Are the Ravens still Super? Can the 49ers' new hero strike gridiron gold? As the new season begins, we tackle football's biggest burning questions.
Is Colin Kaepernick the real deal?
Lost in the hype surrounding the San Francisco 49ers' new rock-star quarterback is the fact he has started only 10 games in his career. "It takes about a year as a starter to get the nuances of the offense," says the NFL Network's Kurt Warner, who played in three Super Bowls, including a win for the Rams in 2000. "He's been in the league a couple of years without much playing time until midway through last year." But what a stretch it was as he racked up seven thrilling victories in those 10 games and led the 49ers to the NFC championship and a trip to the Super Bowl.
Kaepernick's celebrity status exploded in the off-season, but to prove he is one of the NFL's elite signal callers, he will need to improve his passing game, including overcoming injuries and some roster changes at wide receiver. (One plus in that department: San Francisco acquired Anquan Boldin from Baltimore.) "He is really dynamic when he runs the football," Warner says of Kaepernick, whose hot streak came to an abrupt halt in the Super Bowl loss to Baltimore. "Can he also be a great passer? That becomes a huge question."
Will the Peyton Manning-Wes Welker combination live up to the mile-high expectations in Denver?
After a successful transition to the Denver Broncos, Peyton Manning reminded fans in 2012 why he is the league's four-time MVP. And now he gets a new toy to play with: five-time Pro Bowl selection Wes Welker. The diminutive wide receiver, the first player in NFL history with five 100-catch seasons, hopes to pick up with Manning where he left off with New England Patriots teammate Tom Brady. "They will work extremely well together," NFL Network's Warner says. "Teams will have to really focus on Welker. He is always open and he is smart. Because he is so dynamic over the middle, he is really hard to cover with just one guy." So even on plays when he's not Manning's best option, he'll distract defenses from Denver's formidable wide-outs Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker.
Welker, a free agent this year, left New England feeling spurned by what he considered a low-ball contract offer, which should make the Nov. 24 Sunday Night Footballgame against his old team even more compelling.
How will the New England Patriots get past their off-season drama?
Quarterback Tom Brady's receiving corps took some big hits when Aaron Hernandez was arrested for murder, Wes Welker signed with the Broncos and Rob Gronkowski underwent back surgery, which still has him sidelined. NBC's Cris Collinsworth says the Pats have lost some flexibility on offense, "but believe me, [head coach] Bill Belichick didn't sit on the beach and fish this off-season. He's coming up with some new way to get 'em."
Will RGIII come back from injury as good as new for the Washington Redskins?
Quarterback Robert Griffin III's right knee, injured in the first round of the playoffs last season, is the NFL's most scrutinized body part since Peyton Manning's neck. "I'm all for [head coach] Mike Shanahan resting him in the preseason to make sure he's ready," ESPN's Mike Tirico says. NBC's Collinsworth hopes Griffin "pulls an Adrian Peterson," referring to the Minnesota Vikings running back who returned after knee surgery better than ever. "The league isn't as good, it isn't as much fun to watch if Robert's not playing," Collinsworth says of the NFL's 2012 Offensive Rookie of the Year. "He's one of those guys you want to pencil in to Congress as soon as possible; he's just that kind of dynamic person and charismatic leader."
Can the Baltimore Ravens win another Super Bowl?
"When you've got a head coach like John Harbaugh, a general manager like Ozzie Newsome and a quarterback like Joe Flacco, they can make up for a lot of missing parts," says CBS's Jim Nantz. With defensive standouts Ray Lewis and Ed Reed no longer prowling the field (Lewis retired and is now an analyst for ESPN; Reed joined the Houston Texans), the Ravens brought in Elvis Dumervil at outside linebacker to join Terrell Suggs as the nucleus of the defense. The Dumervil pickup was indicative "of the way that the Ravens were able to replenish," Nantz said. "And I really do believe in the power of John Harbaugh. The guy's a brilliant mind and motivator, so I don't think it's like the Ravens have fallen off the face of the planet. They'll be very tough again."
NFL Kickoff 2013: Baltimore Ravens at Denver Broncos airs Thursday at 8:30/7:30c on NBC.