1. Messing with the PAT
A proposal to move the extra point to the 25-yard-line didn’t get approved at offseason owners’ meetings, but the league did decide to try out point afters from the 20 during the first two preseason games. The kick, which is currently essentially a 20-yard field goal, will be the equivalent of a 38-yarder and potentially could entice teams to attempt more two-point conversions. The league seems to want to do something to make the point after touchdown attempts more exciting and while nothing new will take effect during the 2014 regular season, it’s something to keep an eye on moving forward.
2. Washington Redskins name controversy
Team owner Daniel Snyder continues to be defiant in his stance against changing the team’s name, forming the “Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation” in the offseason as a means to provide “action, not words” to disenfranchised Native American communities. Regardless of Snyder’s charitable actions and motives, there is a significant amount of the population that considers the name a racial slur, one that includes several former players. That vocal opposition doesn’t look to go away anytime soon, making this a storyline that will likely remain relevant through the 2014 season and beyond.
3. The 49ers’ commitment to Aldon Smith
The talented outside linebacker has 42 sacks in his first three seasons but has been a huge question mark off the field, going through treatment for substance abuse last fall after a DUI arrest and a disturbance at Los Angeles International Airport (for which he will not face charges) and weapons charges in a separate 2012 incident. The team picked up his 2015 option anyway, although he could still be released for non-injury reasons without consequence to the team. Other than the recovery of fellow linebacker NaVorro Bowman from a knee injury, Smith’s ability to play at a high level while staying out of trouble could be the determining factor in how successful the 49ers’ vaunted defense can be in 2014.
4. The Seahawks’ quest to repeat
Seattle was the fourth youngest team in the NFL when they won the Super Bowl last season, giving plenty of plausible reason to the theory that the Seahawks will be the first team to capture two titles in a row since the Patriots did it a decade ago. That cloud will be hanging over Pete Carroll’s group, which lost receivers Golden Tate and Doug Baldwin and defensive linemen Chris Clemons and Red Bryant in the offseason, but returns all of the other key components of their championship lineup.
5. Peyton and Tom’s closing windows
Peyton Manning is 38. Tom Brady will be 37 in August. While both quarterbacks are still playing at a Pro Bowl level, the window for each of them to add another Super Bowl ring is rapidly closing. Both players have the surrounding talent to win the AFC, especially Manning’s Broncos, who added Demarcus Ware, Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward in the offseason to shore up their defense. Neither player seems ready to talk about retirement just yet, but with 38-year-old John Elway the oldest signal-caller to win a Super Bowl, both signal-callers are approaching new territory if they hope to hoist at least one more Lombardi Trophy.
6. The New York Jets’ quarterback situation
The team signed Michael Vick ostensibly to back up second-year quarterback Geno Smith. That’s the party line the team has been going with all offseason, with Vick himself echoing those sentiments in May, telling reporters the “goal is to try to help Geno become the best quarterback he can be.” If Smith makes a big jump in performance from the first day of training camp, that’ll be an easy objective to accomplish. Yet if the WVU product struggles off the bat, the pressure will quickly fall on head coach Rex Ryan to give the veteran his shot at leading the team. Ryan signed a contract extension in January so the QB decision won’t likely affect his status, although after two seasons of instability at the position, getting it right this year has to be a priority.
7. The possibility of playoff expansion
It seems inevitable that the league will eventually broaden the number of teams that make the postseason, with the first discussion happening at the spring owners meetings at the end of May. Whether that growth occurs in 2014 or in the years beyond, the massive popularity of the league’s playoffs (and attached television revenue) makes the prospect a possible financial windfall for the league. How it affects the play (does this mean an extra week of the postseason? Does the top seed get two bye weeks? A shortened preseason?) is unclear.
8. The fate of the Buffalo Bills
The death of owner Ralph Wilson leaves an uncertain future in the team’s destiny. The franchise is obligated to remain in Buffalo through the 2019 season, although they are not locked down beyond that. There is a strong presence in Western New York (including Gov. Andrew Cuomo) seeking to help the NFL find an owner who would commit to keeping the team local, but Wilson’s estate is currently hiring an investment banking firm that would oversee the sale of the team, most likely to the highest bidder. The NFL owners would have to approve the sale, which could happen as soon as this fall.
9. Is Robert Griffin III still a franchise quarterback?
The guy who starred as a rookie before blowing out his knee certainly had the looks of a budding superstar. The tentative second-year player who seemed uncertain in the pocket and ended the season on the bench at the whim of his lame-duck coach and offensive coordinator? Not so much. The Redskins have brought in an offensive-minded head coach in Jay Gruden and added the dynamic DeSean Jackson to a Washington offense that certainly gives Griffin a good opportunity to shine.
10. The Dallas Cowboys try to avoid a fourth-consecutive 8-8 season
It’s been a pretty mediocre run for America’s Team over the past three years, but Jerry Jones has remained loyal to head coach Jason Garrett and quarterback Tony Romo during the course of that tenure. At some point, the Cowboys’ failure to make the playoffs since 2009 will have to make their owner clean house, unless they give him reason not to. The Cowboys’ early schedule doesn’t do them any favors. They’ll face the 49ers, Saints and Seahawks in three of their first six games.
11. Are the Texans the next team to go from worst to the playoffs?
In 2011, the Indianapolis Colts had the worst record in the NFL. They landed Andrew Luck in the 2012 draft and found themselves in the AFC playoffs the next two years. And then there was Kansas City. The league’s worst team in 2012 went and got themselves a new coach, quarterback and the top overall pick in the 2013 draft and found themselves in the postseason last year. That bodes well for the Texans and new coach Bill O’Brien, who add the top overall pick to a lineup that already includes J.J. Watt, Brian Cushing, Arian Foster and Andre Johnson. If everyone stays healthy, the Texans should at least equal their 2013 win total by October
12. No peace on Thanksgiving
With no AFC teams required to play in the CBS game, the NFL decided to give the public three fierce NFC rivalry games on a day when the rest of the country will be giving thanks and celebrating peace. The action kicks off with the Bears at the Lions in the early game, followed by Philly at Dallas and then concluding with one of the most bitter current matchups, the Seahawks and 49ers. Usually there’s at least one stinker among the three holiday games. Doesn’t look that way this year.
13. Is Eli Manning due for a bounceback year?
After one of the worst seasons of his career, the New York Giants quarterback had offseason ankle surgery to fix some of the damage he suffered while on the receiving end of a career high 39 sacks. His league-leading 27 interceptions were also the worst mark of his ten seasons and while you can point to a limited supporting cast, could the 32-year-old actually be declining faster than his 38-year-old brother?
14. Michael Sam
After being selected by St. Louis, we know where the Missouri defensive end is going to be attending training camp. The question for the NFL’s first openly gay active player now remains what he can do on the field and just how much continued attention he’ll receive.