10 Foregone Conclusions for the 2015 NFL SeasonAugust 1, 2015
10 Foregone Conclusions for the 2015 NFL Season
Between now and the opener on Thursday, Sept. 10, you're going to see a lot of bold predictions regarding the 2015 NFL season. Most will be wildly off base, but that's what makes them bold, and rather fun to read and react to.
But it's a lot easier to look smart if you predict the seemingly predictable, which is why I've put together a list of 10 developments almost everybody agrees will take place in 2015.
Of course, this is the NFL, where even predictions regarding the predictable are dangerous. So the chances are good I'll still fail to look smart while also alienating fans of the teams and players I've confidently predicted will suffer misfortune in 2015.
Is it too late to back out? No? OK, here goes nothing...
Tom Brady Is the Most Talked About Man in American Sports
There was a good chance New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady would have been the talk of the NFL world this fall regardless of Deflategate. After all, Brady's coming off a Super Bowl MVP performance and the Pats open the 2015 season in prime time against the Pittsburgh Steelers, while also playing back-to-back nationally-spotlighted games against the Dallas Cowboys and Indianapolis Colts in October.
But when you throw in the fact Brady is currently suspended for the first four games of the season for his alleged role in tampering with game balls during last year's playoffs, it becomes obvious he'll dominate the headlines for the majority, if not all, of 2015.
It's somewhat ridiculous that the most talked about football player in September might not actually play any football that month, but with the NFLPA and NFL on a courtroom collision course and Brady's status for Week 1 up in the air as we await a potential resolution or injunction, that will likely be the case.
And if Brady is indeed suspended for New England's first four games, his Week 6 return on Sunday Night Football against the rival Colts will break hype machines nationwide.
The Indianapolis Colts Dominate the AFC South
You could argue the Houston Texans will be better with a healthy Jadeveon Clowney (although that's not an easy claim considering the 2014 No. 1 overall pick is starting camp on the PUP list).
You could argue the Jacksonville Jaguars will be better with 2014's No. 3 pick Blake Bortles spending his first full season at quarterback (although the Jags are still coming off a three-win season and have already lost rookie 2015 No. 3 overall pick Dante Fowler to a torn ACL).
And you could argue the Tennessee Titans will be better with 2015 No. 2 overall pick Marcus Mariota under center (although almost anything is an improvement when you're coming off a two-win season).
But nobody without bias is going to argue with a straight face that any of those teams can compete with the Indianapolis Colts for the AFC South title.
The Colts, who are getting better each year as quarterback Andrew Luck becomes a star, have won the division with 11 victories in each of the last two seasons. During that stretch, the Texans, Titans and Jaguars have averaged 5.5, 4.5 and 3.5 wins per season, respectively.
And this year, with the addition of Andre Johnson, Frank Gore, Trent Cole and Dwight Lowery, they look as though they've taken their biggest offseason step forward since drafting Luck in 2012.
DeMarco Murray Relinquishes His Rushing Crown
Yes, Philadelphia Eagles running back DeMarco Murray is coming off a season in which he led the NFL in rushing by a 484-yard margin, but there are several convincing reasons why the reigning Offensive Player of the Year shouldn't be expected to defend that rushing title in 2015.
1. The Curse of 370
Citing multiple precedents, Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders posits that "a running back with 370 or more carries during the regular season will usually suffer either a major injury or loss of effectiveness the following year, unless he is named Eric Dickerson."
Murray had 392 carries last year with the Dallas Cowboys, which was the seventh-highest total in NFL history.
As Schatz explains, "all players with 390 or more carries, no matter how these carries were split between the regular season and the postseason, averaged a 33 percent drop in total yards, and an 11 percent drop in yards per carry."
2. The presence of Ryan Mathews and Darren Sproles
LeSean McCoy led the NFL in rushing two years ago in this same Chip Kelly offense, but McCoy carried the ball a league-high 314 times that year as the Eagles didn't have a lot of alternative options at running back.
Things have changed, though, with the Eagles also paying the veteran Mathews $3.7 million a year. Throw in Sproles and Philly has three backs on the roster who have been to the Pro Bowl. Murray's workload isn't likely going to be heavy enough.
3. Backs have short shelf lives
It's been eight years since a back last led the NFL in rushing yards in back-to-back seasons (LaDainian Tomlinson in 2006 and 2007).
Maurice Jones-Drew fell off a cliff after leading the league in rushing in 2011, as did Adrian Peterson following his historic 2012 season. Even McCoy missed his 2013 mark by almost 300 yards in 2014.
The AFC East Becomes Competitive
While the New England Patriots deal with quarterback Tom Brady's looming suspension and the loss of defensive veterans Darrelle Revis, Vince Wilfork, Brandon Browner and Kyle Arrington, their division rivals will be looking to pounce on a team that might have already been susceptible to a Super Bowl hangover.
