A dramatic shift at quarterback. A 17-game season. Continued COVID-19 protocols. Uncertainty about whether the reigning MVP will return.
Oh, and of course, Tom Brady defending another Super Bowl championship.
Welcome to NFL 2021, as the league gears up for what is bound to be yet another riveting season. By Wednesday, all 32 teams will have hit the field for their first practices in a training camp grind leading up to the regular season, beginning with the Cowboys visiting Brady’s Buccaneers Sept. 9 in the Thursday night prime time opening act.
The storylines are dripping with intrigue. Here we go:
• Aaron Rodgers’ next move. We’ve never seen anything quite like this, with Rodgers coming off one of the greatest seasons of a Hall of Fame-caliber career yet not giving any assurances that he’ll report for practice this week. Rodgers insists none of this has to do with the team trading up last year to draft quarterback Jordan Love, but this scenario is eerily similar to when the Packers drafted Rodgers while Brett Favre still had plenty of good years left. The Packers have offered Rodgers a reworked contract that would make him the highest-paid quarterback in the game, but this doesn’t appear to be about the money. Gut feeling here: Rodgers does show up and plays with Green Bay this year, but somewhere else next season.Or does he announce his retirement to set the stage for moving on -- a la Favre? Stay tuned for what could be the biggest drama of the season.
• Is Matthew Stafford the answer in Los Angeles? Stafford was the headline act in a major quarterback reshuffling, as the Rams dealt away former No. 1 overall pick Jared Goff for the Lions’ veteran in hopes of getting back to the Super Bowl. Stafford is in a perfect place to thrive, with a coach in Sean McVay who has a great offensive scheme and a defense led by Aaron Donald that is championship caliber. The Rams will be major players in January – and possibly February, when Super Bowl LVI comes to Los Angeles.
• Brady, the once and future king. He’ll be 44 when the season starts, and still, we’re talking about Brady in Super Bowl superlatives. He comes off his seventh championship run — and fifth Super Bowl MVP — and you’d be silly to think he’s ready to suddenly lose his magic touch after all this time. Yes, he’s coming off knee surgery to correct a problem that bothered him all last season. But no, there’s no reason to suspect the Bucs won’t be contenders yet again. Especially with the roster remaining intact.
• Is Daniel Jones ready to take the next step? It’s the question of the year for the Giants, who continue to believe that Jones can be a playoff contending quarterback in Year 3. Dave Gettleman has surrounded him with more receiving talent in Kenny Golladay and Kadarius Toney, and Saquon Barkley figures to be back after starting training camp on the active/physically unable to perform list. So there will be no more excuses for Jones, who now needs to show more than just flashes.
• The Robert Saleh-Zach Wilson partnership. It’s a complete makeover for the Jets, who bring in Saleh for his first head coaching job and Wilson as Sam Darnold’s replacement. It’s a heavy lift for these two, especially with a rebuilt roster. But Jets fans can and should feel a sense of optimism about the long-term future of their team. It won’t happen overnight, but this team does seem headed in the right direction.
• Can Bill Belichick buy his way back into the playoffs? It was a stunning fall from grace for the Patriots last season, as Belichick, the most accomplished coach in NFL history with six Super Bowl titles, didn’t reach the playoffs for the first time in two decades. With Brady no longer able to cover up other roster weaknesses, Belichick went on a free-agent spending binge to reinvigorate his offense. And he selected Brady’s heir apparent, Mac Jones, out of Alabama. But with Cam Newton coming off a mediocre season, it feels as if this team is still not ready to get back in the Super Bowl conversation.
• It’s Buffalo’s division. While the Patriots figure to be improved and the Dolphins in good position after a promising, yet imperfect rookie season from Tua Tagovailoa, it’s the Bills that remain the class of the AFC East. Josh Allen isn’t in Patrick Mahomes’ class, but the Bills continue to be a reliable team making improvements each of the last three seasons. If they’re going to make a run, this could be the time.
• Kansas City is still the class of the AFC. No, they didn’t repeat as Super Bowl champions after laying an egg against the Buccaneers. Yes, they’re still the best team in the conference, and Mahomes is still the best quarterback in football. The Super Bowl loss will be a great source of motivation for Andy Reid’s team, so don’t be surprised if the AFC’s road to Los Angeles again goes through Kansas City.
• Continued COVID-19 controversy over protocols. A vocal minority of players continue to resist vaccination, which might lead to some infighting among teams that will be required to adhere to last year’s stringent protocols. In the end, especially with the threat of teams being faced with forfeiting games and players not being paid for games missed, the league will be mostly vaccinated to keep interruptions to a minimum.
• Dak’s back. The Cowboys’ season was doomed after Prescott suffered a season-ending ankle injury against the Giants, but he’s healthy and he’s got a long-term contract. Good news for a Dallas team that can think about contending again in a very winnable NFC East.