Hoopla season is over. The non-stop entity that is the NFL is about to get real. All the pondering, parsing and spinning our wheels is morphed into wins, losses, emerging players, extreme disappointments and the utterly unexpected. Who knew Cam Newton would break out in 2015? Or that the Ravens and their seemingly stacked roster would crumble into a 5–11 team? To pop some champagne for the 2016 regular season, here are a few storylines I predict will emerge over the next 17 weeks.
1. A big reality check on quarterbacks is coming.
This week’s column was originally supposed to be a ranking of the Week 1 starting quarterbacks, a silly little exercise illustrating the too many cases of desperation under center. But then it got depressing. Like Rex Grossman-level depressing. Even those quarterbacks a notch or two or seven above the Blaine Gabberts and Case Keenums of the world are far more interesting from a fantasy perspective than from a watchability perspective. The Week 1 elite—Cam Newton, Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers, Andrew Luck, and let’s throw in Ben Roethlisberger and Carson Palmer for good measure (yes, your list will vary)—has two of its members entering the season having royally choked in their last game on the big stage. Even so, it would help if the crème de la crème faced off, yet none of these quarterbacks, including Tom Brady, do until Week 7. So get ready for a whole lot of Elite Quarterback vs. Trevor Siemian, Elite Quarterback vs. Ryan Tannehill coupled with even more meetings of two streaky quarterbacks who never met their potential. Thank goodness for fantasy!
2. The new touchback rule will be a disaster in the regular season, too.
In an effort to reduce the number of big hits on kick returns, the NFL’s Competition Committee decided to move touchbacks from the 20 to the 25-yard line on a one-year trial basis. Dissenters argued this would lead to even more kick returns, and if the preseason is any indication, they are right. According to The Washington Post, the rate of kickoffs resulting in touchbacks was 42.2%, down from 43.4% in 2015. Teams were surely testing the new landscape with pooch and directional kicks, but logic dictates that teams will continue to avoid conceding 25 yards. Why would a team gift Aaron Rodgers that field position in a tight game? The end result is likely to be more balls run out from a variety of angles, and therefore, more injuries.
3. Colin Kaepernick’s message will continue to spread.
On Thursday night in the military town of San Diego, Kaepernick kneeled while the national anthem blasted at Qualcomm Stadium. This was not surprising, but teammate Eric Reid joining Kaepernick was. So was the moving #VeteransForKaepernick hashtag on Twitter. U.S. soccer star Megan Rapinoe, who is gay, took the movement a step further Sunday when she kneeled for the anthem at her team’s NWSL match, not only in support of Kaepernick but also because she felt her own liberties have not been protected.
As I wrote last week, the anthem can mean different things to different people, and we are seeing a legitimate ripple effect. This will extend to more NFL players, most of whom will agree with Kaepernick’s sentiments, but also a few who are simply enthralled by the idea that a show of individualism can be immune from the NFL’s Dostoyevsky-esque book of fines.
4. Peyton Manning will be missed. Even last year’s version.
Even though Manning’s body was disintegrating in plain sight last season, he still came with consistent intrigue and universal likeability, probably because his public persona has always screamed “normal”. He wasn’t too robotic, too showy, too corporate and certainly not too beautiful. He transcended fantasy football, postgame rants and social media drama. Manning may have been more of a godfather figure, but his mere presence made every game a big deal. Manning vs. Brady was still monstrous, even if only for nostalgia’s sake. Same with Manning/Luck and Manning/Rodgers, even if Manning’s health made viewers cringe at times. Of course, Manning will be gracing our screens plenty this season, just in the form of insurance jingles and low-brow pizza. No one wants Manning back in uniform, but his predicted omnipresence will serve as a constant reminder of what he represented, which will be missing.
5. Mike Tirico will get some post-ESPN appreciation.
When Tirico moved from ESPN to NBC (where he’ll do features and, stunningly, will not call Thursday Night Football), one of the NFL’s most engaging booths split up. Tirico’s Monday Night Football replacement Sean McDonough is a fine broadcaster, but Tirico and Jon Gruden had a chemistry that was special and vastly underrated. Tirico’s intonations were smooth and his calls were gripping; most importantly, he and Gruden developed a flow where each knew when it was appropriate to talk. Add to that the sense of genuinely liking each other, and developing a set of fallback anecdotes over time. It’s a slow build from “Hi, nice to meet you” to making smoothies together in the booth while calling a painful blowout. Tirico will be sorely missed. (SI’s Richard Deitsch had a lengthy interview with Tirico about his role with and future at NBC, in this week’s Media Circus.)
6. Tony Romo is about to get Bledsoed.
September 23, 2001. Patriots starting quarterback Drew Bledsoe was drilled out of bounds by the Jets’ Mo Lewis and eventually had to exit the game. Second-year backup Tom Brady took his place, and the rest is history.
Comparing Dallas’s quarterback situation to New England’s is not apples-to-apples. Tony Romo, on the rare occasion that he’s not out with a debilitating injury, is still one of the league’s top quarterbacks. Bledsoe’s career had already taken a sharp downward trajectory. And, despite an abundance of preseason lather, Dak Prescott is no Tom Brady.
But … Prescott has shown that he has the tools to be the quarterback of the future, and given the dominance of the Cowboys’ offensive line, Jason Garrett & Co. can ease in the rookie. Romo will get his starting job back if he returns this year, but I don’t think he does. A broken vertebra iis serious business. We’re talking about the motherboard of the body, and I predict doctors will eventually convince Romo and the Joneses that remaining on the sidelines is the smarter play for his long-term health. By the time Romo returns, Prescott will have proved that he should be the quarterback of the present, and the Cowboys will be forced to make a very tough decision.
7. The 2016 playoff bracket will look almost identical to the 2015 version.
O.K., let me preface by acknowledging I will be wrong here. But if there was some prop bet where you could pick the same playoff bracket as the previous season (with long odds, of course), I might take a quick trip to Vegas. I would lose because barring a new injury to Andrew Luck, the Colts will win the AFC South this year. But every other playoff team from last season (Broncos, Patriots, Bengals, Steelers, Chiefs, Panthers, Redskins, Vikings, Packers, Seahawks) all look poised for another postseason appearance. Which means most of them won’t make it.
8. Cincinnati-Pittsburgh will officially become the game’s best rivalry.
There are the traditional rivalries like Steelers-Ravens and Bears-Packers, and then there are the relevant rivalries like the 49ers-Seahawks during the too-brief Jim Harbaugh era. They were perennial contenders, and hated each other to the point that when discussing each other, actual fire could have blasted out of their nostrils and we wouldn’t have winced. At least, that was the public perception.
The Bengals and Steelers have become that type of nasty rivalry. Earlier this week Ben Roethlisberger said of the rivalry to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “I want it to be a good, clean rivalry. I don’t want it to be a rivalry where people are tuning in to see a fight, to see penalties.”
Big Ben is right. He doesn’t want to see vicious helmet-to-helmet hits like the one Vontaze Burfict laid on Antonio Brown during last year’s wild-card game. But we need shared disrespect for a rivalry to leap from honorary to emotionally gripping. These two teams fit the bill.
9. Suspended, but not forgotten.
When Jimmy Garoppolo trots onto the field for Sunday’s night’s opener against the Patriots, social media will undoubtedly turn into a hailstorm of Brady memes, Brady hair jokes, Brady air jokes. It’s going to be all Brady, all the time for the first four weeks of the season. Unless Garoppolo somehow diverts our attention. Nah.
10. Well, duh.
There will be approximately 21,600 passes attempted this season. When the season ends, we will still have no clue what constitutes a catch.