It would be an understatement of mammoth proportions to describe the 2021 sports year as "strange." The year started with fans still not in the stands in many places, and the Super Bowl was played in front of a half-capacity stadium. There was a sense of normalcy with some of the proceedings, even as COVID-19 continued (and continues) to wreak havoc with player availability, but the overall feel was one of a sports landscape that still isn't fully back to normal. However, there is no doubt that many are holding out hope that 2022 is when things really start to feel like they used to, at least in the sports world. Let's take a look at some of the biggest storylines to follow in 2022.
By now, no one really doubts Brady. But the same refrain plays out every offseason, and did so again even after he and the Bucs won Super Bowl LV last year: “Will this be the year that Father Time catches up to Brady?” Not only has that not happened in 2021, but Brady has a very good chance at winning his fourth MVP award. The only question left now is whether he and Tampa Bay can go back-to-back, which would give him eight Super Bowls if you’re scoring at home.
This year’s lockout is the first work stoppage in baseball since the 1994 strike, which was a disaster for the sport’s long-term popularity. The league and the players’ association have a number of issues to work through, namely concerns about the percentage of revenue going to the players, a shortened season and expanded playoffs, as well as service time manipulation, and disputes on free agency. The owners won big in the last collective bargaining agreement and would like to keep the status quo as much as possible. If the players are determined to do better at the bargaining table this time around, things could get ugly.
As of this writing, Curry and the Warriors are second in the Western Conference, at 24-6, and have already ripped off two separate seven-game winning streaks. Curry is averaging 27 points per game and looks every bit like his old self, and Andrew Wiggins has found himself a nice home after an up-and-down tenure in Minnesota. Klay Thompson should be back sometime in January, which should make Golden State even more deadly. With Kevin Durant long gone, the Warriors aren’t the super-team playing the “heel” role, so their rise back to the top of the league would make for compelling entertainment.
Watson is still facing numerous pending civil actions, and criminal charges stemming from numerous accusations of sexual misconduct are still possible. Despite these very serious off-field allegations, Watson’s on-field future has been a major topic of conversation, with both the Panthers and Dolphins having had serious interest in acquiring Watson. His future – if he even has one – is one of the major storylines that will continue to play out into 2022.
The Omicron variant is ripping through all leagues right now, with dozens of players in each sport testing positive, despite the fact that the majority are asymptomatic. Games have been canceled or rescheduled, sending all the leagues into various degrees of chaos. The NFL has already tweaked its testing procedures, and while it seems likely that fans will continue to attend games normally – at least in the United States – players might be subject to enhanced protocols. We all wish it wasn’t the case, but it appears the sports world isn’t done with COVID just yet.
Irving still isn’t vaccinated, and therefore can’t play in New York City or Toronto, which is kind of a problem, given where Brooklyn is on a map. The Nets decided to start the season without him, and ironically only brought him back because of a COVID outbreak on the team. He will be available to the Nets for road games, but Brooklyn no doubt hopes he’ll decide to get vaccinated and be available to them for all games. If Irving comes back and plays well on the road, but remains unavailable for home games, his status will become one of the biggest dramas of the NBA season.
Woods and his son Charlie thrilled crowds by making a Sunday charge at the 2021 PNC Championship, finishing second in the event. Of particular note was Woods’ smooth-looking swing, and solid performance, even in a “fun” event. Woods has already tempered expectations for his return to competitive golf, but if he continues to play well, there is no doubt that speculation will begin about whether or not he’s capable of adding to his 15 major championships.
Only four running backs this century – Marshall Faulk, LaDainian Tomlinson, Shaun Alexander, and Adrian Peterson – have won the MVP award. Since Peterson won in 2012, eight straight quarterbacks have taken home the hardware. Taylor is poised to change that. Through 14 games, he has 1,518 yards and 17 touchdowns, both of which lead the league, and is averaging 5.6 yards per carry. If he carries Indianapolis to a playoff berth after a 1-4 start – and he’s averaging 132.3 yards per game in the nine games since those first five weeks – he’ll be a very strong candidate.
