When is football coming back?!
That's the most important question most of us are asking these days as the doldrums of summer, the repetitiveness of baseball-fueled SportsCenter, and the absolute inanity of Le Tour De France circle around us and make us cry out for sweatshirt weather and people hitting one another.
Yet, for many teams around the league, there's an uneasiness around the return to football.
No, don't get me wrong, this is still the optimism stage for every team out there. Every coach is going to tell his players that this is the year we're winning it all! However, some of those coaches will also have a nagging feeling, causing them to wonder if some of the biggest question marks around their team will keep 2013 from being a truly successful year.
The teams that are able to meet those questions head-on and persevere will be the stuff of legend.
The Baltimore Ravens had one of the best offseasons in the NFL.
Their critics (most curiously located in the Pittsburgh and Ohio areas) would like me to point out that they lost a lot of players after the Super Bowl. Yeah, OK. Sadly for the rest of the AFC North, they then added a bunch of players—most of whom were more talented than the players who jumped ship.
Safety Ed Reed and linebacker Ray Lewis were both great players and have a real shot at a first-ballot Hall of Fame entry in a few years. However, Lewis retired years after he stopped being as effective as his press clippings said he was, and Reed should've retired even sooner.
Newcomers like linebackers Arthur Brown and Elvis Dumervil, safeties Matt Elam and Michael Huff, as well as cornerback Lardarius Webb, who is returning from injured reserve, will add to a defense that struggled last season.
Overall, the Ravens have the talent. The only question is whether all the pieces will click into place this season.
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick loves him some Michael Crabtree.
Crabtree, the 49ers' No. 1 receiver, was targeted 89 times during Kaepernick's 10 starts last season (regular season and playoffs), which is double what any other 49ers receiver was entrusted with. That's why, again and again, I've said that Crabtree's absence is going to take more than one player to replace.
Everyone's going to have to pitch in. Everyone is going to have to be better—most of all, Kaepernick.
If the passing offense fails to amaze next season, teams are going to stack the box against running back Frank Gore and the pistol running that makes Kaepernick so dynamic. If the run game devolves into three yards and a cloud of dust, that will put pressure on the defenses. Talented though it may be, the Niners defense can't shoulder the load all by itself.
This season will be much more difficult for Kaepernick than last season's campaign. His readiness will define the 49ers' success.
Jeff Ireland should've been fired a long time ago.
The thing is, Ireland knows that, and the Dolphins general manager is doing his level best to make sure no one else figures it out this season. So, he went out and grabbed wide receiver Mike Wallace, tight end Dustin Keller, right tackle Tyson Clabo, linebackers Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler, and more.
Ireland spent, and he overspent, and he made up for lack of spending in years past. He did all of this to save his job and give the Dolphins (along with quarterback Ryan Tannehill) some talent to make up for all the ill-begotten moves he made in the past.
Just enough? Too little, too late? 2013 will be the judge of that.
Last season, the Steelers went 8-8 and missed the playoffs, but the team still had plenty of positives, including a defense that finished the year ranked No. 1 in terms of yardage.
It isn't so bad for a team to have a hiccup now and again. However, the Steelers lost some talent this offseason in wide receiver Mike Wallace, linebacker James Harrison, running back Rashard Mendenhall and cornerback Keenan Lewis.
Losses like that could make the "hiccup" into more of a terminal illness.
The Steelers need a big year and then a big offseason after that. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is on the wrong side of 30, and a bunch of the Steelers stalwarts aren't what they used to be. The AFC is down and the Steelers can take advantage. If they can't, we could be seeing the end of an era in the Steel City.
Percy Harvin is one of the most versatile, dynamic receivers in the game.
The problem is that doesn't always translate to a fantastic offense. During his time with the Minnesota Vikings, quarterback Christian Ponder seemed at a loss, at times, on how to get Harvin the ball while still running the plays that are actually in the Vikings playbook. It is no surprise that Harvin's absence at the end of 2012 coincides with the Vikings' surprising playoff berth.
