In just over a week, another NFL season will be upon us, but we are already inundated with the prognosticators, the wags, the people who tell us they are smarter than us and who “know” who is going to win this year. On July 6, before training camps even began, Forbes came out with its picks for division winners. USA Today at least had the decency to wait until training camps got underway, but as early as July 27, they informed us that the Pittsburgh Steelers will defeat the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl LI. Also popular in a league with a great deal of parity is the effort by some experts to try and outsmart other experts by picking unheralded teams; an August 12 Bleacher Report article proclaimed the Baltimore Ravens, Indianapolis Colts, and Minnesota Vikings its “dark horse” picks to win the Super Bowl .
The first thing fans need to remember, though, heading into the season is not to listen to the experts. In September 2015, Sports Illustrated picked the Ravens to win Super Bowl 50 . Fresh off a near-upset of the New England Patriots in the 2014 playoffs, this seemed like a decent pick. Last year, however, the Ravens didn’t even make it to the playoffs, outpaced by the Bengals and Steelers in their own division. SI is historically notorious for making picks that don’t hold up, going back to the cover jinx. Their bad picks go farther than the magazine covers, though; “expert” Peter King, for example, predicted in 2007 that “Jon Kitna would be better than Brett Favre and J.P. Losman would be better than Eli Manning.” Kitna and Losman dropped off the face of the earth, and Favre and Manning met in the NFC Championship Game .
So why not just junk predictions altogether and go into this new season enjoying each game minute by minute and living in the moment? Indeed, as ESPN’s “Mr. Football,” Chris Berman, told audiences for decades on NFL Primetime, that’s why they play the game. The smart NFL viewer should know that predictions are meaningless, that the breathless pre-game touting by NFL Countdown, The NFL Today on CBS, or FOX NFL Sunday should go or how a game is going to go, are a bunch of bunk. With that in mind, I take a brief look at three hot questions heading into the 2016 NFL season, posing alternative storylines the “thinking” fan should look for regarding these issues which transcend the typical sports predictions.
1. Who will become the better quarterback, Jameis Winston or Marcus Mariota?
Heading into the 2015 season, the near-unanimous expectation from prognosticators was that Winston would have a better season than Mariota, that Winston was more NFL-ready, and generally more talented. Statistically, the numbers bore that prediction out over the 16-game season. But Mariota showed flashes of greatness during a season frustrated by injury, a coaching change, and a team that was overall far inferior to Winston’s Tampa Bay squad (and don’t forget that Mariota and the Titans creamed the Bucs in their head-to-head matchup in Week 1). Thinking fans should head into 2016 realizing that the jury is still out on this rivalry, no matter what judgments the critics may have made. The Titans should be an improved squad, having particularly made upgrades on the offensive side of the ball. The Bucs should benefit just by the virtue of being in the same division as the Super Bowl runner-up, because no Super Bowl loser since Buffalo in 1993 has made it back to the big game the next year. Last year Seattle started an ugly 2-4 and barely made it to the playoffs. If Carolina indeed has a post-Super Bowl hangover, the Bucs will be in position to take advantage in the NFC South. Don’t be surprised, then, if both Winston and Mariota have great seasons, and the question of “better quarterback” switches to “when will these guys meet in the Super Bowl?” Or, will both QBs turn out to be busts in the end and this whole drama played up for nothing?
2. Will we see a greater crackdown on hard hits after the Bengals’ playoff meltdown last year?
After suffering what might have been the worst loss any team has suffered in any sport in the wild-card round in January, Cincinnati responded by holding the ship steady, returning key cogs of the 2015 team and coaching staff (minus the suspended Vontaze Burfict for three games). How will the NFL respond to harder hits? Recent history suggests the league will continue its pattern of throwing personal foul flags far more frequently in the regular season than in the postseason, but will it extend the trend to the playoffs? In addition, there’s a new rule stipulating that a player will get tossed for committing two personal fouls of any kind. Look for more ejections, especially early in the season as players adjust to the new rule. Will it increase player safety? Critical, thinking fans know that there are many plays within a game where players get their skulls rattled on which no flags are thrown, often because they are away from the ball. The hit that ended Seattle receiver Ricardo Lockette’s career comes to mind. So expect the answer to be “yes and no” to the question of whether or not more personal foul will improve player safety. If hard hits occur near the ball, we might expect more flags and ejections, and thus a greater emphasis on safety, but away-from-the-ball hits are still going to be less scrutinized.
3. What’s up with the NFL broadcasting drama this offseason?
Mike Tirico left his prominent ESPN role on Monday Night Football to go over to NBC and call its new Thursday Night Football package with Cris Collinsworth. Except that last week, the NFL put the kibosh on the deal, stipulating a clause in its contract with CBS and NBC to call 10 Thursday Night Football games that each network’s #1 Sunday broadcast pair also has to do the Thursday games. So Tirico will (at least temporarily) hit the sidelines. Sporting News hailed the move in a recent op-ed, but I’m not so sure. So now NBC just has to stash one of the game’s relatively young top announcers? Why wear out the 71-year old Michaels, one of the all-time greats? NBC and the NFL also might risk courting a #NFLBroadcastersAreSoWhite situation with this move, since this leaves only studio guys Curt Menefee (FOX) and James Brown (CBS) as notable African American NFL announcers (Tom Jackson recently retired from ESPN). Clearly Tirico is the heir apparent to Michaels as the voice of the NFL, and calling Thursday night games would have been a great way to ease him into the Sunday night chair, perhaps as soon as when Michaels’ contract expires after Super Bowl LII in 2018. It’ll be interesting to see if, in the light of growing Internet outrage and how Michaels feels late in the season, the NFL and the networks revisit this issue. It could even force the NFL to reconsider the idea of Thursday night games altogether. Yes, they are great moneymakers for the league, but the games’ quality has been lackluster since they started in 2006, and players and coaches loathe the short weeks. Once the broadcasters start to complain as well, maybe we’ll see some change.
There are many more mini-dramas that I haven’t even touched upon: touchbacks moving up to the 25-yard line, the Brady suspension, Jacksonville’s aggressive moves toward contention, Denver’s QB controversy, the Rams’ move to L.A., etc. Bottom line is that there is so much more to this game than trying to guess week to week who is going to win. Sporting News picks the Steelers to win the Super Bowl this year, meaning you can probably count them out.. More even than in college football, the NFL has taught us to sit back every week and enjoy the drama, because predictions are often dashed and dark-horse contenders (Baltimore in 2012, last year’s Broncos) often get hot and rise to become champions.
 Last year, Sporting News picked Green Bay to win; the Pack lost in the divisional round to Arizona. In 2014, they picked San Francisco, which went 8-8 and missed the playoffs in Jim Harbaugh’s disastrous last season as coach.