A new NFL season is upon us. The Green Bay Packers and defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks will kick off the 2014-2015 season Thursday night in what is already being billed as a redemption game of sorts for both the Packers and the NFL itself, considering that the last meeting between these two teams ended on a controversial call brought about by the NFL’s lockout of its officials.
The return of the NFL season always brings with it questions, both on the field and off, and this year is no different. The offseason brought us Michael Sam’s coming out and selection in the NFL Draft, a concussion settlement, more fights over the name of Washington’s football team, and plenty of other developments that will have effects on the league throughout the season. So rather than previewing all 32 NFL teams or making a prediction for the Super Bowl that would probably be wrong, here are 10 unanswered questions (in no particular order) that will face the league, commissioner Roger Goodell, and everyone paying attention to football as another season unfolds.
1. Will Michael Sam become the league’s first openly gay player?
The St. Louis Rams cut Michael Sam on Saturday. Sunday, he cleared waivers, meaning the other 31 teams passed on a chance to sign the rookie defensive end. The Rams decided not to give Sam one of 10 spots on the team’s practice squad, and he hasn’t been offered a practice squad spot with anyone else either. It’s not uncommon for seventh-round picks to meet this fate, but by most accounts, Sam did enough to make a roster or practice squad somewhere, even if it wasn’t in St. Louis, which made him the first openly gay player ever drafted in May despite the team’s well-known depth on the defensive line. Sam had a solid preseason, logging three sacks and 11 total tackles, including six in his final audition against the Miami Dolphins, and according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, he’s the only defensive lineman to put up such stellar preseason stats without finding a home:
12 players had 2.5 or more sacks this preseason. 10 are on 53-man rosters. One on practice squad. And last, Michael Sam, hasn't found work.
— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) September 1, 2014
So that raises the question: will Mike Sam find a practice squad or roster spot, giving him an avenue to become the first openly gay player to step on the field in a regular season NFL game? It’s hard to say. We’ve seen this type of story before: it took Jason Collins nearly a year to find a spot on an NBA roster after coming out as gay, and Robbie Rogers retired upon coming out before coming back to Major League Soccer four months later. But the NFL is different, both in its cultural significance and in how it makes up its rosters. It’s not unheard of for a player to end up on a roster without a practice squad spot, but it certainly makes it harder. Throw in that NFL teams are still scared of the idea of Sam being a “distraction,” and the road is only tougher.
Those fears, of course, are misplaced, as I’ve explained before, as Collins proved, and as Sam’s experience with the Rams showed. Head coach Jeff Fisher, upon announcing Sam’s release, went out of his way to dispel the idea that Sam or the media attention that followed him had been a distraction to his team during the preseason; Sam’s teammates sounded similar notes at different times. But clearly, none of that has been enough to assuage the fears of NFL teams, even if they are finely-tuned media machines that are more than willing to deal with potential “distractions” when they’re not openly gay. So for now, we’ll keep waiting to see if Sam will get his chance, or if the possibility of the first openly gay player in the country’s most popular sports league will have to wait — again.
2. What will happen to the concussion settlement between the NFL and former players?
After initially rejecting a proposed settlement between the NFL and 4,500 former players who sued the league for its handling of concussions, a federal judge granted preliminary approval to the deal in July. But that doesn’t mean questions around the proposed settlement are done. Seven former players have already asked a federal court to review the terms of the settlement, and other players have raised concerns that it is unfair because it excludes some players and may not provide them with enough money.
The settlement itself mostly ignores chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the disease linked to repeated knocks to the head that has drawn attention as part of the ongoing concussion problem.
Players who object can opt out of the deal, and they can also raise concerns with the settlement at Nov. 19 hearing in which Judge Anita Brody will have to decide if the proposal is “fair, reasonable, adequate, and in the best interests” of ex-players. Clearly, many former players feel it isn’t, so that hearing and its aftermath — and the ultimate fate of both the settlement and the players it covers — are worth watching.
3. How will Oakland, St. Louis, and San Diego resolve their stadium situations?
Rare is a year without stadium drama in the NFL, and this one is no different. The San Francisco 49ers will begin play in Santa Clara’s new Levi’s Stadium, as long as someone in the organization can figure out how to make grass grow. The Niners’ wars with their own turf, though, are small potatoes compared to the dilemmas facing at least three other teams. The Oakland Raiders (along with the Oakland A’s, their fellow O.co Coliseum tenants) and St. Louis Rams are both entering into pivotal years for their stadiums, and in San Diego, the Chargers started talking about a new stadium this spring. All three teams have been (at times tenuously) linked to a move to Los Angeles, which, incidentally, all three have called home before.
