The countdown to the 2015 NFL regular season has begun. Rookies for three teams are scheduled to report to training camp today with more and more joining the fray until the full rosters for all 32 squads are back on the field by Aug. 1.
With the coaches and players going back to work, the countdown to the Sept. 10 opener between the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers has begun.
As in every season, the storylines heading into 2015 are rich. Uncertainty around Tom Brady and the Patriots stemming from Deflategate will be worth monitoring until the quarterback takes a snap. The Seahawks’ blunder on the goal line in the Super Bowl may be a cloud over the season in Seattle. Quarterbacks like Sam Bradford, Jay Cutler, Johnny Manziel and Robert Griffin III are reaching career crossroads.
As camp breaks around the country, here is a look at the top storylines:
1. The Seahawks’ recovery
The Seahawks spent the entire offseason picking up the pieces from the ill-fated, goal-line play in Super Bowl XLIX. It might take more than duct tape and Super Glue to put the team’s mojo back together. Coach Pete Carroll took responsibility for the second-down play call from the 1-yard line that resulted in a Russell Wilson interception with 20 seconds left.
The call now arguably ranks as the most second-guessed in NFL history, with even running back Marshawn Lynch questioning why the Seahawks chose not to run the football. Conspiracy theorists, including some Seahawks players, wondered whether the Seahawks were positioning Wilson to play the part of hero instead of Lynch.
Carroll and his staff will have to regain the trust of the locker room before they begin a quest to become the first team to reach three Super Bowls in a row since the Buffalo Bills (1991-93).
2. Watt the MVP
The chants began in NRG Stadium at midseason: “M-V-P!” And Texans defensive end J.J. Watt became a serious contender for the award after the Texans finished 9–7, a seven-win improvement over 2013. Watt had 27 tackles, 11 sacks, 20 hits on the quarterback, a touchdown (while playing tight end) and a safety in the final five games when Houston went 4–1. He finished with 20.5 sacks to become the first player with at least 20 sacks in two different seasons.
Although Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers won the award with 31 of the 50 votes, Watt became the first defensive player this century to garner more than three votes; he finished second with 13 votes.
Watt already owns two Defensive Player of the Year awards and should match Lawrence Taylor with three. But Watt stands a decent chance of becoming only the third defensive player ever to win MVP honors, joining Taylor (1986) and Alan Page (1971).
3. Colts’ next step
The Colts went 11–5 and lost in the wild-card round in 2012. They went 11–5 in 2013 and won a wild-card playoff game. They took another step last year, going 11–5 and winning not only a wild-card game but also reaching the AFC Championship Game with a road victory over the Broncos in a divisional game.
Indianapolis got older in the offseason, adding running back Frank Gore (32), receiver Andre Johnson (33), linebacker Trent Cole (32) and offensive lineman Todd Herremans (32). Chuck Pagano insists that the Colts also got better. But the coach enters 2015 as a lame duck. Is it Super Bowl or bust for him?
4. Cutler’s last stand?
The Bears’ new braintrust — general manager Ryan Pace, coach John Fox and offensive coordinator Adam Gase — has no ties to Jay Cutler. They have not given the quarterback a vote of confidence, either. Cutler’s contract, which has a salary-cap hit of $16.5 million this season, offered them no choice but to ride with him this season.
Cutler, 32, has earned a reputation as a “coach killer.” He has played for three other head coaches besides Fox, and Gase becomes his sixth offensive coordinator. Cutler, the 11th overall pick in 2006, barely has a winning record in his nine-year career at 61–58. He has only one playoff appearance and only one postseason victory, and even that 2010 season ended in controversy.
That’s why Cutler’s seventh season in Chicago might well be his last.
5. Ring-bearer Brady
Tom Brady joined Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw as the only quarterbacks ever to win four Super Bowls. Only Hall of Fame defensive lineman Charles Haley has more, with five.
But Brady’s titles have not come without controversy. Haley stands among those to call out Brady after Deflategate, tabbing Brady’s championships as “tainted.” In the Spygate scandal, the NFL penalized coach Bill Belichick and the Patriots for video-taping the Jets’ sideline defensive signals. Brady was handed a four-game suspension to start the season, but how that holds up remains in question after a lengthy appeal hearing in June.
Brady, who turns 38 in August, has a record 21 playoff wins and plans to play into his 40s. No matter how many titles he wins or how many seasons he plays, Brady’s Hall of Fame career likely ends with debate about his legacy.
6. 49ers’ makeover
The signs of unrest were there last offseason. After a third consecutive trip to the NFC Championship Game, it became glaringly obvious that a split was coming between Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers after the 2014 season. But who could have predicted all the other changes that have occurred since Harbaugh left for the University of Michigan?
Their inside linebackers surprised everyone by retiring. Their starting cornerbacks left in free agency. Frank Gore and Michael Crabtree, key weapons in the offense, found new homes, too. The 49ers released Ray McDonald and Jonathan Martin.
Torrey Smith and Reggie Bush are among the players added in the team’s makeover as new offensive coordinator Geep Chryst tries to improve on a unit that ranked 30th in passing and 25th in scoring. Thus begins a new era of 49ers football.
7. Suh’s impact
The Dolphins made the biggest noise in free agency, nabbing Ndamukong Suh with a record-breaking deal. The Pro Bowl defensive tackle signed a six-year, $114 million contract that guarantees him $60 million in the first three years. He joins a defensive line that includes defensive ends Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon, who have combined for 56.5 sacks the past three seasons.
Suh, 28, has 239 tackles and 36 sacks the past five seasons, leading all NFL defensive tackles. He also has 35 penalties in his career, including seven last season, which leads all defensive tackles.
