Five topics to watch during the 2017 NFL season
A new NFL season brings new storylines. Omnisport NFL writers Ron Clements and Nicholas McGee take on five topics to watch this year:
What effect will national anthem protests have on the season?
RC: Despite calls to boycott the NFL, it's unlikely the league will see any significant decline in ticket sales or television ratings. The appetite for the NFL is just too large. Fans are ravenous when it comes to their respective teams and players harmlessly kneeling or standing with a raised fist during the playing of the "Star-Spangled Banner" won't do much to spoil that appetite.
NM: While the continuation of Colin Kaepernick's national anthem protest by other players may turn off some viewers, it is unlikely to have any significant impact on ratings or attendance. Coaches do have to be more tactful in how they approach the issue. The recent remarks of Cleveland Browns coach Hue Jackson, who initially said he hoped his players would not protest the anthem, came across as naive -- even more so after a group of his roster did kneel before a preseason game. After the terrible events in Charlottesville this is an issue that is not going away. Coaches need to try to use the protests as a unifying force rather than a divisive one in the locker room.
Which rookie quarterback will have the most productive season?
RC: The answer has to be DeShone Kizer. The rookie from Notre Dame had a wonderful preseason (and it was clear Brock Osweiler was not the answer at quarterback for the Browns). Kizer was named the Week 1 starter and, barring injury or extremely poor play, he should start all 16 games.
Kizer's main competition will be Chicago's Mitchell Trubisky, who should supplant Mike Glennon as the Bears' starter by the end of the season.
Patrick Mahomes will only start for the Kansas Chiefs this season if Alex Smith gets hurt, and DeShaun Watson is the clear No. 2 quarterback in Houston. If the Texans fall out of playoff contention late in the season, the Texans might switch from Tom Savage to Watson. But Kizer has the best chance of any of the rookie QBs to make double-digit starts this season.
NM: Trubisky is the likely answer. The Bears have some talent on both sides of the ball, particularly at running back and on the defensive line, but they are likely to be hamstrung by the investment they made in Mike Glennon at quarterback. Glennon has been terrible this preseason and there is little history to suggest he will improve in the regular season. Coach John Fox's job is on the line going into the campaign and, once the Bears lose a few games, expect Fox to turn to the player on whom Chicago spent the No. 2 overall pick.
Will the Falcons suffer a Super Bowl hangover?
RC: In the 15-year history of the NFC South, only the Carolina Panthers from 2013-15 have won consecutive division titles. The Atlanta Falcons went 11-5 to win the division last year and reached the Super Bowl, where they blew a 28-3 lead on the Patriots and eventually lost in overtime. Will that loss linger and affect their 2017 campaign?
The Panthers went from 15-1 and a Super Bowl berth in 2015 only to stumble to 6-10 last season. But Carolina has a healthy Cam Newton this season and could have a bounce-back year. The team that might pose the biggest threat to Atlanta's playoff chances is Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers had a great offseason to upgrade their roster after going 9-7 last year.
Then there are the New Orleans Saints, who can score 40 points in any given week as long as Drew Brees is still at quarterback.
The NFC South might be the most competitive division in the NFL this season with every team capable of finishing 8-8 or better. It will be tough for the Falcons to repeat as division champions, but they should still be a playoff contender.
NM: Talk of a Super Bowl hangover may be overblown, but it is difficult to envision the Falcons matching the heights of last year. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is gone and they have replaced him with a man who has never called an NFL play in Steve Sarkisian. Young, athletic players have been brought in on defense but the performance of that unit during the playoffs was exaggerated.
With the plethora of skill-position talent on the Buccaneers, Tampa Bay is a sexy pick to dethrone them in the NFC South. Tampa's offensive line is shaky and the more concerted challenge should come from the Panthers, who gave Cam Newton help in a big way with the draft picks of Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel. A big bounce-back season from wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin is expected and, if the Panthers get hot, the Falcons could find it hard to stay with them.
Will Tom Brady still be Tom Terrific at 40?
RC: Brady turned 40 on Aug. 3, but has not shown any signs of slowing down. He's coming off his fifth Super Bowl championship and was the game MVP a record fourth time. Brady had the second-highest passer rating of his career, second only to his MVP season in 2007.
By taking a look at how two other Hall of Fame quarterbacks fared playing into their 40s, we might have an idea of how well Brady can play.
Warren Moon turned 40 in 1996, but missed half the season with a broken collarbone. He bounced back in 1997 to throw for 3,678 yards with 25 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. But Father Time caught up to Moon in 1998 and he started just 11 games over the next three seasons before retiring at the age of 44.
Brett Favre also had success after turning 40 in 2009, leading the Minnesota Vikings to the NFC championship game. Favre threw for 4,202 yards with 33 touchdowns and a career-low seven interceptions that season. But an injury the next year finally ended his NFL record for consecutive games started and he retired following the 2010 season.
While Brady is still playing at a high level, Father Time is undefeated. Quarterbacks are protected today more than they ever have been, but they still take violent hits and a 40-year-old body does not recover as quickly as it would 10 or 15 years earlier. Brady will likely perform at an MVP level this year, but beyond that remains a mystery.
NM: Until we see it, don't expect a Tom Brady decline. Yes, by all logic he should be on the downswing of his career, but Brady has plenty of history in defying logic -- as we saw at Super Bowl 51. With the offensive weapons he has at his disposal this season, it is tough to imagine anything other than another excellent season.
If Brady is interested in preserving himself for the playoffs, he can again take heart in the fact the AFC East remains terrible. The New England Patriots' dominance of said division should enable him to take some snaps or even some games off. Injury is the only thing that can seemingly stop Brady, so any losses on the offensive line could put him in jeopardy. For now, though, the prospects of a sixth Super Bowl title look very good.
Who will be the first coach fired this season?
RC: Marvin Lewis is firmly on the hot seat after the Bengals went 6-9-1 last season. Despite taking the Cincinnati Bengals to the playoffs seven times and winning four AFC North titles in his 14 years as the team's coach, Lewis has not won a single playoff game. The Bengals don't appear to be in a position to contend with the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers atop the division this year and, with the Browns making huge strides to improve their team in the offseason, the Bengals might be headed for a last-place finish. If things appear to be taking a turn for the worse, Lewis could be out by December.
NM: Chuck Pagano was not hired by Indianapolis Colts general manager Chris Ballard and he has little at his disposal to help convince Ballard he should be the guy long-term. Andrew Luck still isn't healthy and the Colts may have to start the season with Scott Tolzien at quarterback. When you factor in a running game led by the rapidly aging Frank Gore and a defense that will need time to jell after a substantial overhaul, that is a recipe for a nightmare start to the season and a campaign Pagano is unlikely to see out.