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Ten People, Places and Things That Will Define the NFL in 2018

From drama with the national anthem and drama in New England to football on the West Coast and Jon Gruden on the sidelines, we run down what will likely emerge as the season’s defining characteristics.

With the 2018 NFL season kicking off next Thursday, we’re running out a week’s worth of countdowns to help you get ahead of the madness…

We spend the offseason studying the state of the league and each of its 32 teams hoping to gain some window into what the coming NFL year will look like. At no point did that effort feel more futile than 2017, when in late September, the president of the United States co-opted Colin Kaepernick’s protest of racial injustices in America for his own campaign fodder.

Recognizing that it would resonate with his voter base, Donald Trump reminisced about the days when the NFL did not flag hits that could potentially lead to concussions, and wished owners would release players who kneeled during the national anthem. To say that the NFL barely recovered in time for a phenomenally entertaining Super Bowl was an understatement. That fan equity was quickly squandered on both sides of the issue when owners tried to force players to stand for the anthem in 2018, the passage of a policy that firmly re-inserted the debate into the public eye.

So you’ll understand why this list—the 10 people, places and things that will define the NFL in 2018—isn’t easy to put together. Just look at last year’s efforts. Sometimes, after all the studying, a massive cannonball hits the zeitgeist and changes the landscape for the foreseeable future.  

That being said, here’s a look at what we think we’ll be talking about in 2018-19.

1. Politics, the national anthem and the future of both player-fan relations and player-league relations

We are approaching one of the most politically charged midterm election periods of the last 50 years. As noted, the president likes to bring up the league’s actions or inactions regarding the anthem to supercharge campaign rallies or create a distraction from whatever storm may be brewing around the White House. To think he’ll drop it now would be naïve.

So it’s hard not to view the NFL’s reworked anthem policy, whatever it may be, as a house in a tornado whenever it’s released. The league rightfully backed off the previous policy after blowback from a leaked Miami Dolphins rulebook, which, while undefined, gave the organization the power to place kneeling for the anthem under “conduct detrimental to the team”—a distinction that could carry a four-game suspension if carried out to the fullest.

But whatever they come up with now will be the result of discussions with the NFLPA, and will reveal the health of a relationship that will end up being more important than ever. Players have taken on an incredible responsibility within their own communities and atop the country at large, and require the support of a league that makes billions from their labor and goodwill.

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2. The state of the quarterback

With Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Philip Rivers all slipping one more year into the twilight, the health of the NFL’s quarterback position will once again come into focus.

On the bright side, this has to be the most optimistic many in and around the league have been in the last four or five years. As schemes at the pro level finally shift to meet the knowledge base and learning curve players are graduating with, the rubber can meet the road and scoring can take off again.

While some analysts have predicted an NFL where, outside of the top five quarterbacks, the rest of the league’s signal callers are a homogenous blur, this might not be the worst development so long as the skill level of players 6-32 can remain competitive. What is the downside of having more teams capable of winning the Super Bowl every year?

Nick Foles’s title game performance, due in large part to a scheme crafted by Doug Pederson and Frank Reich, showed that there are coaches creative enough to elevate their quarterback situation so long as the baseline skill set is up to par.

Andrew Luck and Aaron Rodgers are back and theoretically healthy. Deshaun Watson could possibly get a full 16 games under center. Barring a seismic change in thinking, Sam Darnold and Josh Allen will start on opening day for their franchises while Baker Mayfield, Josh Rosen and Lamar Jackson marinate behind seasoned veterans.

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3. Jon Gruden

A franchise struggling to pay arguably the best defensive player in football tripped over itself to hand Gruden $100 million over the next 10 years to restore the franchise to glory. He is the same man who washed out of coaching in 2008, thanks in part to his penchant for loading up on veteran players and grinding his quarterbacks to the bone.

It’s a fascinating case study in the perception of intelligence vs. actual intelligence. Gruden’s players always marveled at his schematic prowess, but a decade on television can inflate even the worst of us. With a move to Las Vegas on the horizon, Raiders owner Mark Davis laughably barreled over the spirit of the Rooney Rule to create his dream vision.

Here’s the problem: What if it bottoms out in Year One?

What if some of the good, young players Oakland jettisoned to appease the coach were actually good, young players? What if the relationship with Khalil Mack can’t be repaired? What if coaches simply need to be different now?

Buckle up.

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4. The new Brat Pack

Many a fawning profile have been written or are in the process of being written about offensive wunderkinds Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay (including one by SI’s own Greg Bishop), who could end up rescuing football from its lowest-scoring season since 2009. Touchdowns are at their lowest point since 2006, while more quarterbacks and wide receivers are declaring for the draft with a simplistic understanding of a far more complicated game around them.

If there are any coaches under the age of 40 who seem to have the solution, it is the two of them.

