1. Who will win the Super Bowl?
First things first. The New England Patriots are better, stronger and deeper than they were a year ago when they won the Super Bowl. That said, they won't repeat as champions.
|Bill Belichick has won two Super Bowls in three years, but won't make it three in four.(Getty Images)|
Look at the Patriots of two years ago. They were a popular choice to defend their title and might have were it not for one itzy-bitzy glitch: They didn't make the playoffs.
Neither did everybody's favorite of a year ago, Tampa Bay, a 5,000-pound gorilla that was supposed to be the most complete package since Gina Lollobrigida. They fizzled to 7-9.
Sure, this year's Patriots are loaded and play in a division where the competition, i.e., Miami, just lost its most valuable player. But it's not the competition that's the problem; it's a trend that has one team repeating as Super Bowl champion over the past decade.
Of the past five Super Bowl winners, no one the following season made it farther than the 2001 Baltimore Ravens -- who lost in the divisional round of the playoffs -- while three others failed to reach the postseason.
So who wins this year's Super Bowl? Ah, that's the first in our Top Ten Questions entering the season, and go no farther for the answer: Anyone but New England. Gimme Philadelphia. Or Seattle. Kansas City. Denver. You name it. Anyone but New England.
Anything else? As a matter of fact...
2. Does the return of Joe Gibbs guarantee Washington its first playoff team since 1999?
No, but it sure improves their chances. There is no better coach than Gibbs at adapting to the players he has. He won with Joe Theismann as his quarterback. He won with Doug Williams as his quarterback. He won with Mark Rypien as his quarterback. He won with John Riggins, too. No, George Rogers. No, Earnest Byner. I think you get the idea.
In Clinton Portis he has the franchise back to make Washington the rushing threat it wasn't last season, and that makes the Redskins more dangerous to everyone on their schedule. It does not, however, mean they're a lock to push Philadelphia. Gibbs is a marvelous coach, but he won in an era when there was no salary cap and there was Bobby Beathard. Let's see how he adapts to change.
3. Who's under more pressure in Philadelphia -- Andy Reid or Donovan McNabb?
It's Reid, by a nose. He has taken the Eagles to three straight NFC Championship Games, which is great. But he has lost three straight NFC Championship Games, which is not. Reid's all-for-one-and-one-for-all approach took the Eagles far ... but not far enough. Which is why he took on controversial Terrell Owens and defensive end Jevon Kearse, who has suited up for exactly 18 of his past 32 games. Heck, Reid even took back linebacker Jeremiah Trotter, whom he released two years ago when Trotter demanded megabucks.
Reid ran an egalitarian operation, and he ran it well. The only problem was that it didn't take the Eagles beyond the front porch, which is why Owens and Kearse are here. Owens is a terrific playmaker, but he must be handled carefully. Kearse is a terrific playmaker, too ... when he plays. Give Reid credit for having the guts to take chances, but as with any gamble there's a risk -- and pity poor Brad Childress if T.O. dissects the play calling.
4. Can Carson Palmer make the Bengals a winner?
|Carson Palmer has a solid team to direct, but can the Bengals get to the playoffs?(AP)|
"Now, he's not feeling like a rookie who's here for the first time, where everything is new," said quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese. "All those things that are anxiety builders for a guy are not there. So there's a confidence. Plus, he's seen how the game works and how we might change things during a game. And he's built relationships with his teammates. He just wants to be seen as one of the guys, who isn't treated any differently than anyone."
Good luck. Because of his position and because he's a No. 1 pick he must be treated differently than everyone. But he's in a better spot than, say, Manning was in his first tour of duty. The Bengals have a solid offensive line. Running back Rudi Johnson looks legit. And the defense should improve from its 28th-place finish of a year ago. All of that will help with Palmer's learning curve. Then there's his natural ability. Zampese compares Palmer's arm to that of a young Jim Everett, and that's not bad. But the arm is not the issue; experience is. Look for Palmer to get plenty of exposure in preseason games.
5. Will David Boston become a dominant receiver again?
The signs are encouraging. When Boston showed up in Miami, receivers coach Jerry Sullivan demanded two things of him: 1) He wanted Boston to lose weight, and 2) he wanted him to participate in the team's offseason conditioning program. Boston did both, coming around after the team's first minicamp when Sullivan showed him tapes of his 2001 season.
"He didn't say much," said Sullivan. "He just looked. I think he saw a different guy than what he imagined he was at the time. And I think he was impressed with who that guy was."
