Rob Woodfork, wtop.com
WASHINGTON - The 2013 NFL season is officially cleared for takeoff.
And so is its brightest young star.
For the first time in recent memory, all eyes in the NFL universe will be focused squarely on the nation's capital when Robert Griffin III and the Washington Redskins host the Philadelphia Eagles in this season's first installment of Monday Night Football. This is relevant not only because the 'Skins are the defending NFC East champions for the first time in 13 years, but because the health of their second-year quarterback just happens to be the single-biggest storyline in 2013.
Note I didn't say the biggest storyline in Washington. I mean in the entire NFL.
It wasn't just here that the ongoing saga between Griffin and coach Mike Shanahan and Dr. James Andrews made its way onto the airwaves. That was national news, folks. Which means that win, lose or draw, Monday night's game will lead SportsCenter and every NFL-themed program from here to Japan (and probably a few shows that aren't NFL-themed). This game matters. And it's because the phenomenon of RG3 matters. In fact, I'd go as far as to say his health equals the league's health.
Drink it in, D.C. This is what it tastes like to have a superstar quarterback.
To be honest, I've developed RG3 fatigue over the course of the last several months. While it has been surreal for longsuffering D.C. sports fans to see national writers and cable sports shows spend so much of the offseason debating whether Griffin's injured knee has healed enough to keep him atop the heap of young franchise quarterbacks, the truth of the matter is we don't know how Griffin's knee will respond or how good he'll be until we see him take the field for the first time. The narrative leading up to that moment will all be rendered moot once No. 10 lines up under center (or in the shotgun ... or in the pistol ...).
All we know for sure is this: The euphoria of winning the division at the expense of the hated Dallas Cowboys was quickly replaced by the devastating gravity of "RGKnee." On Monday night, Redskins Nation will either be dealt another gut punch or be rewarded for braving eight months of hand-wringing and drama.
Here are a few other highlights to watch for in 2013:
The Summer of the ACL
RG3 isn't the only Pro Bowler coming off of major knee surgery. Darrelle Revis is expected to open the season against the team that relocated Revis Island to Tampa Bay despite suffering a torn ACL last season. If Revis has as big of an impact in Florida as he did in the Big Apple, the Bucs could be in the mix for a wild-card spot in the NFC.
Rex's last stand in New York
You've got to think the Jets will be ready to get out of the Rex Ryan business if he and his team are again letting their mouths write checks their talent can't cash. Good luck bucking that trend in Tom Brady's division after trading Revis away, and having a starting QB best known for headbutting a butt. Yes, the jury is still out on rookie passer Geno Smith (who will start in place of the injured Sanchez to start the season), but do we really think he's going to thrive on a team with no clear-cut No. 1 receiver and a shaky offensive line?
Who will be this year's Indianapolis Colts?
Ironically, we need look no further than The Show-Me State. The Rams and Chiefs aren't the favorites to win their respective divisions, but both have the means to make dramatic turnarounds in 2013. Could Missouri be totally preoccupied by Wild Card Weekend come January? It's certainly a possibility.
Who gets the sophomore slump?
Last season was the year of the rookie QB. Andrew Luck, RG3 and Russell Wilson all got their teams to the postseason and looked good doing it. Statistically speaking, at least one of them figures to miss the playoffs in '13.
But which one? It seems anyone with a mic and an opinion thinks Luck is the second coming of Peyton Manning despite a lackluster statistical performance in 2012. Griffin and Wilson had amazing numbers, but one is coming off a major knee reconstruction and the other plays in the toughest division in football.
Somebody's going to regress. It'll be interesting to see whom.
Will Pam Oliver join the NFL concussion lawsuit?
Considering that just got settled, my motive here is clear. I just wanted an excuse to post the video.
No more questions. Now it's time for answers. (Allegedly).
As mentioned above, RG3 is back. But the question is, "Is he all the way back?" If so, the sky is the limit for this team. The offense will be dynamic, possibly even better than last year with the healthy return of Pierre Garcon and Fred Davis. Brian Orakpo is also back from injury, helping solidify a front seven that should rank among the best in the NFC (even with the four-game suspensions of Jarvis Jenkins and Rob Jackson). The question here is injuries: If they can get through the season with few of them, they'll be really good. If not, I'm not sure they have the depth to realize their goals.
