FIVE NFL STORY LINES
1. Quarterbacks are a-changin’
Seven teams changed quarterbacks last season. Six will do so this year. Arizona used two top-10 picks to be a part of both groups. No. 1 overall draft pick Kyler Murray takes over for Josh Rosen, who was dumped in a fire sale to Miami. Somehow, Murray grew from 5-9 7/8 last summer to 5-10⅛ at the combine. If we split the difference and call him 5-10, Elias Sports Bureau has a stat that says only five quarterbacks that height or shorter have thrown a regular-season pass since 1960. Former Raven Joe Flacco is a Bronco while former Bronco Case Keenum is a Redskin. Ryan Fitzpatrick beat out Rosen in Miami and will become the first player to pass for an eighth NFL team. Former Eagles backup Nick Foles is starting in Jacksonville and Andrew Luck’s stunning retirement makes Jacoby Brissett the Colts starter.
2. Pass interference is reviewable
Perhaps there’s a Saints fan in your life who has argued that pass interference calls and no-calls should be reviewable? Well, now they are. On a one-year trial basis, the NFL will throw it at the wall and see if it sticks. Coaches will remain unsure when to challenge. During the preseason, only 12.5% of challenges (six of 48) resulted in the ruling on the field being overturned. “I still don’t like the rule,” Mike Pereira, former head of NFL officials and current Fox Sports rules analyst, said by phone last week. “I think it could have been applied differently and maybe restrict the times that you could challenge to review pass interference. Maybe even take the coaches out of it. But at least at this point I’m cautiously optimistic that it will work and not result in too many stoppages of play.”
3. Peacefulness in Pittsburgh
Down to only one of their former Big Threes in quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, the 2019 Steelers have gone happily back to being one of the uncontroversial bedrock NFL franchises. All it cost them was gorging on a $21.2 million whopper of a cap hit after selling future Hall of Fame receiver and current loose cannon Antonio Brown to Oakland at scratch-and-dent pricing. Meanwhile, the last of the former Big Threes — running back Le’Veon Bell — moved on to the Jets after sitting out all of last season in a contract dispute. Prediction: Receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and running back James Conner will fill the production void and the Steelers will win more games than the Raiders and Jets. Conner averaged 4.5 yards per carry with 13 touchdowns (one receiving) last season. Smith-Schuster had team highs in catches (111) and yards receiving (1,426). Roethlisberger will get him and others the ball.
4. Patriots way: Reload cheaply
Want an example as to why the Patriots have streaks of 18 winnings seasons, 10 AFC East titles, eight AFC Championship Games and three Super Bowls? Outside of No. 12, they get by rather tremendously with cheap labor by NFL standards. Two of the biggest free agents to change teams this past offseason were New England’s Trent Brown and Trey Flowers, former cheap laborers for Bill Belichick who bolted for Oakland and Detroit, respectively, for a combined $76.3 million guaranteed over the next two years. Last year, the Patriots won the Super Bowl with Brown playing left tackle and making $1.9 million. This year, the Raiders are paying him $15.3 million to play … right tackle? Meanwhile, the Patriots simply yawn and plug in Isaiah Wynn at left tackle. He’s making $1 million. And, oh yeah, he was the 23rd overall pick in last year’s draft.
5. Browns! Browns!! Browns?
Trivia question — Bill Belichick’s playoff record is 30-10. Which team did he beat for win No. 1? Answer: the Patriots. Yep, in 1994, Belichick won his only playoff game as Browns coach. He beat a fella named Bill Parcells. Cleveland is 0-1 in the playoffs since then. But allegedly that will change this year. The NFL hype machine has declared the darling Browns will go from 7-8-1 to the Super Bowl. Beware the hype. A year ago, the Vikings were going to the Super Bowl, remember? Like many other preseason darlings, they missed the playoffs. Right now, there’s nothing that appears to be standing in Cleveland’s way. Freddie Kitchens is still undefeated as a first-time head coach. Baker Mayfield hasn’t started his sophomore NFL season. Odell Beckham Jr. is still an alleged team player who still loves his teammates, his coach, his quarterback and Cleveland. Stay tuned.