Monday, September 3, 2012

Are They Ready For Some Football?

It's hard to believe that once upon a time, over fourteen years ago (also hard to believe), there was a controversy about which quarterback the Indianapolis Colts should take with their #1 draft choice: Peyton Manning or Ryan Leaf. Both were Heisman finalists the previous year finishing second and third respectively, Leaf led his Washington State Cougars to the Pac-10 championship, ending the Cougars 67-year Rose Bowl drought, while Manning led his Tennessee Volunteers to the SEC championship. They were both winners and the debates raged as to who would go first, the only certainty being that they would go #1 and #2. In order to move up from the third to the second pick in the draft and guarantee themselves either QB, the San Diego Chargers gave up their other 1st round pick and a second round pick for that year, its first round pick in 1999 plus Eric Metcalf and Patrick Sapp to the Arizona Cardinals.

The overwhelming consensus: Manning may have the more recognizable name, but Leaf clearly is the preferred quarterback among league executives. Fourteen of the 20 polled said they would draft Leaf over Manning, citing the Washington State quarterback's stronger arm, better mobility and more promising long-term prospect as a franchise-caliber player.
Well, we all know how things have turned out. Manning amassed as many NFL MVP awards during his 14-year career with the Indianapolis Colts as Ryan Leaf had victories in four years with the San Diego Chargers and Dallas Cowboys. That would be four. Leaf will be spending the next year locked down in Montana after being busted twice in four days a month before this year's draft for breaking into people's homes in search of prescription painkillers to feed his addiction, while Peyton Manning will be suiting up for a new team, the Denver Broncos. How Peyton performs with his new team after a year away from the sport and undergoing four operations to fuse his neck will be one of the most closely watched stories of the year. The biggest for me is how the #1 and #2 players chosen in this years draft perform, both quarterbacks once again (the fifth time it's happened following Plunkett-Manning (Peyton's dad, Archie), Bledsoe-Mirer, Manning-Leaf, and Couch-McNabb). Finding themselves with the #1 pick again this year, the Indianapolis Colts let Manning walk and once again drafted what they hope will be their franchise QB, Andrew Luck. In yet another parallel with that draft fourteen years ago, the Washington Redskins gave up their No. 6 overall pick along with their second round pick this year as well as their first-round picks in 2013 and 2014 to secure the St. Louis Rams' #2 pick and ensure themselves of drafting Robert Griffin III, RG3.

All told, five rookie QBs, Luck and RG3 along with the Dolphins' Ryan Tannehill, the Browns' Brandon Weeden and the Seahawks' Russell Wilson, are all slated to start for their teams to open the year. Five out of 32 teams doesn't seem so crazy until you consider that just 10 rookie quarterbacks have started in Week 1 over the last 10 years: Cam Newton and Andy Dalton in 2011, Sam Bradford in 2010, Matthew Stafford and Mark Sanchez in 2009, Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan in 2008, Kyle Orton in 2005, Kyle Boller in 2003 and David Carr in 2002. It's not random that the quarterbacks with the top five rookie yardage totals of all time are starting this year (Newton, Manning, Bradford, Ryan, Dalton), it's a trend. So the question becomes, what's happening here? The most repeated refrain is that top college programs are adopting more pro-style offenses, becoming more pass-oriented thus the QBs are coming into the league more prepared. Sure, I'll buy it along with the fact that the pro game has become more pass heavy too with more complicated offenses that demand a brain to go along with the big arm. Young guys also bring more mobility, an asset that Newton, Vick and Rodgers have proven the value of. Finally, it creates excitement in the fan base and gives the rookie signal-caller confidence.

I think the biggest factors, however, are the win-now-at-all-costs mindset that goes along with the owners' billion dollar investments and the short term thinking that comes with it. Something tells me a starting rookie QB's jerseys sell better than a starting 2nd year player's after a year on the bench. Plus, the last five coaches for the Redskins have averaged 2.2 years at the helm, 2.52 in Cleveland, 3.08 in Miami and 4 years in Seattle and Indianapolis. It's best for them to get the franchise quarterback reps in now, losing early rather than waiting til the following year with the rookie spending a year on the bench being mentored as was the NFL norm a decade ago. Surely those complicated offenses merit a little more study time, athleticism will only carry them so far. Luck and RG3 aside, the other three starting rookies have the scent of desperation about them. Once they're chosen to start, it's pretty much sink or swim; given the above mentioned  importance of confidence in quarterback performance, no coach worth their salt wants to run the risk of irreparably damaging their young quarterback's confidence by going back and forth between him and his backup during the season. A few names to remember as the season grinds on: JaMarcus Russell, J.P. Losman and Joey Harrington. With that let's get to the division predictions, starting with RG3's.

