A new season always brings old questions: Who's the favorite to win the Super Bowl, which coaches are already on the hot seat and so on. But even then, there's always a new wrinkle like which team is in the most trouble this season following the offseason legal troubles of a star player? Uh, I think we all have the answer to that one, but you get the point.
Anyway, as 32 teams – scratch that, 16 is probably more realistic – begin their journey to claim the Lombardi Trophy in Glendale, Ariz., on Feb. 3, NFL staffers Jason Cole, Charles Robinson and Michael Silver give their take on some of the league's most compelling storylines heading into the season.
• HAVE THE ATLANTA FALCONS BASICALLY TURNED INTO AN EXPANSION TEAM OVERNIGHT?
Cole:Maybe on the first part; no on the second. The biggest problem Young faces is the Titans lost their best receiver in Drew Bennett and did nothing to replace him. Throw in the lack of a proven running back to replace Travis Henry and Young is going to have to do even more on his own. Young is one of the league's great talents, but he's a long way from perfecting his ability and the lack of talent around him is going to impact him. Look for opposing defenses to play him much differently this season, forcing him to stay in the pocket more to beat them with his arm. Throw in the loss of Pacman Jones' big-play ability and the Titans will be hard-pressed to repeat their 8-8 mark from last season.
Robinson: Young lost both of his top two receivers, his top running back, and the defense isn't likely to be as good as it was down the stretch last season. So will Young's numbers get exponentially better? Probably not. There just doesn't seem to be enough pieces around him to facilitate a Carson Palmer-like jump in his stats in his second year as a starter. As for the Titans overall, losing Pacman Jones from the secondary and special teams units will hurt. It remains to be seen whether there's a reliable running back on the roster. Oh, and there is little quality depth on the defense. Ultimately, this team takes a step backwards.
Silver: Yes, but before I tell you why, let's make one thing clear: The Titans had no business being in the playoff hunt through the final week of the '06 season, and Young's transcendent play – along with Jeff Fisher's deft coaching – was the biggest reason they pulled it off. Turning this young, semi-deficient team into a winner in Year 2 seems a lot to ask of Young, but when has anything ever seemed too big for The InVinceAble One? He'll make it happen, because, well, that's what this scarily special athlete does.
• IS THIS THE END OF THE LINE FOR JON GRUDEN WITH THE TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS?
Cole: You have to wonder about any coach who had six quarterbacks on his roster at one point and still begs Jake Plummer to come back for another season. Gruden is in full meltdown mode, hoping a playoff spot will save him. The funny part is the Glazer Family fired Tony Dungy after a playoff appearance, so making the playoffs is not the ultimate measure. In short, Gruden is gone, barring a miracle … though he would not be unemployed for very long.
Robinson: If this team can't muster a playoff push, you have to believe both Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen are out. Now that Dungy has secured his own Super Bowl ring, you really have to wonder if he might have gotten the job done in Tampa Bay if the Glazer family would have just let him have one more crack at it. The Glazers have to be waking up to the fact that in the big picture, Gruden really hasn't done squat since winning the Super Bowl. Unless he can pull something off similar to what Brian Billick did in Baltimore last season, he's out on his rear.
Silver: Probably, unless Gruden can get this flawed team back into the postseason mix. The question here is: How many seasons of good will does a Super Bowl victory buy you? In Gruden's case, the answer seems to be five. The man who coached Tampa Bay to its lone title, a 48-21 triumph over the Raiders in January of '03, had the Bucs back in the playoffs in '05 before a second post-Super Bowl hangover struck. He's good enough to coach his way out of it, but my guess is that his next postseason run will be for another franchise.
• CAN NORV TURNER FINISH THE JOB WITH THE SAN DIEGO CHARGERS?
Cole: Yes. One of Turner's mantras is: "You can call all the great plays in the world, but you better have players who can make them work." Turner has that now, starting with perhaps the best player in the league at three spots: running back LaDainian Tomlinson, tight end Antonio Gates and outside linebacker Shawne Merriman. The rest of the roster is loaded the same way the Dallas Cowboys were when they won three Super Bowls in the 1990s. Top that off with a bunch of solid guys who are very focused and all Turner needs to do is call plays, which he can do with the best of them.
Robinson: Is he a lock to win a Super Bowl? I'm not going to go that far. To suggest Turner is the missing element that delivers a Super Bowl ring is a little much particularly after the Chargers lost both of their coordinators. But I'm not going to hold all of Turner's past failings against him, either. With Al Davis pulling the personnel strings since Bruce Allen's departure, I don't hold the Oakland Raiders job against any coach that passes through there. And last time I checked, the Washington Redskins haven't exactly lit the world on fire since Turner's exit. That said, I think Turner does what Marty Schottenheimer could not: advance and thrive in the postseason.
