A friend of mine asked the other day for a prediction.
“What’s going to happen with Aaron Rodgers after the season?” this guy said. “Give me his chances of staying with the team in 2022.”
I’m heading into my 23rd season covering the NFL, and I’d like to think I know how to provide safe and acceptable predictions for an unknowable future. So I hit him with the most ambivalent answer I could conjure about the Green Bay Packers quarterback. “It’s 50-50,” I told him. “Equal chances of him coming back and leaving.”
That’s what I call protecting the edge. The real trick to making successful NFL predictions, of course, is to choose the topics you’re predicting in the first place. What follows are 10 parts of the upcoming season I feel confident making assertions about. They span a range of on-field likelihoods to off-field certainties, from coaching scrutiny to ticket sales to rule changes, and they reflect the way I view the game and what I think is important. And I’ll even give my early take on who might win it all next February.
So as we head into the final week of the preseason — remember, there are only three games for most teams — let’s dive into some big predictions for how the 2021 regular season might play out.
Joe Burrow will lead the league in being worried about
The No. 1 overall pick of the 2020 NFL draft, Burrow had an eye-opening debut even as he was pummeled amid the Cincinnati Bengals‘ porous protection. Through 11 weeks, he was sacked 32 times — more than all but two other NFL quarterbacks at that time. His season ended predictably, with a torn ACL and other knee damage after a hit in his 10th start.
Burrow is on track to return in Week 1 this season, and the entire football ecosystem will be holding its breath. The Bengals’ attempts to improve their offensive line are far from conclusively successful, and there is genuine fear that Burrow will be swallowed up by dysfunctional organizational inertia. Part of that anxiety is based on how accurate and productive Burrow was last season when he wasn’t pressured. He had the NFL’s fourth-lowest off-target rate in those situations (10.1%). When under pressure, however, Burrow recorded the lowest Total QBR (3.8) in the league.
The Bengals haven’t had a winning season since 2015, and longtime football observers have reason to wonder if they have slipped back into the kind of morass that enveloped them during the 1990s and early 2000s, when they went 14 years between playoff appearances. Burrow is talented enough to pull them out, but man, the quicksand in Cincinnati can be strong.
Sean Payton will cement himself as a QB whisperer
For most of his tenure as the New Orleans Saints‘ coach, Payton benefited from the presence of quarterback Drew Brees. You could argue that Brees profited just as much from Payton’s offensive mind, but at this moment, Brees is the only one of the two who is guaranteed induction five years from now into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
This season, however, will demonstrate Payton’s depth as a developer of quarterbacks to the world. Barring a late trade, Payton is going to trot out a Week 1 quarterback whom no one else could start effectively. It’ll either be Jameis Winston, whom he rescued off the trash heap following a disastrous 2019 season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, or it will be Taysom Hill, a 2017 waiver claim.
Some might think those options represent a level of hubris, but Payton has pulled this off on a smaller level twice before. Indeed, the Saints went 8-1 over the past two seasons when Brees missed starts. Teddy Bridgewater led them to five wins in 2019, and Hill was 3-1 as a starter last season.
We already know Payton can make the kind of short-term adjustments needed without Brees, and now we’re about to see it happen over a full season. This is not to say the Saints will win the Super Bowl, but they will finish the season having managed a transition from a Hall of Fame quarterback much better than in most cases. Count on it.
QB Aaron Rodgers will have a better season than GM Aaron Rodgers
Rodgers returned from the existential meditation of his offseason fully prepared to have another elite season on the field. There is nothing about the team the Packers have surrounded him with, nor his own physical condition, to suggest he will take a major step back from his 2020 MVP performance.
On the other hand, the early returns on Rodgers’ foray into team building are decidedly mixed.
Rodgers said this summer that he wanted to be part of the conversation in assembling the roster and hoped that his voice would be heard and heeded where possible. His first influenced outcome was the Packers’ acquisition of Randall Cobb, a 31-year-old receiver with whom Rodgers once had an indisputable connection. Cobb, however, will cost the Packers about $2.7 million, has missed 14 games in the past three seasons because of injury and plays the same position as third-round draft pick Amari Rodgers.
The veteran QB also lobbied on social media to bring back linebacker Clay Matthews III, who is 35 and did not play last season. He later said the plea wasn’t serious. The bottom line is that Rodgers’ interests are understandably rooted in the short term, but getting the band back together is rarely a successful strategy in the quickly changing landscape of NFL personnel.
