Friday, September 9, 2011

Set, 9/11, Hut, Hut!

Whether you're in Poznan, Poland watching the road crews finally get to work seven months before the Euro 2012 tournament, or settling into the couch to watch the NFL kickoff tonight, all that matters is the game, futbol or football. It seems like just yesterday the Green Bay Packers took out the Pittsburgh Steelers to win the Super Bowl, a win clouded over by the threat of an owner's lockout to wrestle more revenue out of the circenses while the price of pan rises like, well, bread in the oven. It was further back though as the owners carried through with their collusion and imposed a lockout sometime later. That must have been further back too, cause it seems like the next day a judge sided with the players and ordered an end to the lockout. Was it the day after when the owners won an appeal to keep football shut down? Then there was news of a new deal being approved by the owners (31-0 with the Raiders abstaining, Al Davis always has to be a rebel) and a tense wait to see of the players would follow suit which they did. Does everything from politics to economics and sports have to be a never ending nightmarish soap opera? Whatever, here we are, everybody loves each other again and we're ready for some football. No harm no foul, right?

Well, not exactly. I give you the 2011-21 Collective Bargaining Agreement. What? No time to read the whole PDF? Don't care how the $10 billion pie will be divvied up anymore than the sucker watching his country funnel funds into road works or stadium projects for the next kickoff. Too caught up of late in the horse race coverage of the presidential campaign, double-dip recession or Oceania's latest military offensive. Read enough 9/11 10-year anniversary stories and are fed up with the circus surrounding the commemoration that coincides with the first Sunday of NFL football? You're in luck then as not only will you get a division by division NFL preview along with season predictions but also the key components of the new CBA interwoven throughout while only reading about someone else's god once. Let's start with the positive. You may have noticed the years 2011-21 a little above, you guessed it, that means we've got a 10-year deal and won't have to deal with the agony of negotiations like these again for awhile. Of course the owners' avarice left more than just a bad taste in fans' mouths as the drawn out process shortened training camp leaving less time for new coaches (eight new ones from this time last year) to implement new systems and have players get used to them, especially the rookies. The new deal brings with it a few notable changes as well but what's most important is the season kicks off tonight (Thursday) as the Super Bowl champions from two years ago, the New Orleans Saints, travel to Lambeau Field to play the Green Bay Packers, last year's winners of the Lambeau Trophy.

NFC East

Philadelphia Eagles: While everyone was still talking about the resurrection of Michael Vick (which earned him a $100 million contract), the team went shopping. They say that you can't buy championships, but this team looks like it has enough to at least buy the division.While they opened up the vault for Nnamdi Asomugha and Cromartie, they seemed to have forgotten they had needs elsewhere, like linebackers. More bizarrely, they promoted their offensive line coach to be the defensive coordinator. Speedster WR DeSean Jackson will be joined by Jeremy Maclin, who seems to be alright after a cancer scare, and eventually new addition Steve Smith. RB LeSean 'Shady' McCoy is looking to build on his breakout 2010 (1,080 yards rushing, 5.2 ypc, 78 receptions, 9 TDs) and will have former Dolphin Ronnie Brown to spell him while TE Brent Celek hopes Vick learns to throw to a tight end.

Dallas Cowboys: At this time last year the Cowboys were favourites to become the first team to play for a Super Bowl at home. Here we are a disastrous year later, Jason Garrett is the head coach, Rob Ryan's been brought in to turn around a defense that allowed the second most points in the league and everything is eerily calm. Too calm for Dallas. An easyish schedule is welcome relief for Jerry Jones' suddenly-low spending Cowboys who found themselves in a salary cap bind after the lockout was lifted. Also working in their favour is the return of a healthy QB Tony Romo and most of his offensive weapons. RB Felix Jones will get a shot at being a lead back with the release of Marion Barber; TE Jason Witten just puts up numbers year after year; WRs Miles Austin and Dez 'Bling for Nothing' Bryant could be the best 1-2 combo in the league. The offensive line is revamped and unknown while the defense is, well, let's say they at least still have DE DeMarcus Ware.

New York Giants: The other Manning, Eli, seemed to suffer from the same problem as his brother last year - a case of interceptitis, throwing a career-high and league-leading 25. Making things worse,he'll be short a couple targets with the departure or WR Steve Smith and TE Kevin Boss. WR Mario Manningham needs to have a big year and TE Travis Beckum needs to step up but the Giants will clearly have to lean on the RB duo of Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs. The D needs Osi Umenyiora to heal quickly from knee surgery he inexplicably waited to have until a few weeks into camp to support the talented bookend defensive ends, Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul. The secondary has seen a rash of injuries at cornerback, including first-round draft pick Prince Amukamara, so will need safeties Kenny Phillips, Antrel Rolle and Deon Grant to come up big.