NFC East - Coin toss at the top

Philadelphia Eagles (12-4) - Dream team 2011 fooled everyone including me, so why not double down? I've got a sneaking suspicion they'll, well, sneak up on teams this year. After all most of the parts are still in place: If he can stay healthy QB Michael Vick may be the most dangerous player in sports, opening up running lanes for RB LeSean McCoy while WRs DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin are explosive with the ball. There's an equal amount of talent on defense and this year add in MLB DeMeco Ryans. 
New York Giants (11-5) - The offensive line and secondary will prevent the Giants from repeating as champs. QB Eli Manning will light it up again with WRs Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks while rookie RB David Wilson should give Ahmad Bradshaw the rest he needs to remain explosive. Defensively, Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora anchor the league's elite front four but the thinness at defensive back and the tough defending Super Bowl champion schedule allow the Eagles to take the division.
Dallas Cowboys (9-7) - Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, Miles Austin, DeMarco Murray and Jason Witten have what it takes to carry the team on paper but won't have it on the gridiron. Austin and Witten enter the season banged up, Murray needs to prove himself for a full year, Dez needs babysitters to keep him out of trouble and Romo, well, you know. Last season Romo threw 21 more touchdown passes than interceptions and had a 102.5 rating, better than Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning but he can't win a game when it matters. For his career, Romo is 19-2 in November, 9-18 after Dec. 1. DeMarcus Ware and Sean Lee will continue to carry the hit and miss Rob Ryan coached D.
Washington Redskins (5-11) - RG3 has the talent to be a superstar: a rocket-launcher, deadly accurate arm (72.4 completion rate in senior season at Baylor), ridiculous 4.41 speed and athleticism (39-inch vertical). There's some talent around him with TE Fred Davis and WR Santana Moss returning while Pierre Garcon was brought in to be the playmaking receiver. And maybe, just maybe, Shanahan's once famed RB touch will return to tame the four-headed monster looming in the Redskin backfield. The defense returns London Fletcher and Brian Orakpo but the secondary is too weak to be successful in the age of the quarterback.

NFC North - The best division in the NFL?

Green Bay Packers (13-3) - Coming off a 15-1 season and having won 21 of their last 23 including playoff, the league should tremble knowing the Pack needed to improve on defense, having finished last in the NFL. They did just that, spending their first six draft picks on that side of the ball. LB Nick Perry and DE Jerel Worthy were added to the roster with one purpose, rushing the passer. QB Aaron Rogers will continue to dominate: last year he threw 39 more TDs than interceptions and had a record 122.5 rating. TE Jermichael Finley is a beast while WRs Jordy Nelson and Greg Jennings are among the league's best combo. Strangely, I think picking up RB Cedric Benson from the free agency scrapheap could be their biggest move of the off-season.
Detroit Lions (10-6) - QB Matthew Stafford had the quietest 5,000 yard season ever thanks in large part to the best WR in football, Calvin Johnson. Over his last four games last season including the playoffs, he had 36 catches for 771 yards and six touchdowns. Megatron returns along with sophomore sensation Titus Young, but question marks in the backfield abound with Jahvid Best hurt and Mikel Leshoure suspended, it looks like a banged up Kevin Smith will start. On defense, the cornerback play needs to improve and the group needs to grow together and mature (hello Ndamukong Suh). It's been a steady build for the Lions and they return 21 of 22 starters from last year as a team built for speed plays all of it's games but one in domes, warm weather cities or cold ones before Halloween. Speaking of evil spirits, did you know the Lions threw the ball 666 times last year?
Chicago Bears (10-6) - Oddly, this edition of the Bears will be stronger on the offensive side of the ball than the defensive. If WR Brandon Marshall can keep his head together, bringing him in to play with his former Bronco QB Jay Cutler may prove to be the biggest acquisition of the NFL off-season. He could easily lead the league in receptions, especially if rookie Alshon Jeffery pans out on the other side to take the pressure off and allow Devin Hester to focus on returning kicks. RB Michael Bush was brought in to help keep newly minted RB Matt Forte fresh. Brian Urlacher seems to be rushing back (or the team's rushing him back) for the start of the year telling me the defense needs the help.
 Minnesota Vikings (6-10) - The biggest question in the Twin Cities isn't whether the roof will fall down again but if RB Adrian Peterson's knee has fully healed from a season ending ACL injury and surgery last year. A second receiver to go along with Percy 'Migraine' Harvin for 2nd year QB Christian Ponder to throw to would be a great help, as of now TE Kyle Rudolph is his only other legitimate option. It feels like they're getting old on the defensive side of the ball but last year they were first in the NFL in sacks with 50, and had the league's top sack artist, Jared Allen, with 22.

