Will the Panthers be hung over? The Broncos sick with quarterback envy?
The NFL’s Thursday night kickoff is so close that you can smell the pigskin and the story lines -- also known as narratives. They build context, illuminate the stakes and are generally harmless.
That said, narratives are often misguided and predictable. Looking at the first half of the NFL schedule, here's an attempt to sniff out future headlines and address whether they’ll be false, fair or possibly true. Let’s begin with last year’s runner-up, the Carolina Panthers.
Getty ImagesGrant Halverson
Narrative: The Carolina Panthers are pretenders, not contenders, in 2016
Last year the Panthers were dubbed the worst team to start a season 11-0. Their undefeated status became an affront to earlier, objectively superior undefeated squads. Not until thrashing the Seahawks and Cardinals in the playoffs did Carolina make the NFL world believers as they became a 4.5-point favorites over the Broncos in Super Bowl 50.
But as the Cam Newton post-Super Bowl press conference showed, heroes get torn down as quickly as they’re built up. The schedule does get harder for the Panthers this season than last. What if a couple 5-Hour Energy shots can’t wake them from the Super Bowl hangover? If after Week 10 the Panthers have picked up four losses (perhaps Broncos, Vikings, Cardinals, Chiefs) and sit at 5-4, look for people to start writing off Carolina and to start questioning the decision to rescind Josh Norman’s franchise tag.
Narrative meter: This narrative will be false. The core of the Panthers remains intact with Newton, Greg Olsen, Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. Top wideout Kelvin Benjamin, recovering from a 2015 ACL tear, should be back up to full speed come November. The Panthers will win the South again; once the playoffs start, a new narrative will be born.
Getty ImagesGrant Halverson
Narrative: John Elway and the Denver Broncos dropped the ball in letting Brock Osweiler get away
The Broncos proved last year that maybe the NFL isn’t necessarily a quarterback-driven league if you have a defense that suffocates opposing rushers, gets after QBs and forces mistakes. Even if the Broncos had matched the Texans’ offer for the 25-year-old, it sure seemed Osweiler was set on leaving Denver following his Week 17 mid-game benching. He appears to want to forge his own legacy free from the shadows of Peyton Manning and Elway.
Osweiler wasn’t exactly experienced, but Denver spent four years grooming him as Manning’s successor and he started seven games. The Broncos are now on to Plan D (if not higher) as Mark Sanchez flopped and an attempt to acquire Colin Kaepernick failed. Week 1 starter Trevor Siemian has taken one regular-season NFL snap, and that was a kneeldown. If regression grips the Broncos’ defense, which lost two starters in free agency (LB Danny Trevathan and DT Malik Jackson), the second-guessing on Osweiler will reach a fever pitch -- particularly against the Texans in Week 7 if Osweiler shines and Siemian (or Paxton Lynch) ends up a lifeless slab of meat in a Watt-Clowney sandwich.
Narrative meter: An interesting thought exercise but ultimately unnecessary and unproductive.
Getty ImagesDustin Bradford
Narrative: The touchback rule has backfired and must be reversed immediately
When the league voted to implement the new kickoff touchback rule in March (bringing the ball to the 25 yard-line instead of the 20), it hoped and probably anticipated that receiving teams would be willing to stay in the end zone and accept the free nickel in exchange for curbing injuries that occur frequently during kickoff returns.
However, teams are always looking for an edge. Figures from the first two weeks of the preseason show that kickoff returns actually spiked to 67 percent over that span, a drastic increase from the 41 percent return rate in the 2015 regular season. Some teams intentionally tried to set up coverage to pin the opposition deep, while return units apparently were not inclined to kneel and settle for the 25. If the trend continues, expect to hear a lot of noise about the new rule that the league approved for a one-year trial.
Narrative meter: This narrative actually has legs, although it's unlikely to change midseason.
Getty ImagesJohn Grieshop
Narrative: Dak Prescott should remain the Cowboys' starting QB even after Tony Romo is cleared to play
Based on his preseason performance, over the first half of the regular season Cowboys rookie QB Dak Prescott projects to throw for (wildly smashes calculator) about 2,192 yards with 17 touchdowns and 0 interceptions with a 145.8 passer rating. The NFL will break long-established tradition and award him the Offensive Rookie of the Year trophy in November.
