7–4 and thought it was going to contend for a ring once again as Thanksgiving Day morning dawned last November, it has been a whirlwind of a transition ever since.
What lies ahead, we’re not exactly sure. But I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a more dramatic turn of fate that played out more rapidly than what the 49ers fans have endured. No one had a worse offseason than San Francisco in terms of talent drain, and a franchise that was among the league’s elite suddenly has to deal with wildly lowered expectations.
• Is this finally the year, Florida? Can the state of disgrace that has existed in the Sunshine State’s NFL contingent finally end? The Dolphins, Bucs and Jaguars have to win at some point, right?
Miami hasn’t gone to playoffs or had a winning season since 2008’s fluky 11–5 mark under first-year head coach Tony Sparano. Tampa Bay’s last playoff trip came in 2007 and the Bucs’ 2–14 mark in 2014 marked the franchise’s low point since 1986. Jacksonville went just 3–13 last year, has won only 14 of its 64 games since the start of 2011, and hasn’t made a playoff run or enjoyed a winning record since 2007.
Make no mistake, head coaches Joe Philbin (Miami), Lovie Smith (Tampa Bay) and Gus Bradley (Jacksonville) are likely all in jeopardy of being fired if more misery ensues this season. The Dolphins likely have to make the playoffs in order for Philbin to survive in his job, while Smith and Bradley’s teams better show substantial improvement with their young franchise quarterbacks if they hope to still be working in Florida in 2016.