With the days ticking down to the start of another NFL season we preview five of the most intriguing storylines to watch for once the action gets underway.
Can Chip Kelly’s Offence Translate to NFL Success?
At Oregon Chip Kelly built a highly productive program, eye-catchingly capped off by a brand of offence that became one of the most prolific in NCAA history.
The Oregon Ducks’ high tempo style, elaborate schemes and smart play-calling showcased in Kelly an imaginative football mind which in turn made him the NFL’s hottest commodity this past off-season, sought after by any franchise bogged down enough to be looking for a fresh approach and a way to reenergise, along with their post-season prospects, a tired fan base.
Enter the Philadelphia Eagles, fresh off a 4-12 year in which long-time head coach, Andy Reid, failed to cajole his high priced stable of stars into a unit capable of avoiding turnovers, or indeed the kind of mental mistakes (especially on defence) that would keep the ‘L’ column of the Eagles win-loss record shifting discomfortingly north throughout the year.
That, along with the Castillo debacle (moving your offensive-line coach to defensive coordinator is not the kind of call that’s allowed to not work), meant that by mid-season commentators were already speculating on who would be Reid’s successor.
Of course, NFL history is littered with talented college coaches that failed to make the grade when stepping up to the big leagues – Steve Spurrier, Nick Saban and Bobby Petrino (the less said the better) to name but a few.
What will be intriguing about Kelly is that his transition won’t just measure whether he can adjust, but whether too the unique style of offence he pioneered at Oregon is translatable to the NFL. If so, it will mean exciting times as franchises around the league seek to adopt the same high-octane, high-scoring, 100-snap-a-game approach.
If not, Kelly will join the long line of failed college coaching prodigies quicker than you can say ‘Bob Petrino rides a Harley’. Which of course leads us on to…
Has Michael Vick Finally Found an Offence to Suit Him?
Let’s be honest. How to solve a problem like Michael Vick has been the perennial question since his entry into the league 11 seasons ago. And has, for the most part, stumped every QB coach and offensive coordinator who’s ever attempted an answer (with perhaps only Marty Mornhinweg, though for only one season, able to claim to have found a way to properly harness Vick’s special skill-set).
With reports of Vick, at the less than spritely age of 33, still able to outrun even the quickest of the quick, the preternatural physical tools that drew the Atlanta Falcons to make him the No.1 overall pick in the 2001 draft would appear, even now, to remain above doubt.
What has remained questionable throughout Vick’s career is whether those tools can be rightly utilised at the quarterback position, a query now being answered by a series of young and similarly nimble signal-callers who’ve entered the league in recent years (Robert Griffin III, Cam Newton, Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick).
With so many athletic quarterbacks emerging with the cerebral talents and work ethic required for the position, it would appear only a matter of time before a ‘running QB’ finally lifts that famed Lombardi trophy and settles the argument once and for all.
The question is whether Vick - now newly ensconced as the starter in Chip Kelly’s read-option offence, and enjoying an impressively efficient pre-season in that scheme - will finally be the one to do it and make his ridiculous physical talents count in the only NFL currency that really matters? Time will tell.
Will RG3 Stay Healthy?
Speaking of speedy signal callers, the health and pre-season playing time of one Robert Griffin III is becoming a saga to rival anything George Lucas’ ample imagination might conjure up. With even the player’s father chiming in on how many minutes his son ought to be granted to aptly prepare for the season ahead.
The attention will be something Griffin’s growing accustomed to, the result of a historic rookie year in which he achieved a QB rating of 102.4, the most efficient by a first year quarterback since they started keeping records. It’s this remarkable level of productivity that has engendered an affection from the Washington Redskins fans like nothing since Vick himself
first landed in Atlanta (some even bought wedding pressies for Griffin and his fiancé when they married in the summer, having managed to somehow discover their wedding gift list).
The one concern for those fans will be the stability and continuing health of the surgically repaired knee Griffin blew out toward the end of last season. Knee ligament damage is nothing to be sniffed at, and for a player, and offence, that relies on his running ability as much as Griffin and the Redskins do it becomes an even more sensitive issue.