Washington Redskins: What a mess. Who's the starting QB? Really, Rex Grossman or John Beck? (Update: It looks like Rex) Who's the starting RB? Cardinal castoff Tim Hightower, rookie Roy Helu or oft-injured Ryan Torain? (Update 2: Looks like Hightower) And Mike Shanahan's still the coach. Ok, to be fair both Hightower and Helu have looked good in the preseason, but it's only the preseason. WR Santana Moss is older and slower and Jabbar Gaffney is gonna be their #2. Ok. Oh, and TE Chris Cooley might be ready for the season opener but beyond that, the offense looks fine. Defense? Well, at least they finally got rid of their $100 million head-case locker room headache 'Fat' Albert Haynesworth and have installed a decent looking 3-4 front line. London Fletcher leads a strong linebacking corp which along with a tough secondary will at least make teams work to beat them week after week.

Divisional Divination - Eagles 10-6; Cowboys 8-8; Giants 7-9; Redskins 6-10

Let's stick to the good about the new CBA. Whether it's the threat of eventuall legal problems or just plain common sense, the league has finally begun to take the problem of long-term player disability and well, premature deaths, seriously. Six members of the 1994 San Diego Charger are now dead. There are no more two-a-day practices, fewer full-pad practices and expanded training-camp rosters. The CBA cut OTAs from 14 to 10 and nearly axed two-a-days. Not only should this relieve some of the long term pounding on players and bodies, it could pay short term dividends too in that in season injuries should be reduced. ESPN's Sport Science estimates that some 70% of all NFL injuries occur during practice, less injuries should equal better quality games. Win-win.

NFC North

Green Bay Packers: Repeat? So much fell into place for the Packers last year. They lost RB Ryan Grant and TE Jermichael Finley early along with 13 more players to injured reserve but managed to find enough spare parts to sneak themselves into the playoffs. Easy to forget that they finished with the same 10-6 record as the Buccaneers but got in on tie-breakers. Hard not to like their chances with both Grant and Finley back to join QB Aaron Rodgers and basically the same cast as last year. They only signed their own free agents, brought back the entire coaching staff and continued to build via the draft. This will be their third year in the same defensive system that will once again include Charles Woodson and Clay Matthews. Enough said.

Detroit Lions: Do you have it yet? Lion fever seems to be sweeping the land as the pussycats from Detroit ended 2010 on a three game winning streak. That's more wins than they had in the previous TWO YEARS. QB Matthew Stafford seems to be back from the shoulder injury that put him out for the year. Megatron (WR Calvin Johnson) returns to dominate little DBs and if Jahvid Best has put the turf toe problems that plagued his rookie year behind him, the offense could be ready to, well, roar. On the other side of the ball opposing teams will have to deal with Ndamukong, Suh!

Chicago Bears: Ever woken up and not known whether or not what you just dreamed was real or not? Happened to me late last January when I had an image of the Bears playing in the NFC Championship game and some kid named Caleb Hanie replace QB Jay Cutler and had a chance to upset the Packers. Weird, huh? Well, Cutlers back despite being sacked 52 times last year, 12 more times than any other QB. The Bears traded away their best pass catcher, TE Greg Olsen because Mike Martz doesn't use tight ends, basically dumped team leader C Olin Kreutz and then went picking in the Cowboy trash heap, inexplicably picking up RB Marion Barber and WR Roy Williams. As always seems to be the case, the Bears D should be stout but scratch below the surface, behind the likes of Julius Peppers and Israel Idonije and there's not much depth there, a recipe for trouble.

Minnesota Vikings: Could last year have gone any worse for the Vikings? The Favre fiasco, the Moss meltdown, the stadium fall-down. Lots more questions too. New QB Donovan McNabb is making his third stop in three years, is he done? Can Percy Harvin deal with his migraines and be a #1 WR? Can Bernard Berrian or Michael Jenkins fill the #2 WR position? What will replace the Williams wall in the middle of the defensive line? Is RB Adrian Peterson at the very least some kind of demi-god being able to run as well as he does behind perhaps the worst offensive line in football? Will new head coach Leslie Frazier be able to turn the team around? Possibly, maybe, doubtful, who knows, yes and not this year are all the answers you need I'm afraid. On the positive side, PK Ryan Longwell has only missed three field goals in two years, punter Chris Kluwe is pretty darn good too and #1 draft pick QB Christian Ponder has a year to learn the system.