If the push is limited to Cobb, then his return is a reasonable exchange for the quarterback’s happiness in 2021. But if it is a sign of where Rodgers wants to go with his newfound voice, the Packers would be wise to smile politely at his suggestions and do nothing more.
No games will be forfeited
To help nudge players toward vaccination, the NFL went public this summer with a threat to declare a forfeit if a game is postponed and can’t be rescheduled because of an outbreak triggered by an unvaccinated player on one of the teams. That team would be declared the loser and would be responsible for covering the loss of shared game-day revenue. Players on both teams would lose their game checks.
That outcome seems highly unlikely for a number of reasons. First is simple math. As of this week, more than nine out of every 10 NFL players is vaccinated. That number could decrease after final roster cuts, but the larger point will remain. There will be a limited number of unvaccinated players who could activate this process.
Second, just as it was last season, the NFL will be highly motivated to reschedule games as opposed to canceling them or declaring forfeits. It’s not clear if the NFL would have to reimburse networks for a single forfeited game. But at the very least, the league would subject a long-term television partner to lost revenues by following through on this threat.
NFL chief administrative officer Dawn Aponte said this summer that logistics of rescheduling could be more difficult in 2021 because stadiums are more likely to be booked with other events on alternative dates. But unless it rules out certain nontraditional options, such as Tuesday or Wednesday games, there is every reason to think the NFL will find a way to play all 272 games on its regular-season schedule within the 18-week framework of the season.
The crowds in Las Vegas (and Los Angeles) are going to be … quirky
Ticket sales for NFL games are booming on the expectation of full stadium capacity around the league. But for a number of reasons, it’s not difficult to foresee a relatively high percentage of opposing fans when the Las Vegas Raiders, Los Angeles Chargers and perhaps the Los Angeles Rams play home games.
The NFL’s growing secondary market makes it much easier for fans to buy single-game tickets, and multiple NFL executives noted this summer that destination cities such as Las Vegas and Los Angeles were proving an attractive option. According to Vivid Seats, in fact, four Raiders home games are among the five most sought-after tickets this season, trailing only the Week 4 matchup between the Buccaneers and New England Patriots.
It remains to be seen if those tickets will be used by Raiders fans, or whether Allegiant Stadium could be overrun by fans of the opposing team. The best guess is that it will be an unusual and volatile combination of both. For the Week 5 game against the Chicago Bears, however, Vivid Seats projects 48% of the crowd to be rooting for the visitors based on an algorithm it calls “Fan Forecast.”
Said Chris Halpin, the NFL’s executive vice president and chief strategy and growth officer: “You can see in the secondary pricing for Raiders tickets a massive demand to go to Raiders games in Las Vegas, with a number likely from the specific road team, those fans want to have a destination weekend.”
The Chargers’ dynamic is different. They presented little evidence of a Los Angeles fan base while marooned for the 2018 and 2019 seasons at a soccer stadium. And even when they played in San Diego, there were sometimes enough visiting fans to force Chargers quarterbacks into a silent count. At the very least, it will take the Chargers time to develop a new and durable fan base at SoFi Stadium.
The Rams, meanwhile, fared better during four seasons at the Los Angeles Coliseum, but the franchise also had a history in the city, where they were based from 1946 to 1994. Still, a trip to watch your favorite team play a December game in Southern California could prove a powerful lure.
Games will be decided by people behind the curtain
The NFL will have two methods for backstopping officials this season, and both will add a measure of mystery that didn’t previously exist in the administration of the game.
First, owners approved additional responsibilities for the replay official sitting in the press box of each stadium. Those officials are authorized to provide the referee with certain objective information, gleaned in real time from television broadcasts, and the referee can use it to make or change a call without requiring a coach’s challenge.
Second, the NFL will use multiple league employees to make decisions on formal replay reviews following the retirement of senior vice president Al Riveron. A league source said that senior vice presidents Walt Anderson and Perry Fewell will now supervise the process. Vice president of replay Russell Yurk will be involved as well, but to this point, the NFL hasn’t identified who will be making the final decisions.
Until now, every NFL officiating and administrative decision during games has played out in front of our eyes. We saw who threw flags, and we knew when officials discussed options. When the referee went to the hood — or more recently, the tablet — to look at a replay, we understood whom he was talking to and who was ultimately responsible for the decision. In 2021, at least, that process is shaping up to be murkier and less transparent. Referees might get advice from an unseen assistant, and replay decisions will be made by unidentified individuals.
