Welcome to the 2009 NFL Regular Season. It has been a long time coming.
Say what you want about the preseason, but there is really nothing like that first kickoff in Week 1. However, from a writer's perspective, The hardest part of the preseason is trying to glean information about meaningless snaps to make predictions about the upcoming season.
Think about it: who in their right mind would have predicted how quickly the NFL's landscape would change from one man's injured knee. Raise your hand if you saw that one coming, and then tell me next week's lottery numbers.
But now that the season is finally underway, it is now possible to make some snap judgements about what will become of the 2009 season in America's most unpredictable sport.
Of course, any of these observations could be proven wrong in the weeks to come, but that is what makes the NFL such a great sport for its fans. Forgive the Any Given Sunday reference, but it truly is the only game where anything can happen on a weekly basis.
Week 1 Reflections
1. The Wildcat is already wearing out its welcome
The Miami Dolphins rode this unconventional offense to a surprise division title, and it's no surprise that many other teams tried to follow suit. The NFL is the ultimate copycat league, and such fantastic results would never go unnoticed. However, now that defensive coordinators have had a summer to study it and draw up new schemes, offenses may have difficulty replicating the success that Tony Sparano's crew had in 2008.
Other than a few nice gains by Joshua Cribbs of the Browns, very few teams found success with the trickery of the Wildcat in Week 1. The Dolphins themselves only ran three Wildcat plays in their season-opening loss to the Falcons, and found limited success against a prepared defense.
While it may be good for the occasional trick play, at this point it looks like there may not be as widespread an adoption of the Wildcat as originally thought. Defensive players in the NFL are too athletic and too committed to film study to be fooled by this offense on a weekly basis. Look for many teams to revert back to more traditional offensive game plans as this fad quickly dies out.
2. Kyle Orton may not be the answer in Denver, but neither is Jay Cutler in Chicago
The Denver Broncos were already expected to be in for a long season, but their counterparts in the blockbuster Jay Cutler trade may be getting more than they bargained for as well.
Along with his fantastic physical tools, Cutler brings an attitude that will continue to get him into trouble both on the field and in the locker room. He displays the Brett Favre-gunslinger mentality without the requisite knowledge of the game and leadership ability necessary to be successful as that type of quarterback, which will lead to his downfall in Chicago just as quickly as it did in Denver.
Cutler has not been on a winning team since high school, and at some point, one has to stop blaming the talent around him and point the finger squarely at the man under center. In the college and pro ranks, he has consistently been seen on national television yelling at his own receivers after a mistake, and even jawing at and shoving opposing defenders after the whistle.
While he is the best option that the Bears have right now, he is in no way the savior they are looking for. They are much likely to see similar performances to Sunday's four-interception debacle than they are to see the kind of heart that made Brett Favre a star.
3. Speaking of which, Brett Favre has checked his ego at the door
Vikings fans expecting to see a potent aerial attack on Sundays might have been surprised to see a different Favre handing the ball off to the game's best young weapon in Adrian Peterson. Furthermore, he looked like he was back to loving the game after tackling rookie Percy Harvin in the end zone following his first career touchdown.
He has that youthful exuberance back, and seems to be fine with his new role as a game manager. With number 28 in his backfield, Favre will not be expected to carry his team like he has done in the past. He still will make headlines at season's end as he again wrestles with the decision of whether or not to retire (or is it whether or not to buy a new TV? Someone at Sears deserves a huge raise for pitching that commercial), but at this point it looks like he will leave it all on the field in this final season.
4. The Indianapolis Colts are finally crashing back to Earth
Losing one of the game's greatest coaches in Tony Dungy is tough enough, but coupled with the loss of Marvin Harrison, the Colts will struggle to continue their streak of consecutive 12-win seasons. Any team with Peyton Manning at the helm will always have a chance to win, but the loss of those two Indianapolis icons will weigh heavily on this team as the season wears on.
Depending on the severity of Anthony Gonzalez' knee injury, Harrison may get an invitation to rejoin the team, but it is unclear whether he would accept such an offer after the way he was treated in the offseason, and it is also unclear if he is still physically capable of playing at an NFL level after the injuries he has suffered through over the last two seasons.