NFC South -Who dat don't need no head coach

New Orleans Saints (10-6) - Another of the league's elite QBs, Drew Brees is another guy coming off a 5,000 yard season. Brees not only set the single-season passing record but the Saints finished first in points, yards gained, yards per play and first downs, plus compiled a hard-to-believe 57% third-down conversion rate. There's still lots of playmakers around him like single-season all-purpose yardage record holder Darren Sproles along with Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas in the backfield, TE Jimmy Graham and WRs Marques Colston and Lance Moore. Defensively, with less incentive, well maybe at least they'll blitz a little less this year so getting top production from second-year pass-rusher Cameron Jordan will be huge. Now, if only they had a coach...
Atlanta Falcons (9-7) - The Falcons are going to open up their offense this year!  They're going to use lots of 3 WR sets and QB Matt Ryan's going to be let loose! Um, weren't we hearing the same thing last year? Yep. Granted, they've got the best 1-2 WR combo in the league in Roddy White and Julio Jones, so you never know. RB Michael Turner is on the wrong side of too many carries but look for Jacquizz Rodgers to pick up the slack. If they can squeeze one more year of production outta TE Tony Gonzalez they could be playoff bound provided the hole left at MLB by Curtis Lofton's departure is compensated for by DB Asante Samuel's arrival. Falcons coach Mike Smith is 43-21 in the regular season, 0-3 in the playoffs.
Carolina Panthers (8-8) - Pegged to be awful last year, again, the franchise was saved by QB Cam Newton who came flying outta the gate and took the league by storm, amassing 4,784 yards of total offense and 35 touchdowns passing and running. He even caught a pass for a first down. Yet, by the final six games of the season teams seemed to have adjusted to his strength and speed. His development, along with another solid year out of WR Steve Smith and productive years from RBs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart are key. Defense was poor overall, and allowed an NFC-worst 143 points in the fourth quarter. New head coach Ron Rivera is a former defensive coordinator, if he can shore up the D, the Falcons and Saints could have competition.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-11) - The biggest disappointment in the league for me last year as QB Josh Freeman fell to earth in his third year, with interceptions coming back like a bad rash (INT % over 3 years - 6.2, 1.3, 4.0, oops). They did add WR Vincent Jackson and TE Dallas Clark as well as drafting RB Doug Martin to run through holes in an upgraded line that added guard Carl Nicks and shifted Jeremy Zuttah to center full-time, but I'm not buying the Bucs this year.

NFC West - Yeah! We finally had a team with a winning record!

San Francisco 49ers (10-6) - This un-sexy, field position, mistake-avoiding team seems to be many experts' sexy pick this year. Why not coming off a 13-3 season? Well, they led the league in field goal attempts, meaning they have trouble finishing off drives; they benefited from leading the league in turnover differential last year, statistically they shouldn't repeat the feat; they've got a gang of me-first malcontent WRs which include Randy Moss and Michael Crabtree. Oh, and over the year they play against the top 5 QBs from last year, Rogers, E. Manning, Brees, Brady and Stafford. But, they'll still win this shitty division as their defense and head coach are all-round great. (Full disclosure Niner fans: I've never forgiven this team for The Catch).
Seattle Seahawks (7-9) - Coach Pete Carroll's decision to name rookie QB Russell Wilson the starter after the team gave Matt Flynn a 3-year $26 million deal with $10 million guaranteed to be the next Matt Hasselbeck after one great game for the Packers and releasing Tavaris Jackson was surprising. Surprisingly good based on their preseason performances. So what if he's only 5'11'',Wilson was electric. Maybe WRs Sidney Rice gets healthy and Braylon Edwards finds another good year in the tank and RB Marshawn Lynch finds beast mode again. And maybe rookie MLB Bobby Wagner is ready to run the defense. More likely, the Shithawks win at home and lose on the road.
St. Louis Rams (4-12) - Jeff Fisher takes over a team that has gone 27-80 since '05. The team took a big step backwards last year along with sophomore QB Sam Bradford after a rookie of the year award. The Rams went 2-14, were outscored more than 2-to-1 and had five losses of more than three touchdowns. Getting rid of offensive coordinator Josh 'I once traded up to take Tim Tebow in the draft' McDaniels was the best move they could have made. They've still got perennial 1,000 yard rusher Steven Jackson and, um, I don't know who else they have. Fisher giving up RG3 in favor of the boatload of draft picks seems like it was the right move as they need help everywhere.
Arizona Cardinals (2-14) - Um, this team could be really bad. John Skelton starting of Kevin Kolb at QB with only WR Larry Fitzgerald to throw to and some banged up RBs to hand it to. They do have Patrick Peterson returning kicks which should make some of their games watchable. Defensively, I don't even care. They'll compete with the Browns and Dolphins for the #1 pick in 2013.

