Roundtable: What will be the NFL season's most compelling storyline?
Every new NFL season brings a new set of narratives, while for better or worse, certain storylines never seem to disappear from league headlines. The Patriots' 28–21 win over the Steelers on the season's opening night brought a surge of talking points on its own, from headset malfunctions to the whereabouts of the commissioner to a coach-fan altercation to the irrepressibility of Gronk. And that was just one game out of 256.
How will the 2015 season be remembered? Our writers and editors pick the person, team or trend they believe will make for the most compelling storyline this season.
Don Banks That’s easy. It’s the highly-anticipated debut of Season 3 of the Chip Kelly Show, starring Chip Kelly. There’s a bevy of interesting new characters this season, and Kelly has even more control over the script after being elevated to the role of executive producer in Philadelphia. But the basic plot line is the same: Kelly has designs on utter league domination, and has slowly but surely built his roster with intriguing weapons designed to help him accomplish his takeover. (Sorry, Tim Tebow. You’re just not cut out for revolution).
I find Kelly’s thinking so refreshingly outside-the-box by reality-show standards that you can’t even see the box from where he stands these days. But I know many don’t share this view and believe him slightly power-crazed and or even Machiavellian. Kelly’s act has been pretty successful the past two years, but it still hasn’t generated the big numbers that were anticipated for it, and he has continued to endlessly tinker with the format and formula, resulting in plot twists so unforeseen that not even major characters like LeSean McCoy and Nick Foles saw them coming. It seems like only Chip understands what Chip is up to, and that makes for weekly drama of the very best kind.
Frankly I can’t wait to tune in and see what version of chess Kelly plays this year compared to the rest of the league’s checkers. The only thing he really needs work on is how to deftly wrap everything up by season’s end, giving everybody a little something to celebrate and enjoy. If he can master that, I’m pretty sure the Eagles 2015 highlight film will end with one of those well-lit, gauzy mood shots of Kelly walking off stage to the strains of “My Way.”
Michael Rosenberg The Patriots. Isn't it always the Patriots? Love them or hate them, respect them or not, you can't look away.
After Deflategate and a spate of unfavorable press, the defending champs may be on a mission, like they were when Spygate broke in 2007. But this year's team does not seem as loaded as that one. They didn't add Randy Moss; they lost Darrelle Revis. The secondary is a real question, and the AFC East looks tougher than it's been for most of the Patriots' reign. Miami is a legitimate playoff contender. The Jets may not be good, but they should be better than last year. Buffalo's defense is among the league's best. It's going to be hard for the Patriots to secure home-field advantage in the playoffs than it was last year.
And yet: These are the Patriots. Bill Belichick. Tom Brady. Always in contention, always riveting. There could well be more (legitimate) negative stories about them this season, but there will also be some compelling football. There may be better teams this season. There is not a more interesting one.
Joan Niesen I think the story to watch in 2015 will be the Colts' offense. In all likelihood, Indianapolis will set the NFL standard and flirt with the record book as it takes its next step, but will that step be enough to send Andrew Luck to his first-ever Super Bowl? Since Luck was drafted in 2012, the Colts have been among the league's best offenses, the key word being “among.” Luck and company have had to contend with the likes of Peyton Manning's Broncos, Aaron Rodgers's Packers, Tom Brady's Patriots and, a year ago, Tony Romo's Cowboys. This season, though, the Colts will have the league's best offense after acquiring a viable running back in Frank Gore and subbing in Andre Johnson for the injured and over-the-hill Reggie Wayne. (I would be remiss here if I didn't mention that T.Y. Hilton has been and will continue to be one of the league's best receivers.)
Still, I can see the conversation around this team mirroring that of Manning's Broncos in 2013, when their offense shattered nearly every NFL record but came up short in the Super Bowl. That Denver team's defense was lackluster at best, and the Colts will face predictions of the same outcome unless its defense can show a spark many doubt it has.
Richard Deitsch With multiple mediums producing never-ending content and an endless army of content providers jockeying for publicity, the NFL provides plenty of media stories year-round. Inevitably, come the start of the NFL regular season, sports media watchers will focus initially on whether off-the-field troubles (concussion research, Deflate-gate, player criminality) will impact consumption of America's favorite sports product.
