Finally, it’s here. After weeks of waiting for the 2010 NFL regular season to arrive, it’s here. On Thursday the New Orleans Saints and Minnesota Vikings kick off the season in a rematch of last year’s NFC Championship game. Some of the scenery is the same for 2010, while a lot of it is dramatically different. Brett Favre is back for his 20th season, the hyped-up Jets added LaDanian Tomlinson, Antonio Cromartie, and Santonio Holmes, Ben Roethlisberger will miss the season’s first four games, Aaron Rodgers is primed to lead the league at his position again, and the New Orleans Saints have most of the players back that made them Super Bowl Champions.
All the transactions and additions make for great storylines in the offseason, but here at Rewind we’re going to start looking into the real football of the NFL. The players, coaches, game-time decisions, and 4th quarter play-calls that make or break teams’ seasons. Of course, the biggest of headlines won’t be ignored, but what actually happens on the gridiron will be the focus.
So are you ready for some football? Because football is back, in all it’s glory. Here’s Week 1′s edition of Sports Nickel’s NFL Rewind.
Back-to-Back Ain’t So (Big) Easy
The Saints put together a spectacular season in 2009, with a phenomenal offense that lead the league in total yards and points per game and a defense that was second in takeaways. With so many things clicking at the right time, it only seemed fitting that they bring their city a title. New Orleans had been devastated ever since Katrina, and the Saints were able to revitalize the city.
A great season with the perfect ending made for one of those great NFL storylines, but turning our attention to 2010, the honeymoon may have to end. Repeating a championship has become extremely difficult in the NFL because of a few factors. With the changes that have recently been introduced to the League, it is tough to see the Saints making it back to the top. The team is still among the best in the NFL, and should have a shot regardless, but the odds are against them. So much went right for the Saints in ’09, that picking them to go back-to-back carries a lot of uncertainty.
At Rewind, we think we’ve narrowed it down to those key factors that work against repeat champions. One might expect to see all of them in play in 2010:[pullquote]Repeating a championship has become extremely difficult in the NFL[/pullquote]
1) Player Transactions: Dynasty teams of the past built their foundations around legendary players like Bart Starr, Joe Montana, and Emmit Smith, and were able to keep them. But in today’s NFL, roster turnover greatly affects the annual landscape of the League. Not only has the average NFL career been limited to just approximately 3 years, but trades and free agency can shift one or more teams’ immediate futures. Look no further than Brett Favre’s arrival in Minny and Drew Brees’s move to the Superdome to see evidence of the impact player movement can have. To add, player holdouts seem to be on the rise. Darrelle Revis’s contract dispute could have had major ramifications on the touted Jets D this year.
2) The Draft: It has been around for a while and produced countless stars and Hall of Famers, but never has the NFL Draft had such an immediate influence on a team’s destiny. Great players, franchise players can be acquired at the top of the Draft, or could be found at the 199th pick. Such players can now step right into the lineup and produce. To date, #1 pick Sam Bradford has looked great, and may be the start to turning it around in St. Louis. But if he doesn’t pan out, the Rams will be set back for years. Not only will they need to search harder for a new leader, but they will be financially crippled. Rookie contracts are hampering the teams that can least afford it (Raiders, anyone?).
3) Scheduling: With the way NFL scheduling works, each year there seem to be those two or three teams that overachieve and surpass expectations. Teams have a rotating schedule against the opposing conference, which has an additive affect on the tier-based scheduling against a team’s own conference. The Saints, for example, face the AFC North this season, after meeting the AFC East a year ago. Also on their schedule are the other 2009 NFC Division winners: the Cowboys, Cardinals, and Vikings. The variations in schedules make it more difficult for the past year’s winners to continue success, while some teams that met injury, off-years, or simply bad luck could benefit and sneak up on the league (I’m looking at San Fran).
These yearly fluctuations that pervade the NFL make it more laborious than ever to repeat as champion. The Saints have certainly stayed on the track of a contender, but the road to Dallas will seem much more strenuous in 2010.
Let’s next take a look at some of the players with the most riding on their season, starting in Week 1.
1st Down and Schaub
The Houston Texans have long been a darkhorse in the AFC to not only get to the playoffs, but potentially make some noise. They have solid coaching and talent on both sides of the ball, but to date, have yet to cash in on any games past January. 2009 brought some success to the team, as it not only boasted a top-notch offense, but it also displayed a much-improved defense. Yet still, the Texans missed the playoffs even with a winning season at 9-7.
Going into 2010, there are high expectations in Houston, a lot of which fall on Matt Schaub’s shoulders. After seasons marred by injury, Schaub finally started 16 games and demonstrated why the Texans’ brass put faith in him as a starter. He threw for over 4,700 yards and 29 touchdowns, at 68% passing (98.6 QB rating). But stats aren’t going to be enough now. A hungry fanbase wants a taste of the playoffs, and both Schaub and head coach Gary Kubiak are running out of time to prove they can get over their crunch-time woes and produce more than just numbers.