Wild Card Teams - Lions, Giants
Division Winners - Eagles, Packers, 49ers, Saints

As usual, the NFL kept the police blotter filled this past offseason but it was a scandal of another variety, the New Orleans Saints 'bounty scandal', that grabbed most of the headlines. An investigation revealed that between 22 and 27 defensive players on the New Orleans Saints, as well as at least one assistant coach, Gregg "Kill the head, the body will die" Williams, maintained a bounty program that paid players to injure opponents. There were larger rewards for bigger hits, with 'kill shots', those that knocked opposing teams' stars out of games, being the highest paid. It was funded from a pool of money the players themselves paid into when fined for various team violations. No wonder the league dished out such severe penalties, the scandal couldn't have come at a worse time for football following as it does on the heals of the Penn State atrocity and worse yet, the existential crisis at the heart of the love of the game itself. Four players received some kind of suspension, including Jonathon Vilma, out for a year without pay while now-former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was suspended indefinitely, General Manager Mickey Loomis was suspended for half a season and defensive assistant Joe Vitt for six games. The Saints were also fined $500,000 and were stripped of a pair of second-round draft choices. Oh, and head coach Sean Payton is also gone for a whole year.

Coming as it did at a time when even the NFL has had to come clean due to overwhelming evidence of the destructive nature of the game on the health of its players, many fans should be examining their consciences. Why do we love the game? Violence. It's the demand for bigger, faster, stronger that is making the game more dangerous if anything even though the Collective Bargaining Agreement supposedly promotes player safety, competitive integrity, and contract fairness. This scandal simply underscores the dangers of hard hits, long term injury, brain trauma, and all too often, early death. Three letters could ultimately spell the end of football, at least as we know it, as lawsuits pile up and young people simply decide the risks too great, or their NFL star parents decide it for them. CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, was known as Dementia pugilistica or punch drunkenness as far back as 1928 and is the result of concussive blows to the head, whether received in the ring, on the gridiron or on the battlefield. Remember, it was less than a generation ago that boxing was still known as the sweet science, anyone know any of the champions today?

As more is being learned, the NFL is reacting (these days at least) but they're always a few steps behind. Examples have been the attempt to crack down on head-to-head hits, hits on defenseless players and preventing players continuing to play after sustaining a concussion, a little late for all the guys who did up til then. Worse yet, with discoveries pointing to CTE developing in cases with no concussion history but as a result of many sub-concussive blows, though the last CBA between the players and the owners limits the number of padded practices, an average player still receives 1,000 to 1,500 such knocks a year. Pop Warner football, which registered more than 285,000 children ages 5 to 15 to play in 2011, now bans head-to-head hits and limits contact in practice to 40 minutes a day.

The disease has been found in the brains of 18-year-olds and 21-year-old college football sophomores who never suffered a concussion. In the latter case, Owen Thomas committed suicide. Coupled with the shock suicide of former star Junior Seau and the rash of other ex-players taking their lives, suddenly it's not just quality of life questions former players are facing nor that they die younger but that they're doing it to themselves and maybe it's football making them do it. As the disease advances the hippocampus, essential for learning and memory, is attacked while the amygdala, which governs aggressiveness and rage, is assaulted. Symptoms multiply and intensify: headaches, depression, insomnia, anxiety; loss of impulse control, executive function, and emotional regulation; tremors, vertigo, slurred speech and a staggered gait; and finally dementia. Thinking of all the stories about reckless, homeless, abusive players, drug addiction and suicide, one has to wonder how much is attributable to brain disease and how much to the corrosive effect of celebrity and entitlement on a particular personality structure?

