By BARRY WILNER
NEW YORK (AP) — Rules changes and national anthem demonstrations seem to have folks inside and outside the NFL obsessed as the opening kickoff of the season approaches.
Yes, the Super Bowl champion Eagles and Atlanta Falcons will open things on Thursday night in Philadelphia. What many folks wonder: Will there be any social injustice protests during “The Star-Spangled Banner?” And if players, coaches and officials will have a handle on the adjustment to use of the helmet in making a hit.
Not to mention the new kickoff rules and, at last, a catch rule that seems to make sense.
Those are enough issues to grab attention away from Philly’s quarterback situation, as well as the progress of the five first-round QB draft choices expected to make their debuts sooner or later.
Or from the return from injuries of Aaron Rodgers, J.J. Watt, Richard Sherman, Deshaun Watson, David Johnson and Odell Beckham Jr., to name a few.
Or Jon Gruden’s return to an NFL sideline in Oakland.
Plus, Adam Vinatieri’s pursuit of the career points and field goals marks.
What’s ahead through the penultimate day of the 2018 calendar?
The preseason has been dominated, even overridden, by discussion of and doubts about the “helmet rule.” Basically, any player on offense or defense lowering his head and making contact with any part of the helmet is subject to a 15-yard penalty, a fine, and even an ejection. It’s a player safety adjustment for which “the goal long term is to make the game safer and take out some of these hits that should not be part of the game,” says Giants owner John Mara, a member of the competition committee that recommends rules changes to the owners.
The concerns on many levels focus on players adjusting to the tackling requirements and officials mastering such calls at full speed.
Gene Steratore, who recently retired as an NFL (and college basketball) referee, expects the critical tempest to die down quickly.
“Players will adjust because they are that good,” says Steratore, now an analyst for CBS after 15 seasons in the league. “Officials will, too, because they are that good. There will be a learning curve for all of them, but I think in a fast period of time, a trigger moment will come that will show right before that contact if it is worthy of a flag.”
The fix to the phrasing of the catch rule should eliminate the kind of calls — on Jesse James, Dez Bryant et al — many found bogus.
“Control. If it looks like a catch and smells like a catch, it’s a catch,” says Troy Vincent, the NFL’s chief of football operations. “(The rule) had become convoluted: what you should do, what you shouldn’t do. It should be clear as day. So our job was to simplify and we put it in practical terms.”
The other major rule alteration is on kickoffs, where coverage team players no longer can take a running start, and there are regulations on where kick team players can be overall and how they can block.
“This is certainly a way of trying to keep the kickoff in the game and attempting to cut down on high-speed collisions,” Mara says. “There are a lot of us who don’t want to take the kickoff out unless we can’t find ways to make it safer. It is our most dangerous play.”
Anticipation of whether players will demonstrate during the national anthem again this year is high, fueled in part by reactions from President Trump. Players argue that their message about the need for change in communities nationwide has been misconstrued by the president and his followers, including many team owners.
With the unilateral policy banning players from any on-field protests during the anthem on hold as owners and players discuss the issue, no one can be sure what’s ahead.
Everyone can be sure the topic won’t disappear.
“I think part of the problem is that when you continue the rhetoric that this is controversial or this is somehow a negative thing, people treat it as such,” Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins says. “But we’ve seen in other leagues when they’ve decided to amplify the voices of their players to also emphasize the importance of the issues that we’re raising, and change the narrative away from the anthem, that not only is it more acceptable, the fan base gets educated on what we’re talking about, and we can actually make some movement.”
Before we reach 2019, it’s a near-certainty that Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, Josh Rosen and Lamar Jackson will get onto the field. Some likely will be starters, maybe even stamp themselves as stars.
Only in Baltimore, where Joe Flacco is the incumbent, is the rookie (Jackson) a long shot to become the No. 1 quarterback this season. The others — Cleveland’s Mayfield, Buffalo’s Allen, the Jets’ Darnold and Arizona’s Rosen — are with teams considered outsiders in the playoff chase and it makes sense as early as prudent to see if they are the franchise QBs they were drafted to be.
New coaches in charge of the Cardinals, Titans, Lions, Giants, Bears and Raiders include four newbies to being in charge: Detroit’s Matt Patricia, Chicago’s Matt Nagy, Tennessee’s Mike Vrabel and Arizona’s Steve Wilks. All of them made their marks as proficient coordinators and bring freshness and toughness to their franchises.
Vrabel, of course, has three Super Bowl rings as a player with New England, which surely earns him some respect in the locker room. If he’s considered a product of the Belichick coaching tree, though, Vrabel could struggle; few of the Patriots coach’s protégés have had much success as a head man in the NFL.
So the same goes for Patricia, although he has far more experience in coaching.
New York’s Pat Shurmur had a short stint in charge in Cleveland and probably didn’t get a fair shake. The Giants desperately needed a culture change after the 2017 debacle.
“I have seen just about all I could see from the top of the mountain to having the second pick in the draft,” Mara says. “Last year still is somewhat of a shock to me, going from a preseason Super Bowl contender to being the second-worst team in the league. It was a perfect storm, just an avalanche of injuries, locker room issues, a relatively inexperienced head coach (Ben McAdoo) who hadn’t had to deal with any of that in the past, and some draft classes not all that productive. And it adds up to a bad season.”
Oakland also comes off a bad season following a playoff appearance, and the Raiders made the biggest splash by bringing back (and out of the broadcast booth) Jon Gruden. There’s lots of excitement in the Black Hole and throughout the Bay Area about Gruden, who clearly has stamped his personality on the roster by trading his best player, holdout pass rusher Khalil Mack.
“I love the Raider fans, I love Oakland, and that’s the primary reason why I’m standing here,” he says.
Vinatieri is a marvel. The NFL’s oldest player at 45, he begins his 23rd pro season in range to pass Hall of Famer Morten Andersen as the leading scorer. He was dependable for a decade in New England and then a dozen years in Indianapolis.
He needs seven field goals to pass Andersen (565) for the most field goals. Andersen scored 2,544 points in a league-record 382 games and Vinatieri needs 58 points to break the record.
“It’s one of those things that I haven’t really though too much about it,” he says. “I’m still just trying to help my team win games and keep on putting chapters in this book, and if that happens, fantastic.”