September 09, 2020

Jon Ralph’s Season Preview

WHAT if Tony Soprano decided to give up his life of crime and start fighting for good instead of evil?

What if one of television’s great villains decided he was sick of all the lying and cheating and instead wanted to go clean?

Welcome to the new NFL season, one where the best of America – its Black Lives Matters social movement – and its worst – the exploding coronavirus problem – will intersect in ways no one can predict.

And where its own Tony Soprano has decided to get free of the Mob, as the winningest quarterback of all time in Tom Brady has finally decided to leave the New England Patriots. After all those Super Bowl rings – six of them, yep count ‘em – nine Super Bowls and 13 AFC championships – the 43-year-old has jumped ship to Tampa Bay. And no one has any idea how it will turn out.

Like those EPL fans who grew up following Manchester United because of their decade-plus of dominance, so many Australian fans became rusted-on Patriots fans because if you wanted to back an NFL winner, you followed New England.

The rest of us couldn’t stand their cheating ways, through Deflategate and Spygate and all the rest including owner Robert Kraft’s frankly bizarre trip to a massage parlour that titillated the American sporting public.

Now we get to cheer for Brady given he is free of the clutches of coach Bill Belichick and all his ruthless boundary-pushing methods.

For those that haven’t caught up, Brady has arrived at Tampa under head coach Bruce Aryans and immediately reunited with legendary tight-end Rob Gronkowski, out of retirement to play with his best bud. Tampa Bay is stacked, from receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, Gronwoski, fellow tight ends O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate, and running back Leonard Fournette, who they only signed last week.

So do we get to watch the Tom-and-Gronk show and all the pleasure we should derive from them kicking butt and taking names? Or like one of TV’s most epic characters in Soprano, was loving to hate him actually most of the fun anyway?

Regardless, the NFL has been turned on its head by the seismic breakup many predicted but seemed so unlikely given Brady and Belichick were just so good for each other.

And the unpredictability of the season ahead has to be good for the NFL.

THE DEFENDING CHAMPIONS

The NFL season kicks off Friday morning Australian time with the Kansas City Chiefs defending their title with weapons every bit as dangerous as Tampa Bay’s arsenal. You will know by now that the new face of the NFL, Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes backed up the truck after his MVP season which also included the Super Bowl win and the Super Bowl MVP.

Somehow a $500 million, 10-year extension is actually good news for the Chiefs given plenty of that filthy lucre is in a back-ended deal, which allowed the Chiefs to re-sign star tight end Travis Kelce. They drafted running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire to some controversy then had starting Damien Williams opt out of the season over COVID fears, turning that draft move into one of inspiration.

So with Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins and Mecole Hardman in the receiving corps, Mahomes is perfectly placed to take his team back to the Super Bowl.

This guy is a freak.

But with head coach Andy Reid giving him his head to make it up as he goes along when flushed from the pocket, he’s just so much fun to watch.

CORONAVIRUS FEARS

With 32 teams consisting of 150-plus members each, the NFL never believed it could house everyone in a bubble for the entire season. So the league will kick off with fingers crossed and back-up plans including a delayed Super Bowl all in the works.

Last week only 10 of 56,000 tests came back positive. Everyone knows how high the stakes are, but the question remains – can the players maintain the discipline to keep the season going in a country away with the ‘rona? Some NFL teams plan to have as many as 10,000 fans in their seats but many others will play without fans at all.

BLACK LIVES MATTER

Commissioner Roger Goodell was basically brow-beaten into a video apology to black players as the Black Lives Now protests reached their zenith as he was called out by Mahomes, Michael Thomas and Deshaun Watson, among others.

He has apologised to former 49ers quarterback Colin Kapernick, whose kneeling protests at racial inequality sparked such a furore and saw him effectively booted from the game.

So with players planning to take a knee at games owners will watch on from plush superboxes with nervous apprehension at the response from fans. So much has changed given the mostly positive response when NBA players delayed playoff games last week to protest. Yet so much has not, because Kapernick still can’t find himself a home.

The Washington Redskins have dropped the offensive part of their name and are yet to settle on a new moniker. After headlines about the toxic culture led by despised owner Dan Snyder many won’t be happy until he sells the team, although there seems little prospect of that in the short-term.

WHO ELSE TO WATCH

Cam Newton’s Superman routine was once a weekly fixture watching NFL Redzone in the early hours of a Monday morning. Then the brash, brilliant Carolina Panthers quarterback got banged up with a serious shoulder injury plus a lisfranc break to his foot. And after ending his second straight season in injury reserve his side turfed him to avoid a monstrous $20 million salary cap hit. Friendless for months, the 2015 MVP finally signed with Belichick’s New England.

Oh no….

Can Belichick design schemes around the free-wheeling Newton and keep him on the field with his usual rat-tag bunch of receivers while also winning enough games? His spectacularly miserly defence kept New England in so many games in recent years but given a spate of opt-outs and departures – Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins, Elandon Roberts and Dont’a Hightower – Newton is going to have to put that cape on more weeks than not.

Lamar Jackson led the Baltimore Ravens to a 14-2 record with moves that had to be seen to be believed, throwing 36 touchdown passes while also setting the single-season rushing record for a quarterback. His 47 yard touchdown run with the most delicious spin move against Cincinnati – “He is Houdini!”, went the commentary – was indeed the stuff from a Madden NFL video game. Then the Ravens went belly-up in a 28-12 playoff loss to the Tennessee Titans and Jackson is back with the pack, having to prove himself all over again.

LSU quarterback Joe Burrow celebrated a perfect 15-0 season and national championship win over Clemson being captured smoking on a cigar and looking like sport’s version of perfection. For his troubles he became the NFL’s No.1 overall pick and Cincinnati’s starting quarterback. He starts the season with sky-high hype and exactly zero pre-season games to gauge whether he will take it in his stride like fellow prodigy Andrew Luck or stumble like so many college quarterbacks unable to hit the big time. With wide receiver AJ Green, elite running back Joe Mixon and rookie pass-catcher, he at least has some weapons at his disposal.

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