So you're ready for some football?
For the second consecutive season, the league is kicking off the year under an ominous cloud. A year ago it was Ray Rice and domestic violence that dominated the headlines. Now, it's the NFL getting slapped down in the Tom Brady suspension case in federal court, and the dueling reports Tuesday that the league went easy on the New England Patriots eight years ago for allegedly spying on opponents.
For the folks at the NFL's headquarters on Park Avenue, football can't arrive soon enough.
There are the slew of passing records Denver quarterback Peyton Manning is poised to break as his 40th birthday approaches — although his focus is on winning a second ring.
There's the ever-percolating Los Angeles situation.
And, like every year, there are far more questions than answers:
Is new Denver Coach Gary Kubiak a good fit with Manning?
Kubiak is an old Broncos quarterback, so there's a good connection on that front. But his offensive philosophy isn't a hand-in-glove fit with Manning, who has spent most of his time in shotgun formation in recent years and is the quintessential pre-snap traffic cop. Kubiak's quarterbacks line up under center, don't do a lot of changing of plays at the line of scrimmage, and rely heavily on the run. Old dog that he is, Manning is certainly capable of learning new tricks, but this will be an interesting experiment.
Was the Jimmy Graham trade a good deal for Seattle?
That deal definitely gives the Seahawks a devastating 1-2 punch in the red zone with the sure-handed Graham and the bruising Marshawn Lynch putting defenses in a pick-your-poison situation. But the Seahawks had to send exceptional center Max Unger to New Orleans, and blockers like Unger are difficult to find. Give Seattle points for creativity: the guy snapping to Russell Wilson now, Drew Nowak, is a former practice-squad defensive lineman who just switched to offense last year.
Which rookie quarterback is poised to be the better pro, Tampa Bay's Jameis Winston or Tennessee's Marcus Mariota?
We won't have to wait long to get our first hint. Mariota's Titans play at Winston's Buccaneers in an opener Sunday. That will be 255 days since their Rose Bowl meeting, when Mariota's Oregon Ducks trounced Winston's Florida State Seminoles, 59-20.
Will there be a D in Dallas?
The Cowboys saw a statistical uptick last season after a historically bad defense in 2013, but much of that was because of running back DeMarco Murray. The team was so effective in running the ball and controlling the clock that the defense just wasn't on the field as much. Now, Murray is in Philadelphia, and the Cowboys have added a couple of defensive ends who can turn up the heat on passers, Greg Hardy and rookie Randy Gregory. They could make a big difference.
Are the 49ers headed over the falls?
If there's any team in position for a major drop-off, it's San Francisco, a team that just last season was coming off three consecutive appearances in the NFC title game. They're replacing the dynamic Jim Harbaugh with Jim Tomsula, who's endearingly blue collar but perhaps overmatched. Then there's the retirement of Justin Smith, Patrick Willis and second-year phenom Chris Borland, and finally cutting ties with the talented-yet-troubled Aldon Smith. Factor in that the 49ers play in the NFL's best division, and this could be a recipe for a tailspin.
Has the balance of power shifted in the Bay Area?
It's starting to. The Raiders have an impressive collection of budding stars — quarterback Derek Carr, receiver Amari Cooper, running back Latavius Murray, defensive end Khalil Mack — and in Jack Del Rio their most authoritative coach since the Jon Gruden days.
What dubious distinction belongs to Raiders kicker Sebastian Janikowski?
He's been with one organization and played for 10 different head coaches, an NFL record. That's Gruden, Bill Callahan, Norv Turner, Art Shell, Lane Kiffin, Tom Cable, Hue Jackson, Dennis Allen, Tony Sparano and Del Rio.
With the specter of a relocation to Los Angeles looming, will any hometown fans show up for games in St. Louis, San Diego and Oakland?
Early indications are that St. Louis will get the brunt of the lame-duck blowback. The Chargers and Raiders have seen an increase in ticket sales, actually. Regardless, fans in those cities are not happy about what has transpired this off-season, but it's not affecting the bottom line everywhere.
Sort of. In order to move up four spots to take quarterback Robert Griffin III second overall in the 2012 draft, the Redskins sent St. Louis three first-round picks and a second-rounder. Considering Griffin barely made the 53-man roster this season, that's among the most lopsided deals in league history.
But it's not the most lopsided. In 1989, Vikings gave up a massive bounty of picks to Dallas for running back Herschel Walker. Either directly or indirectly, that led to the Cowboys' landing Emmitt Smith, Darren Woodson, Russell Maryland and other outstanding players, and played a big role in their dynasty in the first half of the 1990s. Despite a terrific start in his debut, Walker was mostly pedestrian in three seasons with the Vikings, running for no more than 825 yards in any of those years.
Can Carson Palmer finish his career in Kurt Warner-type style?
Warner found his second wind in Arizona, reviving his career and guiding the Cardinals to their only Super Bowl appearance. Now, Palmer, who has never won a playoff game, could be in position to finish with a flourish. (He doesn't plan on this being his last season, but he's unquestionably in the twilight of his career.) Palmer, coming off an ACL tear that ended his 2014 season, has won 13 of his last 15 starts. The former USC star was 6-0 as a starter before his knee injury last fall.
Which coach has made the biggest wager this season?
OK, so gambling isn't allowed in the NFL, but Philadelphia's Chip Kelly has rolled the dice in a big way after back-to-back 10-win seasons. Perhaps reasoning that the Eagles might have to take a step backward to take two forward, Kelly has given the team a new look on both sides of the ball, including a new quarterback, new running backs, new guards, a new marquee linebacker and three new defensive backs. There could be as many as nine new starters in this year's opener.
Can the New Orleans Saints win at home?
In light of their dominance at the rollicking Superdome all these years, it's hard to believe this is an issue. But it is. Astoundingly, the Saints lost their last five home games of the 2014 season. It wasn't break-out-the-paper-bags time, but close.
Who's the most unexpected coach on the hot seat?
Indianapolis' Chuck Pagano. Even though the Colts have made the playoffs in each of his three seasons — thanks in large part to quarterback Andrew Luck, with a tip of the cap to former interim coach Bruce Arians — the pressure is growing on Pagano. He and General Manager Ryan Grigson have butted heads on some personnel decisions, but both have denied reports of a rift between them.
Rookie receivers made a big splash last season. Whose turn is it now?
Rookie running backs. St. Louis' Todd Gurley, San Diego's Melvin Gordon, Jacksonville's T.J. Yeldon, Detroit's Ameer Abdullah, Arizona's David Johnson . . . one or more of those players is going to have an impressive debut season.
After sitting out almost the entire 2014 season, will the same old Adrian Peterson be tearing through defenses for the Vikings?
Don't bet against him. He made an unbelievable comeback from reconstructive knee surgery, nearly breaking the single-season rushing record less than a year later. By comparison, a year off should be a breeze.
How about a Super Bowl pick?
Philadelphia over Indianapolis. The Eagles hoist the Lombardi Trophy for the first time.