NFL analysts are quick to throw out the old “defense wins games” cliche. Casual fans and league executives, however, would generally agree that it is actually offense that sells tickets. In recent years, the NFL has cracked down hard upon physical play against the quarterback and receivers running patterns out in space. Offensive coordinators now regularly roll out three- and four-wide receiver sets to take advantage of these new rules changes.
In 2011, Drew Brees went over the top to pass for 5,476 yards and break Dan Marino’s single-season passing yards (5,084) record that stood for 27 years. Two years later, Peyton Manning one-upped Brees with 5,477 yards passing in his own right. To state the obvious, the NFL is now a passing league. For 2016–17, the best NFL offenses will all feature strong quarterback play, which will set up the run. Football purists from the “three yards and a cloud of dust” era are likely turning over in their graves.
5. Arizona Cardinals
Both the Arizona Cardinals and Dallas Cowboys seemed set to emerge as some of the best NFL offenses, contingent upon health. The Cowboys went out and took Ezekiel Elliott out of Ohio State with the fourth overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft — a major consolation prize for last year’s disastrous season. At the time, Elliott was the frontrunner for Offensive Rookie of the Year; he would run behind perennial Pro Bowlers up front, Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, and Zack Martin.
Last weekend, however, Tony Romo was caught from behind while attempting to slide out of the pocket in a meaningless preseason game in Seattle. The hit fractured vertebrae in Romo’s back, and he will be out for another six to 10 weeks. Rookie Dak Prescott, a fourth-round pick, will be thrown into the fray and tasked with commanding respect out of the likes of Dez Bryant and Jason Witten in the huddle. Dallas went 1-11 last season without Romo. Meanwhile, Arizona has turned back the clock in the Valley of the Sun, with Chris Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, and Carson Palmer all supposedly on the wrong side of 30.
Earlier in his career, it was Palmer who suffered from a series of devastating injuries, including two torn ACLs. Last year, he came back at 36 years old, to play the best football of his life, in completing 64% of his passes for 4,671 yards and 35 touchdowns. Johnson and Fitzgerald also returned to prime form, combining for 2,087 yards and 12 touchdowns of total offense. The Cards do have great depth on the offensive side of the football — to allay injury and age-related concerns. Drew Stanton is one of the better backup quarterbacks in the league and can step in to win games down the stretch. At the skill positions, David Johnson, John Brown, and Michael Floyd are all young players capable of going over 1,000 yards when featured. Arizona will make another deep postseason run, if this high-octane offense can put points on the board against division rival Seattle.
4. New England Patriots
Tom Brady will serve out his four-game Deflategate suspension to start the season. In his place, Jimmy Garoppolo is tasked with managing the game and riding a stingy defense against the Cardinals, Dolphins, Texans, and Bills. Against this lineup, the Patriots may stand at 2-2, before Tom Brady even takes the field. Brady, at quarterback, is the NFL’s leading man, with 58,028 total yards, 428 touchdowns, and, most importantly, four Super Bowl rings. Last season, Tom Brady, at 38 years old, led the NFL in touchdowns passes with 36. In typical Patriots fashion, the team finished third in scoring offense, without the benefit of any real burners on the outside.
Only Rob Gronkowski went over 1,000 receiving yards for the year, while wideouts Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, and Brandon LaFell each caught more than 70 balls for over 500 yards. Gronk, of course, is a matchup nightmare. He is all but automatic in the red zone. The Patriots, remember, were one failed two-point conversion at Mile High Stadium away from Super Bowl 50. Brady, like his arch-rival Manning, may have one last Super Bowl run left in him before delivering his Hall of Fame speech. For support, the Pats will go running-back-by-committee, with LeGarrette Blount, Brandon Bolden, and Dion Lewis sharing the load. Like clockwork, the Patriots offense will round into form by midseason, en route to clinching yet another AFC East title.
3. Green Bay Packers
Last season, Aaron Rodgers completed 61% of his passes for 3,821 yards and 31 touchdowns against only eight interceptions. Behind Rodgers, the Pack ripped off six straight wins to open the season, before taking their first loss to the Denver Broncos on the road. In Week 3, Rodgers lit up the Kansas City Chiefs for 325 yards and one touchdown in a 38-28 win. The Pack closed out the regular season at 10-6, before losing an overtime thriller to Arizona in the Divisional Playoffs. For Rodgers, 2015 was actually a down year, in that he put up the worst numbers of his career as the full-time starter. The Green Bay offense then ranked 15th in points scored.
