The NFL year officially commenced on Thursday, with the Cowboys notching a 24-20 victory over the Dolphins in the first preseason game of 2013. That’s right— regular season football is just around the corner, so it’s time to address three burning questions facing NFC teams this fall.
1. How will Chip Kelly’s spread-option attack transition to the NFL?
When the season kicks off, all eyes will be trained on Philadelphia’s Week 1 matchup with the Washington Redskins—and not just to see RGIII’s return from a playoff ACL tear. New coach Chip Kelly’s fast-paced, spread-option offense arguably poses the biggest question mark facing any team this season. Kelly brings more than a game-changing offense; he brings a technological, outside-the-box approach to every aspect of the football process, and he’s not exactly revealing his methods.
Kelly has kept his offensive strategy and schemes under wraps, and the football universe will have to wait until September 9th to see how Kelly’s Oregon attack is adjusted for the big leagues. The success of Kelly’s system (or lack thereof) will have far-reaching implications that extend past Philadelphia; he is essentially serving as a guinea pig for new-wave thinking, and a smooth transition will lead the way for other football pioneers to get a shot with other NFL franchises. For now, though, the bigger picture plays second-fiddle to Kelly’s first task: to vastly improve on the Eagles’ NFC-worst 4-12 record.
2. Will Sam Bradford make the most of a new surrounding cast in St. Louis?
Quarterback Sam Bradford’s fourth NFL season has been well-established as a crucial year for the Rams’ signal-caller, especially considering the help he’s been given this offseason. St. Louis brought in underperforming tight end Jared Cook from Tennessee, and the fifth-year pro has already developed excellent report with his new quarterback. Despite the loss of long-time RB Steven Jackson, the trio of Isaiah Pead, Daryl Richardson, and fifth-round rookie Zac Stacy are expected to share the rushing load, and an improved passing attack should open up running lanes for the three-headed monster.
The addition of West Virginia slot-man Tavon Austin in the first round is arguably the biggest reason to hold Bradford to a high standard in 2013. The praise heaped on Austin since his arrival in St. Louis has no bounds; respected talent evaluator Mike Mayock said that Austin “might be the most explosive player I've ever seen in my life,” an endorsement unlikely to quell expectations for the rookie receiver. Mayock added that Austin is “almost impossible to cover in short spaces,” which, if true to any degree, should set the Rams up for a much-improved offensive attack. The jury is still out, though, and it remains to be seen how Jeff Fisher will cater his offense to a new cast of starting backs and pass-catchers.
3. Can Sean Payton restore the Saints to pre-Bountygate form?
The return of head coach and amateur bodybuilder Sean Payton to the Saints’ sideline is one of the NFL’s least-discussed storylines, but may prove to be a crucial factor in the NFC playoff race. The 2013 Saints sported a 32nd-ranked defense that, miraculously, looked even worse on the field than their dead-last ranking suggests. New Orleans’ defensive unit wasn’t content with merely finishing as the far-and-away worst defense of 2013; they dug in their heels, stepped up (down?), and proceeded to allow the most yards in NFL history. The Saints’ 1st-ranked pass attack was a result of equal parts Drew Brees and weekly-deficits-caused-by-a-helpless-defense, and Payton is looking to revive New Orleans’ 25th-ranked ground game.
The Saints brought in defensive guru and Jerry Garcia lookalike Rob Ryan to help spark the side of the ball where Drew Brees can’t be of service, while Payton will look to bring the offense back to dominant form. Former 2011 first-round pick Mark Ingram has been turning heads in training camp, and with his first fully-healthy offseason, the running back may finally have the breakout season he’s failed to notch through two seasons. While the Saints can be tentatively expected to display balance and confidence they desperately lacked in 2012, Payton’s return to the sideline may bring unforeseen curveballs. New Orleans will look to rebound from their disappointing 2013 campaign, and much of the credit and/or blame will fall on Payton’s shoulders.