If your name is Tim Tebow, Brandon Weeden or Andrew Luck, you’ve been pretty fired up for this weekend’s arrival.
After all, National Football League training camps are now underway and for those three young stars along with Robert Griffin III, Trent Richardson and, of course, Peyton Manning, this year’s training camp will be a lot of work, but also a lot of fun.
As the first weekend begins, let’s preview the five biggest stories to watch. These storylines should be daily news for the next five weeks.
(1) Denver’s New Quarterback
There is a new quarterback in Denver. But he isn’t new.
When the decision was made in Indianapolis to draft Andrew Luck with the No. 1 pick, future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning was not going to be sticking around. So Manning was cut loose, he shopped himself around and decided to sign a five-year deal in the Mile High City. Denver Broncos GM John Elway was thrilled.
However, as great as Manning has been, there is no guarantee that he’ll bring a title to Denver even though the Broncos will start the season with a pretty formidable defensive unit. Manning hasn’t played in a game since January of 2011 and while he appears to be healthy, that serious neck injury that kept him out of football for more than a year (he’s had more than two neck surgeries, although no one but Peyton himself is exactly sure how many there have been) could be one tackle away from a change in plans. And that change in plans might be the wonky Caleb Hanie.
Still, head coach John Fox and offensive coordinator Mike McCoy will let Manning have his way with the offense and after a season with Tim Tebow at the controls, it’s not a bad decision. Fact is, Manning “put on a clinic” on the first day of training camp this week and Fox’s wide smile told a less-than-subtle tale.
(2) The Six Most Contentious Quarterback Decisions
There will be four wide-open battles for starting quarterback jobs, one dual-quarterback system and three battles that aren’t anticipated, other than by us.
In Seattle, three quarterbacks will battle for the starting job: Tarvaris Jackson, Matt Flynn and Russell Wilson.
Meanwhile, in Arizona John Skelton and Kevin Kolb will go head-to-head; in Jacksonville Blaine Gabbert will argue with Chad Henne for the No. 1 job; in Miami, David Garrard and Matt Moore will battle for the starting role; and don’t ignore Cleveland where Colt McCoy will try to keep his job against rookie Brandon Weeden (No. 1 going into camp) and veteran Seneca Wallace.
And then there will be the Jets camp where Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow will play musical quarterbacks and we’ll get breathless news dispatches about it every single day.
(3) The New Breed: Detroit Lions, Houston Texans, Carolina Panthers and San Francisco 49ers.
Last season these four teams were on the cusp of greatness.
The Lions finished 10-6 and made the playoffs. With Matthew Stafford at quarterback and Calvin Johnson at wideout, this could be the most exciting offense in the NFL. Great things are expected from the Lions this year.
Houston finished 10-6, won the AFC South and scored 381 points, but they also managed to win the division with serious injuries to many of their best offensive players. If this team stays healthy – especially QB Matt Schaub – and can stop the opposition from scoring, look out!
San Francisco finished 13-3 and was just one loss shy of the Super Bowl. Is this is the year the 49ers return to the big show? Perhaps. Jim Harbaugh is back for his second season as head coach, the defense is rock solid and Mario Manningham, and Randy Moss will provide huge targets for Alex Smith. If they survive the end of their schedule with four of the final six games on the road, the Niners could be your NFC champions.
And while Carolina was 6-10, third in the NFC South and out of the playoffs, Cam Newton displayed a skill level and skill set at quarterback that is unmatched anywhere in the NFL. If he goes out and wins games by himself – which he’s definitely capable of doing – the Panthers could be the surprise of 2012. They start the season at Tampa and home to New Orleans. We’ll know early what they have in the tank.
Other sleepers to watch: Oakland Raiders, Cincinnati Bengals, Dallas Cowboys, Washington Redskins and Kansas City Chiefs.
(4) The Kids Arrive
There will be no quarterback battle in Washington or Indianapolis this season. Robert Griffin III will start for the Redskins while Andrew Luck will be handed the No. 1 job in Indy – and the fans can’t wait.
Mr. Luck and RG3 were the top two draft picks and both appear to have the skills to handle the very difficult situations that they’ve been handed. Luck has to replace the greatest quarterback in Colts history and a guy destined for Canton while Griffin III has to lead a team that has often been just a quarterback short of doing great things.
The only difference between the two situations also happens to be a huge difference: Indianapolis was 2-14 last season and is not in any hurry to rebuild their old dynasty in one season. However, Washington owner Daniel Snyder and head coach Mike Shanahan want to win right freakin’ now. Luck doesn’t have to deliver a winning season. RG3 has to deliver at least an NFC East title.
(5) Can New Orleans Survive?
It was not an easy off-season for the Saints. Putting bounties out on opposing players is clearly not allowed and the Saints suffered for the exercise. Head coach Sean Payton and linebacker Jonathan Vilma have been suspended for the entire 2012 season while GM Mickey Loomis and even interim head coach Joe Vitt will be out for at least half the year.
Sure, Drew Brees is back in the fold – for $100 million over five years – but will Brees be the same QB without Payton? Will the Saints defense ever be the same? And will people stop talking about the bounty program and the suspensions that resulted from it at any time in the near future?
While Carolina and Atlanta improve, the Saints are a mess. The NFC South will probably have a new champion by the end of December. And to think, the Super Bowl is in New Orleans this year.
Three other stories to watch:
The Harbaughs. Could Baltimore and San Francisco’s young coaches lead them to a Feb. 3 meeting in New Orleans?
The Rookies: Can QB Brandon Weeden and RB Trent Richardson make the Cleveland Browns a contender at last?
And, once again, Tim Tebow vs. Mark Sanchez and everything that relates to the New York Jets.