Audacious Augury - Packers 13-3; Lions 9-7; Bears 7-9; Vikings 5-11

Aside from a few lame attempts at clarifying the blurry rules around blows to the head and completed passes as points of emphasis, the biggest change affecting actual play this year will hurt the Bears more than any other team in the league. No, I'm not talking about how all scoring play reviews can now be initiated from the replay booth, that fields have to be green, or game-day testing for performance-enhancing substances but not recreational drugs. Thanks to their strong return game, the Bears averaged the best drive-start position in the NFL last season so it's no surprise they opposed the NFL rule change moving kickoffs up five yards to the 35-yard line. They went so far as to ignore the change in the first preseason game in protest as the shorter field will result in more touchbacks, less thrilling Devin Hester returns and probably fewer injuries. I see it as another nod to the realities of injuries but many see it as another step in the transformation to the NFL - No Fun League.

NFC West

St Louis Rams: Coming off a season in which they won more games than the previous three (7 to 6) and an offensive rookie of the year victory for QB Sam Bradford, St. Louis fans can be forgiven for partying like it's 1999. A two-word caveat: Josh McDaniels. Hired after destroying the Denver Broncos, McDaniels has been given the offensive coordinator job. Rams fans should be glad he's only running the offense, something he knows a little about. Oh and the schedule, games against the Eagles, Giants, Ravens, Packers, Cowboys and Saints before there first divisional game plus a late road games against the Steelers. Plus Steven Jackson is a year older. On the flip side, so is Bradford who doesn't have a superstar receiver but a stable of no-names plus rookie TE Lance Kendricks. The defense looks pretty good but nothing will help more than having the good fortune of playing a bunch of late-season games against the worst division in the history of the NFL.

Arizona Cardinals: Ken Whisenhunt and the Cardinals went all in for QB Kevin Kolb. They gave up CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, a second-round draft pick and about as much cash as Sam Bradford will get over the next five years to get him. But there were also 50 other new players on the 90-man roster as sure, no one even remembers who their QB was last year but that's partially because there were a few of them, none could stay healthy due to the porous offensive line. Unfortunately for Kolb and RB Beanie Wells, next-to-nothing was done to improve the blocking up front. They brought Ray Horton from the Steelers to be the new defensive coordinator but unfortunately couldn't bring the team. He'll have to make do with a lot less. If Kolb just manages to throw it up to the $120 million man Larry Fitzgerald enough, they could win six and be in the running for the division.

San Francisco 49ers: A new coach in Harbaugh and lowered expectation could do wonders. Time will tell if his first big decision, passing on Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert and Christian Ponder (all went in the five picks that followed the Niners #7 pick LB Aldon Smith) and taking QB Colin Kaepernick in the second round signalling at least one more year of the Alex Smith era will prove wise. If Smith plays anything like a first round draft choice (2006) should, they could win nine games with the addition of WR Braylon Edwards to compliment oft-injured or holding out in the preseason Michael Crabtree and TE Vernon Davis. Chances are though, Smith will stumble again and RB Frank Gore will be forced to carry too much of the load and get hurt again. Last year I thought the 'niners had a great defense, this year, they've still got Patrick Willis but I've tempered my expectations with a new surrounding cast that may need time to gel. It's rebuilding mode in San Francisco.

Seattle Seahawks: In the bizarro-world of the NFL, the Shithawks lost more games than they won to get into the playoffs with a week 17 victory over the Rams while the Bucs were 10-6 on the outside looking in last year. Even stranger, Seattle beat the Saints in the wildcard game and almost upset the Bears for a place in the NFC Championship game. Don't look for a repeat. After losing Matt Hasselback to the Titans, the Shithawks have Tarvaris Jackson as the starting quarterback and Charlie Whitehurst in relief. Seriously. WR Sidney Rice was brought in along with TE Zach Miller while the youth movement elsewhere continues but don't look for more than five wins which won't be enough to even win the NFC West. The Andrew Luck lottery winners perhaps?

Sinful Soothsaying - Rams 9-7; Cardinals 7-9; 49ers 5-11; Seahawks 3-13

Rookie salaries were brought under control with a maximum total compensation per draft class in exchange for a quicker path to free agency, weird, but they got this one right too. Last year's #1 pick Sam Bradford was and will be the last to land a monster six-year deal worth $78 million with $50 million guaranteed. This year's #1, Cam Newton, wound up with a deal worth about half that. This is at least partially compensated by the quicker path to free agency, they're eligible after three years, or a franchise tender that forces the team to pay a top 10 salary at the player's position for the fourth year. Another bonus, not only will the weasel agents be making money off smaller contracts, the maximum take on rookie deals was capped at 2%, down from 3%. All drafter rookies get four year contracts while those undrafted get three and there will be strong anti-holdout rules which sound great but seems pretty vague to me.

