For many sports fans, this is — as that popular Christmas song by Andy Williams says — "the most wonderful time of the year."
After all, high school football is in full swing, the college football campaign kicked things off this weekend, and major league baseball's pennant races are starting to heat up (come on, Orioles!) with just a month remaining in the regular season.
Oh, and there's another pretty popular professional sports league that gets under way this week, too. It's a little something — you might've heard of it — called the National Football League.
Yep, the game that has long since replaced baseball as America's favorite past time, pro football — the sport that spawned Jim McMahon's famous headband and a zillion fantasy leagues — returns to the forefront with the season-opener on (what's this?) Wednesday night, when the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants take on Tony Romo and the perpetually underachieving Dallas Cowboys.
And as I ponder who to pick in my fifth fantasy football draft on Monday, here are 10 questions I'm anxious to see answered as the 2012 NFL campaign unfolds:
1. How good will rookie quarterbacks Andrew Luck (Colts) and Robert Griffin III (Redskins) turn out to be?
They're both tremendous young players with plenty of potential who have, unfortunately, gotten stuck starting their NFL careers with a couple of lousy teams.
2. After last year's lackluster season, will the Philadelphia Eagles and quarterback Michael Vick find a way to live up to all those high expectations that eluded them last year?
It'd sure be neat to see the Eagles put together a solid season in the wake of the tragic death of head coach Andy Reid's son.
3. How much of a circus will it become having love-him-or-hate-him quarterback Tim Tebow trying to earn some playing time for the Jets?
If you thought it was bad when he played in Denver, what's it going to be like having a media magnet like Tebow surrounded by the life-in-a-fishbowl zoo of New York City?
4. How much does Peyton Manning have left in the tank?
The Denver Broncos are hoping the aging quarterback, who missed all of last season following neck surgery, isn't running on empty.
5. When will running back Maurice Jones-Drew end his contract holdout with the Jacksonville Jaguars? And how much will missing all of training camp and the preseason hurt his performance?
6. Will Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson still be the explosive performer he was before tearing his ACL late last season?
Man, I sure hope so. And no, he's not on my fantasy team — he's just a great young player who could be one of the league's all-time greats if he stays healthy.
7. How long will it be before coaches, players and fans start complaining about a bonehead call made by one of the league's replacement refs, who have taken over after a contract dispute with the regular officials?
I'm thinking it'll happen sometime during Wednesday night's season-opener, and in every game thereafter.
8. How will the New Orleans Saints respond to their punishment from "Bounty-gate," which resulted in the season-long suspensions of head coach Sean Payton and defensive captain Jonathan Vilma for their roles in an alleged scheme that paid players bonuses for injuring opponents?
I'm expecting the Saints to play with a vengeance, as if those same bonuses were still on the table.
9. Can Alex Smith and the San Francisco 49ers take the next step and reach the Super Bowl?
After several much-maligned seasons, Smith finally showed what he can do last season by taking the 49ers all the way to the NFC title game. Now he'd like nothing more than to do what another former collegiate star quarterback from the Beehive State, Steve Young, did and lead them to an NFL championship.
10. Can Randy Moss still be a major factor in this league?
Speaking of the 49ers, one of Smith's targets will be Moss, the controversial veteran wide receiver who sat out last season. Nobody has ever questioned his ability, and if Moss can get that one balky part of his body — his head — screwed on straight and working properly, then this could definitely be the Niners' year.
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