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Insights: Sports—Picking This Year's NFL Winners

A look at the coming football season reveals a rapidly changing landscape
Dave Anderson
From the Print Edition:
Gene Hackman, Sep/Oct 00

Watching the NFL this season will be like learning the names of new neighbors. Because so many of your longtime neighbors have moved away.  

You never needed to check their uniform numbers to know those young neighbors who dropped by every Sunday afternoon for all those years. Dan Marino, Steve Young, Derrick Thomas, Michael Irvin. And you knew the familiar faces of those grumpy old men who won't be staring at you from the sideline or an upstairs booth--Bill Parcells, Jimmy Johnson, Dick Vermeil, Mike Ditka and Bobby Beathard. They're all looking at apartments near the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.   Yes, the neighborhood has changed. And not necessarily for the better.  

Too many police cars are pulling up outside the homes of too many new neighbors. Linebacker Ray Lewis was charged with murder before he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor obstruction of justice. Wide receiver Rae Carruth is awaiting trial on a charge of conspiring to kill his pregnant girlfriend. Running back Fred Lane was shot to death, apparently in a domestic dispute with his wife. Every other day another new neighbor seems to be in some sort of jam.  

When people talk about the state of the NFL now, it's as if they're talking about a police state.  

To any aware NFL player, the Lewis and Carruth cases were a reminder, if not a warning: watch what you do, watch where you go, watch who you're with and don't think you can get away with something just because you're an NFL player. If anything, being an NFL player with all that money makes you a bigger target for hustlers to manipulate and for the police to handcuff.  

Not every NFL player is as smart as he thinks he is. Too many assume that they'll never get caught doing something shady or silly.   What those players need to understand is that the NFL, to scrape the blood stains off its red-white-and-blue image, now will be cracking down harder than ever on anybody involved in any crime, especially violent crime. Please leave the violence on the field where a conviction means a 15-yard penalty, not 15 to 20 in a prison yard.  

For better or for worse, a new NFL neighborhood also means new names, if not new champions.  

It would be easy to tout the St. Louis Rams to win the Super Bowl again, but these are not the same Rams that edged the Tennessee Titans, 23-16, in Super Bowl XXXIV on linebacker Mike Jones's game-saving tackle. Kurt Warner, the quarterback from nowhere, and Marshall Faulk, the running back to everywhere, are still there, but Dick Vermeil isn't. Mike Martz has to prove he's as effective as a head coach as he was as the offensive coordinator. And the salary cap subtracted three starters who will be missed--center Mike Gruttadauria (to Arizona), offensive tackle Fred Miller (to Tennessee) and safety Billy Jenkins (to Denver).  

The Rams should repeat as NFC West champions, but another tray of Super Bowl rings might be too much to ask. Just as the Rams don't figure to be as good this season, both of the other projected NFC divisional winners are better--the Washington Redskins in the East, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the Central.  

Daniel Snyder, the Redskins' owner, added two eventual Hall of Famers on defense, pass-rusher Bruce Smith and cornerback Deion Sanders, who also returns punts and kickoffs. Snyder also landed two blue-chip rookies, linebacker LaVar Arrington and offensive tackle Chris Samuels. But his most important move could be the signing of Jeff George as a free-agent quarterback. If Brad Johnson goes down with an injury, coach Norv Turner now can turn to George, the NFL's most capable backup. Johnson and George give the Redskins the experience at quarterback that the Bucs don't possess.  

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