PROTESTS, HELMET RULES, & FIERCE COMPETITION: WHAT TO WATCH FOR THIS NFL SEASON

Tommy Ciatto

When the green and white confetti came pouring down onto the field inside U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, celebrating the Philadelphia Eagles’ first ever Super Bowl victory, it served as a defining moment of an NFL season that was remarkably different than any in the league’s nearly one hundred years of existence. While some of the story lines from the previous season will carry over, an off season full of rule changes and roster moves promises an exciting 2018 season, which kicked off in Philadelphia with the reigning champs defeating the Atlanta Falcons by a score of 18-12. This article is not intended to make predictions about the season, but instead to provide story lines for every fan to observe as the season progresses.

National Anthem

Capture.PNG

Over two years ago, former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began his protest of electing not to stand for the national anthem, sparking a movement and controversy that has politicized the entire league as well as polarized the country. The 2017 season saw heightened tension over this act of protest following Donald Trump’s comments on the issue, with the President saying, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a b—- off the field right now. Out. He’s fired. He’s fired.'” A dramatic increase in kneeling players quickly ensued following the President’s comments. Over the next few weeks, however, the number of kneeling players gradually reduced to the point where only a handful of players were kneeling at the end of the season.

During the off-season, the National Football League decided to add fuel to the waning flame by instating a new rule that teams will be fined if players sit or kneel during the anthem; however, players are allowed to stay in the locker room during the anthem if they wish. The matter was made worse when a leak showed that the Miami Dolphins filed a document stating they would impose up to a four game suspension for players who protested during the anthem. Following severe backlash from around the league and the NFL Players Association, the NFL in July put out a statement saying they were planning on putting enforcement of the rule on hold.

Major broadcast channels of games such as CBS, Fox, and ESPN have all decided or are considering not even showing the anthem on live television to avoid the controversy. The NFL choosing to side with the owners on this deeply emotional issue has not gone over well with the players, so expect a continuation of these protests throughout the season.

New Tackling Rule

Capture.PNG

Over the past several years, concussions have become a serious issue plaguing the NFL and the sport of football as a whole. Research into CTE, a degenerative brain disease that is believed to be caused by continuous blows to the head, has revealed horrifying long term symptoms of concussions from playing football. Strong public opinion along with research into head injuries has forced the NFL to implement rules to make the game safer. In March, the league owners approved a new rule that states,“it is a foul if a player lowers his head to initiate and make contact with his helmet against an opponent.” This rule has been coined the “Helmet Rule”. Previous rules have been instituted to remove helmet-to-helmet contact, however none have been as confusing or dramatic as this new rule.

The 2018 preseason saw the first live game action under the rule, and the transition was everything short of easy. The vague wording of the rule coupled with a new corp of referees has generated a perfect storm of confusion for players and fans alike. In the 2018 preseason, the rule led to ejections and fines on tackles that just a season ago were not even a ten-yard penalty.

Cincinnati Bengals’ safety Shawn Williams was the first player to be ejected under this rule in the regular season for his hit on Colts’ quarterback Andrew Luck in their Week 1 match up. As is usual when instating new rules, the first few weeks of the season will likely be full of chaos and contradiction regarding the Helmet Rule. Nonetheless, a rule with this drastic of a change may take longer before it settles out.

 

Return of Injured Stars

Capture.PNG

The NFL season is always filled with injuries. The violent nature of the game makes them unavoidable. The 2017 season in particular saw an absurd number of the league’s biggest stars crippled by injury. Pro Bowl players and household names such as J.J. Watt, Aaron Rodgers, Andrew Luck, David Johnson, and Odell Beckham Jr. all suffered season ending injuries. Rising stars in the league including MVP candidate Carson Wentz and rookie phenoms Deshaun Watson and Dalvin Cook all were victims of ACL tears.

The good news for fans and the players alike is that most of these injured stars are cleared and are active on Sundays. Despite tearing his ACL in December, Carson Wentz is ahead of schedule (but has yet to be cleared by team doctors). Odell Beckham Jr. didn’t lose a step, going off for 11 catches and 111 yards against the dominant Jacksonville secondary, and Aaron Rodgers looked like his vintage self in a come-from-behind victory against the Chicago Bears. Sundays were not the same without these stars taking the field, and fans of all teams are hoping that these players can play all 16 games this coming season.

Stacked NFC

Capture.PNG

Through trades and signings, the NFC saw an unprecedented increase in talent amongst its rosters this off-season. The defending champion Philadelphia Eagles boosted their already monsterous defensive line by adding Michael Bennett and Haloti Ngata to play alongside Brandon Graham and Fletcher Cox. The Eagles also have Jason Peters, Jordan Hicks, and Darren Sproles returning from injury.

The Los Angeles Rams, after a spectacular turn-around year under head coach Sean McVay, made blockbuster move after blockbuster move this off season. In addition to their already talented roster, they added 2-time All-Pro cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib, 5-time All-Pro Ndamukong Suh to play next to reigning Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald, as well as Pro Bowl wide receiver Brandin Cooks. With quarterback Jared Goff still under his rookie deal, the Rams are following the model perfected by the Eagles last season by heavily buying-in to their roster and making a legitimate push for the Super Bowl.

Both the New Orleans Saints and Minnesota Vikings, after years of excellent drafts, have built young rosters that can compete with the Eagles and Rams. The Saints aced the 2017 draft, snagging the Offensive and Defensive Rookies of the Year, running back Alvin Kamara and cornerback Marshon Lattimore, respectively. Kamara and Lattimore are part of an elite young core for the Saints that includes Mark Ingram, Michael Thomas, and Cameron Jordan. Still led by future Hall of Famer Drew Brees, the Saints have their eyes set on doing serious damage in January and February.

