You may have noticed that, along with the opening of NFL camps, there was another sporting milestone opening in London last week. The 2012 Olympians have already provided us with a number of NFL-applicable discussion points, like whether teenaged Chinese swimmers might get big enough to play football, or whether teams looking to tank games in order to get a better draft pick might consult China's badminton coaches. But a number of you tweeted me at @Carlsonsports (that at is kind of a redundancy, isn't it?) to ask variations on the following question, which seems timely.
Should American football be an Olympic sport?
I used Twister's question (whoever he or she may be) because I think the 'should' is the best way of putting it. There's no question that being included in the Olympics would be a major plus for the game: not only does the IOC put on the world's biggest sporting show, it's also a time when people who normally would dismiss sport in general, or all sports except soccer in particular, will pay attention to activities as esoteric as archery, synchronised diving, and beach volleyball. Well, OK, there is a certain element of fan who will ALWAYS watch beach volley, but you know what I mean. So there is no question that being in the Olympics would help American football grow.
But whether a sport that is really played at the top professional level in only two counties (and with a sizeable gap and some rule differences between those two) should be an Olympic sport is a different question, and the answer is obvious. I had an inside view of the struggles of baseball to achieve medal status (which they did finally in 1992 after a number of relatively successful appearances as an exhibition or demonstration sport), and baseball has a wider footprint at the top competitive level. But it (and softball) were ejected from the games, and face an uphill struggle to get back in, especially because it requires the building of sport-specific stadia.
Oddly, rugby, whose footprint around the world at the top level is very similar to baseball's, if concentrated in former Commonwealth countries, in effect replaced baseball, but with a bastardized version of their game, sevens. This appealed to the IOC for a couple of reasons: it theoretically allows smaller nations a chance to participate more quickly in a less technical game, and it also means fewer participants, because the IOC is desperate to hold the number of athletes down to the 10,000 level. Obviously American football, with its 40 plus rosters, faces a big hurdle there.
With rugby sevens and beach volleyball both in (as cut-down versions of the original sport) you might think flag football would be the way to go for Olympic participation, and certainly the amateur federation is working hard at spreading flag as a way to teach the basics of the game to both boys and girls. As an aside, five-a-side soccer or beach soccer would probably be preferable to the Olympic afterthought under-23 soccer tournament.
And mentioning the amateur federation raises a final obstacle for football: the federation is not yet part of the IOC's inner family, though they are working hard. They are currently in the grouping of non - Olympic sports, building an international profile - but they face one last dilemma: the IOC basically want the world's best in their event, and in American football the world's best, the USA, would be unbeatable. A second-tier tournament probably isn't attractive enough to them as a ticket-spinner to make them keen to include it.
Will typically outstanding defensive or offensive-minded teams win the Super Bowl?
Back to football nuts and bolts with one of the traditional arguing points. The old adage is that offense wins games and defense wins championships. This is based on the idea that a high-powered offensive team can rack up successful seasons even if they are derailed once or twice, finishing with 12 or 13 or more wins and making the playoffs, but when they run into a top defensive team in a single must-win game, if they miss-fire they're gone. Great defensive teams, giving up two touchdowns or less a game, can shut down even the best offenses, and win with 17 points of their own.
Of course this scenario doesn't take into account the relative strengths of the other unit opposite the great offense or defense. So the fantastic Ravens and Bucs defenses at the turn of this century won Super Bowls when their offenses were able to play at a relatively average level while, most importantly, avoiding turnovers. While the offensive powerhouses, like the Patriots and Colts, and more recently the Saints and Packers, were able to win with high-powered offense as long as their defense could play at league average (the Colts in their Super Bowl year) and/or generate a lot of turnovers. The trend recently, however, has been for those high-powered offenses to get to the Super Bowl, and even, as when the Saints played the Colts, meet each other, rendering the argument useless. And the Patriots have floundered twice in Super Bowls because the Giants have been able to slow them down, and allow their offense to generate the few big plays they need (compare the Giants' recent Super Bowl wins with the Ravens': Trent Dilfer to Brandon Stokeley was the equivalent, in a less spectacular way, of Eli to Tyree or Mario). So the pendulum seems to be switching. You could better say that defense wins championships, except when it doesn't
Has the NFL become too much of a passing or offense-friendly league?
This is a corollary to the previous question, and I don't think there is any doubt that the steady progression of rules changes ever since the late 1970s, when holding was re-defined and defenders were stopped from hitting receivers after five yards, has been to encourage offense, with the thinking that points on the board mean bums in the seats and viewers at the screens. Throw in the way artificial turf encourages straight-ahead speed and appears to shorten running-back careers, the way domes eliminate the traditional effects of wintry weather, and nowadays the understandable drive to protect players from injury has resulted in somewhat more restriction on defenders, and you have a game that is evolving.
I'd argue that part of that evolution is the growth of the kind of spread offenses that were popularized at lower levels, but for a long time were thought to be impossible to run in the NFL because the of the bigger, faster, more talented and better-prepared defenders. But the factors I listed above have made it easier for NFL offenses to establish more 'run and shoot' style match-up based attacks. I find it fascinating, but yes, sometimes I do long for the days of old-school football, while realising that even that is a misnomer, as both the 1950 era Rams and the AAFC Browns were running old-school versions of modern passing games way back then. But I might as well long for leather helmets or drop kicks!
Who will be the starting quarterbacks for the Titans and the Chiefs?
That's an interesting question for me because I think the answer revolves around the fact that both teams played last season, in effect, without their main weapon, a multi-purpose running back. There's a good argument to be made that the running back position is, in effect, fungible, and you don't need to invest heavily in a workhorse back. But I'd suggest there is an exception to that rule, and that would be for teams with backs who can both run and receive, through whom they channel their entire offense. Matt Forte, Ray Rice, Chris Johnson, and arguable Jamaal Charles would be examples of this, and their risk of injury in the face of such workload merely reinforces the original point about fungibility.
For the Titans, Johnson's ineffectiveness for a long time after his holdout put their offense under a lot of pressure, but this year I see a real dilemma in the choice between Jake Locker and Matt Hasselbeck. Offensive coordination Chris Palmer has always been an advocate of downfield routes that take a while to develop, and often hasn't had the quarterbacks who can wait long enough and then deliver the ball downfield. Locker is more that guy than Hasselbeck is, so you'd think he's a better fit. But he also has accuracy issues, and Hasselbeck's strong suit is quick reading of defenses and releasing, and accurate throwing. I suspect Mike Munchack will go with the veteran, and make the change if the offense sputters or if he plays badly. Remember too, Hasselbeck has a history of injury.
I would be surprised if Matt Cassel isn't starting for the Chiefs, partly because I don't see either Brady Quinn or Ricky Stanzi beating him out in camp. The thing with Cassel is he needs a little extra time to see things (remember his year in New England, when they finally figured out he played much better in shotgun than from under center). Brian Daboll, the new offensive coordinator, comes from New England and the offense ought to be more Cassel-friendly. Last year Cassel was injured (along with Charles and TE Tony Moeaki), and with Charles back, and Peyton Hillis providing a change of pace, and Kevin Boss joining Moeaki in two-tight end sets, they can be flexible, while the addition of Eric Winston improves their O line. I wrote last week that I thought Stanzi was a dark-horse for playing time, but Quinn knows Daboll's systems from playing for him in Cleveland, when Romeo Crennel was the head coach there, so he may have an advantage should Cassel falter.