Of course, I said that last year when this team was 3-6. And we all know how that ended.
I seriously don't understand why people are actually picking New York to win the division. Here are the regular season records for the Giants the last four years: 8-8, 10-6, 9-7, 9-7. That was with a staunch defense, a solid ground game and Eli Manning throwing to a deep receiving corps. The only part of that equation that still remains is Eli Manning. The defense is injured and rapidly aging, and the running back situation remains up in the air. New York could be in the mix for the division, but with the Seahawks and both Redskins games on the December docket, I wouldn't count on them getting it done down the stretch.
Now that there's a new regime in San Diego, I've had to transplant what I call "The Norv Turner Theorem" to Dallas: Take what you think their regular season record will be based on their talent level and immediately subtract two games because of the head coach. Yes, Jason Garrett, you're the new Norv. You can always pencil in two games in which Garrett and/or Tony Romo make a mind-numbing decision to cost the Cowboys a win, and there's no reason to believe that trend will stop now. Add a complete change in defensive philosophy (switching from a 3-4 to Monte Kiffin's Tampa 2) and the annual consternation over the shoddy offensive line, and this could be a big flop in Big D.
Allow me to reiterate the warning I issued Philly fans in the midst of last season: Be careful what you wish for. They wanted to see Andy Reid gone, and Big Red has indeed left the City of Brotherly Love after almost a decade and a half. Now the Eagles get a much-needed fresh start with Chip Kelly. However, the odds that Kelly will replicate Reid's overall success are far longer than the odds that he'll be the second coming of Steve Spurrier. Much like The Ol' Ball Coach, Kelly brings his dynamic college offense to the pros without the benefit of pro experience. To his credit, Kelly has a pretty experienced staff (led by offensive coordinator and former Browns head coach Pat Shurmur) and Michael Vick to run his offense at a time when the read option has thrived in the NFL. But the shift from their "Wide Nine" defense to defensive coordinator Billy Davis' 3-4 figures to be ugly and the Eagles will remain in the NFC East basement.
Change has blown into the Windy City, and not all for the better. Lovie Smith was unceremoniously dumped after a 10-6 season (despite being one of only two men to lead Chicago to a Super Bowl) and replaced with a guy better known for winning Grey Cups in Canada. However, rookie coach Marc Trestman has 17 years of NFL experience and figures to make the most of the weapons on the Bears offense. On defense, the Bears won't have Brian Urlacher holding down the middle for the first time this millennium, although guys like Lance Briggs, Julius Peppers and Peanut Tillman won't let that unit fall apart. Still, the only thing I trust less than a rookie coach is Jay Cutler, and even in a contract year I doubt he'll be able to keep Chicago above .500.
Detroit's inexplicable return to the bottom of the standings was both dramatic and unexpected. I was among those who thought the Lions would take a step back, but 4-12 was ridiculous given Calvin Johnson's record-breaking season and the continued emergence of Matthew Stafford. This year, Reggie Bush adds an element to the Lions offense they hadn't had before: a gamebreaker at running back. Trust me, it'll make a difference. But it won't be enough for a return to the postseason, as the defense will continue to hold this team back. Think last year's Saints.
Here's the list of great players on Minnesota's roster: Adrian Peterson.
That's it. That's the list.
Percy Harvin is now appearing on Seattle's injury list instead of Minny's, which means the onus will be on Christian Ponder to prove he's more than just a mobile Brad Johnson. I'm not confident that he is. Plus, the Vikings defense has little to fear outside of Jared Allen. Last season, Minnesota benefited from a favorable schedule. In 2013, it will be their downfall (they face 11 teams that finished .500 or better in 2012).
On paper, Seattle is the best team in the league. They have a young, dynamic QB (Russell Wilson), a battering ram at running back (Marshawn Lynch) playing behind a solid offensive line and a defense that's as nasty as it is talented. If they didn't play in the best division in football, they might be 14-win good.
I'm not sure if Pete Carroll is a Super Bowl-caliber coach, but he's got a championship-level roster that should be the favorite to get home-field advantage. If this team stays healthy -- and if the almost-inevitable three matchups with San Fran don't soften them up for their next postseason opponent -- and gets key acquisition Percy Harvin back for the stretch run, the 12th Man might finally have a reason to let go of their heartbreaking Super Bowl loss to the Steelers eight years ago.