Silver: No, no, a thousand times no. Or, if you prefer, 82 times – the number of games Turner lost (against 58 victories and one tie) in nine seasons as the head coach of the Redskins and Raiders. Look, I know you Chargers fans want to believe that since their team appeared Super Bowl-bound before the late-game playoff collapse against the Patriots last year, all Turner has to do is effortlessly guide them back to that position and refrain from going all Martyball when things get tough. It doesn't work that way. There'll be new challenges in '07, and Norv's team won't overcome them.
• WILL PEYTON MANNING HAVE TO BREAK HIS OWN TD MARK OF 49 GIVEN THE TEAM'S DEPLETED D?
Cole: Perhaps. It's not just that the Indianapolis Colts defense is depleted; four starters are gone from a squad that was pretty bleak in the regular season before turning it on in the playoffs. Defensive tackle is thin, the secondary is inexperienced and Cato June is a bigger loss at linebacker than anybody really knows. On top of that, the loss of running back Dominic Rhodes leaves Joseph Addai without a power complement and the addition of Anthony Gonzalez gives Manning a new toy in the passing game. Give Manning credit for suppressing his game in the playoffs last season to suit the needs of the team, but it's going to be pass, pass, pass this season.
Robinson: The Colts will have to score plenty to win games this season, but Manning won't have to break that record for the Colts to be successful. Not that he could, anyway. It remains to be seen whether Gonzalez could replicate what Brandon Stokley did to defenses during Manning's record-setting season. And this offense is more than capable of having winning balance with Addai carrying the load. And the reality is that while the defense is likely to give up points this season, the biggest concern right now is how the Colts' front seven will play the run, not how the Cover 2 scheme will adjust to losing two cornerbacks.
Silver: The record is safe, partly because many teams will study the tapes of Tennessee's games against the Colts last season. The teams split a pair of close contests, and the Titans frustrated Manning by playing a relatively simple Cover 2 scheme and getting him to check down and/or audibilize to running plays more than usual. It's not a foolproof strategy, but it'll keep Manning from putting up monster numbers, because by now the QB is smart and savvy enough not to try to do too much by himself.
• CAN ANYONE UNSEAT THE CHICAGO BEARS IN THE NFC?
Cole: With Rex Grossman at quarterback, the NFC is anybody's to be had. Look for Grossman to see so much zone coverage this season that even Charles Robinson will be able to figure it out. Plus, the Bears are going to miss running back Thomas Jones. With Cedric Benson, the Bears have a flaky guy who runs to contact. If Benson doesn't meltdown mentally, he's going to wear out physically. At that point, there's no alternative and that will doom the Bears, even with that stellar defense. The New Orleans Saints, Philadelphia Eagles and Seattle Seahawks are much closer to Chicago than Bears fans will admit.
Robinson: Absolutely. For all the consternation about Rex Grossman, there were several coaching staffs in the NFC that were happy to see Jones get dealt to the New York Jets. There's simply not a great deal of respect floating around out there right now for Benson. As for who should push the Bears, Dallas is coming out of a tough division, but if new coach Wade Phillips can get the ample talent on defense on the same page, the Cowboys should rival Chicago for the most balanced team in the NFC. New Orleans should be right there again, but the defensive additions sure haven't seemed to make a difference in the preseason.
Silver: Sure, as long as that team is not the Falcons or anyone from the NFC Central. The most obvious candidate is New Orleans, which lost to the Bears in the conference title game last season. Like Indy, which subdued Chicago in Super Bowl XLI, the Saints can simply outscore any opponent if they're on their game. If not, look for the Cowboys, Eagles or even the Redskins to make a run out of the rugged NFC East.
• WHO LEAVES HIS TEAM FIRST: JOE GIBBS OR BILL BELICHICK?
Cole: Sadly, Gibbs probably won't make it to the end of the season. Redskins owner Dan Snyder will not contain himself through another year of mediocrity and Gibbs is going to tire of this. Snyder will jump into the Bill Cowher &ndash, disregard his comments, he's coaching in '08 – sweepstakes and overpay for his fourth straight coach. As for Belichick, you can believe all those New York Giants rumors if you want, but when Belichick has to weigh his option between Tom Brady and Eli Manning, staying with the New England Patriots becomes a no-brainer.
Robinson: Gibbs for sure. Word around the New England campfire is that Belichick has been dropping hints that he's planning on sticking around with the Patriots franchise for a while. Yes, he's the minister of disinformation, but trust me on this one: Belichick is going to be with the Patriots at least through the end of this decade. Meanwhile, the buzz around Gibbs is that he's getting tugged by his family to start making exit plans in Washington. But that may not happen until he can at least get the Redskins righted to the point that they can contend for a playoff spot.
Silver: Hopefully neither, because we're talking about two of the better NFL coaches of all time. Yet if I had to pick, I'd say Gibbs walks away from the Redskins first, but only after guiding them back to the playoffs. Remember, Washington reached the NFC divisional round in '05 before backsliding badly in '06, and Gibbs is shrewd and stubborn enough to undo the damage. Belichick, meanwhile, has a pretty sweet deal in New England working for the Krafts, and he's smart enough to continue what has been a glorious ride.
- Bobby Petrino