In the middle of May, finding news-worthy NFL stories is a tough racket to work. The Steelers first OTA session – the only real Steelers news right now – has been covered extensively here on NPC and frankly, with so little information being let loose from the South Side there isn’t much to write about. Luckily, our favorite black and gold warriors do have a few intriguing situations brewing and that got me thinking outside the traditional “Pittsburgh Box”. Now that we are essentially through the period of free agent movement, trades, and the NFL Draft, we know which team and player situations will be the most closely monitored as the march to Training Camp and the preseason begins. We may see a minor move here or there, possibly a trade (the Seahawks/Buccaneers deal earlier this week is an example), and the continuing saga unfolding in New Orleans may yield some news still.
Every NFL season starts out with the eyes of the football world focused on the intriguing stories that mold the new year. I have compiled a list of the Top Ten Intriguing Stories for 2012, a snapshot of the stories you will be hearing over and over again in the coming months. Yes, Tebow is here. So is Mike Wallace. However, there are some other stories that you may have let slip your mind. Right now summer is approaching and the focus is on baseball, school letting out for the summer, and what non-traditional meat can be thrown on the grill for tonight’s dinner. What we want to delve into here are the stories NFL fans will be pining over once the pencils and books are back in the Trapper Keepers and we are trying to decide which stereotypical Halloween character we will be shoveling our loose leaves into to get them off of our dying lawn (Pumpkins and Frankensteins ruled the neighborhood last fall). Grab a cold one and prepare to be intrigued.
10. The re-birth of the Indianapolis Colts – The Colts were a big mean blue machine from 1999-2010, racking up 11 playoff appearances and a Super Bowl championship. Indianapolis transformed themselves from an also-ran franchise that had trouble selling tickets and rarely found any sort of relevancy into a powerhouse behind the arm of one Peyton Manning. They crafted the entire franchise around Manning, bringing in receivers and blockers and mostly being satisfied with bludgeoning their opponents to death with high-scoring offense. The Colts became a weekly visitor to prime time slots and packed fans into the RCA Dome week after week. They were the glory days of Indianapolis Colts football, a franchise that finally was able to shake the stench of the Mayflower Moving Trucks and late night walk of shame that followed them from Baltimore in 1983. Fast forward to 2011, the Colts lose Payton Manning to a severe neck injury and the wheels fall off. The team decides the time has come to move on and lets former Pro Bowl players such as TE Dallas Clark and C Jeff Saturday walk away. Bill and Chris Polian, both architects of the Colts decade of dominance, were fired. Shortly thereafter, “The Catfish” swam out of town – head coach Jim Caldwell was shown his walking papers. RB Joesph Addai, WR Pierre Garcon, and LB Gary Brackett were allowed to leave or were cut. Veteran tackle Ryan Diem decided he wanted no part of this circus and retired. When the team takes the field in 2012, it will do so with only three members of their starting 2011 offense. Outside of video games, teams don’t purge their organizations in this manner.
So now the fresh start with QB Andrew Luck, a slew of rookies, and several mid-level free agent signings. New head coach Chuck Pagano has never been the man in charge, and he will do so for the first time with a brand new offense and defense behind two new coordinators. This is a total restart of a franchise the likes we have NEVER seen. The Colts are fixing to be a bad team in 2012, but it will be intriguing to see how bad….will they mature quickly behind Luck and make a run at 8-8, or will they mirror the 3-13 they were in Peyton Mannings first campaign? Fans may only get to see a situation like this once or twice, a franchise that basically goes the “expansion team” route. It should be a very interesting train wreck.
9. The Pittsburgh Steelers Offensive Line – The Steelers have now invested four top draft picks (#1 in 2010, #2 in 2011, #1 and #2 in 2012) on offensive linemen to revamp a unit that has been the source of so much grief over the past few years. The team is making a real commitment to protecting Iron Man QB Ben Roethlisberger and the big guy couldn’t be happier. Now comes the hard part – molding these outstanding players into an outstanding UNIT. New offensive Coordinator Todd Haley and Offensive Line coach Sean Kugler will be spending their summer in the film room and on the practice field, learning the strengths and weaknesses of their new players. Former starting tackle Willie Colon moves to guard, and the team has yet to recall their wounded veteran Max Starks, another Big Ben friend who may find himself wearing a different hat in 2012. This is a brand new day in the Steel City, and how the line comes together will make or break a year of transition for the Steelers.