Many NFL pundits hold the far-reaching assumption that the Niners will make a triumphant return to the Super Bowl, and this time, maybe even mess around and win the thing.
I'm not one of those people.
It starts with the situation at wide receiver. Michael Crabtree is out for the season, Mario Manningham will miss significant time and while I like the addition of Anquan Boldin, he's not carrying that unit at this phase in his career. In the backfield, Frank Gore is as good as they come but he's a 30-year-old running back with a lot of miles on the odometer. Colin Kaepernick was terrific for San Fran down the stretch, but can he carry the load over 16 games plus the playoffs? Will the defense remain stout despite a couple of key free agent losses (Dashon Goldson and Isaac Sopoaga)? San Fran is still among the league's elite ... just don't count on them steamrolling the competition.
I'll echo a sentiment I've heard all offseason: If St. Louis played in about three other divisions, they'd be the favorite to win it. But they play in the new-look NFC West, so they'll have to settle for third place. Sam Bradford has some young, unproven weapons around him but figures to get some quality protection at long last, with former No. 1 overall pick Jake Long joining an offensive line that already includes ex-Pro Bowler Scott Wells at center. The defense should take another step forward with good, young building blocks like James Laurinaitis and Chris Long. Jeff Fisher will probably get his Rams at or above .500 and in the mix for a wild-card spot, but it'll take a Festivus miracle for them to stay in the division race.
At quarterback, Carson Palmer is better than the Larry, Moe and Curly trio of last season but I wouldn't count on him playing up to his 2005 form ever again. Hell, if he plays all 16 games in Arizona it'll be a coup considering how bad that offensive line is. Yes, the addition of Eric Winston helps but the interior line has more questions than answers (and that's being kind). Count on another drought in the desert.
It's put up or shut up time in Atlanta.
In January, they finally got off the schneid and notched a playoff win in the Matt Ryan Era, but the time for moral victories has past. With the addition of Steven Jackson at running back and the return of Tony Gonzalez, the Falcons offense will be one of the game's best units, leaving Ryan no excuse for not taking the next step.
So while scoring doesn't figure to be a problem, I'm not sure opposing offenses won't say the same when playing the Falcons defense. Bringing in Osi Umenyiora to replace the departed John Abraham is probably a lateral move, and losing Brent Grimes in free agency won't help the secondary. But if the sum total is better than the individual parts, they might be doing the Dirty Bird in the Dirty South come February.
Just don't count on the defense holding up its end of the bargain.
The Saints D wasn't just bad last season. It was historically bad. The unit that gave up the most yardage in NFL history will be without Jonathan Vilma the first half of the season, and also enter this year switching to Rob Ryan's 3-4 scheme. If Ryan can bring more than just upgrades to his dad's old scheme and boatloads of swagger (which tends to be all we get from the Ryan twins these days), this defense has a shot at cracking the top 20 in yardage and taking the ball away like they did in '09. In that scenario, you can count on a return to the postseason for New Orleans -- and perhaps even a serious run at the division title.
Cam Newton remains one of the game's brightest young stars, but I'm still not sure he has enough help to be truly relevant. DeAngelo Williams and Steve Smith should still have a little something left in the tank, and Greg Olsen should be rather productive at tight end (and my fantasy team is counting on it). But Carolina will need more than that to keep pace with the high-powered offenses in Atlanta and New Orleans. The addition of Ted Ginn Jr. should help bolster the return game and give Cam a deep threat on offense, and if he's the X-factor we've been waiting on him to become then these Panthers might have some bite to them after all.
I know Darrelle Revis is wearing pewter this year, and I'm sure he's healthy enough to help that defense play at a higher level. But this season all comes down to one man: Josh Freeman. It's make or break for the fifth-year quarterback, and he'll have to look as good (or better) than he did in 2010 if A) he wants to get paid and B) the Bucs are going to be any good. The D should be solid, the ground game is in the very capable hands (or in this case, legs) of Doug Martin and Greg Schiano appears to be an NFL-caliber coach. If Tampa is again home for the holidays, it'll be because Freeman didn't get it done.