St. Louis’ Edward Jones Dome isn’t exactly crumbling, but thanks to a lease agreement that requires the city to keep the Dome in top-tier classification, the Rams had all the justification they think they need to ask for big renovations. The city wasn’t thrilled with any of the plans the team brought forward, rejecting deals for massive renovations to the Dome. Now, the Rams are on a year-to-year lease and are starting talks for a new stadium. In Oakland, the Raiders are entering the final year of their lease agreement with the city and say they don’t want to sign another one-year deal. Owner Mark Davis, as owners tend to do, has already begun planting the seeds of a possible move: he traveled to San Antonio on a trip that may or may not have been about moving the Raiders there. And in San Diego, the Chargers keep floating the idea of a new stadium even as a new mayor says he doesn’t want to give them public money and the public itself doesn’t exactly seem thrilled with the idea. The Chargers situation doesn’t seem like it will move all that fast — they have a plan to put on the ballot in 2016 — but the other two may move more quickly toward resolutions during the season.
4. What’s in store for the Buffalo Bills?
Longtime Bills owner Ralph Wilson died in March, leaving all sorts of questions around the franchise he had led since its beginning. The Bills are now for sale, which has drawn the interest of big names and observers given that they are the first NFL team to hit the market since the surprisingly lucrative $2 billion sale of the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers. Both Donald Trump and Bon Jovi were interested, which has inspired hilarious reactions from Bills fans because, well, it’s Donald Trump and Bon Jovi. One is a walking media circus who was once part of a competitor league. The other, at least until he reportedly dropped out less than a week ago, was leading a Toronto-based ownership group that drew the wrath of Bills fans and even former players amid fears that they would move the team to Canada. While those two have garnered headlines, the current owners of the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres are the favorites.
NFL teams don’t change hands every day, so the Bills’ sale is big news, especially as the city and state are contemplating plans to either renovate Ralph Wilson Stadium (again) or build the Bills new digs, all in an effort to ensure the team stays in town. Bids for the franchise, which are expected to top $1 billion, are due this week, and it’s possible a new owner will identified in time for the NFL’s ownership meetings in October, when the rest of the league could vote on a sale.
5. Will any of the rookie quarterbacks turn into stars?
Heading into the season, it looked as though 2014 would be something of a rarity: despite a typical bevy of rookie quarterbacks entering the league, none of the NFL’s 32 teams looked slated to start a rookie in Week One for the first time in seven seasons. That changed the weekend before kickoff, when the Raiders announced that Derek Carr, who the team took in the second round of May’s draft, would get the starting nod over veteran free agent signing Matt Schaub.
While none of Carr’s draft mates will start, there will be plenty of attention paid to several of them, most notably Jacksonville’s Blake Bortles, Cleveland’s Johnny Manziel, and Minnesota’s Teddy Bridgewater. Bridgewater and Manziel both stayed on draft boards longer than originally expected, leaving them with something to prove early in their NFL careers. Bortles and Bridgewater, meanwhile, both showed potential during the preseason that should leave their fans excited about the future.
Given the quarterback situations ahead of all three, the question seems to be when, not if, we might see any of them, or at least when their respective fan bases will start clamoring for them to play. At that point, we’ll get our first look at whether anyone in this class of quarterbacks can join the group of young stars who seem poised to inherit the star quarterback mantle from the Bradys and Mannings of the world.
6. Can RGIII find his rookie form?
Speaking of quarterbacks, Washington banked big parts of its future on Robert Griffin III two years ago, and it looked like a guarantee to pay off during his rookie year. Griffin led the team to its first playoff appearance since 2007 while throwing for 3,200 yards and 20 touchdowns along the way. But the season ended in disaster when RGIII shredded his knee in the offseason, and the hangover lingered into 2013, when Washington won just three games and put their biggest name on the bench for the final three games of the season. The pain of RGIII’s struggles was only exacerbated by the continued success of fellow young quarterbacks Andrew Luck, who led Indianapolis to another playoff berth, Colin Kaepernick, who put the 49ers back in the NFC Championship, and Russell Wilson, who helped the Seattle Seahawks win a Super Bowl.
So Washington cleaned house, bringing in a new head coach and new offensive weapons like DeSean Jackson to help their quarterback. But RGIII didn’t look great during the preseason, sparking talk from even former Washington greats that it was time to put him on the bench and raising even more questions about whether he will ever regain the form that he showed as a rookie. The RGIII of 2013 will likely leave Washington and its suspect defense reeling much as it did a year ago, but in a division plagued with questions everywhere outside Philadelphia, a strong rebound could position Griffin’s squad for a potential playoff run. And maybe that would help (temporarily) alleviate another big off-field issue facing this franchise and owner Daniel Snyder, which brings us to…
