After an offseason filled with stories you couldn’t dream up – Robert Kraft’s prostitution charge at a Florida massage parlor and Antonio Brown’s frostbitten feet and great helmet showdown with the league – the NFL turns the attention where it likes it, back to the field with the Bears and Packers kicking off the 100th season Thursday at Soldier Field.
Storylines abound and none is greater than the Kraft’s Patriots, who are once again defending a Super Bowl title as the greatest dynasty in league history rolls on. The Patriots have posted 18 consecutive winning seasons, won the AFC East 10 straight years and have appeared in the last eight AFC title games.
Behind 42-year-old quarterback Tom Brady, the Patriots will be gunning for their seventh Lombardi Trophy. It remains to be seen if Kraft will be punished by the league for the massage parlor sting, but that should not affect what happens on the field where the Patriots have to adjust to life without tight end Rob Gronkowski, who retired.
There isn’t a player who can replace Gronkowski because he had a unique skill set. But the Patriots have reinvented their offense more than once under Brady and coach Bill Belichick. And, better than most teams, they have always tailored their attack to the strength of the personnel.
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels remains in place, but the Patriots did experience a greater loss of assistant coaches than usual during the offseason. The biggest departure came with defensive coordinator Brian Flores leaving to take over the Dolphins. This likely means Belichick will take a more hands-on approach with the defense, and he hardly has missed a beat after top lieutenants have bolted in the past.
The Patriots showed some cracks last season. They lost to the Jaguars and Lions, two teams that finished under .500, in the first three weeks before winning eight of their next nine. Eventually, the incredible sustained success New England has enjoyed will end.
Where will the Chiefs rank?
The greatest threat to the Patriots’ reign, besides Father Time, is the Chiefs, at least in the AFC. Kansas City fell just short against the Patriots in a 37-31 overtime shootout at Arrowhead Stadium. Patrick Mahomes returns after his remarkable MVP season, featuring 50 touchdown passes and 5,031 yards. The Chiefs no longer have dynamic running back Kareem Hunt, but wide receiver Tyreek Hill avoided suspension for his off-field turmoil.
The Chiefs’ biggest questions lie on defense, where Steve Spagnuolo has been hired to lead a revamped staff. They are converting to a base 4-3 scheme and have added defensive end Frank Clark and safety Tyrann Mathieu. The Chiefs aren’t going to be dominant defensively and questions remain, namely can they get a critical stop when needed in a big game? Including the conference championship game, the Chiefs scored 40, 51, 28, 31 and 31 points in their five losses. That can’t continue.
Besides the soap opera surrounding the Raiders and Jon Gruden in the franchise’s final season in Oakland, the other interesting storyline in the AFC is in Cleveland, of all places, the doormat of the conference for so much of the last two decades.
There never has been so much hype surrounding a team that has accomplished, well, next to nothing. The Browns won five of their final eight games to finish 7-8-1 last season, and they’ve added wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and Hunt (suspended for the first eight games) under aggressive general manager John Dorsey. Young gun quarterback Baker Mayfield seems to blend well with new coach Freddie Kitchens, and it should be a fascinating team to watch. Anything short of a playoff appearance, maybe even a postseason victory, would be a disappointment.
In the NFC, there is no shortage of contenders with the Bears and their elite defense firmly in the mix. The Saints with 40-year-old quarterback Drew Brees still believe they were robbed by the missed pass-interference call in the NFC championship game loss to the Rams. They need to develop more reliable options in the passing game to complement wide receiver Michael Thomas, and tight end Jared Cook is fitting in nicely. Their window remains open but only for so long under Brees, who threw 32 touchdowns with only five interceptions last season.
The Bears, after a worst-to-first turnaround led by coach Matt Nagy in his first season, are hoping to be more potent offensively with quarterback Mitch Trubisky in his second year in the offense. The defense was the No. 1 scoring unit in the league last season, creating a flurry of takeaways, so the coordinator transition from Vic Fangio to Chuck Pagano will be interesting to watch.
Rams still loaded
The defending NFC champion Rams remain loaded on both sides of the ball but have a huge question with running back Todd Gurley, whose production down the stretch last season was hampered by a left knee injury. During the offseason it was reported that Gurley has arthritis in the knee. Gurley is a major cog in the offense, and maintaining the health of a running back who had major injuries in college can be problematic.
The Eagles, after handling a slew of injuries last season, are reloaded with depth on both sides of the ball and should battle the Cowboys in the NFC East. In Green Bay, the defense could be significantly improved in coordinator Mike Pettine’s first season. Most of the questions surround how the arranged marriage between new coach Matt LaFleur and quarterback Aaron Rodgers will go.
Instant replay has been expanded to allow coaches to challenge pass-interference calls, something that will be interesting to track, especially in the first half of the season.
The league and the players’ union have started talks to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement with the current one set to expire after the 2020 season. There’s much more optimism for a deal being struck to avoid a work stoppage than there was in 2011.
But that can wait. With the NFL set to kick off its 100th season, the focus rightfully turns to the field.