This is as close to a given as there is in the unpredictable NFL: New England is the team to beat in this division. Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are back for a 14th season, and that's just about the only reason to like them to win their 11th AFC East title together. The Pats immediately eliminated any potential distractions by cutting Aaron Hernandez, but that -- coupled with the injury concerns surrounding Rob Gronkowski -- compromised the depth at tight end on a team that relies on them more than most. The receiving corps is also in flux (most notably replacing Wes Welker with the oft-injured Danny Amendola) and the Patriots front office has quietly failed to beef up the lineup via the draft in recent years. So don't be shocked to see a less-than-stellar regular season record in New England -- even if it is still the Patriots' division to lose.
I really wanted to pick Miami to win eight or nine games this year. I really did. It's Year 2 of the Joe Philbin Era, second-year QB Ryan Tannehill figures to improve after getting a deep threat in ex-Steeler Mike Wallace and the defense added some key pieces (Dannell Ellerbe and Brent Grimes). But however much they've improved their talent level, a tough schedule will keep them from doing so in the win-loss column. Fins fans will have to wait at least another year before overtaking the Pats in the AFC East.
Here's what you need to know about the Bills: rookie head coach (Doug Marrone) paired with rookie quarterback (E.J. Manuel). For every Chuck Pagano/Andrew Luck pairing, there's about a dozen others that fall woefully short. Manuel (who enters the season hurt) might be good in the long run, and I still hold out hope this defense can be as good as its talent level -- but with the AFC North and NFC South on this year's docket, it'll be tough to top their six wins from last year.
Oh boy ... where do I start?
Coach Rex Ryan inexplicably survived a front office shake-up and returns for a fifth season in New York. Given the way the offense looks, the new Jets management must feel like Ron Burgundy jumping into the bear habitat right about now. Even when he's healthy, Mark Sanchez is like a young Rex Grossman and rookie passer Geno Smith isn't quite ready for prime time. Regardless of who is (or isn't) under center, there's no big-time weapons in place around him, the defense dumped All-Pro corner Darrelle Revis and the Jets look like a lock to resume cellar-dweller status in a somewhat competitive division. Enjoy the soap opera one last time, New York ... it's the Broadway finale for the Rex Ryan Era.
I've said it before, and I'll say it again: I hate trying to predict what Cincinnati will do. They're bad when I think they're good, and they're good when I think they're bad.
So brace yourselves, Bengals fans.
Andy Dalton is a legit starting QB. He's got one of the best receivers in the game in A.J. Green, and the Bengals D is one of the most underrated units in the league coached by one of the most underrated coaches (Marvin Lewis) in the NFL. I know the Broncos and Texans will generate more ink, but don't be surprised if the Bengals generate more wins and finally make some noise in the playoffs.
We're about to find out how good Joe Flacco really is. It's his team now that Ray Lewis rode off into the sunset with a second Super Bowl ring, and the offense is going to have to carry this team the way the defense did for the last decade. Speaking of the defense, even though Lewis was the heart and soul of that unit, it appears they found a suitable replacement rather quickly in Daryl Smith. In addition to Lewis, Ed Reed and Anquan Boldin also vacated the Inner Harbor, meaning the Ravens locker room will be without an awful lot of veteran leadership and production all at once. Ozzie Newsome further proved he's the best GM in the league by finding a way to replace them with Smith, Michael Huff, Brandon Stokley and Elvis Dumervil despite a tight cap. Because of that, Baltimore will remain in the playoff mix -- but I won't believe Flacco can replicate his 2012 postseason until I see it.
As much as I like Mike Tomlin, my outlook for Pittsburgh isn't good. Much like the Patriots, their recent drafts haven't yielded many immediate results so the Steelers are still waiting for someone to step up and fill the holes left by Super Bowl heroes like James Harrison, Casey Hampton, James Farrior and Hines Ward. Ben Roethlisberger is still one of the league's best QBs in the clutch and will keep this team competitive. But he'll need more from his ground game if Pittsburgh is going to return to the postseason hunt.
I like the direction Cleveland is headed in, but they're once again the victim of the division in which they play. As critical as I've been of Norv Turner as a head coach, I'm a huge fan of his in the role of offensive coordinator. He'll make Brandon Weeden and the Browns offense better, but I'm not sure it'll compensate for a rookie head coach (Rob Chudzinski) and a shaky D.