Jerry Jones can dream. All Prescott has to do is a better job that Romo’s backups in 2015, which basically sets the bar off the rack and directly onto the ground. The ‘Boys fielded the league’s second-worst offense in 2015 (per Football Outsiders’ DVOA), losing 11 of the 12 games that Romo missed.
Now that the Cowboys have a dynamic running back in first-round pick Ezekiel Elliott, who said he’s got the easiest job in America because the offensive line is so darned good, Prescott shouldn’t be asked to do too much. It certainly will help that Dez Bryant is back at full strength. Romo’s timetable for return from the latest injury (back) is unclear, but as of present, he might return in Week 8 after the bye. If the Cowboys defense manages to avoid total meltdown and the team is, say, 4-2 after six games, Dak Fanatics will clamor that the future is now and that he should keep remain under center.
Narrative meter: Bogus. Romo, when healthy, gives Dallas a much better chance to win, and there really shouldn’t be any debate.
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY SportsTim Heitman
Narrative: Jimmy Garoppolo should remain the Patriots' starting QB after Tom Brady's suspension ends
Just kidding. It’s not an argument I think many folks will make with a straight face as Brady’s Week 5 return nears. Ask Bill Belichick about the team’s QB situation at your own peril. If anyone asks him (again) at a press conference, he will shoot them with laser beams of scorn from his eyes and puncture their soul with contempt.
Narrative meter: No.
Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY SportsJeremy Brevard
Narrative: Buffalo Bills head coach Rex Ryan is sitting on the hottest hot seat
Sticking as a head coach in the NFL for four-plus years usually requires winning, progress, a patient owner or some combination therein. Rex Ryan’s unrivaled confidence mixed with bluster adds a degree of difficulty. Most important, the Bills didn’t do enough winning in Ryan’s 2015 debut season. The Bills actually took a step backward on defense, allowing 22.4 points per game (19th) after giving up only 18.1 on average (fourth) in 2014. Buffalo suffered a number of costly penalties, and a nonexistent pass rush managed only 21 sacks (31st in the league). Not good for a coach who styles himself as a defensive guru.
"I think Rex will probably be looking for another job (if they don't make the playoffs)," Hall of Famer ex-Bills quarterback Jim Kelly said in June. "I think everybody knows that, including Rex.
Ryan probably knows it but didn’t embrace publicly that notion. Referring specifically to a report that Bills owner Terry Pegula gave him and GM Doug Whaley an ultimatum to win or get lost, Ryan said this in a conversation with The MMQB’s Jenny Vrentas:
"The media looks at it (like), ‘Well, we have to win this year,’” Ryan said. "Or what? Oh, I am going to be fired? I don't think so. I'm not going to worry about it because we are going to win anyway. But it's like, that is an ultimatum. No."
With the Patriots twice, the Cardinals and Seahawks on the docket before the Week 10 bye, that seat could pretty toasty around Halloween.
Narrative meter: Valid. Ryan has given himself little margin for error, and there’s a decent chance he gets axed even before finishing a second season.
Narrative: The Vikings gambled and lost on Sam Bradford
The Vikings’ acquisition of Bradford signals that they see a window to win a Super Bowl and weren’t willing to let Teddy Bridgewater’s unfortunate season-ending knee injury lock them out. In part due to injuries, Bradford has yet to live up to his No. 1 overall potential, but he’s never had much of an offense around him to help him flourish. That was especially the case last season in Philadelphia, where Eagles wideouts didn’t do Bradford any favors by leading the league with 37 drops (and a 6 percent drop rate). The Vikings’ receiver corps leaves a bit to be desired, but the combination of running backs Adrian Peterson, Jerick McKinnon and Matt Asiata will keep the chains moving and defenses honest.
No doubt trading their 2017 first-rounder for Bradford is a risk (he was another team’s backup, basically), borrowing from the future to help the present. Perhaps they could have gotten him slightly cheaper, but the bigger risk would have been doing nothing and rolling into the season with 36-year-old career backup Shaun Hill under center. Bradford is better than people think and will get the chance to prove it.
Narrative meter: It’s not gambling if the new stadium is sold out. Just kidding. It was a bold move and a good one that might work out, and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t.