The Pack is back to open the 2011 NFL regular season
Charles Woodson and the Green Bay Packers take on the New Orleans Saints to open the 2011 NFL regular season Thursday on NBC.
That's the way it often goes with sports work stoppages.
The lockout nothing but an unpleasant memory at this point, the 2011 NFL season gets under way Thursday, Sept. 8, on NBC, when Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers open defense of their XLV Super Bowl title at home against the champions from the previous season, Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints.
The Packers bring back basically the same team that rang up a 31-25 upset victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in February's championship game, including All-Pros in defensive back Charles Woodson, linebacker Clay Matthews and safety Nick Collins, as well as 14 players who were injured at various points last year. The team went into the offseason with almost no needs, lost no key players to free agency and drafted for depth. And perhaps most importantly in a year following an abbreviated training camp, according to ESPN's Tom Jackson, they'll have a continuity in coaching and philosophy that many teams that underwent significant change during the spring and summer won't.
"One of the things I've been saying during the entire lockout," says Jackson, who serves as an analyst on the weekday "NFL Live" and "Sunday NFL Countdown," "has been that the new champion that we crown in February of 2012 I believe is going to be an old champion.
"It's going to be someone, because of all the missed time, changes in defensive and offensive coordinators, changes in head coaches -- I think all of those teams suffered drastically from the lockout. So when you get these teams that have the same (offensive) coordinator, have the same head coach, same defensive coordinator, system in place, the quarterback understands what the system is -- I think all of those teams have even more of an advantage than they would normally.
"And I'm always reminded that the last eight years, the same three teams (Steelers, Patriots, Indianapolis Colts) have represented the AFC (in the Super Bowl), so I don't know where the parity is, but it hasn't reached the top of the AFC yet."
As one of those "old" champions, the Patriots appear to have improved themselves during the offseason, adding among others, playmaking wide receiver Chad Ochocinco and defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, two former All-Pros with less-than-stellar reputations off the field.
"It's weird because people will say there are all kinds of questions marks about Chad Ochocinco and Albert Haynesworth," says Jackson, who this year marks his 25th year working with Chris Berman on "Countdown." "But I think if you look at the history of what Coach (Bill) Belichick has been able to do with the Corey Dillons of the world, with the Randy Mosses of the world, when he gets them that initial year, and they are brought into that fold and understand the businesslike attitude that that team has about winning, I think that that team -- and that team was likely the best team in the league last year, at least in the regular season -- and they got better."
Looking for a dark horse this season? Try the Oakland Raiders, a once-proud organization run into the ground by a famously maverick owner, Al Davis, whose football acumen seemed to desert him in recent years. They improved from 5-11 in 2009 to 8-8 last season, guided by quarterback Jason Campbell, a Washington Redskins castoff who found new life in the silver and black. And coming off a pair of solid drafts, some think the Raiders could contend for the title in the AFC West.
"I think they find now legitimacy at the quarterback position," Jackson says. "They've got speed as they always have at wide receiver. They are able to do some things that a lot of teams can't do, and that is run the ball. And I know that so much attention is given in this game to -- and it is a quarterback league; I don't fool myself about that. You're not going anywhere without one. But the teams that are able to run the ball -- New Orleans won their Super Bowl when they were running the ball better. New England always has an eye on -- yes, Brady always puts up tremendous numbers, but there's always a lot to be said for their ability to run the ball. And I think that's where the Raiders make hay.
"And then the physicality of that team, I think they made so many mistakes the last couple of years that I tended to have a couple of laughs at their expense. But the one thing you can say about them is that they are and have been, I think since Richard Seymour's arrival, a much more physical football team. So I just think that they've got a chance in not a tremendous division."
One rule change for 2011 that is certain to affect the way the game is played concerns kickoffs. In an effort to cut down on injuries, kickoffs will move from the 30-yard line to the 35, and members of the coverage team will be allowed no more than a five-yard running start, thus giving tacklers less time to build up speed before hitting the returner.
The change will obviously result in more touchbacks, thus reducing the possibility of a play -- a kick return for touchdown -- that is among the most exciting in football.
"I think it stinks," Jackson says of the new rule. "Look, I know that players have to be protected, and I'm not naive about the fact that you can have catastrophic injury in a lot of different ways when you're playing football.
"But the ones I've covered over the years -- Danny Peebles, wide receiver for the Browns; Dennis Byrd was rushing the passer when he got paralyzed; Mike Utley was throwing a block when he got paralyzed; Darryl Stingley got hit going across the middle -- I've seen catastrophic injury happen in a lot of different ways.
"They back the kickoff team, they move them up and say you can have only a five-yard running start," Jackson reasons. "Everybody's at full speed in 10 yards. There's nobody who's not at full speed in 10 yards. Nobody. And I just don't think you can completely regulate the possibility of having someone injured seriously out of football. I just don't believe you can do it."