Here are five important story lines to watch this upcoming NFL season.
1. CAN TONY ROMO AND THE COWBOYS REBOUND?
The Cowboys began last season openly talking about becoming the first team in history to play in a Super Bowl in their home stadium. They ended it with a new head coach, a third-string quarterback and plenty of questions.
Dallas got off to a 1–4 start but looked to turn it around against the Giants. The Cowboys led the Giants 10–7 and had just gotten their third turnover of the game, but that’s when blitzing linebacker Michael Boley got to Tony Romo untouched.
Romo’s fractured left clavicle sucked out whatever life was left in the Cowboys. The Cowboys lost that game and the next two, prompting the firing of Wade Phillips. Interim coach Jason Garrett was given the job after the Cowboys went 5–3 in the second half, including a 14–13, season-ending victory over the Eagles in third-string quarterback Stephen McGee’s first career start. Romo’s shoulder is completely healed, and so, the Cowboys say, are they.
Defensive guru Rob Ryan was hired to fix a defense that set a team record in allowing 436 points, and the Cowboys spent two of their first three draft picks to help Romo and the offense. The Cowboys are ready to do this season what they didn’t do last season — at least look like contenders. That, however, won’t be easy in the rugged NFC East.
2. SAN DIEGO’S NOT SO SPECIAL SPECIAL TEAMS
The Chargers ranked first in the NFL in total offense and first in total defense last season. Yet, San Diego finished only 9–7 and missed the playoffs.
The reason? The Chargers had arguably the worst special teams in NFL history. They allowed three kickoffs and one punt to be returned for touchdowns, had four punts blocked and another deflected and ranked last in punt coverage.
The Chargers replaced veteran special teams coach Steve Crosby with Rich Bisaccia, who held the same job in Tampa Bay the previous nine seasons. They loaded up with special teams players in the draft, selecting Marcus Gilchrist, Jordan Todman, Vincent Brown, Jonas Mouton, Shareece Wright and Andrew Gachkar specifically for their special teams skills.
The young, speedy players can’t hurt, but how much will they help? The Chargers’ special teams will determine whether San Diego finally can fulfill its Super Bowl goal.
3. HARBAUGH HYPE
The 49ers’ past three full-time head coaches didn’t do anything for fans’ enthusiasm in the Bay Area. Dennis Erickson, Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary combined for a 45–82 record. But San Francisco’s hiring of Jim Harbaugh has delivered hope to an organization desperately in need of some.
Harbaugh has yet to coach an NFL game, and yet, he already is drawing comparisons to one of his mentors. Harbaugh is following in the footsteps of Bill Walsh, who won three Super Bowls after leaving Stanford for the 49ers.
The 49ers haven’t had a winning season since 2002, the last time they made the playoffs. But Harbaugh, 47, took over a 1–11 Stanford team and quickly turned around that program. 49ers fans expect similar results in the NFL.
4. MICHAEL VICK’S FUTURE
A year ago, the Eagles traded Donovan McNabb and handed the starting job to Kevin Kolb. But Kolb lasted only half a game, suffering a concussion. He was replaced by Michael Vick, who became an MVP candidate and the NFL’s feel-good story of the year.
Though he rushed for 676 yards and nine touchdowns, Vick became a different quarterback, a better quarterback. Vick, who had never completed better than 56.4 percent of his passes in a season, completed 62.6 percent in 2010, throwing for a career-high 3,018 yards and 21 touchdowns and making his fourth career Pro Bowl despite starting only 11 games.
Vick, now in his third season removed from prison, could have used an offseason working with Andy Reid and Marty Mornhinweg. No matter — as long as Vick can stay healthy, he should continue to electrify the league and put up big numbers in Philadelphia.
5. CAM NEWTON’S IMPACT
Cam Newton won the Heisman Trophy, the Maxwell Award and the Davey O’Brien Award and was the Walter Camp National Player of the Year. He led Auburn to an undefeated season and a national championship. In the NFL, all that means little.
Can Newton do what he did in one season at Auburn for a career in the NFL? Can he adapt to an NFL offense, playing under center? Will he be the hardest worker on the team? Will he be a leader?
Newton declared himself an “entertainer and icon” in a pre-combine interview, but he has to become an NFL quarterback first. Newton insists he will not be Heath Shuler or Akili Smith or Tim Couch. The Panthers are counting on it.