NEW YORK — Rules changes and national anthem demonstrations seem to have folks inside and outside the NFL obsessed as the opening kickoff of the season approaches.

Yes, the Super Bowl champion Eagles and Atlanta Falcons will open things Thursday night in Philadelphia. What many folks wonder: Will there be any social injustice protests during “The Star-Spangled Banner?” And if players, coaches and officials will have a handle on the adjustment to use of the helmet in making a hit.

Not to mention the new kickoff rules and, at last, a catch rule that seems to make sense.

Those are enough issues to grab attention away from Philadelphia’s quarterback situation, as well as the progress of the five first-round quarterback draft choices expected to make their debuts sooner or later.

Or from the injury returns of Aaron Rodgers, J.J. Watt, Richard Sherman, Deshaun Watson, David Johnson and Odell Beckham Jr., to name a few.

Or Jon Gruden’s return to an NFL sideline in Oakland.

Plus, Adam Vinatieri’s pursuit of the career points and field-goals marks.

What’s ahead?

RULE CHANGES

The preseason has been dominated, even overridden, by discussion of and doubts about the “helmet rule.” Basically, any player on offense or defense lowering his head and making contact with any part of the helmet is subject to a 15-yard penalty, a fine and even an ejection. It’s a player safety adjustment for which “the goal long term is to make the game safer and take out some of these hits that should not be part of the game,” said Giants owner John Mara, a member of the competition committee that recommends rules changes to owners.

The concerns focus on players adjusting to the tackling requirements and officials mastering such calls at full speed.

Gene Steratore, who recently retired as an NFL referee, expects the tempest to die down.

“Players will adjust because they are that good,” said Steratore, now an analyst for CBS after 15 seasons in the league. “Officials will, too, because they are that good.”

NATIONAL ANTHEM

Anticipation of whether players will demonstrate during the national anthem again this year is high, fueled in part by reactions from President Trump. Players argue that their message about the need for change in communities nationwide has been misconstrued by the president and his followers, including many team owners.

With the unilateral policy banning players from any on-field protests during the anthem on hold as owners and players discuss the issue, no one can be sure what’s ahead.

Everyone can be sure the topic won’t disappear.

ROOKIE QUARTERBACKS

Before we reach 2019, it’s a near certainty that Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, Josh Rosen and Lamar Jackson will get onto the field. Some likely will be starters, maybe even stamp themselves as stars.

Only in Baltimore, where Joe Flacco is the incumbent, is the rookie (Jackson) a long shot to be the No. 1 choice this season.

COACHING CHANGES

New coaches in charge of the Cardinals, Titans, Lions, Giants, Bears and Raiders include four newbies to being in charge: Matt Patricia of Detroit, Matt Nagy of Chicago, Mike Vrabel of Tennessee and Steve Wilks of Arizona. All of them made their marks as proficient coordinators, and bring freshness and toughness.

Pat Shurmur of the Giants had a short stint in charge in Cleveland and probably didn’t get a fair shake. New York desperately needed a culture change after the 2017 debacle.

“I have seen just about all I could see from the top of the mountain to having the second pick in the draft,” Mara said. “Last year still is somewhat of a shock to me, going from a preseason Super Bowl contender to being the second-worst team in the league.”

PURSUING HISTORY

Vinatieri is a marvel. The NFL’s oldest player at 45, he begins his 23rd pro season in range to pass Hall of Famer Morten Andersen as the leading scorer. He was dependable for a decade in New England and then a dozen years in Indianapolis.

He needs seven to pass Andersen (565) for the most field goals. Andersen scored 2,544 points in a league-record 382 games; Vinatieri needs 58 points to break the record.

“It’s one of those things that I haven’t really thought too much about it,” he said. “I’m still just trying to help my team win games. If that happens, fantastic.”


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