8. The Tebow/Sanchez/Ryan NYC love triangle – After leading the Denver Broncos to their stunning OT upset of the Steelers in last January’s Wild Card playoff game, Tim Tebow seemed destined to become the next franchise QB for the Broncos. Then Peyton Manning became available and John Elway decided to pay a kings ransom to bring the future hall of fame QB into the fold. Tebow became expendable, and for some odd reason the New York Jets became his destination. Just after giving a three-year contract extension to incumbent QB Mark Sanchez, the Jets traded for Tebow and created a controversial situation that could blow up in the face of head coach Rex Ryan. Sanchez, who many unfairly blamed for the down season the Jets experienced in 2011, is now on the hot seat in the hottest oven in professional sports. With Tebow in the fold, Sanchez will be looking over his shoulder from day one, and any mistake – an interception, an overthrow, anything – will immediately cue up the “Tebow” cries by the Jets faithful and create a hostile playing environment for the emotionally scarred Sanchez. Rex Ryan is surely not the coach to handle such a touchy scenario, as his media boasting and bigger-than-life personality can only add fuel to the fire. How the Jets handle this Tebow/Sanchez quagmire should be one of the most talked about and followed stories of 2012.
7. Mike Wallace turns Diva – The Steelers top WR experienced his first taste of NFL free agency this offseason, and he wasn’t crazy about the flavor. After expecting to be flooded with #1 wide receiver contract offers from teams that matched deals obtained by Larry Fitzgerald and Andre Johnson, Wallace quickly learned that his profile is not quite at the level he thought it was. He is now at the mercy of the Steelers and must either sign his tender offer or sit out 2012, since a long-term deal doesn’t appear to be in the offing. With the emergence of WR Antonio Brown and the expectation that WR Emmanuel Sanders can reach the same level, Wallace could be the odd man out in the Steel City once its all said and done. His ability to be a professional, sign the tender, and get to camp on time will be a major story this summer. If he fails to do so, his time with the Steelers is over. Tough ending to a Steelers career that seemed to be limitless at one point.
6. The L.A. Equation – As I wrote about earlier this month, Los Angeles is beginning to make their push towards convincing an NFL team to relocate to the new stadium that is breaking ground in the downtown area. Obviously, the NFL history of L.A. is one of teams moving AWAY, but the second-largest TV market in the Country is ready to re-establish themselves as an NFL city. The Minnesota Vikings have secure funding for a new stadium, so they are out of the mix. The Oakland Raiders and St. Louis Rams (both formerly tenants of L.A.) are still being considered as teams that may move, as are the San Diego Chargers. Expect this to become a major story as the season wears on and chances are the NFL will be allowing a team to announce a move to Los Angeles sometime before kickoff of Super Bowl XLVII on February 3, 2013.
5. Head Coach Jeff Fisher returns to the NFL, tries to dig the Rams out of a deep hole –The St. Louis Rams seemed to be on the right track heading into 2011. After competing for the NFC West title down to Week 17 in 2010, it seemed that head coach Steve Spagnuolo had the team on the verge of becoming relevant for the first time since the “Greatest Show on Turf” was wowing the league. All of that potential went down the crapper in 2011, as the Rams were hit by a string of injuries and finished 2-14. The failure caused the firing of Spagnuolo and his entire coaching staff, and began the hunt for a new head coach. The Rams went all out, coaxing former Titans coach Jeff Fisher out of a semi-retirement to become the eighth head coach in the team’s St. Louis history.
Now the work begins on revitalizing a downtrodden franchise that seems to have one foot out the door in St. Louis. If the team does not respond to their new coach and has another horrific season, it could push them right up the ladder on the list of teams that could move to Los Angeles. Bad attendance has been a plague for the Rams, who have a hard time filling the gigantic Edward Jones Dome most weeks. The organization is counting on Fisher to breathe life back into the team and the fanbase. The Rams had a good draft, bringing in DT Michael Brockers, WR Brian Quick, CB Janoris Jenkins, RB Isiah Pead, and CB Trumaine Johnson – all who could win starting jobs in 2012. They also went out and signed several mid-level free agents and allowed some dead weight to move on, giving the entire roster a fresh feel. The biggest factor will be the health of franchise QB Sam Bradford, who has proven that when healthy he can be a solid NFL signal caller. This is a make it-or-break-it season for the St. Louis Rams.
