Nine on ’09: Storylines of upcoming season

Who will win Super Bowl XLIV? Who will be the league MVP? OK, let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves just yet. While the answers to those questions will unfold as the season goes along, there are some other important questions and storylines to consider as the 2009 season starts this Thursday. Here’s a look at a few:

Can Favre make the Vikings a champion?
Yeah, I know, the mere mention of Brett Favre’s(notes) name makes some of you want to chug Ipecac or scream at the word “it” like the Knights Who Say Icky Icky Icky Bedang Zooboing and Zowy Zee (obscure Monty Python reference). Look, I’m with you. This storyline is almost as old and tired as Favre himself. Still, Favre is a human car crash. No matter what you do, you can’t help but stare at him. The good thing for Favre is that he has a great defense on the other side and two impressive weapons next to him in running back Adrian Peterson and wide receiver Percy Harvin(notes). Figure Peterson and Harvin will touch the ball on 50 to 60 percent of Minnesota’s offensive plays this season. That makes life a lot easier on Favre.

Photo Vick will miss the Eagles’ first two games as part of a league-mandated suspension.
(Ed Mulholland/US Presswire)

What to make of Vick with the Eagles?
Anybody who saw Michael Vick’s(notes) performance against the New York Jets backups Thursday night should understand this: Vick is zero threat to Donovan McNabb’s(notes) status as the Philadelphia Eagles’ quarterback, either now or in the future. Vick’s play was a reminder of his great flaws as a quarterback. He doesn’t read route progressions in even the most rudimentary ways, and he’s too impatient to learn soon. Those two qualities will drive Eagles coach Andy Reid crazy. That said, Vick will be a tremendous toy in the Eagles’ offensive plans. He’s still one of only a handful of athletes in the NFL who are so gifted they can change the X’s and O’s of the game.

Player discipline anyone?
Speaking of Vick and other troubled players (Donte’ Stallworth(notes), Plaxico Burress(notes), Matt and Adam “Pacman” Jones just to name a few), the big question out there for NFL players is: Are you getting the message? Commissioner Roger Goodell is still more than happy to get his Kenesaw Mountain Landis on when necessary. Some people around the league and in the NFL Players Association think Goodell wields too much power. Sorry to those of you in that camp, but you’re wrong. Goodell is doing a fine job right now of punishing those who want it. The problem is that too many guys still seem to want the punishment.

Can the Patriots protect Brady?
Quarterback Tom Brady(notes) was very impressive in preseason action, even surviving when Washington Redskins defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth(notes) tried to turn him into a Panini. However, the speed of the regular season is a different matter and anybody who remembers Carson Palmer’s(notes) return from a knee injury in 2006 remembers it took awhile for Palmer to get over the early jitters. The bigger problem for the New England Patriots is that their running game just isn’t that good and has been getting worse. Laurence Maroney(notes) is a walking injury, Sammy Morris(notes) seems susceptible to ailments as well and Fred Taylor(notes) is at the end of his career. The Patriots are so limited that they’ll probably run four-wide formations inside the 5-yard line. Considering that, look for Brady to face a lot of blitzes, especially early in the season.

Can Tomlinson return to form?
Two years ago, people were doing charts to figure out when LaDainian Tomlinson(notes) would surpass Emmitt Smith as the NFL’s all-time leading rusher. This offseason, Tomlinson confided in Smith, asking what it was like for Smith to finish his career in a different uniform after Smith left the Dallas Cowboys. That was before the San Diego Chargers and Tomlinson worked out a restructured contract. Still, this could easily be Tomlinson’s last year in San Diego, particularly if he can’t shake the assorted injuries he has suffered the past two seasons. If he can, the Chargers have the talent to win a Super Bowl. If he can’t, the Chargers will be rebuilding the running game next offseason.

Who will be more outrageous, Ryan or Owens?
Anybody who knows Rex Ryan knows the Jets new coach is not terribly serious and he’s a whole lot of fun. But his silly comments about New England coach Bill Belichick and Miami Dolphins linebacker Channing Crowder(notes) this offseason were just a preview of what you can expect in the future, particularly if the Jets win a few games early. In fact, the Jets have a reasonable chance of being 5-3 as they head into the bye week as long as the defense is good and rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez(notes) doesn’t implode. Speaking of implosions, look for Terrell Owens(notes) to avoid those this season with the Buffalo Bills. The 35-year-old Owens is playing on a one-year deal, meaning it’s in his best interests to behave. Assuming he can do that, he could have a terrific season. He usually does in this kind of a situation.

Photo The Lions are turning to rookie QB Matthew Stafford(notes).
(Matthew Emmmons/US Presswire)

When will the Lions win?
The Detroit Lions are fresh off the first 0-16 season in NFL history and have lost 17 straight dating to 2007. While they have a great new coach in Jim Schwartz who will eventually turn them into winners, this season could see a lot more losing early on before things get better. In the first five games of the season, the Lions face no team that had a losing record last season. Two of those teams are divisional foes that upgraded at quarterback (Minnesota and the Chicago Bears), plus the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers. The sixth game is at the Green Bay Packers, who were impressive in the preseason. Theoretically, the relief finally comes for Detroit after its bye in Week 7 when it plays back-to-back games against the St. Louis Rams and Seattle Seahawks. However, if Detroit starts the season 0-8, it has to beat Minnesota on the road to avoid matching the record of 26 straight losses by the ’76-’77 Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Who’s the first coach to be fired?
Buffalo Bills coach Dick Jauron’s move to fire offensive coordinator Turk Schonert on the eve of the season has to have owner Ralph Wilson wondering about Jauron’s judgment. In short, why didn’t Jauron, who had Schonert on the staff for three years (including last season as the offensive coordinator), figure out earlier that Schonert wasn’t capable of doing the job? What, it just suddenly occurred to him? Oy vey. Then again, having mentioned Detroit, one of its best chances to win early is Week 3 against Washington. If that happens, Redskins coach Jim Zorn could be in early trouble. Also in the early mix are Brad Childress in Minnesota, Wade Phillips in Dallas, Jack Del Rio of the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Oakland Raiders’ Tom “KO” Cable.

Who gets hired first, Cowher, Shanahan or Holmgren?
Bill Cowher’s hopes for a big pay day haven’t materialized since walking away from the Steelers after 2006. Now, he has some strong competition on the list of high-profile coaches who are available. Mike Shanahan has been very active, touring one team after another, speaking to college teams and studying players in his spare time. As for Mike Holmgren, he has an extremely strong relationship with Dallas owner Jerry Jones and will be a fan favorite to return to San Francisco if Mike Singletary flames out by the bay. Then again, young, cocksure owner Jed York might not be willing to meet Holmgren’s demands of total control.

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Jason Cole is a national NFL writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Wednesday, Sep 9, 2009