On the summery tundra of Lambeau Field, the 2011 NFL season kicks off tonight, probably from the correct yardline. Neither rain nor lockout nor flurries nor blizzard of free agents shall keep this correspondent from making his best guesses about what is to come.
1. Nearly everything that happens in the first four weeks of the season will be blamed on the lockout. Upsets, injuries, penalties, interceptions, fast starts, slow starts – it’s all because of the compressed training schedule and lack of team oversight for off-season workouts. If new coaches and coordinators don’t harp on the difficulty of installing a new system in five weeks, we will have proof that the owners have instituted a gag order. We will hear the word continuity nearly as often as the word touchback.
2. Everything else will be blamed on the kickoff rule, which will not be changed. The league moved the kickoff spot to the 35 to promote greater safety for players. Its main effect will be to give fans more time in front of the refrigerator after a touchdown. Extra point, commercials, kickoff, touchback, commercials. Plenty of time to pour yourself a cold one, and maybe bake lasagna. Having greatly reduced the likelihood of one of the most exciting plays in football in the name of preventing injuries, the league can hardly reinstate the old rule without inviting a lovely lawsuit on behalf of all who subsequently get hurt.
3. The Detroit Lions will not be the surprise team of the NFL. A year ago I predicted that the Lions would be the surprise team of the league — not in 2010 but in 2011. My opinion of the team’s development hasn’t changed, but so many people are expecting great things from the aggressive and frisky Lions that it will be no surprise if they make the playoffs. (Though they won’t.) The surprise team of the NFL will be…
4. The Cleveland Browns. They’ll be the talk of the nation when they’re 8-3 on the first of December. Consider this schedule for their first eleven games: Cincinnati, at Indianapolis (possibly still without Peyton Manning), Miami, Tennessee, at Oakland, Seattle, at San Francisco, at Houston, St. Louis, Jacksonville, at Cincinnati. Combined record in 2010 (excluding Indianapolis): 63-97. They’ll pay for it in the final five: two matchups with Pittsburgh and Baltimore each, sandwiching a road game in Arizona when a quarter of the team will be out on concussion leave. So the Browns won’t make the playoffs. The surprise team in the playoffs will be…
5. Minnesota. In addition to the Brett Favre and Brad Childress madness, the coming and going of Randy Moss, and all the other dysfunction of 2010, the Vikings played a brutal schedule. This year they play the NFC South and AFC West instead of the NFC and AFC Easts, and the Redskins and Cardinals instead of the Patriots and Saints. If Leslie Frazier and Donovan McNabb are merely competent, Adrian Peterson should be able to carry the team to 9-7 and the last playoff spot.
6. The league MVP will be Drew Brees. Remember the Saints? Sean Payton? Pierre Thomas? Marques Colston? Subtract Reggie Bush, substitute Darren Sproles and rookie Mark Ingram, and the New Orleans offense should be more explosive than ever. The Saints have to play the tough NFC North, but they get a break on the weather in Green Bay in the opener, host Chicago and Detroit, and go to Minnesota’s dome in December. Their only semi-cold weather game is at Tennessee in week 14.
7. The two perennial contenders who will fade are Indianapolis and Baltimore. The day of reckoning for Indianapolis is here. No one knows how long Manning will be on the sidelines. Without him, the Colts will have trouble rising to mediocre. Kerry Collins? Consider that his fellow first-round draft picks in 1995 included Warren Sapp, Tyrone Wheatley, Ki-Jana Carter, and the late Steve McNair and Korey Stringer.
The Ravens’ defense is starting to show its age. Ray Lewis is 36. Ed Reed will be 33 when the Ravens start the season. According to statistics compiled at walterfootball.com, the Ravens had the worst sack rate in the league last year, getting to the quarterback once every 22.07 pass attempts. Football Outsiders ranks them 27th in Adjusted Sack Rate; either way, it indicates that Baltimore can no longer expect its defense to win games and the offense not to lose them.
Atlanta and Tampa Bay were not as good as their 13-3 and 10-6 records last year suggest, and both will probably decline thanks to schedules that pit them against the NFC North and AFC South instead of the two weak West divisions. Those teams have youth on their side, however, and Atlanta will probably still make the playoffs.
8. No coaches will be fired during the season. Most of the really dreadful coaches were released during the season or immediately after. The most likely candidates for the axe this year, based on their team’s performances, will be Lovie Smith and Chan Gailey. The Bears’ extraordinary run of luck in 2010 – three games against teams using their third-string quarterbacks; an overturned last-second touchdown that gave them their opening-week victory; a home second-round playoff game against Seattle — earned Smith a two-year extension. He’ll be glad to have it, as Chicago’s record will be closer to 3-13 than to last season’s 11-5. The Bills can’t afford to pay two coaches at once, so they’ll leave Gailey in place until the off-season.
9. Tarvaris Jackson will remain Tarvaris Jackson. If you’re wondering why a division champion that beat the defending Super Bowl champs in the playoffs has an over/under figure of six wins, look no further. Jackson has started more than five games once in his career. The Vikings were 8-4 in his twelve starts in 2007. His passer rating of 70.8 ranked 28th among 33 qualifiers. He has 24 career TD passes, 22 interceptions. What part of this said “starting QB” to Pete Carroll? He is who we think he is.
10. Michael Vick will miss four games with injuries, and before the season is over will be booed in Philadelphia. It will not be a dream season for the Eagles; Vick will be spectacular at times, but can’t be expected to maintain his 1.6 interception percentage from 2010. He will win and lose games single-handedly, as he did in Atlanta. When Vick does get hurt, Vince Young will prove incapable of being Michael Vick’s Vick.
11. The Saints will defeat the Chargers in the Super Bowl. With home field throughout the playoffs, New Orleans will beat Green Bay in one of the great shootouts in NFC Championship Game history. San Diego will upset the Jets, as Philip Rivers takes the Aaron Rodgers leap and Mark Sanchez throws three killing interceptions. With the new kickoff rule, Norv Turner will have two fewer special teams to screw up. The more complete team will bring the Lombardi Trophy home from Lucas Oil Stadium – that’s New Orleans, that’s who dat.