He should have an instant impact on a defense that ranked 12th overall, including 24th against the run.
8. Bradford’s health
Sam Bradford considered retiring after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee for the second time in nine months. He has played only seven games the past two seasons, while making $23 million with the Rams.
But Bradford, the No. 1 overall pick in 2010, gets a fresh start in Philadelphia after the Eagles swapped Nick Foles and draft picks for Bradford. The Eagles are hoping Bradford stays healthy, though they have options behind him.
Bradford, 27, has an 18–30–1 record with a 58.6 completion percentage, 11,065 passing yards, 59 touchdowns and 38 interceptions. The move to Chip Kelly’s offense might be just what Bradford needs. If he can stay healthy...
9. Manziel’s wild ride
Johnny Manziel has earned nicknames other than Johnny Football since arriving in the NFL. He slipped to No. 22 on draft day and failed to beat out Brian Hoyer until late in the year. Manziel then went 0–2, with a 51.4 completion percentage, 175 passing yards, no touchdowns, two interceptions and a 42.0 passer rating before injuring his hamstring.
He missed a rehab session on his hamstring the final week of the season, prompting questions about his work ethic and commitment to the game.
Manziel voluntarily entered substance-abuse rehab during the offseason, spending 10 weeks trying to get things right. Now the questions become: Can he repair the damage in the locker room, win the starting job and succeed as an NFL quarterback?
10. Rice’s second chance?
Greg Hardy signed with the Cowboys. Ray McDonald signed with the Bears (albeit temporarily). But Ray Rice can’t find work.
A judge convicted Hardy of domestic abuse, but he walked when charges were dropped because his accuser failed to appear in court for his appeal. McDonald was cleared of domestic violence accusations, but the 49ers released him in December after he was investigated for sexual assault. Rice missed last season after striking his then-fiancée unconscious in an elevator during the 2014 offseason. McDonald did sign with Chicago in late March, but the Bears released him two months later following another arrest.
The league reinstated Rice in December, but he has yet to convince anyone to take a chance on him. Rice, 28, has 6,180 rushing yards, a 4.3 yards per carry average and 37 total touchdowns in six seasons. But he had a career-low 3.1 yards per carry average in 2013, his last season, when he gained only 660 yards with four touchdowns on the ground.
11. Ryan’s upstate move
Rex Ryan’s first order of business after leaving the Jets and joining the Bills was changing the color of his tattoo from green to blue. Bills fans were rejuvenated by the hiring of Ryan and the team’s offseason moves, giving them thoughts of a playoff berth for the first time in 16 years.
The Bills look similar defensively after re-signing Jerry Hughes, returning the biggest names to a unit that finished fourth in yards allowed and led the league with 54 sacks. The offense, though, has a new look after trades for quarterback Matt Cassel and running back LeSean McCoy and the signings of tight end Charles Clay and wide receiver Percy Harvin.
All of it has turned the Bills into a popular playoff pick.
12. RG3’s future
The Redskins gave up a king’s ransom to get Robert Griffin III with the second overall pick in 2012. It took only two years for Griffin to lose his status as “franchise quarterback,” and he could end up elsewhere next season. The Redskins picked up Griffin’s option for 2016 at $16.2 million, but they still could rescind it if he stays healthy. Therein lies the problem…
Griffin never has played a full season injury-free, and twice, when healthy, he has been benched. He showed potential his rookie season, earning Offensive Rookie of the Year honors after completing 65.6 percent of his passes for 3,200 yards with 20 touchdowns, five interceptions and a 102.4 passer rating. His career, though, has gone downhill since, and he enters 2015 with a tenuous hold on the team’s starting quarterback job.
13. NFL’s Return to L.A.
The Rams, Chargers and Raiders all are prime candidates to move to Los Angeles next year. The nation’s second-largest city hasn’t had an NFL team to call its own since 1994 when the Rams relocated to St. Louis and the Raiders returned to Oakland. Now, the Rams and Raiders have an interest in returning to L.A.
The NFL owners annual spring meetings included L.A.-area stadium proposals, with league executives expressing confidence professional football is on the verge of returning to L.A. Rams owner Stan Kroenke owns 60 acres in Inglewood, Calif., and the Raiders and Chargers have a joint proposal for a privately financed $1.7 billion stadium they would share in Carson, Calif.
Los Angeles is the favorite to land the NFL Draft in 2016 and would be a future Super Bowl and possibly Pro Bowl host with a new billion-dollar stadium.
14. Peterson’s fresh start
Adrian Peterson played one game for Minnesota last season. Will it be his last time in a Vikings uniform? The running back requested a new start elsewhere after being reinstated to the NFL on April 16. But the Vikings all along insisted that Peterson would play for them in 2015, a mindset that was validated on Tuesday when Peterson and the team agreed to restructure the final three years of his deal, which runs through 2017.
He has six 1,000-yard rushing seasons since the Vikings made him a first-round pick in 2007, including his MVP season of 2012 in which he ran for 2,097 yards. Peterson turned 30 this spring and has 2,054 carries. But with fresh legs and much motivation, he could help Minnesota win its first playoff game since 2009 if he fully commits to the Vikings’ cause.
15. Bucs great hope
Bucs general manager Jason Licht became enamored with Jameis Winston during the Florida State quarterback’s Heisman season. He never dreamed, though, that his team would end up with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 draft. For the fifth time, the Bucs have used a first-round choice on a quarterback. The other four didn’t work out so well.
In their 39-year history, the Bucs have had 36 starting quarterbacks, including three the past two years. It’s why they have had only 10 postseason appearances in their history, and six postseason victories. Winston has given Bucs fans hope yet again that the future will be different.
-By Charean Williams, Fort Worth (Texas) Star-Telegram