NFC South

Atlanta Falcons: The Falcons are looking to finish off what they started and expect to be playing in Indianapolis in February. The offense returns the league leader in receptions (115), WR Roddy White, RB Michael Turner who led the league in carries for the second time in three years and QB Matt Ryan to distribute the ball while the rest got stronger in the off-season. They traded up to draft WR Julio Jones, perhaps the most talked about player in training camp. Plus there's still TE Tony Gonzalez who at 34 has definitely lost a step but is still perhaps the greatest tight end of all time. The defensive unit stayed pretty much intact and adding DE Ray Edwards should improve the pass rush.

New Orleans Saints: With the memory of the Shithawk's Marshawn Lynch's Beast Mode wildcard game clinching run still fresh, the Saints hope to move on now that they've recovered from the Super Bowl hangover. The biggest difference between the '09 and '10 version of the Saints was turnovers; they went from plus-11 in turnover ratio to minus-6. Brees threw only 11 interceptions in 2009 but had a career-high 22 last season and the defense didn't create as many opportunities. To that end, the Saints added new blood via the draft and free agency on the defensive side of the ball. They waved goodbye to perennial underperformer Reggie Bush and welcomed RB Darren Sproles and 2nd round pick RB Mark Ingram to pick up the slack and then some in what is suddenly a crowded backfield along with Chris Ivory and Pierre Thomas.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Last years youngest team returns the league's hottest new triplet - QB Josh Freeman (25 TD passes versus only 6 ints), RB LaGarrette Blount (1,007 yards rushing in about half a season's work) and WR Mike Williams (team record 11 TD receptions) in the mold of Aikman, Smith and Irvin. They finished 10-6 last year and would have won the west handily, instead they barely missed out on the last wildcard spot to the eventual champion Packers. As they did last year, they invested their top two picks in the defensive line, hoping to get some kind of pass rush. When I started writing this post up a couple weeks or so ago, I originally had the Bucs finishing higher than the Saints but after seeing their offense sputter in the preseason, chickened out and swapped places with the Saints. We'll see if I need to remember that preseason doesn't mean anything.

Carolina Panthers: The Panthers look good to repeat as the #1 team - picking at next year's draft that is. For now of course, hope springs eternal and it's all about this year's #1 overall pick, Heisman Trophy winning QB Cam Newton out of Auburn. Coach John Fox is out, Ron Rivera is in and he's not inheriting the worst 2-14 team you could imagine. They've still got RBs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, getting older WR Steve Smith and brought in TE Greg Olsen so Newton will have weapons and a coach who's not afraid to use them like Fox. Anything should be better than last year - last in the NFL in passing offense yards (2,635), yards per attempt (5.4) and first downs (125), and the only team to post a single-digit touchdown total (9). Jon Beason is back, if banged up, after being re-signed in the offseason to lead the defense with a new coordinator, Sean McDermott tasked with turning around the 26th ranked unit. Things will have to go just run for the Panthers not to be in the running for the 2012 Andrew Luck Sweepstakes.

Veracious Vaticination (does that one make sense?) - Falcons 11-5; Saints 11-5; Buccaneers 10-6; Panthers 2-14

While the rookies will make a little less, the veterans will probably make a bit more. Minimum salaries will also be increased and the offseason got five weeks shorter, and easier as coaches cannot make players report to team facilities until late April. There will be four fewer organized team activities, fewer full-contact practices in the preseason and regular season and a lower limit to the amount of practice time and contact. Over the next 10 years, additional funding for retiree benefits of between $900 million and $1 billion. The largest single amount, $620 million, will be used for a new "Legacy Fund" which will be devoted to increasing pensions for pre-1993 retirees. Additionally, improvements will be made to post-career medical options, the disability plan, the 88 Plan, career transition and degree completion programs, and the Player Care Plan.

AFC East

New England Patriots: I hate Bill Belichick but you've gotta give him credit. His team keeps winning year in, year out and he keeps making great deals for players and draft picks. This year's projects are big. Literally. Among others he picked up 'Fat' Albert Haynseworth for a fifth-round draft choice after the Redskins gave him all the money he'll ever need and Chad Ochocinco for a fifth- and sixth-round pick from the Bengals. Albert has to show he still has desire and that his knees will hold up and Chad needs to get his head back in the game off of Twitter, but both only have upside and only cost draft picks that Belichick has stockpiledd over the years. Moving to a 4-3 defensive alignment will put Haynesworth next to Vince Wilfork, an immovable force. Two-time league MVP QB Tom Brady's numbers almost don't make sense, 36 TD passes versus only 4 interceptions last year. WR Wes Welker seems fully healthy coming into the year, both second year TEs Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez look to duplicate their rookie years and the backfield will be led by the law firm, BenJarvus Green-Ellis and spark plug Danny Woodhead. The Patriots will be in the Super Bowl.

