Ten Early Story Lines For 2011 NFL Season


1. Is Cam Newton for real? One year ago, Newton was a name known by few people outside of the South. Essentially kicked out of school at Florida, he spent a year at Blinn College in Texas before landing at Auburn, where he was expected, at best, to improve the team by a game or two from the previous season. As it turned out, he led the Tigers to their first national title since 1957, demonstrating all of the leadership skills coveted by NFL franchises. Debate persists as to whether it was wise for the Panthers to select him with the No. 1 overall pick, as his skills are raw and they selected quarterback Jimmy Clausen in the first round in 2010. But Newton has impressed thus far, even eliciting a “wow” response from new coach Ron Rivera when he was asked of his impression of the rookie. It remains a possibility that he could start in week one.

2. Can Jason Garrett and Rob Ryan revive the Cowboys? Upon being named the Cowboys’ offensive coordinator in 2007, Garrett improved the unit to second in the league, becoming one of the hottest head coaching prospects. The Cowboys managed to keep the poachers at bay, and it appeared to pay dividends in 2010 when he guided the team to a 5-3 finish after a 1-7 start under Wade Phillips. During the offseason, he tasked Rob Ryan with improving a defense that surrendered the second-most points in the league last season. Confidence has already risen, as evidenced by Ryan’s comments seemingly directed at the Eagles: “I don’t know if we win the all-hype team. I think that might have gone to somebody else, but we’re going to beat their ass when we play them.”

3. Will the Eagles’ big offseason result in a big season? That hype has come with additions of Nnamdi Asomugha, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Jason Babin, Cullen Jenkins and Ronnie Brown. Before their active offseason, the Eagles were already favored to win the NFC East — now they’re drawing comparisons to the Miami Heat and the Dream Team, the latter of which was made by new backup quarterback Vince Young. Meeting immense expectations, especially those you have for yourself, can be extraordinarily difficult. Just ask the 2000 Redskins.

4. Will the Jets actually follow through on Rex Ryan’s guarantee? On multiple occasions, Rex Ryan has predicted a Jets’ Super Bowl victory. Last May, in a display of unity, Bart Scott backed his coach by saying the Jets would be a “joke” by not following through on the latest guarantee. Such confidence is why they rarely lack swagger and intensity, which makes them one of the most captivating teams to watch in the league. Their reputation has been forged with stingy defense — last season, it ranked third in the league in yards allowed per game — but the offense wasn’t bad either, tallying the fourth-most rushing yards per game in the league. The continued development of Mark Sanchez and the passing game could prevent Ryan from looking like a “joke.”

5. Will the Patriots’ new veterans propel the team to the Super Bowl? Attempting to keep up with their division rival, the Patriots have added a few big names. Bill Belichick is now faced with maximizing the contributions of Chad Ochocinco, Albert Haynesworth and Shaun Ellis in an effort to reverse his team’s recent playoff misfortunes. Ellis, who always performed well against the Pats, was selected by the Jets in the first round of the 2000 draft with the pick they were awarded when Belichick left for the Pats. The obstacles of age and attitude haven’t slowed the coach in the past, and he figures to have his latest assemblage of characters competing for a deep playoff run.

6. Will Peyton Manning finally succumb to injury? In 13 NFL seasons, Manning has never missed a game and has only missed one snap due to injury, a remarkable feat for arguably the best quarterback of his era. Now at age 35, rebounding from a second neck surgery, there’s doubt as to whether he’ll last an entire season. Backup quarterback Curtis Painter has been running the first team offense in training camp, allowing Manning to fully recuperate. On the heels of inking a five-year, $90 million contract, Manning will undoubtedly be motivated to justify the deal. But the question remains: will he get the help he needs on offense? A setback or lack of progression could enable the Texans or Jaguars to capture their first AFC South title.

7. Can Kevin Kolb shine as a consistent starter? The surprising reemergence of Michael Vick made Kolb expendable, prompting the Eagles to find him a new home in Arizona. Exchanged for Rodgers-Cromartie and a second-round pick, his arrival makes the Cardinals contenders in the weak NFC West despite the fact that he’s only started seven games in his career. A Super Bowl team three seasons ago under the guidance of Kurt Warner, the Cardinals’ offense has sputtered, falling from the one of the best in the league in yards per game in 2008 to the second-worst in 2010. Ideally, the Kolb and Fitzgerald tandem will anchor the offense for the next several years.

8. Will Tim Tebow get a shot? Grins of astonishment from NFL brass followed the surprise selection of Tebow in the first round of the 2010 draft. However, his performance as a starter in three games at the end of last season under interim head coach Eric Studesville caught many by surprise, as he showed promise throwing and running the ball. Kyle Orton remains the favorite to win the starting gig heading into the season, but Tebow still has the opportunity secure it as his own — if he can continue to overcome the naysayers. Recently, Merril Hoge lambasted him on Twitter, writing that “It’s embarrassing to think the broncos could win with tebow.” That evoked a response from LeBron James, who in turn tweeted “Tim Tebow will succeed in the NFL.” There are some believers.

9. Which new teams will make playoff runs? Last season, the upstart Bucs narrowly missed the playoffs in the difficult NFC South. Josh Freeman elevated his game, tossing more than 3,000 yards, 23 touchdowns and just six interceptions. His growth, along with the emergence of LeGarrette Blount, could help the team secure a Wild Card berth. The Lions are a sexy pick with Suh and Stafford leading their defense and offense, but the injuries of rookie defensive tackle Nick Fairley and rookie running back Mikel Leshoure, who’ll miss the season with a torn Achilles tendon, are disconcerting. The Texans improved their defense by hiring Wade Phillips as the new coordinator, focusing their draft on pass rushers, and then signing Johnathan Joseph and Danieal Manning to bolster their historically ineffective secondary. The Cardinals, as previously mentioned, now have a competent quarterback to potentially take advantage of a weak division.

10. Who will win the Andrew Luck sweepstakes? Already dubbed the best quarterback prospect in a decade by many experts, Luck has general managers of bad teams salivating for next year’s No. 1 pick. Of course, had Luck declared for the 2011 draft, it’s likely that he would be the Panthers’ starting quarterback in week one. A Heisman runner-up and Pac-10 All-Academic second team selection, Luck is considered the entire package, boasting brains, brawn and the lineage — his father, Oliver, played four season for the Houston Oilers. Come late season, the worst teams in the league will be vying for the worst record and a chance to secure the Peyton Manning-like franchise-changer.

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