10. Jay Gruden is fired before the season ends
Gruden, head coach of the you-know-whats, has become a national joke, even with the competition in Washington being what it is. Troy Aikman said they were more dysfunctional than the Kardashians. Gruden, being driver of the clown car, deservedly draws much of the blame. Some of it he doesn’t deserve. Mike Shanahan didn’t leave him much to work with. The new GM Scot McCloughan has them on the right track, but Gruden is his own worst enemy, too often shooting from the hip and through his foot. Whatever the skill set of RG3, you can’t say much for Gruden’s effort at developing it. Unable to lead the team through a quarterback crisis that was at least partly his creation, Gruden lost the respect of his players about ten months ago. It will be difficult to regain.
9. Joe Flacco passes for more yards than Peyton Manning
Last season Peyton Manning of the Denver Broncos passed for 4,727 yards, while Baltimore’s Joe Flacco threw for 3,986. But this year there could be a flip-flop. Gary Kubiak, a run-first coach, was Baltimore’s offensive coordinator last year, but now he’s the head coach at Denver. So Manning’s pass-happiness is in the past. Meanwhile, the pass-oriented Marc Trestman takes over as OC in Baltimore. His offense will emphasize pass protection and giving the quarterback plenty of options for throwing. Flacco will miss his home-run hitter, Torrey Smith, but he should do well enough with a three-tight end offense. There’s also the fact that Manning is 39. He continues to lose arm strength, while Flacco, 30, looks primed for a career year.
8. Brian Cushing is Comeback Player of the Year
Last season, as he slowly recovered from knee reconstruction, Brian Cushing was a shell of what he had been as a Pro Bowl inside linebacker for the Houston Texans. He still wrapped up ball carriers when they were in front of him, but he had little lateral mobility. On passing downs he gave way to the moderately talented Mike Mohamed. But Cushing showed up in training camp ready to go full speed all the time. He’s back, although you do have to wonder how long he can remain healthy, given his fondness for collision.
7. Charles James II will have 2-way impact
Charles James II has been a star of the HBO reality football show Hard Knocks. He covered well, hit hard as a cornerback and showed awareness of the entire secondary. He made splashy plays and was constantly drawing praise from the coaches. Bill O’Brien even gave him a look at running back, and on his first carry he broke for a long touchdown that was called back. It was widely assumed he would make the team, but he was one of the final cuts. The problem is that James is undersized at 5-9, 178 pounds, and the Texans are overstocked in competent cornerbacks: Kareem Jackson, Johnathan Joseph, first-round draft pick Kevin Johnson A.J. Bouye, Daryl Morris and Jamal Rolle. James has too much talent, brains and spirit not to make some impact somewhere.
6. McCoy, Foster, Murray fail to rush for 1,000 yards
This is not so much a knock on these three fine running backs as it is a comment on the debilitating nature of the running back position. To gain 1,000 yards in a 16-game schedule, a player cannot miss many games. Murray and Foster are injury-prone – even before reaching what is middle-age for a running back: 27-29. Murray averages approximately 1,100 yards rushing per year, but he gets much less blocking in Philly, and apparently nobody told him Chip Kelly would rather throw. Foster of the Houston Texans will miss at least the first couple of games of the season as he recovers from groin surgery. McCoy, who has rushed for a thousand in four of the past five years, was shuffled off to Buffalo from Philly and is limping with a tender hamstring. It remains to be seen if he can stretch his legs for the long gainer that separates him from the average back.
5. Amari Cooper is Offensive Rookie of the Year
When the Alabama Crimson Tide held their spring drills, panic spread through the ever tense Tuscaloosa community. Blake Sims no longer looked like a champion quarterback. The main reason was that he no longer had a remarkable receiver, Amari Cooper, to make him look good. Wide receiver is not a position easily learned in the NFL. But Cooper, the No. 4 overall pick in the April draft, has had an impressive preseason, and he has a talented young quarterback, Derek Carr, throwing to him in Oakland.
4. Rams have a not-so-grand finale in St Louis
Sports Illustrated made what seems a far-fetched prediction in calling for the St Louis Rams to go 11-5, to finish just a game behind their opening opponent, Seattle, in the NFC West. The reasoning is based on the Rams being truly overloaded in promising young talent, no small part of it coming from the trading of draft rights to Robert Griffin III. The Rams’ main weakness of recent years has been quarterbacking, with Sam Bradford either injured or about to be. Nick Foles, whose arm is nowhere near Bradford’s in power, gives hope for stability. But the offensive line is way too green, they have no healthy running backs, and they’ve got the constant distraction of being moved to Los Angeles. They’re good enough for .500, but I don’t see them in the playoffs. Or being back in St Louis for the next football season.
3. Patriots, Seahawks repeat as Super Bowl foes
Typically, the Super Bowl teams regress the following season, one reason being the star players expect to be rewarded, and there’s not enough salary cap room for everyone. Thus, the world champion New England Patriots lost their best defender, Darrelle Revis, to free agency and the New York Jets. And the Super Bowl loser, Seattle, lost two defensive starters, Tony McDaniel and Byron Maxwell. But thanks to some shrewd front office work, both teams return with all their key offensive players, except for Seattle trading Pro Bowl center Max Unger to New Orleans for the league’s best pass-catching tight end, Jimmy Graham. Bill Belichick seems to manufacture defensive backs, so it’s doubtful the departure of Revis will mean the end of the Foxborough dynasty. In the NFC, Green Bay and Philadelphia are the main threats to Seattle but fall short on defense. Baltimore is the AFC’s No. 2, at least a field goal better than the other contenders.
2. Ndamukong Suh goes a full season without suspension
I just think he’s due. I have no idea what his problem is, but I’ve seen enough film of him acting like a decent human being, and I’ve heard so many reports about fine work he does in his community that I’d like to think he can make a fresh start in Miami. If anyone ever needed to, it’s this boy named Suh who after 28 years has not grown up. By now the entire league is wise to his feigning inattention while stepping onto a quarterback’s leg or face. He’s a bright guy, and surely he knows it’s time to reform. If he can avoid suspensions for thuggery, Suh is the best defensive player in football who is not named Watt.
1. Goodell is gone by Christmas
The humiliating defeat by Roger Goodell and the NFL in federal court will lead to the departure of the commissioner, much sooner than he would like. That Deflategate ever reached the stage of litigation was due to the inadequacy of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, usually seen in media reports as CBA, combined with the authoritarian and thoroughly partisan behavior of the NFL’s CEO. Goodell overplayed his hand – a weak one at that – and came off as imperious and arrogant. The current CBA is not set to expire until 2020 even though it contains provisions that apparently are illegal or at least lead to illegality, as Judge Richard Berman’s ruling had it. The players now feel vindicated in their rebuffing of Goodell, and the owners clearly need better representation in the ongoing war with the union. The owners already are talking about limiting Goodell’s disciplinary powers. Once they start pulling some of his teeth, he will feel increasingly uncomfortable.
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