So, is Harvin going to put the Seahawks over the top, or is he going to be the albatross around their necks? I'm betting on the former, as the Seahawks' offensive coordinator, Darrell Bevell, has used Harvin successfully in the past, and quarterback Russell Wilson is known for being a smart student of the game.
However, don't be surprised if crunch time comes and Harvin isn't the go-to player his publicity agent wants people to believe he is.
NFL's version of the odd couple just keeps getting odder and odder these days.
In 2013, Jason Garrett will no longer get to call offensive plays. That alone isn't strange for a head coach who should have his attention set on other global team issues. However, it wasn't so long ago that Garrett was supposed to be this offensive wunderkind and the "next big thing" on the NFL coaching stage. The Cowboys fought to keep him, but he could end up the next man out if the Cowboys can't get back to the playoffs.
Much of that hinges around quarterback Tony Romo, who takes way too much flak. However, it's impossible to fire the owner, Jerry Jones, who is the real problem around this team. So, Romo and Garrett will be the most identifiable heads on the chopping blocks if things don't go better in 2013.
Chip Kelly has long been an NFL-style coach at the college level. It worked well for him and got him to where he is today: head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles.
Yet, there's a big difference between bringing pro-style tempo and professionalism to the college ranks, and bringing college-style authoritarianism to the pros. Kelly's offense and practice style takes a lot out of a player and won't exactly endear him to his charges if the wins don't start piling up.
That aside, he's not exactly known for his sunny demeanor, and in a league where the players get paid more than the coach, he'll need more than the threat of a scholarship being taken away to get players to buy in.
I'm a fan of Kelly and everything he brings to the table. But Kelly doesn't need to convince columnists and readers in 2013. He needs to convince his players, and he will only do that with wins.
The Atlanta Falcons and Houston Texans are both very talented football teams.
I say that, because the rest of this slide is going to sound negative, and that shouldn't be the case. As I said, these are good football teams, and no one should try to convince anyone otherwise.
However, the fact remains that when the chips are down, these two teams aren't championship-caliber squads. On paper, the Falcons and Texans should blow everyone away—they certainly have the talent. But whether it's a misstep in quarterbacking by Matt Schaub or Matt Ryan, a coaching mishap or a defensive lapse, something seems to go awry.
On paper, these are two of the best teams in football. On the football field, there's still work to be done in both of these cities. This season can change that perception in a hurry, but until those teams "get there," people will consistently ask if they have what it takes to do so.
Head coach Sean Payton is returning post-Bountygate and bringing a great deal of hope with him.
The Saints offense had (for the most part) the same cast of characters in 2012, but the overall team faltered for a myriad of reasons. It is easy to assume, then, that having their all-star head coach back in action will help them win more games. Add in a new defensive coordinator in Rob Ryan, and now we're really cooking with steam!
Well, maybe things are just heating up this season.
The Saints will have a lot of moving parts this year on both sides of the ball. Ryan will be running his defense with a lot of square pegs in round holes, and that won't be the case in a year or two. Payton is a great coach, but he's not a cure-all. Even he doesn't have all the answers.
The Saints should be better in 2013, but don't be surprised if this season is a springboard to greater things beyond and not the greater thing itself.
This is the biggest question heading into the 2013 season, and I recently said that quarterback Tom Brady is under a lot of pressure to make sure the answer is affirmative. The Patriots have question marks on offense, a lot of new pieces, and a lot of younger players who need a guiding light.
The answer to everything has always been Brady, and even the slightest misstep from the All-Pro quarterback could mean a terrible season for the Patriots offense. The defense is getting better and better every year in New England, but it's not ready to carry this team to a championship—not by any means.
So, if Brady and head coach Bill Belichick can keep this thing heading in the right direction, the Patriots will be the dangerous team they've always been. They'll have to weather some early season storms and make sure things don't come apart, but the talent is there for the Patriots to succeed.
Michael Schottey is the NFL national lead writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff at The Go Route.