It was the $9 billion question: Could NFL owners and players reach an agreement to end the bitter lockout threatening the 2011 season? After a resounding yes on July 25, teams scrambled to get ready. Record-setting TV ratings last year cemented the game's status as America's favorite sport, but what can fans expect on the field in the wake of the time-consuming labor dispute? "Teams that had very little change are going to have a huge advantage once the season starts," says CBS analyst Rich Gannon. "Some teams that have new quarterbacks, new systems, they're going to struggle." As the season kicks off tonight, TV Guide Magazine asked NFL analysts to tackle five burning questions.
How much can No. 1 draft pick Cam Newton do to turn around the Panthers?
Newton won the Heisman Trophy and the national championship at Auburn University, but
he can't outrun NFL-rookie growing pains. "He came from a one-look-and-go passing offense," Fox analyst Daryl Johnston says. "He will struggle reading pro-style defenses coverage schemes at the NFL level." Still, the Panthers should improve on last year's 2-14 record, thanks to first-year coach Ron Rivera, who ran the Bears' defense during their 2006 Super Bowl run. "They are one of the more interesting teams," says NBC's Cris Collinsworth. "A lot of people will be following them. Who would have said that about Carolina a year ago?"
Can the Packers defend their Super Bowl title?
"This team actually could be better than last year," Johnston says. "People forget Green Bay had a lot of injuries last year." Among those coming back are two-time 1,200-yard rusher Ryan Grant and sure-handed tight end Jermichael Finley, who will strengthen the running game and give Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers another potent weapon. "They have made minor tweaks, minor changes," Collinsworth says. "I love the quarterback, the coaching staff and the defense." The 27-year-old Rodgers was especially impressive in last season's playoffs, throwing nine touchdowns and only two interceptions while completing 70 percent of his passes in four games. "He has an amazingly quick release and terrific ability to decipher what the defense is doing," says Collinsworth. So don't be surprised if the Cheeseheads are rejoicing once again in February.
What impact will Chad Ochocinco and Albert Haynesworth have on the Patriots?
New England head coach Bill Belichick never hesitates to acquire projects. Expect his latest two to give the Patriots a significant boost. If flamboyant wide receiver Ochocinco gets in sync with quarterback Tom Brady, the Pats are a threat to reach their first Super Bowl in four years. "I think Chad will put up big numbers," Collinsworth says. "He will replace [the departed] Randy Moss in terms of catching bombs over the top." Look for a motivated Haynesworth to regain his dominant form playing alongside standout nose tackle Vince Wilfork. Haynesworth was overweight in Washington, where he feuded with coach Mike Shanahan. "All Bill needs [from Haynesworth] is 20 to 30 high-quality, high-effort snaps," NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock says. "I think he is going to get it." But Mayock's optimism is cautious: "If either one doesn't toe the line the Patriots' way, Bill will cut them."
Will Wade Phillips help the Houston Texans finally reach the playoffs?
Phillips, fired in November as the Dallas Cowboys' head coach, is in his first season as defensive coordinator for the Texans. "They have a playoff-caliber offense and they've had it for the last few years," says ESPN play-by-play man Mike Tirico. "They need a defense that is about middle-of-the-pack in terms of the stats to give them a real legitimate playoff opportunity." Tirico says Phillips has a history of joining a team and bolstering its defense, "so it would be an ideal time in Houston, because there's pressure on the coaching staff." The Texans, who joined the NFL in 2002, have never made the playoffs. They'll get an early test in Week 1 against AFC South rival Indianapolis, whose quarterback, Peyton Manning, is benched after coming off neck surgery. Says Tirico: "This might be the best time to get a leg up in the division."
Can Michael Vick take the Philadelphia Eagles to the next level?
"I think he can," says CBS' Gannon. "Last year he took a major step, in my opinion." Starting 12 games for the Eagles (which finished 10-6), he reestablished himself as a major talent in the wake of his dogfighting scandal. "He had career numbers in terms of completion percentage and yards and touchdowns; his quarterback rating was 100," Gannon says. "They were significant signs that this guy is beginning to really figure things out and improve as a passer, which is something I was curious to see if he could do." But Gannon adds that Vick faltered in his last two starts, losses to the Minnesota Vikings and in the wild-card playoff to the Green Bay Packers. "Can he take the next step in his development, in his maturation as a quarterback — and that's not necessarily physically, but mentally?" Gannon asks. "And part of that is recognizing pressure, being better in situational football. If he can improve, there's no reason why the Eagles won't be in the mix."
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