The Vikings fell one game short of the Super Bowl in 2017, but may have found their missing piece in quarterback Kirk Cousins. Cousins joins an explosive offense with weapons in Dalvin Cook, Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen, and Kyle Rudolph. Their defense, however, is what really makes the Vikings dangerous. From top to bottom their defense overflows with talent, with stars Linval Joseph and Everson Griffen on the defensive line and Xavier Rhodes and Harrison Smith in the secondary.

The battle for the right to play in the Super Bowl will be a bloodbath in the NFC. These four teams along with the Green Bay Packers, Carolina Panthers, and Atlanta Falcons will have to make every game this season count, as just one loss could be the difference between playing in the playoffs or watching them from home.

Rookie Quarterbacks

Capture.PNG

The 2018 NFL Draft was all about the quarterbacks, with four being selected in the first ten picks and five total in the first round. What is intriguing is just how unique each situation is for these rookies.

Heisman Trophy winner and #1 overall pick Baker Mayfield (Cleveland) is currently the backup to Tyrod Taylor, despite Mayfield playing very well in the preseason. The Browns have stated multiple times that Taylor is the starter and they do not plan on playing Mayfield unless they absolutely have to.

Sam Darnold (NY Jets) was exceptional in the preseason, and earned the role of Week 1 starter. The USC product became the youngest quarterback in NFL history to start his team’s first game of the season, and Darnold impressed in his debut as he lead the Jets to a resounding victory against the Detroit Lions.

Josh Allen (Buffalo) showed off his bazooka of an arm in preseason, yet some lingering issues of accuracy and decision making led him to start the season on the bench behind second-year quarterback Nathan Peterman, who infamously threw five interceptions in the first half of his first career start. After a horrendous Week 1 outing by Peterman, Josh Allen has been named the Week 2 starter.

The other two first round quarterbacks, Josh Rosen (Arizona) and Lamar Jackson (Baltimore), sit behind very established players in Sam Bradford and Joe Flacco, respectively. It is currently a question of “when” not “if” Rosen will become the Cardinals starter, with many believing an inevitable Sam Bradford injury will be when he assumes the full time role.

Lamar Jackson’s situation is the most interesting of the bunch. Joe Flacco since signing his mega-extension has been nothing more than mediocre, and the Ravens know it will soon be time for a change at the position. The drafting of Jackson, a former Heisman winner and one of the most dynamic athletes in football, has reportedly been motivation for Flacco, who looked better than ever in his preseason and regular season action.

While it is unknown when some of these players will become starters, the day they do will be an exciting time for fans of the league and of these franchises, who have all desperately tried to find a long-term solution at the position.

Will Anyone Dethrone the Patriots in the AFC?

Capture.PNG

Despite a heartbreaking defeat in Super Bowl LII, the New England Patriots are still favorites to win the AFC and go to their fifth Super Bowl in eight years. The ageless Tom Brady is fresh off an MVP season and has showed no signs of slowing down. A fully healthy Rob Gronkowski and dynamic weapons in the backfield are laying the groundwork for another dominant Patriots offense. But doubts arise with the Pats considering their severe lack of wide receiver depth, as star receiver Julian Edelman is suspended the first four weeks due to PEDs, and lack of elite talent on their front seven outside of All-Pro linebacker Dont’a Hightower.

Although the AFC is not nearly as talented as the NFC, there are still impressive rosters in the conference. The Pittsburgh Steelers have a lethal offense with Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, and Antonio Brown. If the defense, led by Cameron Hayward and Stephon Tuitt, can play at a high level the entire season, the Steelers are legitimate title contenders. As well, Le’Veon Bell’s holdout will have serious implications on the Steelers’ title chances.

The Jacksonville Jaguars, after letting a Super Bowl appearance a year ago slip through their fingers, are bringing back the same dominant defense from last year. Led by All-Pros Jalen Ramsey and Calais Campbell, it will be this defense that carries the Jags, as lack of playmakers on the outside and inconsistency of quarterback Blake Bortles makes the offense one-dimensional through running back Leonard Fournette.

Dark horses in the conference are the Los Angeles Chargers and the Houston Texans. After starting the season 0-4, the Chargers went 9-3 to finish the season, yet a tiebreaker saw them fall short of making the playoffs. The Chargers have legitimate talent on both sides of the ball, with Phillip Rivers, Melvin Gordon, and Keenan Allen on offense and game changers Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram, and Casey Hayward on defense. The Texans have high aspirations for this season. Despite only playing in seven games, Deshaun Watson was electric before going down with an ACL tear. The return of Watson on offense is a major upgrade, and the returns of J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus makes the defense one of the most athletic and talented in the league. If Watson can avoid the almost inevitable sophomore struggle and Watt can stay on the field, the Texans are primed to be dangerous in the playoffs.

New England has been to a stunning seven straight AFC Championship games and are in position to extend the streak to eight. Even though the other teams may have the talent to compete with the Patriots, the duo of Brady and head coach Bill Belichick makes New England the favorite, and any challenger will more than likely have to face the historically dominant franchise in Foxboro if they want to compete in the Super Bowl.

 

The 2018 NFL season will conclude on February 3rd in Atlanta at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The blend of established superstars and up-and-coming playmakers makes this season certainly one to pay attention to. The NFL and football in general has been under fire for everything from politics to player safety to drug and domestic abuse. Despite all the negativity surrounding the sport, the product put out each and every Sunday is incredible and the 2018 season should be just as enjoyable as every other season in years past.