Strange days indeed: Expect another interesting NFL season

Posted: Sunday, August 26, 2001

The Baltimore Ravens are confident -- arrogant, even -- about their chances of repeating as Super Bowl champions. The New York Giants chuckle at skeptics who write off their NFC title as a fluke, awaiting a chance to prove them wrong.

In Denver, Nashville, Oakland, Miami, Indianapolis, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Tampa Bay, St. Louis -- even in Jacksonville, Green Bay, Minneapolis and Hempstead, N.Y., -- there are Super Bowl hopes, some more realistic than others.

And some can dream, because five of the last six Super Bowl teams were .500 or worse the previous season.

But dreams appear done in Dallas, where Troy Aikman was forced into retirement by concussions and the new starting quarterback, rookie Quincy Carter, is still being taught the basic skill of taking snaps.

''If you can't get that done,'' coach Dave Campo says, ''it's hard to do anything else.''

As usual, there are several new elements to this season, and there will be even more newness next year when Houston rejoins the league and the NFL is split into eight four-team divisions.

There are new stadiums in Pittsburgh and Denver, new coaches with the Jets, Chiefs, Browns, Redskins, Bills and Lions.

Herman Edwards of the Jets is the fifth black head coach in modern NFL history and the third active one. Dick Vermeil returns to Kansas City two years after ''retiring'' following St. Louis' surge to the Super Bowl.

Butch Davis, the former Dallas defensive coordinator and University of Miami coach, now leads the downtrodden Browns. Former Chiefs and Browns coach Marty Schottenheimer went to Washington to fix the mess created by the ill-advised spending of owner Dan ''The Fan'' Snyder.

Marty Mornhinweg takes over the Lions under former linebacker and TV analyst Matt Millen. And former Tennessee defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is head coach in Buffalo.

None of those teams seems to be a Super Bowl contender, but who knows in an era when St. Louis went from 4-12 to a championship and Baltimore from 8-8 to the top?

So anyone can go into camp these days with high hopes -- even Dallas, where owner Jerry Jones predicted the Cowboys would go 10-6.

But training camp wasn't quite the same this year, not after Aug. 1, when Korey Stringer, the Minnesota Vikings' Pro Bowl right tackle, died of heat exhaustion, the first such death in NFL history.

The Vikings say they are motivated by Stringer's death: ''He's with us, even though he's not with us physically,'' quarterback Daunte Culpepper says.

The death overshadowed the usual camp run of season-ending injuries, such as the torn knee ligament that sidelined Jamal Lewis and crippled Baltimore's running game, the most solid part of its offense last season.

There's also a possible early disruption: a threatened lockout of game officials by the owners unless the officials agree to a new contract by opening day, Sept. 9.

One clear trend: Just about every one of the 31 teams is stronger on one side of the ball than the other.

Look at the last two champions:

Baltimore had a dominating defense, but an offense so weak it went five games in midseason without scoring a touchdown. Trent Dilfer, who took over at quarterback for Tony Banks and went 11-1, was not re-signed and didn't find a team until he signed with Seattle three weeks ago.

On the other hand, St. Louis had one of the best offenses in NFL history en route to its title. Last year, though, the Rams slid to 10-6 because the defense allowed a league-high 471 points.

''The system almost forces you to build where you're already strong,'' says Bill Polian, president of the Indianapolis Colts, a team that excels on offense but is shaky on defense. ''If you have good skill players as we do, you have to keep the rest of your offense intact.''

So the Colts, who feature Peyton Manning, Edgerrin James and Marvin Harrison -- one of the NFL's top pass-run-catch trios -- have spent most of their money re-signing offensive linemen and tight ends to support the stars. But they'll have four regulars on defense who have never started an NFL game.

The Rams are doubling that: They could have eight new defensive starters.

The Ravens entered camp with an excellent shot at repeating. Quarterback Elvis Grbac, signed from Kansas City, is at least two levels above Dilfer and Banks. Coach Brian Billick was confident enough to allow HBO to bring its cameras into the secret nooks and crannies for a running series on training camp.

But then Lewis and right tackle Leon Searcy went down and the seemingly upgraded offense was downgraded again. The Ravens were forced to sign Terry Allen, a 33-year-old running back who is close to double figures in knee operations and is probably good for no more than a dozen carries a game.

''People don't understand the way this team works,'' Ravens tight end Shannon Sharpe says. ''We're motivated entirely differently than everyone else. Adversity only makes us stronger.''

Among other contenders with strong defenses but average offenses are the Giants, Eagles, Saints, Bucs, Dolphins and Titans, who fell a yard short of sending the 2000 Super Bowl into overtime.

The contenders who figure to score in bundles and can only hope to stop other offenses are the Rams, Colts, Broncos and Raiders, where Jerry Rice has been forced to end his Hall of Fame career because San Francisco didn't have cap room to keep him.

Add the Vikings to that group, although it might be a stretch to call Minnesota a contender after it lost running back Robert Smith to retirement and three Pro Bowl offensive linemen to free agency over two seasons.

Still, any team with Culpepper throwing to Randy Moss and Cris Carter can't be discounted, even one that lost the NFC title game 41-0 to the Giants last season and didn't improve the defense.

At the other end, there's Dallas, which might be in worse shape than when Jerry Jones bought America's Team in 1989, hired Jimmy Johnson as coach and went from 1-15 the first year to three Super Bowl titles by 1996. Things are so bad that the first 0-16 mark in league history isn't out of the question.

There's no Herschel Walker to trade for draft choices. The salary cap prevents the Cowboys from trying to deal Emmitt Smith to, say, the Ravens because Smith's salary would put the Ravens zillions over the $67.4 million limit. Smith enters the season just 1,560 yards behind Walter Payton's career rushing mark of 16,726, but that's a tough chase on a team against whom defenses will stack eight men up front.

''It's strange. I've played with the likes of Michael Irvin, Charles Haley, Tony Tolbert, Kevin Smith -- a lot of great football players,'' says Dallas safety Darren Woodson, one of the few premier players left. ''To see us go from that to what we have now -- they're not the same players.''

But back to picking a Super Bowl winner.

Start with the premise that none of the teams that has been there the last three seasons will come back. You could make a case that Green Bay and Denver might reprise the title game they played in 1998.

But ...

Give the AFC title to Miami as Jay Fiedler matures at quarterback. In the NFC, can Donovan McNabb and a defense get the Eagles there? Can New Orleans become the first team to play in a Super Bowl in its home stadium? Maybe.

On a limb, Brett Favre is healthy. If he remains so ...

Packers 22, Dolphins 20.

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