(Eds: Resending. With AP Photos.)By BARRY WILNERAP Pro Football Writer
The NFL never really shuts down.
It kept rolling long after the lights came back on after a 37-minute delay at the Superdome in New Orleans and the Baltimore Ravens squeezed out a Super Bowl title. It’s rolling still, right into a new season that will kick off in less than two weeks and end with (shiver!) an outdoor Super Bowl in New Jersey.
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In between, there were plenty of headlines:
Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez was arrested on murder charges; Denver Broncos star linebacker Von Miller has been suspended for the first six games for violating the league’s drug policy; and HGH testing is getting closer but still isn’t underway two years after the league and players agreed on the need for it.
A rash of preseason injuries have prompted some players to question the NFL’s player safety initiatives. Already gone for the season are tight ends Dennis Pitta of Baltimore (fractured hip) and Dustin Keller of Miami (right knee), with more than a dozen others also sidelined.
”It’s just weird how things have changed from the past,” noted Jets tight end Konrad Reuland. ”Before, diving at the knees was a dirty play. Now hitting up high is a dirty play. It’s almost done a complete 180.”
That might be understandable considering the emphasis Commissioner Roger Goodell is placing on player safety. The league has been named in concussion lawsuits brought by more than 4,000 former players who charge that the NFL didn’t protect them or warn them against the sport’s inherent dangers. Even before the regular season kicks off, the two sides are due in Senior U.S. District Judge Anita Brody’s court in Philadelphia to report any progress made during two months of mediation.
Some believe the players’ claims could be worth $1 billion or more if they move forward in court.
Key rules changes for this season with player safety in mind will bar ball carriers from using the crown of the helmet to make contact with defenders, and require player to wear knee and thigh pads. The uniform police will remove them from games if they don’t have the full complement of equipment.
Fans, meanwhile, will deal with increased limits on what they can bring into stadiums; nothing that won’t fit into a gallon-size clear plastic bag will be allowed.
”This is the right thing to do from a public safety standing,” NFL security director Jeffrey Miller said, adding that the NFL constantly evaluates its stadium entry process. ”In light of recent events, the tragedy of the terrorist attack in Boston, we wanted to ensure anywhere we have large groups of fans that we know we have limited that type of situation with fans only using the approved kind of bags to create a safe environment and a buffer zone, if you will.”
Fans may grouse about it but not enough to stay away – from the stadium, the TV or any device spewing game information.
They can’t wait to see if Robert Griffin III is fully recovered from his torn-up knee and can be even more dynamic as the Washington Redskins quarterback. Or whether Tim Tebow has a future in the NFL in New England. And how the Ravens will handle losing team leaders Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, while Joe Flacco tries to justify the huge contract he received as a Super Bowl-winning quarterback.
The television networks are already salivating about what they hope will be a ratings bonanza, starting when the champion Ravens visit Peyton Manning and the Broncos to open the season on Thursday night, Sept. 5.
”The NFL always provides an element of surprise, and that is a part of the intrigue that makes it so popular,” Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said. ”It’s hard to predict who can be the champions at this point, because it’s a great unknown that changes as the year goes on. It’s not always the top team over the season that wins, but the one able to perform the best when it means the most. And that element is always exciting about an NFL season.”
Lots of points and big plays tend to excite fans the most, and the copycat NFL could feature even more up-tempo offenses now that Chip Kelly has brought his go-go-go quack attack from Oregon to Philadelphia. If it works for one team – as it has for the high-powered, fast-draw offenses in New England, New Orleans, San Francisco and Green Bay, for example – then just about everyone tries it.
Kelly downplays the speed of his offense, but throughout the league, look for no-huddles, quick snaps out of a variety of formations, and lots of passing.
”There are certain plays we can call where we don’t need the defense to be set,” Kelly said, ”and there are other plays where we need to get the right look to get in the right play. But a lot of that, from a speed standpoint, we never say we want plays snapped in X amount of seconds or anything like that.”
Those fast-paced offenses from Foxborough to Philly, Louisiana to Lambeau Field won’t have to deal with likely Hall of Famers Lewis and Brian Urlacher in the middle of the field. They retired, along with NFL champions Matt Birk, Jeff Saturday and Donald Driver.
Replacing veterans everywhere are lots of rookies – a good crop but nowhere near the quarterbacking caliber of last year’s trio of RG3, Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson.
”We now get more coaches in pro football, and offensive and defensive coordinators, who know they got to play these young guys,” former Jets and Chiefs coach Herm Edwards said. ”I have always been big about playing young guys; if he knows what to do, we have got to play him. And that’s what you will see.”
The coaching carousel spun frantically, with one-quarter of those jobs changing. Aside from Kelly bringing his offensive wizardry from Oregon to the Eagles, Andy Reid, fired following 14 seasons in Philadelphia, immediately landed as coach of the Chiefs. Kansas City is a strong candidate for most improved team under Reid’s guidance and with quarterback Alex Smith acquired from San Francisco.
The 49ers, who came alive after the Superdome blackout and nearly stole the title from Baltimore, are among the favorites to reach the Meadowlands next February for the first outdoor Super Bowl at a cold-weather site. The Giants and Jets, co-owners of MetLife Stadium, talk bravely about becoming the first team to host and play in the Big Game, but that’s a long shot.
Denver, which added prolific Wes Welker to its receiving corps for Peyton Manning – a blow to major rival New England – also is among the hot choices to reach what could be a frigid Super Bowl.
Then there’s Adrian Peterson’s pursuit of a second straight 2,000-yard rushing season for Minnesota. No one has ever come close, but no one has ever come off a wrecked knee to do what Peterson achieved in 2012, winning MVP honors.
If Peterson doesn’t grab the spotlight, maybe it will be Tom Brady with his arm, Calvin Johnson with his hands, J.J. Watt with his swats, or Darrelle Revis with his picks. Regardless, rest assured much of the nation will be watching – and checking their fantasy stats, too.