Top training camp questions and predictions

The word on the street is that Roger Goodell is leaning against allowing Michael Vick full NFL employment, not wanting a huge distraction when the NFL opens its 90th season this September.

Instead, fans will have to celebrate the return of the game’s greatest quarterback Tom Brady to New England and likely smirking at Brett Favre wearing purple in Lambeau Field.

Still, there are many football questions to answer before T.O.’s reality show goes on the road to Rochester, N.Y. for training camp this weekend with, umm, the Buffalo Bills.

1. Can Tony Romo become the Cowboys’ undisputed leader this summer, then take Dallas to the playoffs without T.O. and Jessica Simpson comforting him in December?

Imagine calling T.O. a locker-room cancer in Dallas? All that production wasn’t good enough for Romo and offensive coordinator Jason Garrett, who now must prove to the world that ex-Lion Roy Williams, the reticent one, can be a true No. 1 receiver like Larry Fitzgerald or Steve Smith.

Despite his impressive personal numbers, Romo hasn’t won a playoff game and must improve on his 5-10 record in December-January games. The good news is that Jason Witten remains his favorite receiver and the big offensive surprise should be last year’s No. 1 pick, running back Felix Jones, a true game-breaker.

Czar’s Prediction: Romo wins in January with a huge helping hand from Marion Barber.

2. Will those upstart Cardinals really find a defense to match their offense?

There has been much chatter in Phoenix since their near-miss Super Bowl effort that coach Ken Whisenhunt is transforming the Cardinals into Pittsburgh-West with the hiring of new defensive coordinator Bill Davis from the Steelers.

Davis has two big problems: He is not Dick LeBeau, Pittsburgh’s great defensive coordinator, and he doesn’t have a nasty sackmaster like James Harrison to coach. Davis has installed the Steelers’ blitz scheme, but he must find a dominating edge rusher next month.

Czar’s Prediction: Rookie linebackers Cody Brown and Will Davis combined play nothing like Harrison.

3. Can the Panthers fix their horrible pass defense of a season ago?

Coach John Fox used to like a complicated defensive playbook, but new defensive coordinator Ron Meeks likes it simple and speedy, the Colts way. Julius Peppers, whose weekly game check will be over $1 million this season, will have to be disruptive like Dwight Freeney is in Indy and cornerback Chris Gamble must isolate on the opposing team’s best receiver. Remember, the Cardinals beat them by 20 points and Fitzgerald caught 8 passes for 166 yards, with most of those with Gamble on the opposite side of the action.

Czar’s Prediction: Carolina improves, but still eventually falls short of Atlanta in the NFC South.

4. Now that Chicago has a quarterback, where are their big-time receivers?

This has been the question ever since the Bears acquired big-armed Jay Cutler from the Broncos while preaching that Devin Hester will simply run deep, Cutler will fire away and life will be grand in Soldier Field.

Yes, the Bears could use Plaxico Burress, but they managed to find a couple fine young kids in the draft — Juaquin Iglesias and Johnny Knox — and don’t forget that Earl Bennett, who didn’t catch one Kyle Orton pass last season, was a star receiver at Vanderbilt with Cutler.

Czar’s Prediction: The Bears win with this summer’s rebuilt offense around Greg Olsen, actually a tight end who will emerge as Cutler’s top receiving option while doubling his production from 2008.

5. Can Eli Manning find happiness and the playoffs without Plaxico Burress and Amani Toomer?

If the Giants had Burress (and not the New York court system), New York would be clear-cut favorites in the league’s best division, the NFC East. Manning says he can survive with current camp starters Steve Smith and Domenik Hixon.

Overall, the Giants remain one of the league’s most talented teams, especially on defense with the return of Osi Umenyiora and the game’s most cohesive offensive line.

Czar’s Prediction: Eli falls short even with monster man Brandon Jacobs running wild.

6. Are the Eagles for real, even with Brian Westbrook missing training camp?

Well, the Eagles’ best player had ankle surgery this offseason and the word is that he will be running by September, but he no longer will be amassing 350 touches a season and handle the full-time goal-line running back duties.

We should find out this summer that Philadelphia may have the biggest and most-talented offensive line in the game, and that’s great for rookie runner LeSean McCoy, who should be overworked during Camp Reid. McCoy has toughness and power to the outside, plus he can catch.

Czar’s Prediction: Donovan McNabb has too many weapons not to win the NFC East.

7. Does Tom Brady’s return mean the Patriots win and win big?

Well, the Patriots figure to nurse Brady into playing shape this summer, but Bill Belichick has bigger concerns. Can Laurence Maroney prove he’s durable enough to hold off ex-Jaguar Fred Taylor at running back? Maroney has been full of excuses the last couple of seasons, but his shoulder should finally be healthy. And what happens if LB Tedy Bruschi retires or simply slows down? Yes, Jerod Mayo is very good, but Bruschi knows the system. The bottom line is that New England’s defense, particularly the secondary, is in full transition.

Czar’s Prediction: The Patriots barely win the AFC East and Brady falls well short of 50 touchdown passes.

8. Will this finally be Reggie Bush’s breakout season?

The Saints have their fingers crossed on this one, knowing that Pierre Thomas has different ideas. Four of Bush’s nine touchdowns last season came on punt returns while Thomas led the team in both rushing and touchdowns (12 TDs despite just five starts in ’08). Drew Brees has a shot at another 5,000-yard season, especially if defensive coordinator Gregg Williams doesn’t figure out a scheme to improve the New Orleans’ secondary.

Czar’s Prediction: Thomas shares the RB gig with Bush, but the Saints miss the playoffs once again.

9. Are the Steelers still the Super Bowl favorites heading into camp?

Well, they had a very quiet offseason until this week when a Nevada casino employee filed a civil complaint — there are no criminal charges — of sexual assault against Ben Roethlisberger, alleging impropriety a year ago. How distracting this will be is anyone’s guess.

There is no question that Big Ben has evolved into a team leader with the Steelers, whose biggest worry has been protecting him and reducing those 46 sacks from a season ago. If Pittsburgh’s line continues its postseason hot streak into ’09, they have a shot.

Czar’s Prediction: Easy schedule guarantees another 12-win season, but no Super Bowl.

10. Will Clinton Portis make peace with Redskins coach Jim Zorn?

Everything is on the line in Washington, where owner Dan Snyder has spent and spent on the defense (Albert Haynesworth’s $100 million deal for starters). But Washington’s entire season hinges on what Zorn is able to accomplish with an offense built around the 27-year-old Portis, who looked like an MVP candidate at midseason in 2008, and seemingly unwanted quarterback Jason Campbell. Zorn has his hands full with a head-strong Portis, and any truce must endure the intense training-camp heat.

Czar’s Prediction: There could be a new coach in Washington by November.