The start of training camp offers hope for franchises and fans, but it is a reality check for head coaches.
Now there are no excuses. Coaches must get their teams ready over the next six weeks or suffer consequences. Go back to last season: The lockout ended right when camps were supposed to start, and no coach had an offseason with his players.
Nevertheless, seven coaches lost their jobs, and just as many -- if not more -- are on the hot seat this season. (That means you, Leslie Frazier, Norv Turner, Andy Reid, Marvin Lewis and Jason Garrett.) With no two-a-days during camp, days off after five days and roughly 20 practices to get a roster prepared, head coaches find their jobs are even tougher.
At least this year, though, teams had the benefit of a 10-week offseason program of OTAs and minicamps. Players are more rested and less tested than in the past. But now the work really begins.
Here are the 10 biggest storylines to watch in camps:
1. The officials' lockout: The lockout of the entire NFL officiating crew may be going under the radar, but it is going to be a big issue in the preseason. This will affect first-year head coaches more than anyone else. It's hard enough nowadays for veteran coaches and experienced defensive players to comprehend how to tackle and make hits in an era in which commissioner Roger Goodell is stressing safety. Until there is a contract agreement with officials, replacement officials must educate young teams such as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers under the direction of first-year head coach Greg Schiano, who came from the college ranks. It will be a tough go.
2. The Mile High optimism of Peyton Manning: Reviews of Manning's throwing during the offseason have been good, but now comes the real test. Coming off four neck operations, Manning must avoid arm fatigue and maintain his momentum to get the Broncos' offense ready for the season. John Elway signed Manning to get the Broncos deep into the playoffs. Manning must be careful not to do too much, too soon.
3. Tim Tebow and the Jets: No backup quarterback has a bigger following than Tebow. His presence in New York makes the Jets one of the more interesting teams in the league. Fans at training camp will get a preview of how Mark Sanchez will handle this huge storyline. For starters, Sanchez must be more of a leader. If he isn't, Tebow-mania might not crush him like it did Kyle Orton in Denver, but it could create splits in the locker room. Rex Ryan hints that Tebow might run red zone plays instead of Sanchez. Most starting quarterbacks don't like change. This is a change.
4. Are the Philadelphia Eagles dreaming again? Former Eagles backup quarterback Vince Young branded the 2011 Eagles -- the team that had the most active offseason of acquisitions -- as the Dream Team. They finished the season 8-8 with a fractured locker room. The Eagles paid some of the top young stars, rewarding them with long-term contracts. What must be sorted out this summer is what the Eagles are doing on defense. First-year defensive coordinator Juan Castillo had man-to-man corners playing zone and looking uncomfortable this year. His mission this summer is to "man up"' better against receivers.
The Eagles again have the look of a team that could seriously contend for a Super Bowl. Are they dreaming?
5. Putting the bounty stuff behind them: While Jonathan Vilma and the NFL Players Association continue to fight the NFL on sanctions from the bounty controversy, interim coach Joe Vitt must get the Saints ready for the season. The Saints have the talent to be a Super Bowl contender, and they start camp with a chip on their shoulder, figuring the world is against them. But NFL seasons are long. Can the Saints channel their anger and win without coach Sean Payton and several other parts?
6. Settling quarterback controversies: Pete Carroll has only 20 practices to resolve a three-way quarterback battle among Matt Flynn, Tarvaris Jackson and Russell Wilson. Delaying a decision in this competition could prevent the winner from getting enough time to get his offense ready for the early part of the season. In Arizona, Kevin Kolb must show more authority in the huddle to hold off John Skelton for the starting job. With rookie first-round pick Ryan Tannehill slated to be the third quarterback in Miami, David Garrard and Matt Moore battle for the Dolphins' starting job. The Jaguars plan to go with Blaine Gabbert, but if he looks bad, don't be surprised if Chad Henne is named the starter.
7. The impact of RG3: Andrew Luck might be the highest-rated quarterback to enter the league in decades, but he went to a Colts team not expected to win many games. Robert Griffin III actually brings more excitement to his franchise. The Redskins aren't that far from being a playoff contender. If RG3 picks up things quickly, he could move the Redskins back into the main stage in the NFL. He's the franchise's most exciting addition in years.
8. Wounded knees: It's hard to remember a time when so many top running backs were coming off knee injuries. Many eyes will be on Minnesota's Adrian Peterson, Kansas City's Jamaal Charles, Washington's Tim Hightower, New Orleans' Mark Ingram and others. The NFL may evolve even more into a passing league, but it's still important to maintain a good ground game.
9. The bad side of the Detroit Lions: By ending years of frustration and going to the playoffs last season, the Lions were one of the big stories in 2011. But the offseason put them in the headlines for different reasons. Seven players had off-the-field incidents that embarrassed the team. In the wake of his second arrest in a month, cornerback Aaron Berry was canned. Head coach
Jim Schwartz must establish control in camp, making the players more accountable.
10. Clock ticking on Cowboys: Tony Romo heads to Oxnard, Calif., for what might be his most important training camp. Jerry Jones and others acknowledge the time might be running out for the core group of Dallas Cowboys, including Romo, DeMarcus Ware and Jason Witten, to be a Super Bowl contender. Romo must make sure the Cowboys come out of camp focused and ready to have a great start. Miles Austin and Dez Bryant, who has off-field issues, are his only true wide receiving options. During camp, the Cowboys will be looking for receivers who might become available. They picked up Laurent Robinson, who was a great third receiver, before the start of last year. (He signed with the Jaguars in the offseason.) Can the Cowboys get lucky again this year?