After a few weeks of camp and a couple weeks of preseason games, there are some predictable and some contentious storylines brewing. Many of these 10 decisions will make or break the NFL season for these particular teams. The only thing I’m confident of is that both Super Bowl teams from a season ago, the Packers and Steelers, will be in the playoffs again and I wouldn’t be shocked if one them reaches Super Bowl XLVI where Colts owner Jimmy Irsay has the Indiana folks all a-twitter. -- John Czarnecki
Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan
We have heard countless times that fired coach Wade Phillips’ approach last season simply became too predictable and that his players didn’t quit on him, that they simply lost confidence in his schemes. This is the company line after Dallas allowed a team-record 436 points during a 10-loss season. There is no question Ryan did more with less while coaching the Cleveland defense, but owner Jerry Jones believes his talent level is capable of reaching the Super Bowl, a simple reminder of last summer’s heady Texas talk. But no one knows if the Ryan magic dust can return injured Terrence Newman and Mike Jenkins into Pro Bowl cornerbacks once again. It will be a long, long season if those two don’t return to form.
Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan
Based on his thinking, the folks in Minnesota were nuts to trade for Donovan McNabb and pay him $5 million. Shanahan went after two quarterbacks in his NFL career, Jake Plummer and Jay Cutler, and the first guy quit on him and now plays professional handball. Yes, Shanahan won two Super Bowls but don’t you think John Elway was due to win a trophy or two? Shanahan is putting his quarterback expertise on the line this season by starting John Beck, the same guy who was 0-4 as a starter for Miami in 2007 and hasn’t seen the field since.
Eagles defensive coordinator Juan Castillo
The former offensive line coach has been talking up his starting linebackers, but just because his older brother is a monster in Green Bay doesn’t mean that rookie Casey Matthews is going to play like Chuck Bednarik. Philadelphia is loaded everywhere else on defense, but Castillo’s fortunes will be based on the play of Moise Fokou, Jamar Chaney and Matthews. Fair or unfair, those three must stop the Giants’ running game and the Rams’ Steven Jackson in the opener. Most of the league is betting against this trio.
Owners Bud Adams and Mike Brown
After months of squabbling over money and new bargaining agreement, these two veteran owners will be judged by how they resolve their feuds with Chris Johnson and Carson Palmer, respectively. The system is on the side of the owners, but common sense shouts that the Titans must ante up a sensible new contract to Johnson while Brown may be right for sitting on a retired Palmer, but the Bengals have so many needs to fill. There is no easy solution, but it’s crazy for two major franchise faces to be sitting this season out.
Ravens receiver Lee Evans
Baltimore remains one of the AFC’s toughest teams but they have lacked big-play capability in the playoffs. GM Ozzie Newsome may have fixed this issue by trading for Buffalo’s Evans, a speed receiver who scored three touchdowns against the Ravens last season. Evans is the guy who can stretch a defense, allowing Joe Flacco to find Ray Rice and Anquan Boldin underneath. Evans is Baltimore’s answer to Pittsburgh’s Mike Wallace, and now Flacco must deliver.
Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz
The most puzzling decision of the summer is Martz benching Johnny Knox, the team’s leading receiver last season, for Cowboys reject Roy Williams simply because he played well in his system in the past (2007 in Detroit). Yes, Williams does have a considerable height advantage over Knox when running quick slants when the rush is caving in on Jay Cutler. But Knox averaged 18.8 yards a catch last season and is a true game-breaker, whereas Williams seems to have developed a permanent affliction known as the dropsies. Granted, Chicago’s offensive line hasn’t been the most dependable and that factors into Martz’s thinking here. But the Bears were one win away from the Super Bowl a season ago with Knox playing a large role.
Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel
He’s being paid like a superstar and this former reliever for Tom Brady did reach the Pro Bowl last season after throwing only seven interceptions compared to 27 touchdowns. But in a playoff dismantling by the Ravens, Cassel threw for 70 yards and three interceptions. GM Scott Pioli has gotten Cassel more weapons to go with the NFL’s No. 1 rushing offense, Dwayne Bowe and tight end Tony Moeaki. Steve Breaston and No. 1 pick Jonathan Baldwin will give Cassel more targets and we’ll find out if he can deliver and improve on his poor completion percentage.
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan
Ever since the draft-day trade for No. 1 pick Julio Jones, all the Georgia talk has been Super Bowl or bust. Atlanta’s brain trust believes that surrounding Matty Ice with more firepower other than the amazing Roddy White will lead to an NFC South title and an improved playoff outcome. Aaron Rodgers simply out-dueled Ryan last season and the Falcons haven’t forgotten. Ryan can handle the pressure, I think, but home games against the Eagles and Packers will be the barometer.
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll
Well, he wanted to keep Matt Hasselbeck but the veteran wanted a two-year guarantee and the coach said nothing doing. Then he finished second in the Kevin Kolb derby and settled on Tarvaris Jackson, a quarterback decision that has looked underwhelming. Imagine fans screaming for Charlie Whitehurst! The bottom line is that you can’t win without a quarterback and Carroll seemingly has made his team worse on the depth chart compared to last season.
Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford
There is more buzz about this team despite the presence of the Packers and Bears in the same division because Stafford looks strong and healthy again. He has missed 19 starts in two seasons, but the conventional wisdom is that if he can play an entire season, Jim Schwartz may have a team capable of making the playoffs. GM Martin Mayhew has done a remarkable job rebuilding Detroit’s roster but he better cross his fingers when it comes to that aging offensive line.