Rodgers, even in a down season, is clearly one of the best quarterbacks in the game. Much of the dropoff in production was due to the fact that Jordy Nelson blew out his knee that preseason and was shut down for the year. Nelson, in 2014, hauled in 98 receptions for 1,519 yards and 13 touchdowns. For 2016–17, he is back to stretch the field as one of the better big-play threats in the NFL. The ever dangerous Randall Cobb will then be free to work underneath routes out of the slot, with Nelson occupying both safeties deep over the top.
At the same time, Eddie Lacy has dropped weight, and seems poised to regain the form and burst that had him rack up 2,317 yards and 20 touchdowns on the ground through his first two years in the league. Expect the Packers to emerge as legitimate Super Bowl LI contenders by midseason, behind their high-octane attack and bend-but-don’t-break defense. For the opposition, no lead is safe, with Rodgers at the controls and in full command of the offense.
2. Carolina Panthers
Carolina will surprise no one this season. Last year, the Panthers ripped off 14 consecutive wins, en route to 15-1 and a trip to the Super Bowl. Carolina established themselves as the team to beat, in outlasting a 37-29 Week 9 shootout at home against the Green Bay Packers. For the year, the 2015 Panthers ranked first in scoring offense and 11th in total yardage. Like Green Bay, the Panthers will also get a primary target (Kelvin Benjamin) back this season, after he tore his ACL during preseason team drills and was out for the entirety of 2015. Benjamin, as a rookie in 2014, hauled in 73 receptions for 1,008 yards and nine touchdowns.
Kelvin Benjamin, at 6-foot-5, is an imposing target who works well alongside speedster Ted Ginn Jr. on the outside. For added measure, Greg Olsen in one of the better pass-catching tight ends in the game and has gone over 1,000 yards receiving through two consecutive seasons. The Panthers will do much of their damage on the ground, with Jonathan Stewart carrying the load. To mix things up, the coaching staff will also call designed runs and option reads, to get Cam Newton out in space. This group will be all but unstoppable at the goal-line, with Newton going play-action, tucking the ball down and in, and racing towards the pylon. After baiting the defense to close down and commit, Newton may hit Greg Olsen dragging across the back of the end zone for six.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers
The Pittsburgh offense will fire on all cylinders by mid-season, after Le’Veon Bell serves out his three-game suspension. Bell, of course, has quickly emerged as one of the more versatile weapons in all of football, after racking up 2,215 yards and 11 touchdowns worth of total offense through 2014. As the featured back, he is one cut and go at the line of scrimmage, before he drops his pads to break tackles and explode into the secondary. For passing situations, Bell is especially dangerous out of the screen game, and can even work effectively out of the slot.
Antonio Brown, the former sixth-round draft pick out of Central Michigan, is now often cited as the best wide receiver in the game. Brown has led the NFL in receptions through two consecutive seasons, with 129 in 2014 and 136 in 2015. As the total package, he is especially good at running routes, exploiting holes in zone coverage, and catching the football in traffic. After the catch, the shifty Brown often makes multiple defenders miss; he is a threat to score any time that he takes the field, even putting in double duty as a return man.
To mix things up, expect the Steelers to build out a Wildcat package, with Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell shifting across the formation. Ben Roethlisberger, of course, will be the straw that stirs the drink for this potent offense. For years, he has remained somewhat behind Brady, Manning, and even Rodgers within the QB pecking order, while also laying claim to two Super Bowl rings in his own right. In 2014, Roethlisberger did complete 67% of his passes and torched the NFL for a league leading 4,952 yards.
For 2015, Roethlisberger battled a series of nagging injuries and missed five starts, but he did lead the NFL in yards per game (328). Big Ben is at his best on broken plays, when he can muscle his way out of a collapsing pocket, pirouette away from the action, gather his feet, and throw a strike right down the middle of the field. As a sign of the times, Roethlisberger and his explosive offense will carry the day in Pittsburgh. The ghosts of the Steel Curtain past will watch on from Three Rivers.