1. Recently installed as the Broncos’ executive vice president of football operations, John Elway stated this week that the team would enter training camp with an open competition at the quarterback position. However, the odds are long that 2010 first round pick Tim Tebow will not be starting on opening day. By going public that there would be a competition at the position, Elway accomplished two goals. First, he keeps the heat on Tebow and reinforces that he will need to work hard during the offseason to win the starting position. Secondly, he signals to other teams potentially interested in Kyle Orton that Orton is in the team’s plans and won’t be released by the club. Therefore, any team looking at Orton as a potential starter in 2011 will need to acquire him via trade from the Broncos. Denver has taken some heat for giving Elway such a prominent role despite his inexperience but the early indications are that he is a quick study and that bodes well for Broncos fans.
2. The Falcons signed head coach Mike Smith to a three-year contract extension this week, locking up him through the 2014 season. Smith led the Falcons to the top seed in the NFC this season and the Falcons have had a winning record in each of his three years in Atlanta, going 33-15 over those seasons. The team compiled back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in the franchise’s history under Smith’s tenure and with this extension, the AFC South will boast arguably the top group of division coaches in the league over the next few years. Sean Payton led the Saints to the Super Bowl championship last season while the Buccaneers Raheem Morris finished second in the AP Coach of the Year voting this season. In Carolina, the Panthers have brought in Ron Rivera and he has been a successful defensive coordinator for several seasons. The AFC South had two playoff participants this year and it won’t be a surprise if that remains the case for the next couple of seasons.
3. Sticking with the Falcons, general manager Thomas Dimitroff faces some interesting offseason decisions regarding the team’s stable of running backs. While Michael Turner is clearly the team’s most talented back and is signed long term, both of the team’s top backups are likely to be unrestricted free agents once a new collective bargaining agreement is signed. Jason Snelling took over as Turner’s top backup during 2009 and held that role this past season. Jerious Norwood has struggled with injuries over the past two seasons, playing in just 12 games, but remains an explosive player when healthy and can also contribute as a returner. With Snelling having proven to be a productive receiver out of the backfield (a role that Turner has never embraced) with 74 receptions over the last two years, there is less of a need for the Falcons to bring Norwood back. However, the Falcons rely heavily on the ground game and Norwood’s leverage is significantly hampered due to his inability to stay healthy so there is a strong chance he will be back in Atlanta in 2011.
4. Over in Carolina, the Panthers surely felt the sting when Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck chose to forego turning pro, leaving 2010 draft picks Jimmy Clausen and Tony Pike as the only players at the position likely to return to the team for the 2011 season. While Panthers general manager Marty Hurney went public with the team’s plans to upgrade the quarterback position, don’t be surprised if Clausen ends up starting on opening day next season. With a defensive minded head coach in Ron Rivera, a stable of talented running backs and an offensive line built for run blocking, the Panthers will likely employ a short passing attack which suits a young quarterback like Clausen. With none of this year’s crop of rookie quarterbacks being worthy of being the top overall selection in the draft and this year’s crop of veteran free agents on the downside of their careers, the odds are strong that Clausen will emerge as the Panthers starter in 2011.
5. In Cincinnati, the Bengals took their time in deciding the fate of offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski, finally choosing to fire him this week. Bratkowski successfully used a heavily run-based offense in 2009 with the team winning the AFC North title that season. However, with the addition of Terrell Owens, Bratkowski abandoned the running game with decidedly mixed results. Jay Gruden, Jon’s brother, will take over for Bratkowski next season and he inherits an offense with a number of pressing issues. Quarterback Carson Palmer has asked to be traded, running back Cedric Benson is a free agent and wants a commitment to the running game before re-signing, Owens won’t be back and Chad OchoCinco may be on his way out as well, leaving a largely unproven trio of wide receivers in Andre Caldwell, Jerome Simpson and Jordan Shipley. This will be Gruden’s first season as an offensive coordinator in the league and that factor combined with the uncertainties at several skill positions could turn the Bengals offense into a fantasy mess in 2011.
6. The Chiefs were in the market for an offensive coordinator after Charlie Weis chose to leave Kansas City for the comfy confines of the coordinators role with the Florida Gators. Rather than bring in a big name for the position, they chose to promote offensive line coach Bill Muir. Muir’s promotion removes any doubt that head coach Todd Haley will be the main driving force and play caller for the Chiefs offense in 2011. The decision to hire Muir doesn’t come as a surprise as there were several rumours during the season that Haley clashed with Weis over the team’s offensive direction. Haley’s strong personality may have scared away potential candidates but the more likely scenario is that he wanted the added responsibilities and an offensive coordinator who isn’t likely to clash with him on game day.
7. Super Bowl Fact: For the first time in its 45-year history, the Super Bowl will be without cheerleaders. The Steelers and Packers franchises do not employ cheerleaders so this Sunday’s game will be the first Super Bowl without them. And frankly speaking, if you miss them, you’re missing the point.
8. Super Bowl Prediction: Packers 24, Steelers 20.
9. Hall of Fame Prediction: Marshall Faulk, Deion Sanders, Curtis Martin, Dermontti Dawson, Andre Reed.