Either way, the Colts are going to uncharacteristically struggle as they look to develop a new team identity under Jim Caldwell. While ten wins would be a miracle for many teams in the NFL, it would be a disappointment to Colts fans.
Yet it may soon be a reality.
5. Mark Sanchez is one cool customer
The Jets rookie quarterback looked like a veteran in a season-opening victory against the Texans, but the true key to his success is how he played within the system prepared for him by Rex Ryan. Sanchez made smart decisions in order to keep the ball moving, converting an impressive 10 of 18 third downs. He made the right reads, knowing when to check down but still managing to hit Chansi Stuckey for a 30-yard score and his first career touchdown.
Sanchez may have gotten flak from his new teammates for his revealing GQ spread over the summer, but he is quickly earning their respect with his play on the field. While No. 1 overall pick Matthew Stafford struggled mightily in his debut (three interceptions), Mark Sanchez made the Jets look brilliant in trading up for the polished signal-caller from USC.
6. The team poised to make the biggest improvement this year is the Seattle Seahawks
There was no team more snakebitten last season than the Seahawks, who spent much of the year with their starting quarterback and entire starting offensive line on the sidelines.
After winning the NFC West for four straight years, it is amazing how quickly they have dropped off the radar following their dismal 2008 campaign, when they went 4-12 and saw the Arizona Cardinals make a surprise Super Bowl run. But if they can stay healthy, the Seahawks should return to form atop the NFC West.
Vegas oddsmakers set the over-under for the Seahawks record at 8.5 wins this season. Expect them to flirt with a ten-win season and a return to the playoffs.
7. The team poised for the biggest drop-off this year is the Miami Dolphins
The Dolphins implemented the Wildcat in an attempt to mask some glaring deficiencies in talent across the board. In a division that will always run through New England as long as Brady is standing on two legs, the Dolphins will struggle to replicate their success from last season as the Wildcat is unlocked by opposing defenses.
Add that to the fact that the Dolphins have the league's toughest schedule this year, facing thirteen teams with a .500 record or better last year, and they will be lucky to win more than six games this year.
8. After losing Albert Haynesworth to the Washington Redskins, the Tennessee Titans will not skip a beat on defense
Losing a $100 million dollar free agent should be crippling for a defense, but obviously the Titans never got that memo. They looked like their dominant selves against the Steelers to open the season on Thursday night, and they held a potent rushing attack to just 36 yards on the ground.
The play-calling could still use some work, as evidenced by the lack of pressure on Ben Roethlisberger in the fourth quarter and overtime, but this defense definitely still ranks as one of the league's elite.
9. The San Diego Chargers are a head coach away from being a legitimate Super Bowl contender
The Chargers are the most talented team in the league on paper. But with Norv Turner at the helm, they may never take the next step and become a true Super Bowl team. His own players pass on calling him a great coach, often lauding him more for his work as an offensive coordinator. This team needs a strong leader to get them fired up on a weekly basis, and the low-key Turner is not the right guy for the job.
After watching the Chargers come out flat yet again to open the season, it is painfully obvious that anything short of a Super Bowl appearance will likely lead to Turner's ousting under the watchful eye (and quick hook) of Chargers GM A.J. Smith.
10. Expect there to be a rookie salary slotting system by 2011
Barring an extended lockout when the league's current Collective Bargaining Agreement expires, this should be one of the first issues to be resolved, and future rookies will have Michael Crabtree to thank. By making the ridiculous move of demanding significantly more money than players drafted before him, NFL Players Association Executive Director DeMaurice Smith and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell should have little difficulty agreeing to take bargaining power away from college stars and their agents.
But while Crabtree may become the catalyst for a beneficial change from the NFL's perspective, his antics have put his entire career in jeopardy by showing the type of attitude that players like Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco only get away with because of their play on the field. With no body of work to fall back on, Crabtree may be alienating himself from the majority of locker rooms in the NFL without having played a single snap yet.
The most talented wide receiver to come out of college in years may never live up to his vast potential due to this disagreement over dollar signs. Here's hoping that future rookies learn from his mistake.