Sean Payton is back in the Big Easy. Andy Reid and Alex Smith are in Kansas City, having traded pink slips for sudden red-hot optimism on last year’s league laughingstock. And Chip Kelly is bouncing around Philadelphia like Tigger on double espresso, eagerly anticipating Monday night’s nationally televised unveiling of an even more hyperactive version of the other zone-read option offenses that were the talk of the 2012 NFL season. ¶ Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III will be there in Washington, greeting Kelly’s Eagles and trying to prove that his right knee is as freakishly resilient as Adrian Peterson’s left knee was the year before. But first, in a rematch of last year’s double-overtime AFC divisional-round playoff game, Peyton Manning and the Broncos play host to the now-handsomely-paid and newly crowned Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco and what’s left of the reigning champion Ravens in Thursday night’s 2013 NFL season opener. (Watch out for them Hail Marys, Denver. They can change the course of history.) ¶ Without further delay, here are our nine story lines to follow and one man’s attempt to predict the unpredictable:
1. Payton is back, but what about the D?
No question Drew Brees will be more comfortable with Payton back from his yearlong suspension for his part in the Saints’ Bountygate scandal. The 34-year-old QB threw for 5,177 yards and 43 touchdowns last season, but also had 19 picks, the second-highest total of his career. Brees, however, wasn’t to blame for last year’s 7-9 mark. The defense gave up an NFL-record 7,042 yards. Payton fired defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and replaced him with Rob Ryan, who switched the team from a 4-3 alignment to a more attacking 3-4. How Ryan does will determine whether the Saints return to power a year after the harshest penalty ever handed out to an NFL head coach.
2. Can Kansas City turn it around in ’13?
The 2012 Chiefs were 2-14 in part because they were last in the league in takeaways (13) and giveaways (37). This year, they’ll be better coached under Reid. And trading for Smith, the quarterback who was cast aside in San Francisco, should provide better ball security. Smith has thrown only 10 interceptions in his past 25 games. The Chiefs also face only one returning playoff team in their first nine games. That stretch includes a Week 3 return to Philadelphia for Reid.
3. Can Kelly’s Oregon offense work in the NFL?
The Eagles are coming off a 4-12 season and haven’t won a playoff game since 2009. But all eyes are on Philadelphia to see if the up-tempo offense Kelly perfected at New Hampshire and Oregon can fly in the NFL. Will it be a rapid-fire machine that brings out the best in quarterback Michael Vick and wears down defenses with its dizzying pace? Or will the breakneck tempo make it more susceptible to quicker drive-killing breakdowns that actually forces Philadelphia’s defense to play more snaps than it normally would?
4. Will Dr. Andrews go 2-for-2 with RG3?
Dr. James Andrews performed the knee surgeries on Peterson and RG3. Peterson came back in less than nine months and went on to win league MVP honors a year ago. Monday, RG3 will return a couple of weeks quicker than Peterson did. Of course, what happens from there is the mystery we’re all watching to see unfold for the league’s most exciting player. Will Griffin be able to run the zone-read option like he did last year or will he have to scrap that to protect himself? Of the three standout rookie QBs from a year ago — Griffin, the Colts’ Andrew Luck and Seattle’s Russell Wilson — Griffin is the most likely to suffer the sophomore slump. He missed valuable developmental time in the offseason and didn’t play in the preseason. But, like Peterson, RG3 is tough to bet against.
5. Will Peyton be even better this season?
A year ago, the Broncos looked like a Super Bowl team. This year, they might even make it there. Manning bounced back from four neck surgeries and a year out of the league to play exceptionally well in his Denver debut season. But a 13-3 record doesn’t make up for the fact that Manning took the Broncos no further in the postseason than Tim Tebow did the year before. And it was Manning’s wobbly throw that was intercepted and turned into Baltimore’s game-winning, double-overtime field goal in the playoffs. It doesn’t matter that Manning’s offensive coordinator last year, Mike McCoy, left to be head coach in San Diego. Manning is his own offensive coordinator and now he has another major weapon in former Patriots receiver Wes Welker.
6. What about the Ravens?
Eight starters from last year’s Super Bowl champion team either retired, left via free agency or were traded. No other reigning Super Bowl team has ever lost that many starters. But there’s no issue at quarterback with Flacco re-signed. And General Manager Ozzie Newsome knows how to restock a roster with the right mix of name players such as linebacker Elvis Dumervil and unknown players who need only time to make a name for themselves. With that in mind, keep an eye on center Gino Gradkowski, a 2012 fourth-round pick who has replaced the retired Matt Birk.
7. Does Monte still have the magic at 73?
Cowboys coach Jason Garrett sure hopes defensive brainiac Monte Kiffin still has the magic. Otherwise, this could be it for Dallas’ embattled coach. After years in a 3-4 scheme, the Cowboys have switched to Kiffin’s 4-3. The former Vikings defensive coordinator will be trying to generate more turnovers in Big D. A year ago, the Cowboys tied the 2-14 Chiefs for the fewest interceptions (seven) and recovered only nine fumbles while finishing with a minus-13 turnover differential.
8. Can Patriots’ Sudfeld replace Hernandez?
The biggest story of the offseason was Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez being indicted by a grand jury for the murder of Odin Lloyd. Who replaces him in the Patriots lineup seems so insignificant, but NFL seasons do march on and New England needs a replacement at tight end. Enter Zach Sudfeld, an undrafted rookie whom some are calling “Baby Gronk,” a reference to the Pats’ other elite tight end, Rob Gronkowski. This “baby” goes 6-7, 260 pounds and has the versatility and flexibility to do a lot of what Hernandez did for three seasons. Sudfeld had eight preseason catches for 101 yards and a touchdown. As long as Bill Belichick is restocking and coaching the roster and Tom Brady is his quarterback, the Patriots will be favorites to win the AFC East regardless of what happens in the offseason.
9. Will 49ers-Seahawks rivalry get even hotter?
The 49ers and Seahawks love tweaking each other. More specifically, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh and Seahawks coach Pete Carroll have loved tweaking each other going back to their days in the college ranks. It makes for some entertaining moments off the field and some even better matchups on the field. We only have to wait until Week 2 before the 49ers travel to Seattle for an early look at who might end up being the best team in the league’s best division, the NFC West.
10. Predictions? Yeah, good luck with that
OK, some predictions. League MVP: Peyton Manning. Offensive Player of the Year: Brees. Defensive Player of the Year: Justin Smith, 49ers. Offensive Rookie of the Year: Eddie Lacy, RB, Packers. Defensive Rookie of the Year: Alec Ogletree, OLB, Rams. Coach of the Year: Payton. Super Bowl XLVIII: Broncos 30, Falcons 27.