Twenty pressing questions for the 2003 NFL season

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We are closing in on the start of another NFL season and all that goes with it. On this day, Britney Spears goes with it. Madonna does not. It's a good thing. If the league had invited both artists to perform at Thursday's kickoff event, football fans would have had something to talk about other than the game. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and his associates would prefer you talk about nothing else. And for the next five months, many of you won't. Polls show there are at least 972 questions on the minds of NFL fans as the 2003 season gets underway. Let's start with 20 of them. 1. Can Tampa Bay repeat as champion? coach Jon Gruden will tell you yes. Anyone that has fallen under his motivational spell will believe. But recent history tells us no. And with apologies to Gruden, we side with history here. The Bucs had a special season. That does not make them a special team. In these days of salary cap attrition, it has become harder and harder to be special. Tampa Bay lost two starters off an outstanding defense and failed to make any significant additions to an offense that ranked 24th in the league last season. While quarterback is respected around the league, he is not feared. While showed what he could do in the Super Bowl, one big game does not a 1,000-yard running back make. Look for the Bucs to go the way of St. Louis, Baltimore and New England in their defense of the title. 2. Will 2003 be as unpredictable as last season? Probably not. Look for some sense of equilibrium to be restored. That means only half of the league's 32 teams will be in contention for a playoff spot entering the final week of the regular season -- as opposed to 19 in 2002 -- and the number of overtime games should dip from a league-record 25 down to 20 or so. 3. Which 8-8 team will rise from the ashes to compete for the title? There are several strong candidates. Let's start in Buffalo and work out way west. The were a three-win team that jumped to eight victories last season. Their jump won't be as dramatic in 2003, but it will be significant. Buffalo has plugged the holes on a porous defense with tackle , linebackers and and safety . Next is Kansas City. The high-scoring began to address their defensive shortcomings with the additions of linebacker , defensive end and cornerback . And then there's San Diego. The traded linebacker and released safety in an attempt to give their underachieving defense a younger, more aggressive identity. The team also signed receiver to complement running back and give them another offensive threat. 4. Which 7-9 team will rise from the ashes to compete for the title? Two teams qualify. First is St. Louis. If quarterback and running back are healthy, this team will return to the playoffs. Second is Seattle. The still have some work to do on defense, which is why they hired Ray Rhodes as coordinator, but the offense did average 29 points in the final six games of last season. The problem here is that both teams play in the NFC West. The rise of one could cancel out the other unless San Francisco falls. 5. Is this the final chance to recapture the greatness that has slipped through their fingers? Probably. And the phrase slip through their fingers is appropriate. The turn the ball over more than any team in the league. Head coach Mike Martz has often dismissed this as the cost of doing business with the Greatest Show on Turf. But as the offensive nucleus of Warner, Faulk and receiver grow older, as more teams around the league assemble potent offenses, this arrogant stance doesn't win as many games as it once did. The had the chance to be remembered as a special team after they beat Tennessee in Super Bowl XXXIV. St. Louis squandered that chance when it lost to New England in the Super Bowl two years later. If the don't win the championship this season, it's unrealistic to ask Warner and Faulk to carry them to the Super Bowl five years after their first appearance. 6. There are five coaches in their first year with a new team -- Bill Parcells in Dallas, Steve Mariucci in Detroit, Marvin Lewis in Cincinnati, Dennis Erickson in San Francisco and Jack Del Rio in Jacksonville. Who will have the most success? Erickson is the only one taking over a playoff team. If the make the playoffs in 2003 -- and this isn't a lock -- he will simply have maintained the status quo. The , , and are all bad teams. They should be better teams this season, but that doesn't mean any of them will make the playoffs. Cincinnati won two games last season. Detroit won three. That means Lewis and Mariucci are primed to have the biggest, quantifiable impact of this group in Year One. 7. Are there any coaches who won't make it until the end of the season? The league has become a little more stable in this regard. Most owners are inclined to wait until the end of the season to make a change. Arizona's Bill Bidwill is one of the exceptions. He would have no problem firing head coach Dave McGinnis in October or November if he didn't like what he saw on the field. Of course, if Bidwill really wanted to do what was best for the , he would remove himself and keep McGinnis. But we have to admit that scenario is unlikely. Chicago's Dick Jauron also finds himself in a tough spot. He used the leverage of a 13-3 season to acquire an extension for himself and his assistants only to preside over the fall to 4-12. Throw in the tension that already existed between Jauron and general manager Jerry Angelo, and you have a volatile situation. 8. Of all the free agents who changed teams during the off-season, who will have the biggest impact? This may come as a surprise, but it won't be Denver's , Atlanta's or Arizona's . It will be Carolina's . The are an outstanding young defensive team that needs a consistent, power running game to complete John Fox's vision. Davis provides that presence. The running back who wasn't a fit for Washington's slashing, Fun N Gun style could amass in the neighborhood of 1,400 yards and challenge for the NFC rushing title. 