As the NFL labor stoppage appears set to end , it’s finally time to think about what real, live NFL games will look like this year.
Some will find what they see to be ugly, as new head coaches and offensive coordinators struggle to install their systems without having had the benefit of offseason workouts and minicamps to do so. And rookie quarterbacks who had hoped to compete for starting jobs by Week 1 can put those hopes to bed.
Already, Jacksonville head coach Jack Del Rio has pretty much ruled out rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert getting the nod in the Jags’ opener. In Cincinnati, Jay Gruden is bemoaning the adjustment from coordinating an arena league offense to running one in the big leagues — a transition made infinitely harder by not being able to even speak with the players who will execute his vision on the field. Even distant backups like David Carr are overwhelmed with trying to learn a new offense without having a coach to teach it.
Of course, Jay Gruden would struggle even if he spent the offseason at sleep-away camp with his players, and David Carr’s non-mastery of Jim Harbaugh’s schematics will have zero impact on the 49ers’ prospects.
And the lack of offseason practice is merely an annoyance for teams returning coaches and players to well-worn systems as they add new wrinkles to their schemes in July and August, which is why you don’t hear any complaints coming out of New England, Baltimore or Pittsburgh.
But for those other teams with new coaches and/or rookie quarterbacks, simplicity will be key — and the running game will be the bread, butter and meat of their football diets.
That’s a good thing.
At least, that is, for fans of throwback, smashmouth football. Yes, for those of us who love our football games determined more by the sheer strength of will that it takes to pound another team into submission than the brainiacs of precision-timed passing, we’re looking at a three-month-long Christmakwanzakah. It will be a return to football from 20 years ago and beyond, when ‘three yards and a cloud of dust’ was an aspirational term, and the helmets of linemen were scoured past team colors, down to silver every Sunday. What’s more, with today’s de rigueur of using two running backs to carry the load, this potential trend is poised to maximize its short-lived glory.
And think about this: Many of the teams who are breaking in new coaches or young quarterbacks will do so with stud running backs in the backfield. Jacksonville will rely on the two-headed monster of Maurice Jones-Drew and Rashad Jennings. The 49ers, Vikings and Titans all have new coaches, muddled quarterback situations and elite franchise running backs.
Of course, such teams will struggle when they take on the likes of the Patriots, Colts and Packers — pass-first teams who could skip training camp altogether and be ready to roll on opening day. In this year’s stratified league, the teams who are already good will be worlds better than those trying to start over and rebuild (the Vegas odds on the Panthers going 0-16 have to be pretty good right now).
But don’t worry about them. Think about yourself. Think about two-tight-end sets, fullbacks colliding with middle linebackers in the hole play after play, and 60 minutes of trench warfare every Sunday. Think about these things and smile: this lockout’s for you.
Aaron Stern is a Boston-based writer, reporter, and videographer. A Maryland native, he worked for three years as a reporter at The Potomac Almanac before moving to Chicago to get a Master's Degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. In his spare time, he defies logic by continuing to be a devoted Redskins and Orioles fan. You can follow him on twitter at @aarondstern and you can see more of his work at aarondstern.com .