Forget back to school, Halloween, and autumnal foliage. For millions of Americans, fall means one thing: months of watching bone-jarring hits and majestic touchdown passes on TV.
With that ambitious agenda of caloric consumption and couch potatodom in mind, it's worth considering a few of the intriguing story lines for the new NFL season. It kicks off Sept. 6 with a matchup between the defending champion Indianapolis Colts and NFC runners-up New Orleans Saints (8:30 p.m. EST, NBC) and culminates Feb. 3 in Phoenix with Super Bowl XLII.
Questions abound. Can Donovan McNabb return from injury and lead the Philadelphia Eagles to a championship? Is San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson already the best player of his generation? What will Tom Brady achieve with a Patriots lineup of receivers that now includes the mercurial Randy Moss? And will ESPN's Chris Berman lower his decibel level?
Here are other plotlines to look for this year:
Two by two
To be an NFL contender, teams need a semblance of a running game to go with the inevitable pass-happy West Coast offense that seemingly every NFL team employs these days. That means finding two premier running backs.
"The day of one running back carrying the load for 16 games, I think has come and gone," says Howie Long, a Fox Sports analyst and Hall of Fame defensive lineman. "You need to have a couple in the stable."
The ravages of life as an NFL runner explains why last year's Super Bowl teams each had two feature backs. And guess what? Both the Colts and the Bears lost half of their dynamic duos, posing major question marks for solo incumbents (Joe Addai in Indianapolis and Cedric Benson in Chicago). New Orleans (Reggie Bush and Deuce McAllister) is but one of many examples of the "two is better than one" mantra permeating NFL backfields.
For the past decade, if not longer, the mantra of NFL football has been parity above all else. Teams are so evenly matched that the "any given Sunday" cliché has largely become reality.
"The competitive balance in the league is greater than ever before," says Gil Brandt, a retired Dallas Cowboys personnel executive who now grades talent at NFL.com. "You see more teams with better records. I don't think you're going to see a team win just two games like Oakland did last year. And I don't think anybody will win 14 like San Diego did."
Still, a few league doormats may be poised to make some noise. The Arizona Cardinals enlisted two highly respected Pittsburgh Steelers assistants, Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm, to lead them out of the desert. Whisenhunt takes over as head coach with Grimm presiding over the offensive line, a porous unit in recent years. Armed with rising quarterback Matt Leinart and a talented young receiving corps, the Cardinals should fly higher this season.
Also worth watching are the Buffalo Bills and Detroit Lions. Yes, the Lions. Despite a lengthy history of mediocrity – including just 24 wins since Matt Millen assumed control of the franchise six years ago – observers see glimmers of hope. Start with second-year coach Rod Marinelli, who, despite a 3-13 debut season, won kudos around the league for instilling discipline in Detroit. Quarterback Jon Kitna quietly led the league in pass completions while racking up 4,208 passing yards. Now Kitna adds a new target with highly touted first-round draft pick Calvin Johnson, judged a can't-miss prospect by many experts. "I like Detroit as a turnaround team," says Fox's Long.
Buffalo went 7-9 last season, including five losses by a field goal or less. While many experts see the Bills and quarterback J.P. Losman on the rise, others aren't convinced. "They're in neutral a little bit," says Charley Casserly, former general manager of the Houston Texans and now a part of CBS's NFL Today lineup. "They're doing good things, but right now they've got more questions than answers."
No need to adjust your set: There is yet another booth shake-up on "Monday Night Football." ESPN cut Joe Theismann from the sportscaster's booth last spring. Enter Ron Jaworski, like Theismann a retired NFL QB. Known as "Jaws," MNF's newest analyst earned a reputation for relentless X-and-O film study at ESPN as a studio analyst. Now America will decide whether Jaws proves more compatible with nebbish sportswriter Tony Kornheiser's quips on Monday nights.
The biggest story of the off season has been the federal investigation of Atlanta Falcons star Michael Vick for his involvement in dogfighting. His departure followed a strong of high-profile player arrests and incidents – episodes that have been met with swift punishments by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell as part of a tightened conduct code.
But few observers expect the NFL's embarrassments to slow fans' appetites for America's most popular spectator sport. "I'll tell you why: Because for every bad story, there's 40 good stories," Long says. "Roger Goodell is the right commissioner at the right time. He has cast himself in the role of Wyatt Earp and he's put a line in the sand: 'Look, this is what we expect.' That message is being sent loud and clear."