New York Jets: Entering his third year as a pro, GQ QB Mark Sanchez is looking to play in his third AFC Championship game - and this time win. All the news is about Plaxico Burress, joining the teams via the Giants and a 20-month prison stint for shooting himself in a nightclub, but the big pickup is veteran WR Derrick Mason. Will Shonn Greene step up or will LaDainian Tomlinson have to carry the load at RB again? Look for Greene to emerge. They've got two great cover guys on the corners in Darrell Revis and Antonio Cromartie bud Ryan's schemes will have to cover for an otherwise general lack of speed on defense. Working most against them though - it doesn't help they've always gotta go through the Patriots.

Miami Dolphins: The Dolphins 7-9 finish last year was even worse than it looked. They were 1-7 at home and in five of those games they had the opportunity to win or tie a close game with a fourth-quarter scoring drive and failed. Three of their losses were to Buffalo, Detroit and Cleveland. The team took a shot at getting a new coach and QB but all they wound up with was Matt Moore, so looks like Tony Sparano's squad will be saddled with QB Chad Henne again. They upgraded their offensive line (first-round pick Pouncey was drawing favorable comparisons to his Steelers All-Pro twin brother, Maurkice) for Reggie Bush and rookie Daniel Thomas to run behind, replacing Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams at running back. WR Brandon Marshall’s off-field problems, which included the arrest of his wife after Marshall was found stabbed at his home in April, culminated with him being diagnosed and treated for borderline personality disorder this offseason. An 1-4 or 0-5 start against the likes of New England, San Diego, Houston and the Jets could bring out the boo birds and Matt Moore.

Buffalo Bills: Haven't the Bills moved to Toronto yet? I mean really, they've had a longer playoff drought than the war in Afghanistan, it's been a decade! The worst team against the run in 2010 lost their top two tacklers and so will need LB Shawne Merriman to come back and be the player he was for the Chargers. QB Ryan Fitzpatrick was actually decent last year helping WR Stevie Johnson to a huge year. The offensive line is a mess limiting the strong 1-2 RB tandem of Fred Jackson and CJ Spiller all of which make the Bills one of the Andrew Luck lottery entrants.

Hopeful Hunch - Patriots 12-4; Jets 11-5; Dolphins 6-10; Bills 4-12

So, what was it all for? Why the lockout, the drawn out negotiations. Oh yeah, the nearly $10 billion revenue pie to be divvied up between millionaire players and billionaire owners. So, who got more cash? Well, as usual, the math can be made up to support whichever side your arguing for or against. Heading into the lockout no one could even agree on the baseline revenue to use when determining the percentages allocated to each side. The owners' definition, and that of the old CBA of 'Total Revenue' was actually revenue minus certain expenses while the players based their claim on all the revenue. The new CBA states that beginning in 2012, a salary cap to be set based on a combined share of "all revenue", a new model differentiated by revenue source with no expense reductions (the old players measure). Players will receive 55% of national media revenue, 45% of NFL Ventures revenue, and 40% of local club revenue. For comparison, I had the players' share of "all revenue" at 50.6% in 2009. Wait that doesn't make sense, trying to update this before the game is pissing me off, I'll come back to it later. On with the show!

AFC North

Baltimore Ravens: Along with the Eagles and Colts, the Ravens are the only teams to have reached the playoffs the past three years. QB Joe Flacco has improved his numbers each of those years. Each year the expectation they take out the Steelers increases. This year, they do it. Ranking 10th on defense in the NFL would be an achievement with any other team outside of the Steelers, it was a disappointment in 2010 for Baltimore. First round pick CB Jimmy Smith starting opposite Cary Williams will help bring the defense back up to Ravens' standard. The pickup of the best FB in football, Vonta Leach, should help a weak offensive line open holes for RB Ray Rice to squirt through. He'll keep helping in the passing game too, since the start of 2008 Rice leads all NFL running backs in receptions, yards and receiving first downs. Rounding out the attack, WR Lee Evans was brought in to stretch the field and open up the middle for WR Anquain Boldin. Week 1 sets the tone for the year as they take on the ...

