|Newton 'will change the way we think about what's possible from the quarterback position.' (US Presswire)|
Every NFL season offers twists and turns we never saw coming. Each season has its own story, with possibilities unforeseen and, so often, playoff teams never considered.
It's part of the beauty of the game. It's intertwined with the fabric of the sport. Football as the great equalizer -- a game that's the product of a system that prizes parity above all. Yet still we want to guess and project and anoint against that backdrop of ultimate uncertainty. So, with that in mind and with minicamps winding down, deep into the offseason yet not quite into training camp, it's time to take a stand and jump on some bandwagons (or, better yet, fire up some bandwagons and be one of the first on board).
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So here's a very early peek inside my chipped, cracked and distorted crystal ball as I start to try to sort out the 2012 season months before it begins, with the prism focused on a handful of young quarterbacks:
Cam Newton: Icon
Cam Newton is a football god, and the Panthers are for real. Newton's meteoric rise was the most underreported phenomenon of the entire NFL in 2011. This cat runs like a receiver (or running back when required to run through someone), throws like John Elway, is built like a linebacker and is, pure and simple, one of the greatest athletes we have ever seen at any time playing any position. He also happens to play quarterback, the single most important position of any team sport in the history of modern athletics.
In the process of awakening the Panthers offense and beginning to reverse the fortunes of the franchise, Newton became the greatest scoring threat as a rusher we have ever seen under center, threw a ridiculous deep ball and revitalized Steve Smith's career, and all the while displayed unflappable confidence and maturity. Cam's transformational skills, and instant, well-ahead-of-schedule development into a complete quarterback are the qualities that have Panthers fans dreaming of dynasties.
Because he is that dominant, and the Panthers will have that kind of a franchise-changer on their books, for a fixed, cheap cost, for years to come, I don't fear to throw that 'dynasty' word around, despite how early in his career Newton is.
He will be a once-in-a-generation figure. He will change the way we think about what's possible from the quarterback position. Newton should be celebrated for what I promise you he'll become: a football savior. He will transcend this sport, and Carolina will learn from its youthful mistakes from 2011, when they easily could have won nine games or more. They gave away some games as kids then; that won't be the case much longer.
I am rolling with the Panthers as a 10-win type team and an outfit very much capable of derailing the playoff power structure.
Ryan vs. Flacco: Opposite directions
In keeping with the NFC South disorder theme, I can't help but worry a little bit about Cam's division rivals, the Falcons. They may be primed for a fall, perhaps a significant one. Atlanta's pass rush lacks beyond John Abraham, now a year older, and Matt Ryan continues to come up small and occasionally seems overwhelmed when the stage gets biggest. His inability to throw for even 200 yards in a playoff game is telling, especially as draft-class mate Joe Flacco wins at least one road playoff game per year despite a far inferior offensive supporting cast. Michael Turner is aging. The Falcons offensive line has been devolving quickly and is a major source of concern.
With all of the Bucs' offseason machinations, and the fact that Drew Brees will end up back with the Saints and New Orleans will be formidable as always, I suspect the Falcons will be hard-pressed to post the kind of win totals that have been the norm the last two years. That division is ripe for some upheaval.
Flacco, meanwhile, might finally be surrounded by a legit cast of options for the first time in his career. Already accustomed to overcoming odds, you could argue that Flacco is once again positioned to fail. He's in the last year of his deal with no new contract in sight. On the other side of the ball, Terrell Suggs is hurt and no longer leading the defensive charge. It is because of those factors that I expect Flacco -- who has to this point proven unflappable and equipped to meet challenges -- to have the best season of his career.
He cast aside his Steelers demons in 2011, and I suspect the quarterback will break out in 2011 and prove many detractors wrong. The offensive line gives me pause, most certainly, but I believe Flacco will end up making himself a bunch of money with his play this season, and develop a particular rapport with his young tight ends.
The Ravens had better get a deal for Ray Rice done soon, because they could need that franchise tag available for Flacco in 2013.
NFC West: Doormats no longer
I can't help but think that the worst is over for the NFC West, a division that has long been a convenient punchline and on-field punching bag. The football has been downright awful by and large, but the long-bashed division is ready to rise again, at least to some extent. Seattle and Arizona improved greatly, particularly on defense, as the 2011 season went on without many noticing, and I believe in Sam Bradford.
The Rams might be located much farther west than their present locale soon enough (hello, Los Angeles?), and that would likely improve their means to compete long-term. I expect them to make strides in the present, too. The 2012 schedule won't be nearly as daunting as it was a year ago.
The 49ers might not be nearly as dominant, and even if they are, I love the infrastructure the Rams have put together, which goes beyond just head coach Jeff Fisher. General manager Les Snead, with help from Kevin Demoff in the front office, have made sage moves, including the genius trade that sent RG3 to Washington. They have loaded up on assets and still have the ability to pair Bradford with a stud running back and a few complementary receiving options.
The Rams are getting there, and in this division could make a quick leap. Bradford has the potential in 2012 to perform like Matt Stafford did a year ago, though admittedly he doesn't have anything close to a Megatron or a Pettigrew in St. Louis.
In the Pacific Northwest, I expect Matt Flynn to run away with Seattle's starting job and shine much brighter than recently dealt quarterbacks like Kevin Kolb and Carson Palmer. The improvement of the defense has been duly noted.
The Cards have a stout defense as well, and despite their quarterback quandary, with a healthy Beanie Wells in the backfield and the likes of Larry Fitzgerald, this has the makings of a bounce-back year.
For the first time in a while, there are multiple, legitimate candidates for ascendancy in this division. The winner of the NFC West just might be the team that represents the NFC in the Super Bowl, though I write this feeling as if the key members of the 49ers will be challenged to improve on anything they accomplished in 2011, from Alex Smith to Frank Gore to Jim Harbaugh. Expectations will be very different this time around, and I suspect the vibe around that team will be different as well.
Call it a hunch. But I look for the West to rise again, in an unusual fashion. And we all know that some of the thrills to come will derive from a source we could have never imagined. It's that kind of league. That's part of why we love it so much.