Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning isn't the only star player… (Jack Dempsey / Associated…)
The Denver Broncos have a new quarterback.
The Oakland Raiders have a new attitude.
Seven teams have new coaches.
And, like every NFL season, we have a batch of new questions …
Never mind Most Valuable Player, which award is going to have the longest line of candidates this season?
Comeback player of the year. All eyes are on Denver's Peyton Manning and his return from multiple neck surgeries, but he's far from the only elite player returning from a devastating injury. Check out the running backs who saw their 2011 season cut short because of a gruesome twist or break: Minnesota's Adrian Peterson, Oakland's Darren McFadden, Buffalo's Fred Jackson, Chicago's Matt Forte, Dallas' DeMarco Murray, Kansas City's Jamaal Charles, Detroit's Jahvid Best and Pittsburgh's Rashard Mendenhall.
And don't forget about Carolina linebacker Thomas Davis. He's looking to become the only player in league history to come back three times from tears of the anterior cruciate ligament in the same knee.
Who will be coaching for his job right away?
San Diego's Norv Turner. The Chargers were 8-8 last season and missed the playoffs for the second consecutive year. There's no excuse for that, particularly for a talented team in what has been a lukewarm division. It's one thing for Chargers owner Dean Spanos to be patient. It's another to strap on the blinders and helplessly watch the window of opportunity close.
Yes, Philip Rivers loves Turner, and a lot of very accomplished players — Troy Aikman among them — hail the coach as an offensive mastermind. Obviously, something isn't working. The Chargers finally got off to a strong start last season … then frittered away their 4-1 record by dropping six in a row. That's unacceptable both for Turner, and for General Manager A.J. Smith, who hired him and has backed the coach at every turn.
What do Detroit's Jim Schwartz and the New York Jets' Rex Ryan have in common?
Of the 11 new head coaches hired in 2009, Schwartz and Ryan are the only ones to still have their jobs. Gone are Kansas City's Todd Haley, Indianapolis' Jim Caldwell, Cleveland's Eric Mangini, Denver's Josh McDaniels, Tampa Bay's Rahim Morris, San Francisco's Mike Singletary, Seattle's Jim Mora, Oakland's Tom Cable and St. Louis' Steve Spagnuolo.
Remember the days when coaches talked about three-year rebuilding plans? Those have gone the way of leather helmets, hip pads and experienced officials.
Of all the new coaches, who has the best chance to put his stamp on the franchise?
Oakland's Dennis Allen. He's the first coach of the post-Al Davis era, and his workplace is much different from the one Davis ruled for five decades. With the hands-off Mark Davis taking over for his late father, the Raiders now have a true general manager in Reggie McKenzie, and a head coach entrusted to make decisions on his own, rather than living in fear of being overruled from the owner's suite. As rich as the legacy of Al Davis is, the Raiders can now appreciate their past while not living in it.
How important is a head coach, anyway?
We'll find out when the New Orleans Saints take the field. They'll start the season with their third-stringer, Aaron Kromer, who will coach the first six games, until Joe Vitt is off suspension. Vitt, of course, is coaching in place of Sean Payton, who has been banned for the whole year because of the bounty scandal.
Drew Brees is a phenomenal quarterback, set the NFL record with 5,476 yards passing last season and is the quintessential "coach on the field." But he will miss the second set of eyes that Payton provided. With the competitive balance in the league, when teams are separated by a margin tighter than a defensive tackle's belt line, the slightest of changes can shift the balance. Taking Payton out of the equation is not the slightest of changes. The Saints will feel it.
What statistic best indicates that the NFL is an offense-driven league?
Half of the league's teams dumped their offensive coordinators after last season.
Which franchise is primed for a letdown?
San Francisco. The 49ers won't match what they did last season, going 13-3 and coming within an overtime turnover of a trip to the Super Bowl. Why? Because Alex Smith will come back to earth after throwing more than three times as many touchdowns (17) as interceptions (five). Outstanding as San Francisco's defense is, it will be put to the test by each of the top five passers of 2011: Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Matthew Stafford, Eli Manning and Aaron Rodgers. That's not to say the 49ers won't contend for the division title — their defense and ground attack will keep them in most games — but last year wasn't a prelude to a run of glory such as the club enjoyed in the 1980s and early '90s.
Which team will be better than most people expect?