And pounce they should.
The swiftly improving Buffalo Bills added five offensive veterans with Pro Bowls on their resumes in the offseason, including potential studs Percy Harvin and LeSean McCoy to help the emerging Sammy Watkins. Buffalo closed the gap between itself and New England to just three games last year and the offense should now do a better job helping out a defense that ranked fourth in football in terms of both points and yards allowed.
Meanwhile, the steadily improving Dolphins added the prize catch of the 2015 offseason by signing All-Pro defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. With quarterback Ryan Tannehill on the rise and gaining support with the additions of tight end Jordan Cameron and wide receivers Kenny Stills (trade), Greg Jennings (free agency) and DeVante Parker (first round of the draft), Miami should be ready to make a strong playoff push in 2015.
And even the Jets, who poached Revis from New England and continue to have a rocking defense, should be much better with a new regime in place and more options at quarterback.
The Pats are still the favorite to win this division for the 15th time in 20 years, but there's almost no way it'll be a cakewalk this time around.
Jeff Fisher Is the First Coach to Obtain a Hot Seat
Who else could it be?
The St. Louis Rams are quickly going to realize that new quarterback Nick Foles, who struggled badly last year within a system that usually inflates statistics, is no more special than the departed Sam Bradford.
And four of the Rams' first five games come against 2014 playoff teams in Seattle, Pittsburgh, Arizona and Green Bay. So if they can't beat the Redskins on the road in Week 2 (likely a toss-up), there's a real chance they hit their Week 6 bye at 0-5.
There are teams that are worse than the Rams, but coaches for those franchises are likely to have much longer leashes. Lovie Smith and Ken Whisenhunt, for example, will be working with rookie quarterbacks in Tampa and Tennessee, while folks like Todd Bowles (Jets), Jack Del Rio (Raiders), Jim Tomsula (49ers), Dan Quinn (Falcons) and John Fox (Bears) will be starting out fresh in new roles.
With Gus Bradley almost guaranteed to get a full first complete season with potential future franchise quarterback Blake Bortles in Jacksonville, and with Jay Gruden's five-year contract fully guaranteed in Washington, the only coaches I can see coming close to hot seats early this year are Fisher, Mike Pettine of the Browns and Bill O'Brien of the Texans.
But nobody expects Cleveland to do much anyway and O'Brien has only been on the job a year. This is Fisher's fourth season coaching the Rams and he's yet to even sniff the playoffs.
There Are QB Controversies in Washington, Houston, Cleveland and Buffalo
The quarterback controversy can usually be found on an annual basis in cities like Tennessee, Tampa, Jacksonville and Oakland. But the Titans, Buccaneers, Jaguars and Raiders are expected to utilize season-long leashes with their young starting pivots in 2015.
So, instead, this year I'm fully expecting quarterback-related debates to become particularly heated in Washington, Houston, Cleveland and Buffalo.
The Redskins are of course remaining loyal to 2012 No. 2 overall pick Robert Griffin III, but the pressure is mounting and the mistake-prone, fragile Griffin hasn't been himself since his rookie season. Will this be the year he gets it back? It's possible, but the man's game also may be tragically flawed and the moment things go awry (and they almost inevitably will at some point), you'll start hearing calls for either of the team's talented backups, Colt McCoy or Kirk Cousins.
The Texans swapped one stopgap-type veteran quarterback for another when they replaced Ryan Fitzpatrick with Brian Hoyer. But the fact that Hoyer, who had the third-worst qualified passer rating in the NFL last season, was cast aside by the Browns tells you all you need to know.
Houston has stayed away from quarterbacks at the top of the draft, which means that instead of at least putting most of their eggs in a Teddy Bridgewater- or Derek Carr-sized basket, they're forced to let Hoyer try to stave off made-to-be-backups Ryan Mallett and Tom Savage. It's ugly.
And it's just as ugly in Cleveland, where Johnny Manziel is trying to make that rightly unprecedented transition from rehab to the top spot on a quarterback depth chart. Per ESPN.com's Pat McManamon, head coach Mike Pettine won't rule out the possibility that Manziel could start, which means a controversy is already blooming as Manziel attempts to supplant presumed starter and football dinosaur Josh McCown, who somehow had a worse passer rating than Hoyer last season.
Seriously, this team traded in the quarterback who had the third-worst qualified rating in football for the quarterback who had the second-worst qualified rating.
That leaves the Bills, who could legitimately be Super Bowl contenders if they can get steady play under center. But that very fact is why there'll be controversy the moment EJ Manuel (who has been benched in each of his first two seasons in the league) hiccups with a meaningful game on the line. That's assuming Manuel even earns a chance to start, because right now he's locked in a competition with has-been Matt Cassel (it hasn't been pretty) and never-was Tyrod Taylor (suddenly and sadly a potential favorite).
