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Seven NFL predictions for 2014

9/4/2014

Of course. Two of the NFL's best teams will kick off the 2014 season Thursday night -- and all you want to talk about is some random play that happened two years ago in a dark period of NFL history.

Fail Mary? Thpptttt. You still don't think Golden Tate caught the ball? You're waiting for Roger Goodell to invoke his right to reverse outcomes? You're incredulous the NFL would open itself to outside influence by substituting woefully underqualified officials as leverage in collective bargaining? You're still following T.J. Lang after he posted the most re-tweeted tweet of all time?

Nope? Me neither. Over it.

I, for one, am far too focused on the crucial nuts and bolts of this game -- and the upcoming season -- to get worked up about the most recent time the Green Bay Packers visited the Seattle Seahawks. This is all business. I want to see if quarterback Aaron Rodgers can withstand the Seahawks' fierce pass rush and if his girlfriend, Oliva Munn, is in the stands to watch it. I'm pumped to break down how Richard Sherman matches up with Jordy Nelson -- in between viewings of his latest Campbell's Soup ad.

Nothing generates deep discussion of strategy, scheme and precision like the NFL. How will the Cleveland Browns find a deep threat after the suspension of Josh Gordon? (And what club will Johnny Manziel hit after their first game?) Will Robert Griffin III respond to new expectations as a pocket passer? (And who will be the next world leader to speak out against the Washington Redskins' team name?) How in the name of doomsday will the Dallas Cowboys field a competitive defense? (And can owner Jerry Jones find a way to market a practice squad player?)

So many questions, so little time in the film room. So for your collective preparation efforts, here is a touchdown's worth of predictions for the 2014 NFL season. Carve them in stone, bet the house on them, and if I'm wrong, feel free to call me at (555) 555-5555.

1. Officiating will be better

Yes, I know. We spent the entire preseason freaking out about a spike of penalties for illegal contact and defensive holding, two key points of emphasis dictated by the NFL's competition committee. I'm well aware that officials called almost the same number of those penalties in 69 preseason games (271) as they did in 256 regular-season games (285) in 2013.

But it's also worth taking a breath and reiterating that the rate dropped sharply in the final week of the preseason as all sides adjusted. The rate will still be higher than in 2013, but I wouldn't expect anything close to what we saw in the first few weeks of the preseason.

Aside from that issue, the league took several important steps this offseason in response to a rough go of it in 2013. It replaced three referees and a total of 13 officials, the biggest turnover in more than a decade. New instant replay assistance from the league office will make the system more accurate and quicker -- by nearly 20 seconds per review, according to vice president of officiating Dean Blandino -- and officials will communicate better now via wireless headsets.

I still expect to see plenty of disputed calls, and I'm not sure how to quantify improvement. But there is no doubt this operation is moving in the right direction.

2. Russell Wilson will be elite . . .

By the time the season is over, the Seahawks' quarterback will no longer be the target of condescending compliments. He won't be known as a winner, a game manager or surprisingly strong-armed for his size. No, Wilson will be one regarded as one of the absolute best quarterbacks -- and passers -- in the NFL. Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Drew Brees will have no choice but to let him into their club.

This preseason, Wilson looked like a Ph.D. student who has submitted his dissertation. Preseason results are to be taken lightly -- sorry, just expunging the final drops of condescension -- but Wilson was the best player on the field this summer. He accounted for six touchdowns in three games while completing 31 of 37 passes for 400 yards. Wilson looked for all the world like a player on the brink of an individual breakout, one that will force the Seahawks to place him among the league's highest-paid players when he's eligible for a contract extension this spring.

3. . . . and Johnny Manziel, uh, won't

Manziel (6-foot) has drawn plenty of comparisons to Wilson (5-11) because of their height, but the associations should end there. This summer, Manziel revealed a big-play attitude but offered no confirmation that he has the physical attributes to carry it out.

There's reason to believe Manziel's inaccurate passing (47.9 percent in the preseason) can improve over time. But what made him a special college player was his ability to break the pocket and pressure defenses on the edge. Those expecting him to play that way in the NFL saw good instincts but not the kind of speed that suggests he can make a living doing it. Instead, we were reminded that Manziel (4.68 seconds in the 40-yard dash) isn't nearly as fleet as players who have pressured defenses with speed in recent years. Griffin (4.41), Wilson (4.55) and Colin Kaepernick (4.53) were all considerably faster when drafted.