Not everyone will care, especially if it leads to better-officiated games. But some of these calls will affect the outcomes of games, and we won’t always know who made them, how they made them or why.
Jacksonville Jaguars coach Urban Meyer will post the worst record in his career
A little context is necessary here. As one of the best college coaches of this generation, Meyer lost three or fewer games in 15 of his 17 full seasons — and never more than five. His arrival in Jacksonville, Florida, brought national attention to one of the NFL’s most ignored franchises, but based on what we’ve seen this summer, Meyer will lose more games and have a lower winning percentage than he ever has. He has a decent chance, in fact, of losing more games in 2021 than he did in seven seasons at Ohio State (nine).
The Jaguars established some long-term excitement after drafting quarterback Trevor Lawrence at No. 1 overall, and they should benefit from playing in arguably the NFL’s worst division. But even so, an obvious talent deficit on the Jacksonville roster — exacerbated by this week’s season-ending foot injury for rookie tailback Travis Etienne — has prompted ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) to project them with a 6-11 record. That’s a quite reasonable expectation for a franchise that has lost at least 10 games in nine of the past 10 seasons.
It might sound bizarre, but Meyer will be a runaway winner of the NFL’s Coach of the Year Award if he avoids the worst season of his life.
A new rule will change the game, but it isn’t taunting
To be precise, the NFL has not adopted a new taunting rule. It has instructed officials to make the existing rule a point of emphasis, with specific attention on instances when a player attempts to “engender ill will between teams,” as it is worded in the 2021 rule book.
There could be an early uptick in flags for taunting, leading to a disproportionate outcry from the public, before the league adapts. But if you’re looking for a rule change that will permanently impact how the game is played, you should be aware of the expansion of a prohibition against low blocks.
Blocks below the waist are now allowed only inside a newly created “tight end box,” defined as 2 yards outside the tackle and 5 yards on either side of the line of scrimmage. Beyond that area, blocks below the waist — by both offensive and defensive players — would be a 15-yard penalty.
As a result, offensive linemen won’t be able to cut defenders when they pull or when they are ahead of a screen play. Defenders, meanwhile, won’t be able to go low when taking on those blocks, which previously allowed them to avoid direct collisions. Even casual observers of the game would recognize such techniques from previous seasons, and the adjustment will require a substantial overhaul of both scheme and muscle memory.
Two coaches will escape the scrutiny they deserve
As he enters the fourth season of his second tenure with the Raiders, coach Jon Gruden has yet to make the playoffs or post a winning record. ESPN’s FPI doesn’t like his chances of reversing that trend in 2022, projecting the Raiders to finish 7-10 and giving them a 16.8% chance to make the playoffs, the sixth-lowest odds in the league.
In San Francisco, Kyle Shanahan is entering his fifth season as the 49ers’ coach. He has made the playoffs once, as part of a very deserved Super Bowl run, and lost at least 10 games each in the other three. FPI likes the 49ers’ postseason chances much better than the Raiders’, giving them a 68.1% chance to get there, but a looming quarterback transition from Jimmy Garoppolo to rookie Trey Lance makes that a tenuous projection.
Gruden, of course, is not even halfway through his 10-year contract. He’s not going anywhere unless he wants to. Shanahan signed a six-year deal in 2017 and then an extension three years later that keeps him under contract through 2025. The 49ers are clearly committed to him for the long term.
This is not to advocate for the firing of either coach. But despite the personal affection many have for them, both inside and outside their organizations, their overall performances to this point merit a level of scrutiny that their contracts will likely render moot this season.
The Buccaneers aren’t going to win the Super Bowl
Actually, I think they are going to win the Super Bowl — and the best way to be right is to publish a headline saying otherwise.
I’ve lost count of how many professional athletes claim to be motivated by “critics” who “don’t believe in us.” No one seems more propelled by it than quarterback Tom Brady, so I’m providing a service to Brady and the Buccaneers, just an extra push to get them over the finish line.
Although I argued against the long-term value of “getting the band back together” as it relates to the Packers, the Buccaneers’ decision to bring back all 22 starters from their championship team seems appropriate. Complacency is the Buccaneers’ biggest obstacle, but with critics like me, who needs extra motivation?
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