Hence head coach Mike Shanahan’s reluctance to risk the young quarterback, despite his speedy recovery, in pre-season games, and hence Robert Griffin senior’s disgruntlement at his refusing to do so.
In truth you can see Shanahan’s point, he was accused of being irresponsible last season, failing to protect the player from his own willingness to play even when injured. Griffin has the kind of talent that could take his team to the post season, and, who knows, if he learns to protect himself and stay healthy, perhaps one day even to the Hall of Fame. But whether he remains on the field long enough to fulfil his ample potential will be due in large part to whether he is properly handled, and whether the big hits he suffered last season are kept to a minimum.
Risk and reward – two things both Shanahan and RG3 will have to dance with on a play-by-play basis all season. How that story plays out is going to be intriguing to watch.
What Will be the Identity of the Baltimore Ravens Defence?
Speaking of future Hall of Famers, the Ravens will be minus two of them in the wake of the departure and retirement of two men who’ve buttressed their defence for more than a decade – Ed Reed and Ray Lewis.
Reed moved to the Houston Texans as part of the many cap cuts the Ravens needed to make to accommodate a new and lucrative contract for their Superbowl MVP quarterback, Joe Flacco. And with the additional departures of defensive end Paul Kruger to the Cleveland Browns, and Daniel Ellerbe to the Miami Dolphins, along with other less notable exits, the Ravens defence since their Superbowl win has become almost unrecognisable.
Although GM Ozzie Newsome has managed to preserve a key cog at every level of the defence – Haloti Ngata along the line, Terrell Suggs at linebacker and Ladarius Webb in the secondary – how this team responds and what identity it develops in the absence of their long-time emotional leader, Ray Lewis, will be a narrative to warrant keeping up with throughout the year.
Andy Reid in Kansas
Which, speaking of the end of long tenures, brings us back to where we began, with Andy Reid’s mostly successful 13 year run in Philadelphia having finally come to an end. It would seem – in the relatively safe and coddled waters of preseason – to be a split to have suited both parties.
Before his departure Reid was the longest serving head coach in the National Football League, a title that now passes to Tom Coughlin of the New York Giants. And though his consistency over that time was admirable (taking Philadelphia to the play-offs nine times during his 13 years) the feeling had grown his relationship with the Eagles, and in fact the city of Philadelphia in general, was a marriage that was fast turning stale.
And so, whilst the Eagles happily nabbed the in-demand Chip Kelly to replace him, Reid happily took up the head coaching seat at the Kansas City Chiefs. From the NFC East to the AFC West. One might think he was trying to get as far away as possible.
How he fares will make interesting viewing. The Chiefs have problems of their own. Many and varied. An offence that ranked 24th in the league. A defence that wasn’t much better.
Reid’s chief concern (pardon the pun) will be to acclimate the newly acquired Alex Smith at quarterback as quickly as possible and find a way to extract production from what is a fairly talented roster, a task that won’t be helped by the yet again crocked Tony Moeaki at tight end - a player with plenty of potential but not much luck, suffering his second season threatening injury in as many years.
In his absence it will be required of Reid to establish a strong ground game, something he showed a consistent aversion to during his time with the Eagles. But with the explosive Jamaal Charles in the backfield, now a year on from his own injury travails and coming off a strong 1500 yard showing last season, and in Alex Smith a player who couldn’t be more suited to the West Coast concepts Reid favours, the big man will certainly have the tools
for the job at hand.
Other questions worth mentioning?
How will the return of head coach Sean Payton impact the New Orleans Saints?
Do the Cincinnati Bengals have a legitimate claim to being considered AFC North favourites for the first time since… well, ever?
What will Colin Kaepernick’s first full year as a full time starter for the 49ers look like?
Will Tavon Austin be as electric as advertised when the live bullets start flying?
That’s the thing with the NFL, I guess, there’s always something happening. But what do you think? What are you most looking forward to seeing once the season starts? Let us know in the comments below.
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