NHL players might not end up going, and there are already concerns about whether the Beijing games, scheduled to start February 4th, will proceed without incident, as multiple countries have announced diplomatic boycotts, and there are a host of other political issues swirling around the event. Given the popularity of hockey relative to many of the other events, if the NHL and the NHLPA decide not to send their players because of some COVID-related logistics in China, it would be a major blow to the games.
Riley’s decision to leave Oklahoma to try and revive a scuffling USC program (just 22-21 over the last four years) sent shockwaves through the college football world. There are very few doubts about Riley’s coaching acumen, though some speculated that the move was motivated in part by a desire to avoid the rugged SEC in a few years. If Riley is able to recruit as he did in Norman, the Trojans should become a powerhouse that dominates the Pac-12 before too long. If he struggles? Let’s just say he won’t be spared by critics.
James’ numbers are still elite; he’s averaging 25.7 points per game as of this writing, to go along with 6.8 assists and 6.2 rebounds, but the Lakers are more reliant on him than ever, and with Anthony Davis’ knee injury further weakening the roster, Los Angeles will have to continue asking big minutes of a 37-year-old playing his 19 th season. The Lakers have scuffled as the season churns to its halfway point, so it’s fair to wonder if things will only get worse, and how much of a toll that will take on James.
The Steelers have done their best Rocky Balboa impersonation this season, staggering around and taking some huge hits in the form of blowout losses, while somehow doing enough to win more games than they’ve lost. Roethlisberger hasn’t looked great by any stretch, but he’s looked better than many observers thought he would. That said, it appears that this will indeed be his last season, and one of the NFL’s marquee franchises doesn’t seem to have a defined succession plan. The Steelers haven’t had a losing season since the year before Roethlisberger arrived; how will they navigate life without him?
The Bulldogs looked like a dominant force for virtually all of last season and seemed poised to not only bring Mark Few his first national championship but also do it in historic style by going undefeated. That dream died in spectacular fashion as Baylor shocked the 31-0 Bulldogs in the national title game, blitzing them from the opening tip and cruising to an 86-70 win. Gonzaga brought in another tremendous recruiting class, headlined by the uniquely talented Chet Holmgren, and looks like a short-list contender this year. Few’s program is now blueblood-adjacent, but can they finally bring home the biggest prize of all?
Since the advent of the College Football Playoff in 2015, the Crimson Tide have participated in every year except 2019, and after their demolition of previously unbeaten Georgia in the SEC Championship Game, are the favorite to win the title this year. Nick Saban’s program is a well-oiled machine, and on the rare occasions that Alabama looks “off,” they tend to right themselves in a hurry. Will 2022 finally be the year that other teams make up ground and make life tougher in Tuscaloosa?
Give Jake Paul this much; he’s far from a farce or a joke. I’ll admit that I viewed him as such when he tried to give boxing a try, but he’s clearly dedicated to getting better, and he’s a massive promotional draw, so he’ll continue to get big fights. Would it kill him, though, to fight an actual boxer? He’s fought a YouTuber, Nate Robinson, former MMA fighter Ben Askren, and has twice battled former MMA’er Tyron Woodley. After only managing a split decision over Woodley in their first fight, Paul knocked him out cold in spectacular fashion the second time around. Still, Paul hasn’t fought an actual boxer. Doing so – and winning – would go a long way towards legitimizing his career, if that’s even the goal.
As of this moment, Ovechkin is 142 goals behind Wayne Gretzky for the all-time crown. While Ovechkin isn’t quite the force of nature he was a decade ago, he hasn’t slowed down much, either. By the end of 2022, he’ll have played the rest of the current season, and a good chunk of the following campaign. That should give him enough time to pass both Jaromir Jagr and Gordie Howe and move into second place by himself. Then? Then the chase will truly be on.
Djokovic won three Grand Slam singles titles in 2021, with only the U.S. Open eluding him. Djokovic is the only man in the Open Era to win each Grand Slam singles title twice, and only the third overall, along with Roy Emerson and Rod Laver. With Roger Federer’s career in its very last stages and Rafael Nadal a slight-but-clear level below Djokovic, only a fluke loss or injury can seemingly derail him. Djokovic, Federer, and Nadal are tied with 20 Grand Slam singles titles. While Djokovic’s status for the Australian Open is unknown, if he does play, he will likely break the tie.
