The NFL started its 99th season Thursday night with almost a sense of relief.
The games will take the spotlight away from all the off-field problems, including poor leadership, an unpopular commissioner who seemed to be in hiding in the preseason, a concussion crisis, the mishandling of player protests, and declining TV ratings and attendance.
And a new book coming out, “Big Game,” paints an unflattering portrait of the commissioner and the owners, calling the latter “tycoons of enlarged ego, delusion and prostate.’’
And the opener fit the narrative that the NFL has problems. The Philadelphia Eagles-Atlanta Falcons game was delayed by rain and was a dreary affair filled with 28 penalties, although it had an exciting finish with the Falcons failing to score despite having five throws from the red zone.
The ratings continued their decline for the opener, but then all TV ratings are in decline. The bottom line is that the NFL remains America’s most popular sport, and the money keeps rolling in like a gusher.
And the storylines continue to be captivating.
Here are just five of the players in the spotlight in the first week of the season:
Cousins played the NFL system perfectly. When the Washington Redskins wouldn’t give him the long-term deal he wanted, Cousins played under the franchise tag two years in a row and collected almost $44 million, then signed a three-year deal with the Minnesota Vikings for another $84 million. That’s almost $128 million for five years. Now he opens the season against the San Francisco 49ers and starts trying to prove he’s worth that much money. And he faces Jimmy Garoppolo, who was traded to the 49ers last year by New England and went 5-0 as a starter. And Cousins faces 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan, his first offensive coordinator in Washington. It is a matchup of two quarterbacks facing high expectations.
Two years ago, Watt was the most dominating defensive player in the league, but he has been limited to just eight games the past two years while being plagued with injuries. He didn’t start until the third preseason game this year, and now the Houston Texans will start finding out how big an impact Watt will make when they open the season at New England. It remains to be seen if he can still be the player he once was.
The Jacksonville Jaguars are poised for their first Super Bowl run in team history with possibly the AFC’s best roster. But Bortles remains a question mark. He had a 64.4 quarterback rating in each of his last two preseason games and threw three picks in those two games, most for a quarterback in the preseason. Against the New York Giants in the opener, Bortles — who has admitted he is not a natural thrower of the football –will have to start showing if he will be more consistent this year.
The New York Jets will make him the NFL’s youngest starting quarterback, at least since the merger and maybe in league history. The Jets have been looking for a franchise quarterback since Joe Namath left in 1976. They hope Darnold will fill that role, but they start finding out if he’s ready now in a Monday night visit to Detroit.
The Chicago Bears made the bold move to trade for Khalil Mack and pay him a record contract for a defensive player. But for Mack to make a difference, he needs Trubisky to start developing into a top quarterback after posting a 77.5 passer rating in his rookie year. Without a better offense (the Bears were 30th in offensive yardage last year and 32nd in passing game), it may not matter how good Mack is. Trubisky has a tough task in the opener with a prime-time game at Green Bay on Sunday night dueling Aaron Rodgers.