The NFL hasn’t played a game in two months, but that hasn’t stopped the league from popping up on nightly network news and dominating sports headlines from newspapers to websites since the Giants won the Super Bowl. First, it was the saga of Peyton Manning and then the ugly revelations of Bountygate. Along the way, all this NFL news and chatter overshadowed baseball’s spring training and then even spoiled Opening Day last week. Instead of relaxing and musing over mock drafts, fans were wondering what we’ll hear next from Gregg Williams or how will the Saints’ Sean Payton deal with taking a year-long vacation from coaching. Regardless, there have been some major personnel developments during this same two-month period and here are my top 10, the ones that should alter the face of NFL games and division races next season.
There wasn’t a tougher interview in the NFL last season than Coach of the Year Jim Harbaugh, who really disdained small talk. But Harbaugh regaled reporters at the NFC coaches’ breakfast at the recent owners’ meeting in Palm Beach, especially when making light of his throwing ability during new 49er Randy Moss’s workout. Harbaugh definitely elevated Alex Smith’s game last season and if he can get Moss productive again the 49ers will be playoff favorites despite a tougher road schedule. The 49ers travel to play the Packers, Saints, Jets and Patriots this season. San Francisco focused on re-signing Smith, who toyed with the Dolphins, and some defensive stars this offseason while adding Mario Manningham and Brandon Jacobs from the Giants. In a passing league, San Francisco’s defense still figures to be the NFL’s best.
Tebow Becomes a Jet
We’ll have to wait until the games to begin before truly judging Mark Sanchez’s mental state. To get the fans off his back, maybe Sanchez will consider his own form of Tebowing after throwing a touchdown pass. Yes, Tebow can run the wildcat offense that new offensive coordinator Tony Sparano loved so much in Miami, but when Sanchez chokes in the fourth quarter the fans will be chanting for Tebow. Granted, Sanchez may look like Johnny U compared to Tebow during practice reps, but this trade figures to undermine the young quarterback who seems to still lack plenty of confidence. Can’t wait for the first public outburst from Santonio Holmes.
Holmgren Strikes Out
The Browns, with the fourth overall pick in the first round, always had the advantage over the Redskins for the Rams’ draft rights to RG3. But even when Mike Holmgren was convinced that the Heisman quarterback was worth it, he failed to pull the trigger and lost out when Washington bid more. A franchise should never lose out on a quarterback of this perceived magnitude over a second-round draft choice. Now, stuck with good guy Colt McCoy, the Browns are trying to figure out if Texas A&M’s Ryan Tannehill should be their fallback option. It’s impossible to win in the NFL without a franchise quarterback and the Browns will remain a fourth-place team until they find one.
Seattle Settles on Flynn
The Rams bragged before last season that they had the best quarterback in the NFC West in Sam Bradford. Yes, Bradford still has that potential, but the Seahawks closed the gap with the signing of Aaron Rodgers’ caddie in Green Bay. Matt Flynn was the MVP of LSU’s BCS Championship Game win over Ohio State and set single-game passing records in a Week 17 start against the Lions. Packers coach Mike McCarthy says that Flynn is ready to be a starter and that’s good enough for me!
Eagles Lose Left Tackle
In case you missed it, All-Pro Jason Peters, one of the game’s finest protectors, ruptured his Achilles' tendon and will be lost for the season. And such an injury is generally bad news for a big man. This is not good news for Mike Vick, who really struggled as a pocket passer last season. Ex-Bill Demetress Bell (ironically, Peters also arrived via Buffalo) was signed to replace him even though he has missed 18 starts in the last three seasons. And who knows where Vick stands with Andy Reid? The Eagles tried to get into the RG3 bidding derby and also wanted to talk to Peyton Manning, so this might be it for the Reid-Vick marriage unless the two win the NFC East.
Cutler Gets His Wish
Jay Cutler may have missed the final six games on the season, but his offseason has been great. First, he got rid of his tormentor, offensive coordinator Mike Martz, and then he got a true No. 1 receiver in Brandon Marshall after the Bears tried to pretend return man Devin Hester was one. Cutler won’t have the same protection problems with new coordinator Mike Tice, who’s fundamentally sound. Yes, Marshall has off-the-field issues, but he has averaged 94.8 receptions for 1,187.6 yards over the last five seasons. The Bears also made two great moves in signing ex-Raider Jason Campbell as Cutler’s backup and adding punishing running back Michael Bush to the Matt Forte salary equation.
Bucs Become Big Spenders
After years of saving millions like many of us dump our change into a penny jar, the Bucs came out swinging by giving both receiver Vincent Jackson and Saints guard Carl Nicks monster contracts (Nicks got $5 more million — $31 to $26 — in guaranteed money than VJax) while giving Lions cornerback Eric Wright $15 million guaranteed. Depriving Drew Brees of Nicks is a win-win for the Bucs in the rugged NFC South. This is great news for new coach Greg Schiano, who also has 24 assistant coaches, maybe the largest coaching staff in the NFL.
Bills Sign Mario Williams
The Bills paid the Houston pass-rusher like a franchise quarterback, hoping that he gives Tom Brady and Mark Sanchez big headaches in the AFC East. Although the signing is a major commitment by the Bills, the ripple effect in Houston could be startling. The Texans lost two other critical veterans in Pro Bowl right tackle Eric Winston and then traded DeMeco Ryans to the linebacker hapless Philadelphia Eagles. When you’re attempting to build a Super Bowl contender like the Texans are, it doesn’t make sense to clear out proven performers.
Redskins All In
After trying to make do with second-string quarterbacks, the Redskins paid the Rams’ asking price of three first round picks (and a second) in order to draft Heisman winner Robert Griffin III. Not only could this trade save the coaching career of Mike Shanahan, but if RG3 is the playmaker many believe him to be, owner Dan Snyder could have a headline performer for a dozen years. And to spice up the offense, the Redskins re-signed TE Fred Davis and probably overpaid free-agent receivers Josh Morgan and Pierre Garcon. And there could be backlash on the Rams if Sam Bradford isn’t the performer RG3 is.
Tebow Out, Manning in for Broncos
Denver boss John Elway proved that he never believed Tim Tebow would ever develop into a classic quarterback by wooing and then signing Peyton Manning for $18 million this season, believing his throwing accuracy will be a major improvement over Tebow’s. To help Peyton’s short-passing game, the Broncos signed tight ends Joel Dreessen (six TDs for Houston) and Jacob Tamme of the Colts. Elway is rolling the dice against Tebow’s fan base, but if Peyton takes the Broncos to the playoffs all will be forgiven.