Bad news for the Chiefs: they haven't won a playoff game in 20 years. The good news is, the last time they did they got their QB from San Francisco.
Nobody's fitting Alex Smith for a yellow jacket in Canton, but in his last two seasons as a 49er he proved he can thrive with quality coaching and good pieces in place around him. Considering KC sent more players to the Pro Bowl (six) than they got notches in the win column (two), Smith -- under the tutelage of QB-whisperer Andy Reid -- has the tools to help the Chiefs legitimately challenge Denver for the AFC West. Think last year's Colts.
Unfortunately for San Diego, firing Norv Turner is about three years too late. Once one of the most talented teams in the NFL, the Chargers are now little more than Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates, and at this stage they serve more as a reminder of all the unfulfilled potential than hope of an immediate turnaround. Rookie coach Mike McCoy gets a fine lieutenant in ex-Cards coach Ken Whisenhunt and if bloodlines are any indication, John Pagano (Chuck's brother) should keep the defense competitive. The big question is whether Rivers can return to form -- and if he's got enough around him to do so.
Let's review the QB situation, shall we? We have the guy with no arm strength competing with the "QB of the Future" who's just learning how to throw. The latter (Terrelle Pryor) beat out the former (Matt Flynn) for the starting gig, but does it matter? Either way there's not nearly enough talent for Oakland to jump from a 4-12 afterthought to contender -- even in one of the worst divisions in football.
If you're a long-time reader of these recaps, you know full well I've been predicting big things in Houston for the last couple of years. And every year, they make me look ridiculous. And like Jack Woltz, a man in my position can't be made to look ridiculous.
Yet I can't quit them just yet. J.J. Watt might be the NFL's best defensive player playing on one of the best defenses in the league. The offense is built to win in the playoffs, with a dominant ground attack led by Arian Foster (not to mention, backup Ben Tate could start on most other teams) paired with a potent passing attack headlined by Andre Johnson. If Matt Schaub can perform at an elite level, the Texans might finally cash in on all that immense talent.
And they might do so on the biggest stage in pro sports.
With apologies to Adrian Peterson, the best story of the 2012 season was the Indianapolis Colts. First-year coach Chuck Pagano not only returned to the sidelines after an in-season battle with leukemia, but the team rallied in his absence and got within a game of the division title with a rookie QB and a roster that went 2-14 the year before. In 2013, reality will set in -- the man who helped navigate the turnaround, offensive coordinator/interim coach Bruce Arians, is now trying to do the same in Arizona. The schedule for the Colts will be tougher and nobody's going to take them for granted this time around. That said, Andrew Luck has some more weapons and will probably take another step forward, and I'm anxious to see what Laron Landry will do in this defense. Even though Indy could be a better team than last year, it likely won't show in the standings.
On a team led by Hall of Fame offensive lineman (head coach Mike Munchak and line coach Bruce Matthews), it shouldn't be a shock that the key offseason acquisitions were guards. The line should be better with Andy Levitre and rookie Chance Warmack, and Chris Johnson could have another big season because of it. But the Titans are only as good as Jake Locker allows them to be. If he makes huge strides, this is my worst pick of the season. If he's the same guy we saw in 2012, then it's another long season in Tennessee.
Jacksonville's current state of affairs can be summed up by its new uniforms: Change was warranted, the team's heart was in the right place when it did so, but it ultimately looks like a team from the now-defunct NFL Europe and falls flat.
Gus Bradley did some good work as a coordinator in Seattle, but he won't have nearly as much to work with as the head man in Jacksonville. Blaine Gabbert is still dangerously close to reaching bust status, and if you can name a single defensive player on that team you should get a spot on "Jeopardy."
The Jags narrowly avoided the top pick in the 2013 draft. They won't be so lucky in 2014.
Super Bowl XLVIII: Seahawks over Texans
As for my picks for the 2012 regular season awards:
MVP - Russell Wilson
Offensive Player of the Year - Robert Griffin III
Defensive Player of the Year - Darrelle Revis
Offensive Rookie of the Year - Montee Ball
Defensive Rookie of the Year - Dee Milliner
Coach of the Year - Andy Reid
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