Only one rookie has ever won NFL Defensive Player of the Year; Lawrence Taylor in 1981. In fact, very few rookie defenders have even received votes. But Parsons has been so dominant for the Cowboys while being asked to do so many different things, that he’s been a hard-charging candidate for the award. Parsons has 12 sacks so far, and his play has been the main reason why the Cowboys have gone from last year’s 28th-ranked scoring defense to 12th in the league this year.
Ohtani’s 2021 season was one for the books. He cruised to the American League MVP award, winning it unanimously after hitting 46 home runs and knocking in 100 while racking up a 9-2 record and 3.18 ERA in 23 starts. Ohtani’s unique skills will always be a novelty to watch, but can he be even better after a signature season? If the answer is yes, then baseball will have a spectacle that dwarfs even last year’s incredible campaign. Of course, there has to be a baseball season, first.
Kelly’s introduction to Baton Rouge partisans was widely mocked around the rest of the country – and probably in Louisiana, as well – as the Boston native tried to affect a southern accent with little success. On the field, Kelly has had plenty of success, turning Notre Dame into a consistent power, if one that existed a half-step below Alabama, Clemson, and Ohio State. Kelly has an incredibly fertile recruiting base to tap into, and if he wins big - and disrupts Nick Saban’s unimaginable dominance – he’ll be revered for decades. The rest of the college football world, it’s safe to say, will not be rooting for him to succeed.
Rodgers’ unhappiness in Green Bay was perhaps the biggest story of the NFL offseason, and while the Packers look like one of a handful of teams legitimately capable of winning the Super Bowl, there is no guarantee that Rodgers will want to stay even if he does lead the team to a title. If he stays, then some dominoes will fall, likely with Jordan Love, but if Rodgers does decide to find a new home, it will be the biggest story of the offseason, and possibly shift the balance of power in the league.
There have already been some sizable NIL deals for college players; Nick Saban spoke of Bryce Young’s lucrative deals before Young ever took a snap this season, and a big deal was rumored to be part of the reason that Deion Sanders was able to lure Travis Hunter, the nation’s top recruit, away from Florida State to play at Jackson State. It feels like NIL will only get bigger and bigger, and the deals could get exponentially bigger as soon as 2022.
Online sports wagering is already legal in almost 20 states, and several more states are likely to be added to that tally in 2022, including some high-population areas. If more people are wagering more money on sporting events, the trickle-down effect is obvious; leagues will have to prioritize getting better information out to consumers, but they’ll have plenty of incentive to do so, as legalized sports betting figures to enrich leagues like the NFL to the tune of millions, and possibly billions for the foreseeable future. Buckle up, because there’s probably no end in sight.
Williams’ indomitable run at the top of women’s tennis finally appears to be slowing down, though it has by no means stopped. Having defied time – and younger competition – for years, Williams has plenty of impetus to keep pushing; with 23 Grand Slam singles titles, she trails Margaret Court by one for the all-time record. Williams hasn’t won a Grand Slam since the 2017 Australian Open, though she has finished as the runner-up four times since then. Can one of the most transcendent athletes of all time come up with one more run to the top?
There was something sort of charming about the Bucks’ run to just the second NBA title in franchise history last year. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton combined to form an unstoppable duo that didn’t feel at all like a “super team,” primarily because it wasn’t. The Bucks and Suns put on a very entertaining Finals series, particularly for fans exhausted by coastal bias. Milwaukee is currently in the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff standings, but if the Bucks can make a run and go back-to-back, Antetokounmpo’s legacy as an all-time great will be secure.
Chris Mueller is the co-host of The PM Team with Poni & Mueller on Pittsburgh's 93.7 The Fan, Monday-Friday from 2-6 p.m. ET. Owner of a dog with a Napoleon complex, consumer of beer, cooker of chili, closet Cleveland Browns fan. On Twitter at @ChrisMuellerPGH – please laugh.