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…
Because the NFL deals hope like an unethical pharmacist each preseason, it’s easy to get caught in the stream and develop a hardened set of beliefs about the year to come before it’s even started. On Monday, we gave you a list of the 10 things that will define the 2018 season, based on all that we saw and reported on in the preseason.
But today, we’ve going to look at the stuff we might have missed altogether. Hope can blind us to the obvious sitting right there. Here are five examples:
1. Maybe it will take some time for Andrew Luck, Deshaun Watson and Carson Wentz to get better
Before we start, let’s get this out of the way: Andrew Luck should be in his own category. There really isn’t a test case for someone who had the beginning of his prime years hijacked by wanton mismanagement from the medical and coaching staffs. He injured the mechanism that propels the football, and even before that happened he was still adjusting to life in the NFL. Those who want to automatically plug the Colts in for an 11–5 season and Luck to the Pro Bowl need to imagine reprogramming some of the most basic functions you need to do your job at light speed.
For Watson and Wentz, torn ACL’s are tricky for quarterbacks that rely in part on movement and their ability to flee the pocket to find extended reads. Nearly every player you talk to who has dealt with an ACL tear in the past says that Year Two is when all the lingering doubt and discomfort subsides. Like Luck, Watson and Wentz need to balance that with their push to round out their game.
2. Maybe the NFL will kick the can down the road on this anthem policy
While we breathlessly await the next tone-deaf gaffe from 345 Park Avenue, imagine if the owners simply called the president’s bluff and let the players do what they wanted?
Those who run teams in red states or red areas of the country have been afraid that Donald Trump will continue to weaponize the visual of players kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial injustice and inequality for his own political gain. (For a short primer on why Trump does this, Robert Klemko did a nice piece back in June.) Here’s a theory, though: As the Mueller Investigation extends its tentacles into the White House, Trump’s finances and his supposed dealings with the Russian government, he’ll need something far more grandiose to up the ante and provide a distraction. Those who have stopped watching football because they’ve confused a solemn protest with a lack of patriotism have already done so. Those who have ditched their season tickets aren’t going to buy another set just to rip them to shreds again.
In short, Trump is going to need to find a new, far more galvanizing tune to play. In the meantime, the NFL can continue to meet with players and use the opportunity to have the extended, good faith discussions they should have been having in the first place.
3. Maybe this is the year Marvin Lewis finally wins a playoff game
Many of us glossed over the Bengals offseason—present company included—thanks to the relatively uninspiring choice to retain Lewis as head coach after both sides broke up and Lewis began courting general manager jobs in the press. Upon his return, Lewis made an inspiring hire at defensive coordinator (Teryl Austin) and layered a roster that is still one of the most talented in the NFL from top to bottom. Last year’s first-round pick, John Ross, has had an exceptional preseason and is showing up in interesting places throughout the offense. If he can diversify Andy Dalton’s options beyond A.J. Green enough, this could be the breakout team we never saw coming—or simply didn’t want to.
The AFC North feels as in-flux as it has been in years. The Steelers are another year older and wildly dependent on a 30-year-old wide receiver and running back who has yet to show up to training camp (though is reportedly set to show on Labor Day). Ben Roethlisberger has thrown 13 more interceptions in five of the last seven seasons and didn’t really take over a football game until Week 10 last year. The Ravens got markedly better this offseason, which could add to the intrigue.
Still, there is something to like about what Cincinnati has done. There are enough pass rushers to destroy a sub-par offensive line and enough capable offensive linemen to make Dalton comfortable again.
4. Maybe it’s smart to pencil in another team to win the NFC East
There hasn’t been a consecutive NFC East champion since the Eagles won four division titles in a row from 2001–04. While the Cowboys are in disarray and Washington is marginal on paper, the Giants have bandaged themselves enough in the offseason to make a serious run at the division.
Eli Manning is flawed, but not nearly as bad as we thought in 2017—look a little deeper at the numbers. He still gets rid of the ball quickly. He still manages a game well. And, in theory, he won’t sustain the unbelievably misfortunate combination of milquetoast offensive scheme and injury-ravaged receiving corps again. There is a reason the Giants opted not to participate in what could be the best quarterback draft class in more than a decade.
It is hard to pick against the Eagles because of the incredible job general manager Howie Roseman has done setting this franchise up for the future. Their core players are all under contract into the next decade, the defensive line is as deep and situationally talented as any in the NFL and their defensive coordinator is on one hell of a creative streak. And, when healthy, the team has one of the 10 best quarterbacks in the NFL.
Still, success is difficult to sustain when your offensive coaching staff routinely gets pillaged and your team gets plucked apart in free agency. It’s tough when you are taking the long view on a quarterback who tore his ACL just this past December and may start a talented but ultimately streaky backup.
5. Maybe the narrative about college schemes destroying the NFL pipeline ends
We’ve emerged from a three-year period of hemming and hawing about the kinds of players the NFL is getting from college programs. We’ve penned the death of the quarterback, the offensive line and the wide receiver. We’ve yearned for the days of limitless practice time and Pro Style NCAA offenses.
Part of this panic wave was thanks to the coaches who were experiencing it first hand. It’s jarring at first to find fewer and fewer plug-and-play athletes and until the inevitable correction, the natural inclination is to blame the system.
Now, teams are getting smarter.
The Bears added Chip Kelly protégé and former Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich as their offensive coordinator. The Titans tried to pluck Ryan Day from Ohio State. Lincoln Riley’s office at Oklahoma has been a revolving door for NFL coaches this offseason.
Scooping from the college game is nothing new, but the speed and tenor at which things are taught to college players is. This is the wide open frontier, and after a few seasons spent stumbling in the dark, NFL coaches are getting smarter about the best ways to adapt.