AFC East - Pats look to make it 9 of 10

New England Patriots (12-4) - Adding WR Brandon Lloyd to QB Tom Brady's arsenal (TEs Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski and WR Wes Walker) is the story on offense here. Can you say 5,000 yards and 40 TDs through the air without trying? Running back, they'll find someone, Stevan Ridley gets the first shot, but the big question is whether the offensive line will hold up without Matt Light. Crazy stat - In their 2007 and 2011 Super Bowl seasons, the Patriots were 1-3 versus the Giants and 32-2 versus all other teams.
Buffalo Bills (9-7) - The Bills should easily pass the Jets, especially if QB Ryan Fitzpatrick plays like he did in the first four games last year. WR Steve Johnson is pretty good as is the RB combo of Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller. Previously not known as a free agent destination, the bills splashed out $100 million to snag DE Mario Williams and also picked up Mark Anderson to rush the QB from the other side, suddenly turning a negative, a weak pass rush, into a positive.
New York Jets (6-10) - With all the hype around the acquisition of QB Tim Tebow in Tinseltown you'd think it was the second coming of the Messiah, er, yeah, well, he's not. He should serve as just enough of a distraction to keep the offense out of sync and the tabloids out of ink as the Jets crash and burn. WR Santonio Holmes is their #1 threat and RB Shonn Greene has gone from rookie playoff afterburner to average plodder in two short years. The defense, however, is still quite strong and should keep them in quite a few low-scoring games.
Miami Dolphins (2-14) - There's big trouble in Miami. The Matt Moore supporters could be out by game three, not a good thing for a rookie QB's confidence, but that's the position first-year coach Joe Philbin may have put Ryan Tannehill if losses to the Texans and Raiders materialize and if they fall behind to the Jets in their first three games. WR Chad Johnson-Ochocino-Johnson was cut after beating his wife leaving Tannehill with a starting WR duo of Davone Bess and Legedu Naanee. Yike. Defenses will be able to focus on RB Reggie Bush, so he'll be hurt by week six and a middling defense won't be able to prevent a downward spiral towards the #1 draft pick in 2013.

AFC North - It's cold up here

Baltimore Ravens (12-4) - Ray Rice is the best running back in the league. Period. WR Torrey Smith will become a star if QB Joe Flacco shows off his big arm hitting him and Anquin Boldin. The defense might not be quite as dominating as every other year with the departure of Jarret Johnson, the 2011 defensive player of the year Terrell Suggs being gone til mid-season with injury and the fact that Ray Lewis must be 50 by now.
Pittsburgh Steelers (9-7) - QB Ben Roesthlisberger avoided motorcycle accidents and raping anyone in the off-season but the Steelers have more question marks than usual this year. Can RB Chris Redman fill Rashard Mendenhall's shoes? How long will it take Mike Wallace to get into game shape after his long hold out to open things up for WR Antonio Brown. Can the offensive line hold it together after losing their top two draft picks to injury? When will LB James Harrison and OL David DeCastro get healthy? More questions than normal in Steeltown.
Cincinnati Bengals (9-7) - Seem to be another one of those teams people are picking to go places this year after the brilliant rookie campaigns of QB Andy Dalton and WR A.J. Greene. With TE Jermaine Gresham back healthy and if the law firm, RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis, can bring over a chunk of the 24 TDs he scored for the Patriots the last two years (more than Jones Drew or Rice, second to Adrian Foster's 26 over that time) they might not be wrong. It was the defense, however, that carried the team to a surprising playoff birth and the team bolstered the weak spot, defensive backs, during the off season.
Cleveland Browns (3-13) - How is it that some teams always seem to be rebuilding? The Browns may have a rookie quarterback, running back, wide receiver, right tackle and defensive tackle in starting roles on opening day. Two first-rounders, 28-year-old rookie Brandon Weeden and wonky-kneed Trent Richardson along with Josh Gordon, Mitchell Schwartz and John Hughes all need to perform to give the Browns even a shot at respectability. Truck-stop magnate Jimmy Haslam III's billion dollar investment most likely won't pay too big a dividend this year.

AFC South - Yeehaw!

