As most of the country turns its attention to Super Bowl XLVII, for 30 of the 32 NFL teams the only thing that matters now is the 2013 season. Sure, the world’s biggest annual party will be special this year, as it always is, when it takes place in the French Quarter in New Orleans. But at the end of the day, as in this moment, the 30 clubs that won’t be there are already totally focused on how to get to New York next year for Super Bowl XLVIII. That got me to thinking about next year for all of us, and what are likely to be the 10 biggest stories of 2013.
1. Player safety: This will be the most important issue and biggest story around the National Football League for the foreseeable future. Beyond our concern for players’ well-being — which should be everyone’s primary concern — rules changes that have already been put in place have sparked significant controversy among players and fans alike as to whether or not they are damaging the game as we know it, perhaps even irreparably in some cases. In addition to that, the numerous fines now being issued on a weekly basis, many seemingly unnecessarily and even arbitrarily, will detract from the games more and more as they pile up, and the biggest story will be the need for the players themselves to have more of a voice, at least some voice in how the league is trying to protect them.
2. Goodell’s reputation: The second biggest story in the NFL in 2013 may very well be an adjunct to No. 1. How damaged is the relationship between commissioner Roger Goodell and the players as a result of “Bountygate,” and the constant, and some believe, excessive fining of players with no real due process. The Collective Bargaining Agreement that governs this relationship is locked in for eight more seasons. So, the question is will Goodell choose to acknowledge and deal with this issue, either publicly or privately, and if not, how dangerous is it to the well-being of the game?
3. Early hot-seat coaches: While December 31, 2012 was an NFL “Black Monday” of epic proportions, the ’13 NFL season still starts with a near unprecedented number of head coaches on the bubble. At the top of the list will be Jim Schwartz in Detroit and Rex Ryan in New York, both of whom will probably have more stories written this offseason about their chances of keeping their jobs than we’ll see about the teams’ likely fortunes for the coming season. Tennessee’s Mike Munchak, Carolina’s Ron Rivera, Dallas’ Jason Garrett and Oakland’s Dennis Allen were all also reported to be in real jeopardy in ’12, so we have to assume they will all be on short leashes in the fall, and you have to believe anything short of an AFC title game appearance for the Texans will have some calling for the job of Gary Kubiak.
4. Diversity in the NFL: There has been a great deal of wailing and gnashing of teeth over the fact that none of the seven general manager and eight head-coaching openings filled in the last few weeks went to minorities, and many of the league’s higher-ups want answers and guarantees that minority hires in management positions will increase. As a result, the Rooney Rule will now almost certainly be extended to coordinator positions. But will it be enough? The fact is it’s not only possible but likely that the shutout thrown at minorities this year is because the best candidates were not minorities, and there will be endless discussion in 2013 as to what more beyond the extension of the Rooney Rule can be done to fix the problem.
5. Gimmicky offenses: Will every team in the NFL set out in search of a “pistol/read-option” offense and a uniquely skilled QB to run it, much like Robert Griffin III, Colin Kaepernick and Cam Newton in today’s copycat NFL? I suspect not. The half-life on the “Wildcat” was about 18 months, and the Pistol won’t be too different, in part because it can be defensed with a little time to scheme and practice, and in part because there just aren’t enough QBs capable of running it at this level. But there will be a ton of ink and bandwidth devoted to it.
6. HGH testing: As part of the 10-year CBA agreed to by the owners and players just prior to the 2011 season, the players agreed to be tested for human growth hormones if a mutually agreeable testing procedure could be found. It is clearly in the best interest of the game, the players and fans to be sure NFL players are not using any performance-enhancing drugs — and particularly HGH. But two full seasons later, no testing for HGH is being done because the players continue to question the tests. 2013 will be the season in which media and fans begin to question the players’ sincerity on whether they really want to be tested, and pressure will build significantly as 2013 moves along for the players to honor their commitment.
7. Young guns: The 2013 season will mark the time to judge the young guns of 2011. The ’11 draft was heralded as one of the great quarterback classes of all time, and, in fact, Cam Newton had one of the greatest rookie seasons ever by a QB. But as we head into this season, the jury isn’t just still out on the first four drafted — Newton, Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert and Christian Ponder — it’s way out. While Andy Dalton and Colin Kaepernick were also part of that class and have performed well, the top picks have generated more questions than answers.
8. Encore, encore? Can Adrian Peterson, Peyton Manning, Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick do it again? These players were four of the biggest stories of 2012 mainly because almost no one saw their incredible seasons coming, and many have already started talking about whether they can do it again.
9. Pro Bowl’s future: Will the 2013 season be the year we finally say good bye to the Pro Bowl? There are reports Roger Goodell was ready to pull the plug on the game after the last Pro Bowl debacle, but the NFLPA stepped in and asked the commissioner to let them try and convince the players to put on a better show. What can the NFLPA possibly do to make that happen, and even if it is marginally better this year than it has been in recent seasons, is there any reason to believe it could be maintained? This one seems like a no-brainer to me: Get rid of it. But I’m sure there will be a ton of conversation on this one before we know the game’s fate at the end of next season.
10. 2013 surprise teams: In 2011, it was the 49ers, Lions and Broncos who came out of nowhere, and this year it was Seattle, Minnesota, Washington and Indianapolis. Who will be the surprise teams of ’13? If I knew that, they wouldn’t be surprises, but I’d keep a close eye on the Rams, Lions, Browns and Chiefs.