9. Will find yards and happiness in the desert? He'll find yards, although not the 1,000 this season he would like. If happiness can be defined as being embraced by a new community in the twilight of your career with a spectacular golf course around every boulder -- Smith loves to play golf -- then the NFL's all-time leading rusher will be happy. But if happiness is helping the win and making a difference in how the franchise is perceived, Smith is likely to go out frustrated. But his last three years in Dallas, all of which ended with a 5-11 record, have prepared him for what is to come. 10. How long will New York's go before he offends an individual or an entire group with his politically incorrect comments? Las Vegas hasn't established an over-under on this yet, but Week Two seems like a reasonable place to start. If Shockey is interested in changing his image, we suggest an appearance on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy during the team's bye week later this month. 11. Has age finally caught up with the Oakland ? It's not age as much as the team's colossal failure in the Super Bowl and the competition. The have a veteran nucleus that knows the window of opportunity to win a championship is closing. When that sort of team has a chance to fulfill its dreams only to be thoroughly dismantled in the title game, the emotional baggage and doubts it leaves behind is substantial. That is compounded by a highly competitive conference in which nine teams won at least nine games. Oakland has too much to work through mentally and too many good teams to go through physically to win a Super Bowl with this group. 12. Is Philadelphia in danger of developing the Buffalo Syndrome? Not yet. The have to advance to the Super Bowl and lose four times before that happens. But Philadelphia has lost in the NFC Championship Game the last two years. It's legitimate to question their psyche. Young teams can only beat their heads against the wall for so long before the wall crumbles or their helmets crack. That is what makes 2003 such a crucial season for Philadelphia. This franchise has some outstanding, young talent in place and has handled the salary cap better than most. But if the don't get past the NFC Championship Game this year, doubts will begin to erode the foundation. 13. Will Atlanta's pick up where he left off when he returns? The certainly hope so. Vick is one of the more exciting athletes to enter this league in a long time. Atlanta is understandably anxious for him to rehabilitate his broken leg as quickly as possible. The best-case scenario is that Vick will only miss the first four games of the season. That timetable is unrealistically optimistic and applies only to the bone being healed. It doesn't take into account Vick returning to football shape. Vick is a rare athlete and it's safe to assume he will return sooner rather than later. Returning to his electrifying form is another matter. Philadelphia's was able to return from a broken ankle last season and was effective, but he wasn't his old, dominant self. If Vick does pick up where he left off, it will come at the end of the season. Not sooner. 14. Will New York quarterback return in time to make a difference? No. If Pennington is able to return late in the season -- and that's a big if -- the will have already played themselves out of the playoffs. 15. Do you, Bill Parcells, take Jerry Jones to love, honor and obey? Skip the obey part. Parcells won't do it, and Jones isn't asking. The owner knows he needed to change the culture at the team's Valley Ranch complex, and he's deferred to Parcells' methods to get that done. Love might also be a bit strong. But the two have a common goal and have forged a solid, business relationship in a relatively short period of time. There won't be any significant problems or troublesome friction this year. Now, check back in a year or two. 16. Will San Francisco owner John York and the club's management miss Steve Mariucci more than they realized? Yes. Mariucci and his superiors weren't on the same page in terms of offensive philosophy. His constant need to be reassured wore thin. But part of the reason Mariucci wanted reassurance was because those above him didn't give him the respect he deserved. General managers and personnel directors around the league will tell you they thought the performance the last two years exceeded their personnel. That's a tribute to the players and to the coaching. York and his people will soon realize that Mariucci was better than they thought. 17. Will Miam's defend his rushing title? No. He'll give it a good run (bad pun intended) but will fall short. Look for San Diego's to win the crown this season. 18. Has Washington owner Daniel Snyder finally bought himself a playoff berth? Maybe. The $23.2 million he spent on signing bonuses to , , and should certainly buy a victory over the , the club the raided and play tonight. But it can be argued that Washington is no better than the third team in its division behind the and and that second-year quarterback is too young to get the offense in gear. The will challenge for a Wild Card spot, but Snyder is going to have to open his wallet even wider to buy a championship team. 19. Have we heard the last of the -Tim Couch quarterback controversy in Cleveland? This one won't go away just because coach Butch Davis has named Holcomb as the starter. The players appear to have sided with Holcomb. The fans certainly have. That doesn't mean he will make it through the entire season unscathed. Holcomb is bound to miss a series or two -- or even a game or two -- with an injury. It will be interesting to see how everyone responds to Couch in that situation. Unless Holcomb fails, Couch will be traded in the off-season. Until then, there are too many embers around for this flame to die. 20. Which team will win the Super Bowl? Miami. The might have gotten it done last year if quarterback hadn't gone down when he did. It might not serve as consolation to Tampa Bay, but at least this way the Super Bowl trophy stays in Florida. Veteran NFL correspondent David Moore is a frequent contributor to
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