Houston Texans (11-5) - The only thing that can get in the Texans path to the Super Bowl is a run of injuries similar to last year. When QB Matt Schaub and All-World WR Andre Johnson went down, so went their chances last year. Now healthy, they'll team with RBs Adrian Foster and Ben Tate to make the offense hum. Losing Mario Williams to free agency would crush most defenses but the Texans have tons of talent to fill the gap from JJ Watt to Johnathan Joseph.
Tennessee Titans (8-8) - Naming Jake Locker the starting QB was the right move but he needs WR Kenny Britt to stay out of jail, or at least out of the commissioner's office. Combined with a return to the form that made RB Chris Johnson CJ2K before he got a big head and held out and ruined his last season will make this team competitive. They'll need it as their first six games are vs. New England, at San Diego, vs. Detroit, at Houston, at Minnesota and vs. Pittsburgh. Yike! 1-5 starts aren't good for reaching the playoffs.
Indianapolis Colts (6-10) - The Andrew Luck era has begun. In addition to Peyton Manning moving on, the Colts cleaned house at the top, president Bill Polian, general manager Chris Polian and coach Jim Caldwell are all gone. Sure there's still WRs Reggie Wayne and Austin Collie, but the team's success now, and probably for the next decade, hinges on the rookie quarterback out of Stanford. RB Donald Brown showed flashes last year and Luck brought along his favourite college target TE Coby Fleener. On defense the Colts still have the pass-rush duo of Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, though coming now as outside linebackers in the new 3-4, and upgraded their secondary by picking up Vontae Davis in a trade with Miami.
Jacksonville Jaguars (4-12) - The Jags drafted WR Justin Blackmon hoping to give 2nd year QB Blaine Gabbert someone to throw to as there wasn't anyone last year. He sucked, but it wasn't all his fault. If RB Maurice Jones-Drew's holdout drags into the season as it appears it may, locked in a battle of wills with new owner Shahid Khan, they'll need Rashad Jennings to step up in a big way (update - MJD is back, but won't start week 1). No player accounted for more of his team's offense last year than MJD, he rushed for a league-high 1,606 yards and scored 11 of the team's 21 touchdowns. The defense is actually above average, so hopefully this year some fans will come out and watch.

AFC West - Peyton's (New) Place

Kansas City Chiefs (9-7) - Probably stung more by injuries than any team last year and they're getting bit again this year on defense. If RB Jamaal Charles is all the way back from his torn ACL and Peyton Hillis is over the Madden-curse, the Chiefs will have the best 1-2 punch in the league. TE Tony Moeki should also be back from the same surgery to give QB Matt Cassel another target to go with WR Dwayne Bowe and breakout candidate Jon Baldwin. The healthy return of the third member of the torn ACL club, S Eric Berry, should paper over some depth problems on defense.
Denver Broncos (8-8) - Along with the rookie QBs, Peyton Manning changing mounts from the Colts to the Broncos is the biggest story of the year. Will he regain the magic? Can he win outdoors? Will his head fall off? WRs Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas are the biggest beneficiaries of the QB upgrade from Tebow plus he brought along a TE from the Colts, Jacob Tamme. RB Willis McGahee should garner the lion's share of the carries with Knowshon Moreno out and rookie Ronnie Hillman a bit raw. Pro Bowlers Von Miller (defensive rookie of the year) and Elvis Dumervil return to terrorize opposition QBs.
San Diego Chargers (8-8) - I don't know what to make of the Chargers, but I don't trust them. QB Phillip Rivers is coming off an awful year in which he led the league in turnovers with 25, they lost their #1 WR with no clear replacement and their starting RB broke his collarbone on his first carry of the preseason. On the upside, TE Antonio Gates seems fully healthy for the first time in years, there's a bunch of candidates to catch the rest of the balls and RB Ryan Matthews promises to be back in time for the season opener. The defense should be better too after spending their first three draft picks on D. Head coach Norv Turner is on the proverbial hot seat and might be gone next year or earlier.
Oakland Raiders (6-10)- Another head coach (Dennis Allen), no more Al Davis and Carson Palmer at QB. Things are never boring with the silver and black and this year is no exception. There's never a shortage of fast, talented receivers just waiting to break out. This year's Denarius Moore is Rod Streater while Darius Heyward-Bey and Jacoby Ford are also still around after showing flashes of ability. The team's success, however, rests on the somewhat fragile health of RB Darren McFadden, no sure thing. Defensive tackle Tommy Kelly leads a tough defense.

