This column will forecast four trends this season resulting from the lockout and delayed start of training camps, plus four long-term ramifications.
NFL lockout will bring chaos and changes
Turning the page of the calendar to August annually unleashes a torrent of predictions on the NFL season. Which teams will surface in the Super Bowl? Who will be the Most Valuable Player? How many miscreants will Roger Goodell, the commissioner, throw into his prison?
You have stumbled into yet another such column, but stick around. This one is different. It will forecast four trends this season resulting from the lockout and delayed start of training camps, plus four long-term ramifications.
First, the trends
1 Parity will become passe.
For the past two decades, the margin in almost half of the games was eight points or fewer. Nearly one in four were determined by a field goal or less. At the season's end, a magnifying glass was often required to detect the differences between 10-6 and 6-10 teams.
In the league that preaches parity as a selling point, look for greater disparity this year, especially early. The compressed rehearsal period will hamper teams that need more time for player evaluation and practice. Some will fall behind and never catch up.
2 First-year head coaches will struggle.
Most of the eight new coaches are just getting to know their players, much less figure out how to deploy them. Take the Carolina Panthers, who opened camp with 20 free agents from last season. Their main offensive threat (Steve Smith) wants out. They are breaking in a young quarterback (Cameron Newton; see trend No 3).
Welcome to the jungle, Ron Rivera.
You too, Tennessee's Mike Munchak, who must replace Jeff Fisher's 16-year system. Your ball-carrier supreme (Chris Johnson) is holding out. Your stellar wide receiver (Kenny Britt) is kneepad-deep in legal hassles. You, as well, are initiating a just-acquired QB (Matt Hasselbeck).
In Denver, John Fox is a run-first coach with no standout running back and under pressure to start the unready Tim Tebow behind the centre. Also, his defence reeks.
3 Teams with new quarterbacks will struggle.
Relocated QBs are supposed to introduce themselves no later than the off-season practices in May, not on the eve of training camp towards the end of July. The getting-to-know-you period will be rushed.
Teams are prohibited from twice-daily practices in pads, further shutting the window for acclimation.
This means trouble for Tennessee's Hasselbeck, Arizona's Kevin Kolb, Seattle's Tavaris Jackson and Washington's John Beck. And particularly for the possible rookie starters Newton, Minnesota's Christian Ponder and Cincinnati's Andy Dalton.
4 The stable teams, with entrenched coaches and battle-tested players, will thrive.
Think New England, where Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have been incumbents for, like, forever.
Or Philadelphia, with the new NFL coaching dean, Andy Reid, and the resurrected Michael Vick.
The following four long-range effects might not be evident by this year's Super Bowl, but give them time.
1 The pendulum that has moved toward more passing will continue at pace.
With curbs on training in pads, teams will be less able to develop the toughness and timing necessary to hone a rushing attack. Players clad in just shorts and T-shirts can work on passing all day. The running game? Not so much.
The Kolb-to-Cardinals trade illustrates the inflated value of a passer. Kolb, with only seven career starts and more interceptions (14) than touchdowns (11), hit the jackpot with a five-year, US$63 million (Dh231.4m) contract.
2 In the NFL, 40 will be the new 30.
With reduced practice hours, veterans will become more inclined to postpone retirement until deep into their 30s. Careers also will be extended as salaries rise at a greater rate for the old-timers now that runaway rookie wages have been reined in.
3 With less off-season monitoring, players will be on their own to stay in shape.
Got that, Albert Haynesworth?
Inevitably, some will report to camp in couch potato condition, raising the risk of injury and demotion on the depth chart.
4 Tightwad teams will loosen their purse strings and presumably improve.
Teams are now required to spend nearly 100 per cent of the salary cap on player wages. Under the old agreement, cheapskates could shell out far less. Tampa Bay entered the off-season with a projected payroll of $59.7m. They must double the figure to conform to the new deal, which carries a projected cap of $120.4m this season. If the Buccaneers invest wisely, they will benefit.
Other teams primed for spending sprees are Jacksonville ($78.1m), Kansas City ($74.7m) and Carolina ($73m).
Bonus prediction: in two years, the agreement allows Goodell to resume his crusade for an 18-game regular season.
The players, fiercely opposed so far, can vote it down, but the promise of extra dollars might trump safety concerns.
For better or worse, start preparing for two extra Sundays of football in 2013.