Pittsburgh Steelers: The Super Bowl curse and more off-season weirdness will force the Steelers from their perch atop the AFC North. The Steel Curtain and defense is what usually comes to mind when you talk about Pittsburgh (league leading 48 sackss last year) and though cracks are beginning to show, it should be more than solid once again. A lot hinges on safety Troy Polamalu, who suffered an Achilles injury late last year, returning to the same form that brought him the defensive player of the year award last year. Outside Polamalu, there's linebackers James Harrison and Lawrence Timmons who will vie for the same hardware this year, a solid line but an otherwise vulnerable secondary. The offense looks to have potential as Ben Rapeslisberger has a stable of young receivers at his disposal in speedster Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders (when healthy) and of course Hines Ward plus they've brought in Jerricho Cotchery. Tight end Heath Miller is always steady, as well while tailback Rashard Mendenhall has become one of the elite backs in the league. If they stay healthy they've always got a shot.

Cleveland Browns: You heard it here first - the gift of an easy schedule for the division will allow the Browns, yep, the Browns to be in playoff contention this year. Shrewd drafting and a raft of extra draft picks should put them in next year. Of course this hangs on the shoulders of 2nd year QB Colt McCoy but after being pushed into earlier than planned service last year, he gave Browns fans hope for the future. Pushed into service after injuries to Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace, McCoy made his debut against the Steelers, not a dream scenario for a rookie QB. While he lost that game, he showed enough to keep the job and went on the put up some decent stats, completing over 60% of his passes. RB Peyton Hillis turned in an even better season, battering defenses on his way to 1,177 yards on the ground on 4.4 ypc, 61 receptions and 13 total TDs. His bulldozer style leaves him susceptible to injury, it'll help if 2nd year back Monterio Hardesty can give him the odd breather. Wide receiver is wide open with rookie Greg Little the leading contender to be the guy. The new kickoff rule will hurt the Browns and dynamic returner Josh Cribbs. The new coach Pat Shurmur brings with him a new 4-3 defense which will see two rookies and another player with no career stats up front. But the schedule maker has been kind as they'll line up four times against teams from the NFC West so the Browns could in theory sneak into the playoffs. Could being the operative word.

Cincinnati Bengals: Saying goodbye to the diva WR tandem of Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens will be seen as a good move in the future but this year will be painful for the Bengals. Rookie A.J. Green (#4 overall pick) and Jerome Simpson could even be better, again in the future. Yep, the future, when rookie QB Andy Dalton is an improvement on the departed Carson Palmer. Thank dog for that soft schedule as it's gonna feel like that future is a long way off this year. RB Cedric Benson got out of jail in time for the regular season and will need to play well in new offensive coordinator Jay Gruden's run-first approach. The defense has been shuffled around, losing their best cornerback while picking up a few free agents to plug the holes. Watch for Rey Maualuga playing middle linebacker this year, his natural position. This team is in rebuilding mode, code for contenders in the Andrew Luck lottery.

Fearless Forecast: Ravens 12-4; Steelers 11-5; Browns 8-8; Bengals 5-11

A societal positive from having the new CBA and football this year besides the enjoyment of the game is that America dodged a serious crime wave. I'm not just talking about the bored, pissed off, disgruntled football fans suddenly with time on their hands and empty, traffic-less streets around stadiums to loot and pillage, jobless, nothing to do on Sundays. I'm talking about the players themselves, perhaps the most lawless group I can think of. When Ray Lewis says there's gonna be a crime wave, it's best we listen. Kenny Britt, Cedric Benson. Fortunately, they did and made a deal.

AFC South

Texas Texans: If we just keep picking the Texans to finally fulfill their potential and surpass the Colts we've gotta be right sometime, right? All the offensive weapons are back in place, QB Matt Schaub, breakout player of the year RB Arian Foster (1,616-yard season and rushing title) and all-world WR Andre Johnson should be buoyed by the full return to health of TE Owen Daniels who never came fully back last year after a season-ending torn ACL two years ago. Wade Phillips was brought in to make something of the disaster that was the Texas defense last year when teams passed on them at will. Free-agent cornerback Johnathan Joseph and free-agent safety Danieal Manning were brought in giving hope of an improvement from terrible to average. Switching from a 4-3 to a 3-4 look hinges on Mario Williams making the switch to an outside linebacker as his play could really open the field for LBs DeMeco Ryans and Brian Cushing to become tackling machines. They also need their first two draft picks J.J. Watt and Brooks Reed to come up big. Another huge opening Sunday battle against the Colts will go a long way in determining the AFC South winner, if it's not the Texans this year, big changes will come next season.