Barring Injury, J.J. Watt Is a First-Team All-Pro for a Fourth Straight Season
Seriously, J.J. Watt could have a so-so season. Not just in his superhero terms, but in any terms. Watt could go out and pick up 10 sacks, force a couple of fumbles and maybe score a touchdown on D, and the reigning Defensive Player of the Year would still make the Pro Bowl and still wind up on an All-Pro team.
Once you become so good that you can seemingly do no wrong, you become a rubber stamp-type candidate for All-Star recognition. It's just the nature of the business. It's not totally fair, especially if several defensive ends outplay Watt this season (not out of the realm of possibility), but on the other hand the Houston Texans stud sort of earned it by putting together arguably the best defensive season in NFL history last year.
But the odds are good that as long as Watt remains on the field, he will indeed earn his fourth All-Pro nod in five NFL seasons. That's what happens when you're only 26 and you're already the only player in NFL history with two 20-sack campaigns under your belt.
The Re-Worded Catch Rule Is Causing More Controversy
Every year, there's at least one major controversy regarding the NFL's definition of a catch. That came to a particularly ugly head in last year's playoffs when the rulebook robbed Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant of what appeared to be a game-changing catch against the Green Bay Packers.
As a result, the competition committee once again reviewed the process of catch rule this past offseason, re-writing the rule regarding what constitutes a catch. Problem is, the wording doesn't really provide the type of clarification many were hoping for.
The old rule, direct from the league:
A player who makes a catch may advance the ball. A forward pass is complete (by the offense) or intercepted (by the defense) if a player, who is inbounds: a) secures control of the ball in his hands or arms prior to the ball touching the ground; and b) touches the ground inbounds with both feet or with any part of his body other than his hands; and c) maintains control of the ball long enough, after (a) and (b) have been fulfilled, to enable him to perform any act common to the game (i.e., maintaining control long enough to pitch it, pass it, advance with it, or avoid or ward off an opponent, etc.).
And the new one, per Mike Pereira of Fox Sports:
A player is considered to be going to the ground if he does not remain upright long enough to demonstrate that he is clearly a runner. If a player goes to the ground in the act of catching a pass (with or without contact by an opponent), he must maintain control of the ball until after his initial contact with the ground, whether in the field of play or the end zone. If he loses control of the ball and the ball touches the ground before he regains control, the pass is incomplete. If he regains control prior the ball touching the ground,the pass is complete.
So they've eliminated that mumbo-jumbo about acts common to the game, but the terms in the new rule are just as vague and confusing. How do you objectively determine with relative consistency whether a player is "upright long enough to demonstrate that he is clearly a runner"?
Until the league makes revolutionary changes to the definition of a catch, we'll continue to have problems here.
The 49ers Continue to Fall off a Cliff
In a tough division like the NFC West, the hits the San Francisco 49ers have taken of late are likely too much to overcome.
Stud front-seven defenders Justin Smith, Patrick Willis and Chris Borland have retired, offensive starters Mike Iupati, Michael Crabtree and Frank Gore have signed elsewhere, key defensive cogs Chris Culliver and Ray McDonald won't be back and head coach Jim Harbaugh has split for NCAA pastures in Michigan.
Even with All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman returning from injury, it looks like it'll be next to impossible for a team in shambles to stop a slide that began when its win total plummeted from 12 in 2013 to eight in 2014.
San Francisco, which Football Outsiders determined was the fifth-least healthy team in football last season, could have better luck with injuries and should be less distracted now that Harbaugh has left the premises, but it'll be simply too hard to replace that many key players. And with the Seahawks adding Jimmy Graham and the Cardinals getting quarterback Carson Palmer back, there's no room for error out west.
For the First Time in Years, People Outside of Buffalo Care About the Bills
Frankly, the Buffalo Bills haven't done a lot to earn our attention in recent years. Rather, in recent decades. There are high-schoolers in Western New York who haven't been alive for a Bills playoff game, and the team has posted a winning record just twice since 1999.
Hidden in a small market and dwarfed by the mighty New England Patriots in the AFC East, the Bills have for years been easy to ignore.
That's about to change. Not only have the talented Bills improved on the offensive side of the ball after a strong 9-7 2014 season, but there's also an entirely new energy in Buffalo. The team's new owners, Terry and Kim Pegula, have made it clear the franchise isn't going anywhere, and new high-profile head coach Rex Ryan could be just what the doctor ordered for a young roster likely to benefit from a master motivator.
“It’s been 15 years since the Bills made the playoffs," Ryan told the media at his introductory press conference, per Pro Football Talk. "Well get ready, we’re going."
And so for the first time really this millenium, the Bills truly matter. Nationwide, fantasy and reality, on and off the field.