Wild Card Teams - Steelers, Bills
Division Winners - Patriots, Ravens, Chiefs and Texans

A final dark note before the season kicks off on Wednesday (seriously? Wednesday?). Last year the NFL brought us their version of the class war as they locked the players out threatening the start of the season. It was the 1% (the players) versus the 0.01% (the owners), the millionaires versus the billionaires. Well, never satisfied, the owners have decided in their wisdom to try to more closely imitate real life and take on the 99%. Seeing the success being had in convincing the masses that more of their wealth should be transferred to the rich, the owners have locked out the referees hoping to extract an extra $16.5 million over the next five years. They probably thought they'd get away with it too, after all, everybody loves to hate the refs. The problem with the plan though is that every game needs rules and in football someone needs to apply them quickly and efficiently. The NFL's plan is to use replacement referees, in another time they'd have been known as scabs. Mimicking the rest of America, where workers losing their jobs to outsourcing are asked to train their Chinese replacements, the NFL asked their officiating trainers (mostly retired refs) to train the scab refs, literally asking them to screw their former colleagues. They refused and were promptly fired by the league.

The league has announced that replacement refs will be officiating games week one of the regular season after having a few preseason games to get used to the NFL after working high school games and the lingerie football league. The spin the league wants fans to hear is that being a ref is nothing but a part-time job with no particular skill, and their desire to add three additional crews is simply to reduce stress and that they've offered a pay raise for the average ref from $149,000 to $189,000 by 2018 putting them in the ranks of the 1%. It's hard to know where to begin. How about the replacement ref's performance in the preseason? They've been variously called 'clueless', 'horrible' and 'overmatched by players, compared to the Three Stooges by coaches and "embarrassing" by Sports Illustrated's Peter King and even screwed up a call so bad it changed the final result of a game. ESPN's Mike Greenberg tweeted that "NFL pretending replacement refs are no big deal is frustrating. Anyone can see a difference." When it comes to money, once again as in last year's player lockout, it's all about semantics as both sides try to compare apples to oranges while the league tries to pull a fast one behind the curtain.

Not only is the league planning on adding more refs, they want them to become full-time employees. The reported pay increase is nothing but a made up number as the league's proposal doesn't contain a salary schedule but instead 'aggregate game fees'. With an increase in the number of refs, this means many veterans will actually see a pay decrease, when coupled with the loss of income from giving up their other jobs, well, you get the idea. Oh, the league also plans on terminating their pensions and converting them into 401(k)s. Bringing in a bevy of rookie refs brings up the most important aspect of having replacements ref games: player safety. Beyond the obvious problem of players trying to take liberties knowing they'll get away with them and the uncertainty that comes with the inconsistency of calls made by inexperienced refs, the biggest issue goes back to those same three letters mentioned way back when, CTE. How can you expect refs who can't even spot the ball or need five minutes to decide how to make a call to be able to spot concussion symptoms? The past few years has seen the league begin to recognize the long-term health danger of head trauma with rule changes, suspensions and the like. Given this acknowledgement, the research in the field and, perhaps most threateningly, the lawsuit launched by over 2,000 former players alleging the NFL failed to acknowledge and address neurological risks associated with the sport, the league's lockout seems more than a little ill-advised, in fact, it's just plain dumb.

Regardless, we'll always find about half the calls the refs make completely insane and even jaded fans like me will be watching the games. Bones and records will be broken while we scream obscenities at the refs just like any other year. The $10 billion and growing Goliath will continue to dominate American sports, how can it not in all it's gladiator glory at this stage in the decline of the American empire? Football's had these crises before and it's been worse. After the 1905 college football season, a year that saw 150 players seriously hurt and another 18 killed on the field, President Theodore Roosevelt had to intervene to propose rule changes to curtail the carnage and save the sport. A spectacle will be put on before the public on more and more days of the week to suck as much TV revenue as possible out of the panis et circenses pie. When the 32 teams voted on the collective bargaining agreement reached last year between the league and players, 31 voted in favor while the Steelers were the lone voice of dissent. Their reason being they felt it didn't properly address the league's system of fines, on and off the field and gave the NFL commissioner far too much dictatorial power. Roger Goodall has taken this power and become judge, jury and executioner, only time will tell if his reign will be good for football. Oh, and February 3, 2013 the Lions will be playing the Texans in Super Bowl XLVII in the Superdome, er, I mean Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleas when CBS will be charging a new record of $4 million for 30 second commercials. Wouldn't that be perfect? A dying city against a dying state. Yeehaw!