Indianapolis Colts: Rumors of a second neck operation (denied by the Colts) and a slow recovery has me spooked about Peyton Manning and without Peyton this is a very average team. OK, worse than average as their recently signed insurance policy is named Kerry Collins. Even before the surgery, Manning was human at times last year, if you call 450 of 679, 66.3%, 4700 yards, 33 TD's, 17 INT's human that is. TE Dallas Clark is back along with WRs Reggie Wayne, Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie (until his next concussion) but if it isn't Peyton throwing to them expectations take a big hit. RB Joseph Addai remains the workhouse but should face a challenge from rookie Delone Carter if he gets dinged again. Defense has always felt like an afterthought in Indy but the longer Peyton is out the more new additions Drake Nevis, Jamaal Anderson and Tommie Harris need to help the front be better as secondary depth is a big concern. Could the Colts be looking at a Cowboy-style meltdown as the Super Bowl hosts?

Jacksonville Jaguars: Mediocrity your name is the Jacksonville Jaguars. QB David Garrard epitomizes averageness for years, then has a bad practice and is released hours after being paraded across the stage at the team's kickoff auction and five days before the season opener. Suddenly, the teams QB is Luke McKnown. Yep, Luke, not Blaine. Feels like Jacksonville residents can look forward to a slew of home blackouts again this year. If you've heard of any of the WRs, you must live in Jacksonville. Yeah, RB Maurice Jones-Drew is really good and TE Marcedes Lewis almost has a cool name and caught 10 TDs last year but that's it. Name a defensive player. Yeah, I thought so. Tenth overall draft pick QB Blaine Gabbert should make his debut in Los Angeles next year for the good of the franchise and the league.

Tennessee Titans: The big news in the Titans training camp revolved around the signing of RB Chris Johnson, the leagues leading rusher over the past three years. Well, CJ2K signed a $53.5 million four-year extension with $30 million guaranteed. Unfortunately, they waited until just over a week before the games account to finally get it done, making a slow, careful start likely. After finishing in the division's basement losing eight of their last nine, the Titans fired Jeff Fisher and brought in Mike Munchak and got the eighth overall draft pick which they turned into QB Jake Locker having said goodbye to head case Vince Young. Wisely, they decided to bring in a veteran to groom the youngster and wait until he's ready. Unfortunately, that QB is Matt Hasselback. On the plus side WR Kenny Britt somehow avoided staying out of jail or even suspended despite having had four brushes with the law since last October but has had nagging hamstring issues and beyond TE Jared Cook the cupboard is pretty bare. The defense got bigger up front in the offseason but the secondary looks a little unsettled. They'll battle the Jags to stay out of the cellar.

Considered Conjecture - Texas Texans 11-5; Indianapolis Colts 9-7; Jacksonville Jaguars 5-11; Tennessee Titans 6-10

The biggest non-change to the CBA was sticking to the 16-game regular season. The owners put forward an 18-game proposal last year (along with a reduction in preseason games) in a blatant attempt to gain bargaining leverage. It was plain stupid in so many ways. While more real games would have meant more real money, it would also mean more real injuries and more real long term damage to players' health. Plus it would've forced the addition of even more asterisk marks to the record books as old standards would've fallen left and right. A  dark cloud on the horizon - the issue will be revisited in 2013.

AFC West

San Diego Chargers: All the pieces seem to be in place for the Chargers. Again. They added Takeo Spikes and Bob Sanders to the #1 defense in the NFL plus Corey Liuget, picked 18th overall in the draft. They lost RB Darren Sproles but will have bowling ball Mike Tobert and Ryan Matthews to tote the rock and WR Vincent Jackson and TE Antonio Gates for QB Philip Rivers to throw to all year for the returning #1 offense. Did I say they had the #1 offense and defense? Yep. Did they still manage to miss the playoffs. Yep. How the #@ck did that happen? Special teams that couldn't have qualified for the special olympics. The question of whether or not the special teams cost three games and the AFC West is debatable, but they were truly atrocious. I guess that make this the only place to mention a team getting a new special teams coordinator, hello Rich Bisaccia. No matter the cause, if the Chargers miss the playoffs again this year, Norv Turner will be looking for a job.

Kansas City Chief: Last year's surprise division winners brought in Steve Breaston and drafted Jon Baldwin in the 1st round to add a WR threat opposite Dwayne Bowe who took the big step forward last year. Baldwin proceeded to pick a locker-room fight with Thomas Jones and hurt his thumb meanin he probably won't contribute much early. It should be the Jamaal Charles show though, last year he was the NFL second leading rusher with 1,467 yards despite not even leading his team in carries, earning an unheard of 6.4 YPC. Unspectacular yet steady QB Matt Cassels is back but I just hope the offense figures out how the get RB/WR McDexter McCluster involved cause I love saying his name. On defense, AFC sack leader Tamba Hali was rewarded for his 14.5 sacks with a a five-year, $60 million deal with $35 million guaranteed. The Chiefs better jump out of the gate early as their late season schedule is brutal. From Weeks 11 to 15, Kansas City plays five 2010 playoff teams, including the four teams that went to the conference championship games: Green Bay, Chicago, Pittsburgh and the New York Jets. The other 2010 playoff team in that mix is New England. Ouch!