Manziel will get on the field, but he'll conjure more images of Troy Smith than Russell Wilson this season.

4. Texans will regret QB approach

The Houston Texans made the right call in bypassing Manziel at No. 1 overall, despite the pleading of some fans. But they'll rue both the day they allowed the Minnesota Vikings to leapfrog them for Teddy Bridgewater at No. 32 overall and the day after, when they passed up Derek Carr at No. 33.

There is no more important job for a new coach than to identify his quarterback, and Bill O'Brien almost certainly won't do that in his first season. Evidence of concern surfaced last week, when the Texans acquired the mildly touted Ryan Mallett to join a mix of journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick and could-miss prospect Tom Savage. In all likelihood, the Texans have pushed this critical question into O'Brien's second year. Texans fans should prepare to hear a ton about Marcus Mariota, Jameis Winston and Brett Hundley, the quarterback trio that should lead the 2015 draft.

5. A big-time coach is in his final season

I'm just not sure who yet. Will it be Tom Coughlin, the 68-year-old New York Giants coach whose team might need a rebuild? Coughlin has won two Super Bowls, but he has also missed the playoffs four of the past five seasons. Would the Giants move on if that streak becomes five of the past six?

What about Marvin Lewis? In resurrecting the Cincinnati Bengals, Lewis has made the playoffs five times but now holds the NFL record for coaching the most games (176) without a postseason victory. The Bengals will have their hands full in a tougher AFC North, and Lewis will be coaching without two treasured coordinators, Jay Gruden and Mike Zimmer. Is this the year Lewis must win a playoff game to keep his job?

Then there's Jim Harbaugh, whose contract negotiations with the 49ers have been put on hold until after the season. Plenty of smoke arose this offseason about internal discord and even a potential trade to the Browns. Some consider Harbaugh's personality to be a supernova -- burning brightly for a short time before it explodes.

Jeff Fisher might be facing the biggest challenge in St. Louis. After consecutive seven-win seasons in the game's toughest division, Fisher has again lost his starting quarterback for the year. Has he built his defense into a strong enough group to carry the Rams into the playoffs? Otherwise, he's headed toward his fifth consecutive non-playoff season. The most recent time a Jeff Fisher team won a postseason game? The 2003 Tennessee Titans.

6. Marc Trestman's reputation as a "quarterback whisperer" will swell . . .

. . . when Josh McCown goes back to being Josh McCown, when Jay Cutler continues his refinement and when Jimmy Clausen (!) survives as the Chicago Bears' backup.

McCown had an undeniably great season in 2013. He finished with the NFL's top Total Quarterback Rating (85.1) and threw 13 touchdowns with just one interception. That performance got him a starting job with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but the Trestman blip in McCown's career is too obvious to ignore.

Before teaming up with Trestman, McCown was a 58 percent passer with a 13-20 career record as a starter and seven more interceptions (44) than touchdowns (37). What's more likely: that he suddenly figured it all out in his 11th season, or that Trestman found a special connection?

McCown's performance overshadowed what turned out to be the best season of Cutler's career (66.4 QBR, 89.2 rating). With a settled offensive line and the Brandon Marshall/Alshon Jeffery receiving duo, Cutler has every opportunity to continue blossoming under Trestman. And if Clausen -- who was out of football in 2013 -- proves anywhere close to a credible backup, as the Bears are counting on, then it'll be time to recognize Trestman as the NFL's top quarterback guru.

7. This will be the last season of the extra point as we know it

Enjoy it while you can. League officials were pleased with an experiment that called for 33-yard extra points in the first two weeks of the preseason. It resulted in eight misses, albeit in some cases by place-kickers who won't be in the league in 2014. At this point, however, the NFL wants something other than a sure thing moving forward -- and the past season's 99.8 conversion rate was pretty darn close.

One alternative to keep an eye on: Some coaches and players want to see the spot moved from the 2- to the 1-yard line. That shift, as the theory goes, would encourage more teams to go for two points -- a decidedly more exciting play than an extra point from any distance. In either event, start getting your autographed prints now. The closeout sale has started.