The NFL’s regular-season television ratings were generally flat nationally last year and dipped a bit locally. But the local ratings were still above 2011 and 2012. So along with monitoring viewership trends, an NFL media story worth your attention is how successful (or not) the NFL’s first internet-only broadcast will play with viewers. The digital giant Yahoo! will livestream the Oct. 25 game in London between Buffalo and Jacksonville – the first internet company to take an NFL game off over-the-air or cable TV. The broadcast offers a look at a potential future revenue stream for the NFL (and for digital companies such as Yahoo!, which reportedly paid at least $20 million, according to Re/Code). The game will air at 9:30 a.m. on the East Coast and 6:30 am on the West Coast – set your alarm clock – and with cord-cutters from cable on the rise and the NFL looking for new forums to attract viewers, it’s a glimpse into how you’ll likely view pro football in the future.
Chris Burke The impact of running backs across the league. This starts with Adrian Peterson's return to a Minnesota team many have tabbed as a surprise contender in 2015. Peterson has not played since Week 1 last year and for a long while seemed destined to suit up elsewhere, but the Vikings bringing him back into the fold might have been the off-season's most significant roster upgrade.
The NFC East's presumed favorites underwent a little shake-up this summer, too—Philadelphia traded LeSean McCoy to Buffalo, then signed DeMarco Murray away from Dallas. While the Cowboys continue to insist they will be find on the ground, the theory of "anyone can gain 1,500 yards behind that offensive line" will be put to the test. Just last weekend, Jerry Jones traded for ex-Seahawks RB Christine Michael, adding him to a collection already including Joseph Randle and Darren McFadden.
St. Louis made Todd Gurley the first running back selected in Round 1 since 2012, taking him at No. 10. He will begin the season on the shelf as he rehabs a knee injury, so Melvin Gordon (No. 15 by San Diego) will lead the RB rookie class into this season.
The Steelers played Thursday night without superstar Le'Veon Bell, and will do again in Weeks 2 and 3 while Bell serves the remainder of his suspension. How will his absence impact the AFC North race?
Last season, five of the top eight teams in rush yardage qualified for the playoffs. Establishing a ground game will be just as important again this season, and several playoff hopefuls believe they have upgraded in the backfield.
Eric Single Picture this: Peyton Manning wills the counted-out Broncos deep into January with a beautiful mind, an ugly spiral and some old-man strength. We GIF every goofy celebration and parody every self-deprecating commercial along the way, unsure whether his 18th NFL season will be his last but grateful that his body held up long enough to extend his career so deep into Twitter's lifespan.
Picture this: Peyton Manning shows his age in the Broncos' early tests against the Ravens, Chiefs and Lions, and it becomes clear that the magical playoff run he had hoped to end on is far from assured. He doesn't make a public decision about his future as the Broncos slide, but the touching tributes to his career hastily assembled by his end-of-year opponents make it clear he's getting the closest possible NFL imitation of the Derek Jeter treatment.
Manning can't lose in 2015, and no matter which way you read that statement in your head, it holds true. Aaron Rodgers may be the reigning MVP, and Tom Brady has the Lombardi Trophy and the front-page headlines, but Manning still has the NFL by the heartstrings. We don't have to know exactly when he's retiring to file away his latest spectacular play as something we might never see again. But in the moment, don't expect all this sappy reflection to take the edge off what should be the tightest AFC West race of his four years in Denver.
Bette Marston There’s no doubt in my mind that Roger Goodell and his inconsistent, arbitrary leadership will loom over the NFL all season. From poorly handling the Ray Rice situation to his current clashes with the NFLPA about the new conduct policy, approved last December, Goodell’s every move as commissioner (even the fact that he didn’t attend the opening game) is under intense scrutiny.
Everyone’s well aware that Goodell and the NFL have not fared well in their last several trips to court, I feel like Roger Goodell is holding his breath, hoping desperately that NFL players behave themselves on and off the field (but we all know that the chances of that happening are slim). If there’s any reason for Goodell to have to hand out any sort of punishment, he knows that he’s under immense pressure to get it right—the first time—this time around.
A few things currently remain in limbo: After criticism from Judge Berman during Deflategate, will Goodell retain the ability to be the judge, jury and executioner in personal conduct cases or competitive integrity cases? Right now, the NFLPA is doing all they can to prevent it. And what will come of the commissioner’s exempt list, also hated by the NFLPA? NFL fans will certainly be waiting to see if Goodell reigns supreme, or if he strikes out once again.
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