4. The Miami Dolphins, Seattle Seahawks, Cleveland Browns, and Tennessee Titans QB controversies –Let’s take a quick inventory here. The Miami Dolphins have incumbent QB Matt Moore on the roster, then draft QB Ryan Tannehill in the first round, then sign veteran QB David Garrard to a contract. The Seattle Seahawks have incumbent QB Tarvaris Jackson on the roster, then sign free agent prize QB Matt Flynn to a huge multi-year deal, then draft QB Russell Wilson in the 2012 NFL Draft. The Cleveland Browns have QB Colt McCoy, long shoved down the Dawg Pound’s throats as the QB of the future. They draft 28-year old rookie Brandon Weeden in the first round of the draft. The Tennessee Titans have incumbent QB Matt Hasslebeck and young, promising QB Jake Locker nipping at his heels to take the job.
All four of these teams were non-playoff teams in 2011 and are trying to turn the corner. With so many QB controversies sprouting up this early, it should make for an interesting summer and preseason for all four clubs. Never have we had so many teams with no idea who their starting QB would be heading into a season, and at this point nothing would surprise fans of these teams, who always seem to make things harder than they have to be. The Seattle situation is becoming even more intriguing, with highly-paid new QB Matt Flynn sharing reps with the first team with both Wilson and Jackson in team OTA’s this past week. Flynn was the QB prize of the free agent pool, and was signed with the intention that he would be “the man” for Pete Carroll and the Seahawks. In Tennessee, Jake Locker is primed to take over as the starting QB, but will have a fight ahead of him in camp. Intrigue in Seattle, Miami, Cleveland, and Tennessee abounds.
3. WR Randy Moss returns to the NFL after a one-year vacation –After not playing in 2011, Randy Moss is back in 2012. The one-time considered best WR in football, Moss signed a one-year deal to become a key part of a San Fransisco offense looking for new weapons for QB Alex Smith. Can Moss rebound from a disappointing 2010 that saw him wear three different jerseys and a 2011 that saw him completely out of the game? The 49ers are banking on Moss to be the #1 target for Smith, and will need him to produce the way he did from 2007-2009 with New England if they intend on making another deep playoff run. Moss is a guy that can either show up and be great or show up and cause a team to implode on itself. Furthermore, he is one of the most recognizable players of the past decade and the media will be following his every move on this comeback.
2. The Detroit Lions try to build on their success, the Buffalo Bills try to spend their way to success – The Detroit Lions were the darlings of the NFL in 2011, making the playoffs just three years removed from an 0-16 season. The Lions have explosive talent all over the field, including QB Matthew Stafford and WR Calvin Johnson. Can the Lions continue to ascend to the elite level of their NFC brethren in Green Bay and New York? Or will they take a step back, buried by preseason expectations that have them competing to make their first Super Bowl? In Buffalo, the Bills started out 2011 as the hottest team in football before a terrible streak of losses ended any playoff hopes. The Bills went out and made the biggest offseason splash in signing DE Mario Williams away from the Houston Texans for a record six-year $100 million deal. The Bills also spent money on DE Mark Anderson and resigned WR Stevie Johnson to a five-year extension. After not making the playoffs since 1999, will the spending spree propel the Bills to the playoffs?
1. BountyGate rips the hearts out of the New Orleans Saints – The biggest scandal in the NFL in years hit New Orleans hard. BountyGate cost the Saints their head coach for the entire 2012 season, as Sean Payton will be replaced by Joe Vitt – once he returns from his six-game suspension. The Saints also lost Pro Bowl LB Jonathan Vilma for all of 2012, DE Will Smith for four games, and were docked a bunch of draft picks over the next few years. Furthermore, the team has a situation with QB savior Drew Brees, who is unhappy about being named the franchise player and not being granted a long-term deal. This is an organization is tatters after NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell dropped the hammer on them. The entire league will be watching to see if the Saints are able to continue their remarkable run of playoff appearances and give their team a chance to play a Super Bowl in their home stadium (The SuperDome hosts the big game this year). After so many feel-good stories out of the Big Easy since the horrible events of Hurricane Katrina, the Saints are now fully in the eye of another storm. If the results end up being a 5-11 season or even simply missing the playoffs, this could mark a significant change in the overall New Orleans Saints organization, with front office staff, coaches, and players being changed out to get the stench of “BountyGate” off of the team.
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