He had company. Boston was a Pro Bowl receiver in 2001 for the Cardinals, hauling in 98 passes for 1,598 yards and setting a team record with nine 100-yard games. Sullivan, who coached him there, thinks Boston can regain that form. More important, he thinks Boston believes he can, too.
"He's in the best running shape since he's been in the league," said Sullivan. "My expectations for him are to become better than he was before. He's more mature now, so hopefully he sees things in a little different light."
6. Can the Denver Broncos replace Clinton Portis?
Yes. And they will. The Broncos operate under the same philosophy as San Francisco, namely that you can plug virtually anyone but the Venus de Milo in at running back and get 1,000 yards. They did it with Terrell Davis, sixth-round pick. They did it with Olandis Gary, fourth-round pick. They did it with Mike Anderson, sixth-round pick. Heck, put Indianapolis on the schedule more than once last year, and Quentin Griffin -- another fourth-round pick -- might have wound up with 1,000 yards.
The Broncos made the trade for Champ Bailey because they needed an elite cornerback more than they needed an elite running back and because they believed they could -- no, would -- find a suitable successor to Portis. Take your pick: There's Garrison Hearst, Griffin, Anderson and, oh yeah, Tatum Bell. Rookie running backs thrive in Mike Shanahan's system, and Bell might be the next Portis. Or Anderson. Or Gary. Or Davis ...
7. Who feels the heat most in Cleveland, Jeff Garcia or William Green?
Neither. It's Butch Davis. The head coach two years ago jettisoned defensive coordinator Foge Fazio, saying the club's defense wasn't good enough. Then he pitched offensive coordinator Bruce Arians overboard after last season, saying the offense wasn't good enough. Now, the team president is gone. A vice president is gone. Heck, the public relations director is gone. Which leaves ... Butch Davis.
Davis is in the line of fire, and he better hope this outfit is a whole lot better than it looks. The Browns not only aren't the best team in the AFC North; they're not the best team in Ohio, and that's trouble. Browns fans won't stand for another year of mediocrity, which means Davis better make something happen ... and now.
8. Will we see Ricky Williams with Miami before camp is over?
Only Ricky knows, but my guess is no. People familiar with Williams believe he's sincerely retired, mostly because they believe he saw the NFL as too structured and too confining.
"I think when he talked to the team in minicamp and told them everyone has do their part and push forward he was talking to himself," said one source close to Williams. "And I think it dawned on him after returning from this trip (overseas) that he couldn't do what he was preaching others to do."
He conceded that Williams is complicated and described his situation as "layered," with Williams' three children a factor. Williams loves kids, and when interviewed at the 1999 NFL combine he told the New Orleans Saints he wanted to be an elementary school teacher when he was through with pro football. Now he has his chance.
"I think he delayed this as long as he could," said the source. "Sometimes people don't make decisions until they have to, and now he has to. I don't think he's coming back ... at least not this year."
9. Who wins the quarterback job in Dallas?
The early money is on Quincy Carter, not because coach Bill Parcells likes the guy but because Drew Henson is a year away. Sure, the Cowboys acquired Vinny Testaverde, but that was as an insurance policy against Carter self-destructing ... which, of course, is always possible.
Parcells likes quarterbacks who don't screw up, and Carter threw more interceptions (21) last year than touchdowns (17). Not good. Nevertheless, he's still the bet over Testaverde, who's 40 and serves as a reliable backup if and when Carter falters. The quarterback of choice is Henson, but he needs time. Carter and Testaverde give it to him.
10. Can Gunther Cunningham shape up the Kansas City defense?
Yes. This guy could shape up the Michelin man. He's tough. He's aggressive. And he's determined to prove himself again as a coordinator, which, it just so happens, he did so well at Kansas City in the 1990s the Chiefs named him head coach. There was a feeling in Kansas City last year that the Chiefs had the players on defense, they just got caught playing a scheme unsuited to them. I guess we'll find out.
Cunningham's approach is to make the defense in his image, which means you better stay out of its way.
"We'll be very aggressive," Cunningham promised. "It's very much an up-the-field defense, and it will center around speed."
Look for cornerback Julian Battle and linebackers Kawika Mitchell and Monty Biesel to push the starters. The Chiefs were fourth last year with 37 takeaways, but they couldn't stop the run -- surrendering an average of 5.2 yards a carry, the league low. That won't happen again. Cunningham won't stand for it.