The NFL never really shuts down.
It kept rolling long after the lights came back on after a 37-minute delay at the Superdome in New Orleans and the Baltimore Ravens squeezed out a Super Bowl title in February. It's rolling still, right into a new season that will kick off on Thursday when the Ravens visit Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos and end with (shiver!) an outdoor Super Bowl in New Jersey.
In between, there were plenty of headlines: New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez was arrested on murder charges; Broncos star linebacker Von Miller has been suspended for the first six games for a drugs violation; and HGH testing is getting closer but still isn't underway two years after the league and players agreed on the need for it.
A rash of preseason injuries have prompted some players to question the NFL's player safety initiatives. Already gone for the season are tight ends Dennis Pitta of Baltimore (broken hip) and Dustin Keller of Miami (right knee), with more than a dozen others also sidelined.
"It's just weird how things have changed from the past," noted New York Jets tight end Konrad Reuland. "Before, diving at the knees was a dirty play. Now hitting up high is a dirty play. It's almost done a complete 180."
That might be understandable considering the emphasis Commissioner Roger Goodell is placing on player safety. Last week, the league made a $765 million settlement with more than 4,500 former players who charged the NFL of concealing the long-term dangers of concussions and rushing injured players back onto the field.
Key rules changes for this season with player safety in mind will bar ball carriers from using the crown of the helmet to make contact with defenders, and require players to wear knee and thigh pads. The uniform police will remove them from games if they don't have the full complement of equipment.
Meanwhile, fans can't wait to see if Robert Griffin III is fully recovered from his torn-up knee and can be even more dynamic as the Washington Redskins quarterback. Or whether Tim Tebow has a future in the NFL in New England. And how the Ravens will handle losing team leaders Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, while Joe Flacco tries to justify the huge contract he received as a Super Bowl-winning quarterback.
"The NFL always provides an element of surprise, and that is a part of the intrigue that makes it so popular," Pittsburgh Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said. "It's hard to predict who can be the champions at this point, because it's a great unknown that changes as the year goes on. It's not always the top team over the season that wins, but the one able to perform the best when it means the most. And that element is always exciting about an NFL season."
Lots of points and big plays tend to excite fans the most, and the copycat NFL could feature even more up-tempo offenses now that Chip Kelly has brought his go-go-go attack from the University of Oregon to the Philadelphia Eagles. If it works for one team — as it has for the high-powered, fast-draw offenses in New England, New Orleans, San Francisco and Green Bay, for example — then just about everyone tries it.
Kelly downplays the speed of his offense, but throughout the league, look for no-huddles, quick snaps out of a variety of formations, and lots of passing. Those fast-paced offenses from Foxborough to Philly, Louisiana to Lambeau Field won't have to deal with likely Hall of Famers Lewis and Brian Urlacher in the middle of the field. They retired, along with NFL champions Matt Birk, Jeff Saturday and Donald Driver.
Replacing veterans everywhere are lots of rookies — a good crop but nowhere near the quarterbacking caliber of last year's trio of RG3, Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson. The coaching carousel spun frantically, with one-quarter of those jobs changing. Kelly's predecessor Andy Reid, fired following 14 seasons in Philadelphia, immediately landed as coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, a strong candidate for most improved team with quarterback Alex Smith acquired from San Francisco.
The 49ers, who came alive after the Superdome blackout and nearly stole the title from Baltimore, are among the favorites to reach the Meadowlands next February for the first outdoor Super Bowl at a cold-weather site.
Also a hot choice is Denver, which added prolific Wes Welker to its receiving corps for Manning — a blow to major rival New England.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org