5. West coast renaissance

As the NFL tries to forge (or renew) its fan base in Los Angeles, the Rams are entering the year at 8/1 odds to win the Super Bowl. The Chargers and 49ers are trendy picks to go deep into the playoffs, or even make the Super Bowl. The Raiders now have Gruden.

It is conceivable that every California-based NFL team finishes the season with double-digit wins, igniting a part of the league’s landscape that has been dormant since the 49ers had a Super Bowl run under Jim Harbaugh.

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6. The new lowering-the-helmet rule

No particular piece of NFL legislation better describes the space between a rock and a hard place occupied by commissioner Roger Goodell. Thirty years down the line, his tenure will be judged by the ability to make football safe enough to wrangle parents and children for another generation.

Right now? It will be panned by boisterous NFL defensive players who are concerned with having to retrain their bodies and bloodthirsty fans who tune in for their dose of violence every Sunday. Thrown in the mix will be a group of green officials filling the void left behind by several high-profile retirements over the past year.

A three-year window of acclimation has been floated, but can anyone expect that type of patience in this day in age, especially when two rival football leagues are threatening to take a piece of the pie and forcefeed fans their favorite parts of the game without all the distractions?

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7. How we watch, and why

While the talk of an NFL ratings decline was largely misunderstood or purposefully misinterpreted, the truth is that we digest content in more ways than ever before. CBS will be streaming games on mobile phones in 2018 while megawatt bookmaking services like William Hill also angle to get in on the action to pacify a hungry group of tech-savvy betters.

Sportsbooks are popping up like Buffalo Wild Wings, and catering to the idea that NFL Sundays are an event to be monetized. How easy was it before to waste the day away in a bar somewhere from 1 p.m. until 11 p.m. after the Sunday night game? How much easier will it be if you hit the over on a Rams/Packers game at 1 p.m. and now have $50 burning a hole in your pocket?

8. Patriot Drama

Josh McDaniels remaining in New England seemed to cool those who were predicting an end to the Patriot dynasty. A few damning reports about the inner-workings of Bill Belichick’s franchise painted the picture of a colossus finally coming to grips with its own star power. Can they continue to thrive with a quarterback soaring into his 40s? Have all the wounds created over the past decade heal, or was the departure of Belichick loyalist Matt Patricia a sign of things to come?

New England is good enough to limp through that division for another two or three years, and maybe we’ll never see the end coming. Belichick could wake up one day and decide that it’s time to take his grandkids to Paris for the fall.

Still, the league goes as the Patriots go. They pull the rest of the coaches and teams into their orbit. A seismic change could have ripple effects for years to come. Then again, it’s probably safer to bet that we’ll see them in the AFC title game again, right?

9. Cowboy Drama

Jerry Jones has been the ultimate hell raiser inside the league office as the NFL tries to deal with sensitive subjects, like players protesting racial injustice in America. But may those tirades once again aim focus toward the actual team he owns?

Dallas’ offensive weapons beyond Ezekiel Elliott leaves much to be desired. Their offensive line is banged up. Their scattershot defense may not be able to counteract a division that has loads of offense. Dak Prescott is bearing an unimaginable burden, even for a former mid-round pick who wound up securing Tony Romo’s job.

Jason Garrett has been the head coach of the Cowboys since 2011 and in that time, Dallas has made the playoffs twice and lost in their opener. This has been the window where Jones has showed the most restraint in his time as an NFL owner. He has meddled less, preached stability and allowed the people around him to cut him off as he tried to select Johnny Manziel in the draft. But…everything has an expiration date and if Dallas starts getting drummed by Philadelphia and a sleeker, more up-tempo Giants offense, then watch out. No one revels in the macabre quite like Jones.

10. The new RPO, and the end of the also-ran coach

Whatever becomes the RPO of 2018 (I have some theories: Keep an eye on Chicago, Carolina and Tennessee and the way they incorporate smaller backs in their pre-snap movements and alignments), it has become increasingly evident that there are some coordinators and play-calling coaches who love getting in the mud, borrowing, shifting and adapting, and some who don’t.

Those who say the system is the system and rarely emerge from their standard 11 personnel are going to get weeded out of the game faster than ever before. Tenured coaches like to talk about how the league is cyclical, and while that’s true and it’s valuable to have a large base to draw on, that knowledge is utterly worthless if not applied aggressively.

There’s a reason Bill Belichick and Sean Payton have been around forever.  They’ve allowed their system to grow tentacles and, in some cases, separate identities when the personnel dictates. There are other name-brand coaches and coordinators hanging on to their last chance without developing anything memorable in the era of zone read.

Let this be a warning to them. They used to benefit from the groupthink of coaches and owners. But in the not-so-distant future, groupthink will devolve into a showcase for owners and head coaches on who can find the most unique, groundbreaking solution.