2nd Down and Polamalu
Troy Polamalu has been one of the best defensive players in the NFL for some time now, instilling brutal yet cunning tactics on the field. Yet therein lies the problem: Polamalu needs to be on the field to have his greatest effect. In three of the last four seasons Polamalu has missed significant time due to injury. While not always his fault, questions of his durability are beginning to surface in Steel Town.
Polamalu is the heart, soul, and mouth of that renowned Steelers’ defense, and without him the unit is not the same. To only complicate matters this season, the Steelers will be relying on defense to get them through Ben Roethlisberger’s suspension, and through a division that perhaps saw all of its other teams improve. Pittsburgh needs Polamalu to rebound in a big way to stabilize the team.
3rd Down and Gore
San Francisco has mired in the middle of the pack for too long in the weak NFC West. Over the past three seasons, the 49ers have gone just a combined 20-28 and haven’t broken .500 in what seems like forever. Now in 2010, things are looking up and need to improve. The best way for that to happen in the Bay Area is through Frank Gore.
One of the most talented backs in football, Gore has a similar story to Polamalu: injury has held him back. Gore has posted 1,000 yards in four consecutive seasons, but only in a healthy 2009 did he truly seem dominant. For the Niners to make the next step from average to great, Gore needs to fulfill the hype and produce immediately in the revamped run-based offense.
4th Down and Garrard
The Jacksonville Jaguars have had an up-and-down decade and have yet to truly find an identity. Amid poor support from fans and inconsistent performance on the field, the Jags have struggled to find a face on which to base the franchise. David Garrard has tried his best to be that guy, but the opportunity to do what it takes it slipping away.
After having a phenomenally accurate 2007 (64% passing, just 3 INTs), there were thoughts that the duel-threat Garrard might be a sustainable leader for the team. But inconsistency found its way into his game as well over the next two seasons. If Garrard and head coach Jack Del Rio want to maintain their jobs past this season, they better take note of the heat and turn the Jags around.
- As for some of those teams that may not have realistic Super Bowl aspirations, the Chiefs are counting on Matt Cassel in 2010. His performance in 2008 in Tom Brady’s absence was enough to convince ex-Pats’ exec Scott Pioli of his talent, but Cassel has yet to reproduce and the clock is ticking.
- Jake Delhomme has had the weight of both a city and his career all offseason. If he fails to impress in Cleveland, the city might give up on sports altogether while ending his hopes of ever starting again for an NFL team.
- Sam Bradford is coming in as the #1, face-of-the-future guy in St. Louis, but growing pains are to be expected. That’s why Steven Jackson needs to prove he can get back to the dynamic, elite player he’s been in the past.
- No one thought Matt Stafford would take the Lions to the Super Bowl in Year 1, but a close look tells one that he was beyond rookie-awful in ’09. I’d be worried if Detroit sees no improvement from Stafford starting Week 1 at Chicago.
Flag on the Field
The T.J. Houshmandzadeh situation in Seattle seemed a bit odd to me. On one side you have Housh who claims that he doesn’t understand why he was cut. He believes he has been in as good a shape and as as focused as ever this offseason, getting ready to win. Then there are the Seahawks, with new head coach Pete Carroll, who have said next to nothing after cutting the veteran receiver, who is still owed a guaranteed $7 million. It appears that the two sides didn’t see eye-to-eye on some things, but just what that is no one seems to know.
Houshmandzadeh appears to be confused on the matter, but willing to move on, and Seattle is mum. I guess I just question how a player could be cut form such a lucrative deal without much of an explanation.
I understand Housh isn’t too young, and hasn’t reproduced his 2007 season, but he’s still a viable NFL starter. So why cut ties completely with him, without compensation?
Perhaps I’m slightly upset that the rich are just getting richer in the AFC North, but the entire deal seems off to me. Am I wrong?
Next on the Schedule
Well kids, finally we get to explore this section of Sports Nickel’s NFL Rewind. After weeks of glazing over it like most do for the entire preseason, real football is on the horizon and matchups are hot topics. So here we’ll take a quick look at the most intriguing ones come Sunday (or Thursday or Monday, for that matter).
Team vs. Team – Minnesota Vikings at New Orleans Saints
The last two NFC teams standing in 2009 have a rematch to start the season, and amidst it all I’m intrigued to see both sides of both teams. New Orleans’ high-powered offense will again be tested by an elite D, and the Vikings’ offense needs inspection after complications while the Saints’ defense needs to reproduce its ’09 ways.
Player vs. Player – Ray Lewis, Baltimore Ravens vs. Shonn Greene, New York Jets
In another great Week 1 matchup, it will be interesting to see how Shonn Greene performs as the starter, now that the surprise factor is gone. Lewis and the Ravens will be sure to focus on the rush attack, intentionally putting the game in Mark Sanchez’s hands.
Offense vs. Defense – Indianapolis O vs. Houston D
While one week can’t determine an entire season, how Houston’s defense reacts to Manning’s 2-minute offense could be telling of the season to come.