7. Will this be a pivotal year for the name of Washington’s football team?
2013 wasn’t just a bad year for this football team on the field, it was a horrible year off of it. Native Americans’ 40-year battle to change the team’s name has exploded to national prominence over the last 18 months, when it became the target of an organized media campaign, members of Congress, politicians across the country, civil rights and religious groups, and even President Obama. The name has been criticized by former and current players, newspapers and magazines have said they will no longer print it, and now all four of the NFL’s major broadcast partners — ESPN, Fox, NBC, and CBS — have given their announcers and analysts the freedom to avoid the name on-air, a privilege high-profile analysts like CBS’s Phil Simms, NBC’s Tony Dungy, and ESPN’s Tom Jackson, among others, plan to exercise. Just before the season, the Washington Post’s editorial board said it would no longer use the name either. The team has also lost its federal trademark protections thanks to a decision (which it is appealing) from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office that called the name “disparaging to Native Americans.”
All of that raises the question: could 2014 be a pivotal year for the name? After putting together a team of high-profile consultants to defend the name last year, the team and the NFL are no longer dealing with this primarily behind the scenes. Instead, they are now engaging, for the first time, in an all-out media campaign to defend it, launching a web site, running television ads, and bringing up its side of the fight during game broadcasts. It has enlisted former players, started a charity foundation, and sought the opinions of Native Americans who don’t mind it. Their opponents have only intensified their challenges to the name, and though they won’t get into specifics, they promise that their public fight — which last season included TV and radio ads and meetings with NFL officials and others — will expand during the upcoming season. At the University of Minnesota, which is hosting Washington’s Week 9 tilt with the Vikings, officials have already called on the team to not use its logo or name on uniforms, merchandise, or promotional materials.
Sports Illustrated‘s Peter King predicted this year that the name won’t last past 2016. Snyder insisted a year ago that it would “NEVER” change. Only one thing is clear: whatever the eventual outcome, the renewal of the NFL season will only keep it in the spotlight.
8. How will the league continue dealing with its attendance issues?
It’s hard to argue that the NFL has any big business problem right now — the league had more than $9 billion in revenues last year and expects that number to keep rising — but if there is one short-term question, it’s why fewer people are coming to NFL stadiums on game days. NFL attendance has fallen each year since 2007 as ticket prices rise and in-home viewing experiences continue getting better. The issue even popped up during the playoffs last year. The NFL has amended its TV blackout rules (which might not last much longer anyway), and teams have tried new ways to lure fans to stadiums, from installing wi-fi to renovating stadiums and scoreboards to try to improve the fan experience. This isn’t an NFL problem alone — college basketball and football have experienced similar issues too — but how the league continues to react to it, and whether any changes are on the horizon, will be interesting to keep an eye on.
9. Will the sharp rise in defensive passing penalties continue?
Over the past few seasons, the most interesting on-field policy changes were about the effects of new safety rules meant to prevent concussions. This off-season, it’s another rule change that is drawing the ire of the league’s defensive players. The league urged officials in the offseason to adhere more strictly to the letter of the law on illegal contact penalties in the passing game, and the results have been striking, as this chart from NBC shows:
— PFTonNBCSN (@PFTonNBCSN) August 26, 2014
The NFL has already trended toward more of a passing-focused league in the past, and that’s only going to continue if this trend plays out through the regular season. As should be expected, big-time defensive players aren’t happy. Seattle Seahawks defensive back Richard Sherman, soft-spoken as he always is, called the league out during preseason, saying that the changes were meant to appeal to fantasy football players by making the pass game — and the corresponding stat lines — even more friendly, and thus helping the NFL make even more money. The league’s officials called more contact penalties in two weeks of preseason games than they did in the entire 2013 season. Can that continue? And what will it mean for offensive numbers — and the type of football we’re watching — if it does?
10. Will the NFL’s new domestic violence policy have any meaningful impact?
In the wake of the much-criticized suspension of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, Goodell announced a new league-wide domestic violence and sexual assault policy last week. The policy includes set disciplinary standards — six games for a first offense, a “lifetime” ban for the second — though as we explained, those aren’t necessarily new or standard, as the policy gives the league office plenty of leeway to make domestic violence-related suspensions shorter or longer than the new policy suggests.
With that said, the policy also includes some meaningful changes on the preventive side, where it puts in place new education, prevention, and community outreach programs to change the way the league operates when it comes to violence against women. If the NFL is serious about those, they could have a meaningful impact. Still, questions remain about how the policy will work, how involved the union is in the process and how it will react to suspensions under the league’s Personal Conduct Policy, and about the NFL’s role in dealing with problems that expand well beyond football.
Unfortunately, the league is going to face all of these questions even sooner than it might have anticipated. Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy is currently appealing a conviction on domestic violence charges and could be subject to the new policy. Over the weekend, San Francisco 49ers defensive end Ray McDonald was arrested on felony domestic violence charges, ensuring that the issue and how it relates to professional football isn’t going away any time soon.