Oakland Raiders: The Hue Jackson era has begun. All hail Hue. Who the heck is Hue? Yeah, we must be talking about Al Davis' Raiders, always a mystery. Despite the slow but steady progress under Vince Cable that saw the Raiders post their first winning season since 2002 (maybe he beat up too many players) Jackson was elevated from offensive coordinator, but unfortunately the team lost more than it gained in the offseason. The Raiders managed to pull off a few victories last year they shouldn't have and will fall back to Earth behind QB Jason Campbell. RB Darren McFadden went from bust to brilliant exploding for 1,157 rushing yards and 10 total TDs but still has a penchant for getting hurt, missing much of training camp with a broken orbital lobe. They traded down at TE, bringing in Kevin Boss from the Giants for the departed Zach Miller. At WR, Jacoby Ford filled in admirably for always injured Darius Heyward-Bey and Louis Murphy and they also drafted speedster Denarius Moore, this year's training camp MVP (and a RB named Taiwan!) Losing shutdown corner Nandi Asomugha to the Eagles via free agency leaves a big whole on defense, though the defensive front of Richard Seymour, Tommy Kelly, Matt Shaughnessy and Lamarr Houston should do their part.

Denver Broncos: No playoffs since 2005. Sixth defensive coordinator in six years. What happened to the Broncos? Well, at least they got rid of Josh McDaniels and brought in John Fox giving the team a chance to return to normalcy. God boy Tim Tebow will continue to be a distraction but Kyle Orton will start the year at QB, a meaningless controversy diverting attention from the most pressing deficiency, the bottom ranked defense in the NFL. After all-world DB Champ Bailey there's a steep drop off in talent, they need Elvis Dumervil to regain his 2009 form and #2 overall draft pick LB Von Miller to step up. Fox loves to run, so don't expect the same numbers as last year for fantasy breakout star WR Brandon Lloyd. Instead, look for a heavy dose of RB Knowshon Moreno, who will of course break down at some point this year, and offseason acquisition Willis McGahee.

Pinpoint Prognosis - Chargers 12-4; Chiefs 9-7; Raiders 7-9; Broncos 5-11

Before getting down to the nitty-gritty of who's gonna take home Super Bowl XLVI, a few random darts at the end of the year awards. Coach of the year, I'll hedge my bets and say the Rams Steve Spagnulo or, if the Lions manage to get into the playoffs, Jim Schwartz. The offensive rookie of the year at this point looks like a toss up between Julio Jones and Mark Ingram (with A.J. Green a strong third). Give it to JJ. Defensive ROY seems to be Von Miller of the Broncos in a walk if you believe what you read. And league MVP? Smart money's always on a QB from a winning team so I'll take Aaron Rodgers as the safest bet, shading out Brady, Rivers and Vick.

The Playoffs

In the NFC, the divisional winners will be the Eagles, Packers, Falcons and Rams while both wildcard teams will come out of the South, the Saints and Bucs. The AFC lines up the Patriots, Ravens, Texans and Chargers as the divisional leaders with the Jets and Steelers getting in as wilcards. The road to Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis and Super Bowl XLVI will be going through Wisconsin and California but I'm going predict that the Atlanta Falcons will upset the cheese heads to represent the NFC while the New England Patriots will take out the Bolts in San Diego. And that February 5, 2012 game? Well, experience matters with the world watching so I'll take my chances with Tom Brady winning his fourth ring over Matt Ryan giving fans in Boston another duck boat victory parade.

Fancy Fantasy Flavour Fixings It's seems only fitting that in an America where fantasy politics, fantasy economics and fantasy wars dominate the lives of the populace that fantasy football has become as popular as the real thing. President Obama plays blame badminton with the likes of Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry, we play dumb to the funneling of the immense gains made over the past few decades to engorge the rich while starving the poor and kinetic military actions provide victories for Oceania. As long as we've got Aaron Rodgers, Adrian Peterson and Roddy White we should be okay week to week without worrying about our bench strength (good on you if you wound up with that triplet in your league) but not many teams or families have that luxury. The biggest victory I take out of the new collective bargaining agreement and thus the fact we'll be enjoying the NFL again tonight is the power of collectivism, here in Poland they would have called it Solidarity. The players held together despite decertification and Vincent Jackon and Logan Mankin. A New Hope, no, probably just the reality of greed, getting what they can now, but a Return of the Jedi at the very least.