The Boys of Autumn are back, and that means an instant replay of compelling theater, intense competition from start to finish, and more violent collisions than you will ever find on the NASCAR circuit.
This off-season was one of the quietest in years. The April draft was remarkably uneventful and a steroid scandal involving the Carolina Panthers gained little steam only months after commissioner Paul Tagliabue's stringent policy was applauded at the same congressional hearings that exposed Major League Baseball and commissioner Bud Selig as soft on the issue.
The loudest noise came when the Oakland Raiders acquired All-Pro wide receiver Randy Moss from the Minnesota Vikings; Cleveland Browns tight end Kellen Winslow wrecked his knee—and possibly his career—in a motorcycle accident; and controversial Terrell Owens pushed the Philadelphia Eagles to renegotiate his contract just one year into a seven-year, $49 million deal.
New head coaches took the helm of the San Francisco 49ers (Mike Nolan), Miami Dolphins (Nick Saban) and Cleveland Browns (Romeo Crennel); and a New Jersey real estate developer, Zygmunt "Zygi" Wilf, became the new owner of the Vikings. Brett Favre didn't quit, Jerry Rice, at age 42, wouldn't quit, and Ricky Williams, who quit last year, decided he wanted to return to the Dolphins.
2004 saw increased attendance and higher television ratings, which translated into more revenue for the league's coffers, and the NFL expects 2005 will attract the same fan interest. As the season kicks off, one question stands out above all others: can anybody prevent the New England Patriots from winning their fourth Super Bowl in five years?
I'm making the same preseason prediction I made last year: New England over Philadelphia. Once again, close but no cigar for Donovan McNabb, Terrell Owens and head coach Andy Reid.
1. New England Patriots
The Patriots are the closest thing to perfection in the NFL and the model franchise other teams strive to emulate. It starts at the top with chairman and owner Bob Kraft and his son, and vice chairman, Jonathan. It continues with the league's best coach in Bill Belichick and the hottest player personnel guru in Scott Pioli, and together they've constructed the first dynasty in the salary cap era. The centerpiece is quarterback Tom Brady, who was rewarded for his Montana-esque poise and savvy with a six-year contract extension. Losing offensive coordinator Charlie Weis to Notre Dame and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel to Cleveland, not to mention five starting players, is huge, but running back Corey Dillon (1,635 yards) and kicker Adam Vinatieri (31 field goals in 33 attempts) are back. The Patriots are like Noah's Ark—they have two of everything and remain favorites to reach the Super Bowl.
2. New York Jets
The Jets figure to give the Patriots the most trouble in the AFC East, provided quarterback Chad Pennington is healthy coming off rotator cuff surgery. Wide receiver Laveranues Coles returns after two years with the Washington Redskins and will be Pennington's primary target, along with wide receiver Justin McCareins and new tight end Doug Jolley. Mike Heimerdinger replaces Paul Hackett as offensive coordinator, which should make the offense more daring and unpredictable, something Pennington and Jets fans have been waiting for. Gang Green did lose running back LaMont Jordan to free agency, but Curtis Martin continues to amaze and, at 31, was the oldest player to lead the NFL in rushing with a career-best 1,697 yards. Defensively, the Jets are sparked by middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma, the Associated Press's NFL Rookie of the Year, and on special teams, newly drafted kicker Mike Nugent should make fans forget last year's painful playoff memory of Doug Brien.
3. Buffalo Bills
The Bills said goodbye to quarterback Drew Bledsoe after three mediocre years and have placed their hopes on young J. P. Losman, an athletic quarterback who provides more mobility, even after having his rookie year cut short by a broken leg. Head coach Mike Mularkey, who brought the Bills back from an 0-4 start to finish 9-7, has told Losman to study the movie Patton to learn about leadership. Willis McGahee, who overcame his own serious leg injury last year and ignited a 9-2 surge with 1,128 yards and 13 touchdowns, provides the Bills with a legitimate rushing threat. Wide receivers Eric Moulds (1,043 yards) and Lee Evans (9 touchdowns) are a dependable duo, and an opportunistic defense (24 interceptions and 15 recovered fumbles) won't make Buffalo a nice place to visit, especially when the weather turns cold.
4. Miami Dolphins
After failing to reach the Promised Land under Dave Wannstedt, the Dolphins begin a new chapter in their history: the Nick Saban era. Saban, who coached LSU to the NCAA championship in 2003, will need some time in south Florida, however. The Dolphins haven't had a quality quarterback since Dan Marino and there are doubts about A. J. Feeley, who cost Miami a No. 2 draft choice. Saban took Auburn running back Ronnie Brown with the second pick of the first round and he should have an immediate impact, even with a Ricky Williams return. Saban also solidified his defense by signing safety Tebucky Jones and defensive ends Kevin Carter and Vonnie Holliday. However, somebody should have told him about upgrading his offensive line, which was literally offensive last year, with opposing defenses blowing through it like a hurricane.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers
How a team with a 15-game winning streak and the best record (15-1) in the league never reached the Super Bowl defies the imagination. Oh, yeah, the Steelers lost to the Patriots in the AFC championship on their home turf, the fourth time a Bill Cowher team has suffered such an indignity. At least Cowher found a quarterback in rookie Ben Roethlisberger, who took over in the second game and became a media darling. Jerome Bettis also took over, bouncing back from injuries to churn out 941 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns. This year it's Duce Staley's time to bounce back, which will give the Steelers even more smashmouth. Virginia's Heath Miller, the No. 1—rated tight end in the draft, fills a void left by the defection of wide receiver Plaxico Burress, and under defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, Pittsburgh will again be steel tough.
2. Baltimore Ravens
After starting 7-3 last year, the Ravens lost four of their last six and missed the playoffs. This year, running back Jamal Lewis, who missed four games in 2004, is looking to repeat his 2,006-yard rushing performance of 2003. But head coach Brian Billick and offensive coordinator Jim Fassel need quarterback Kyle Boller to break out. Free-agent wide receiver Derrick Mason and drafted wide receiver Mark Clayton are offensive upgrades, but can Boller, who had the second-worst quarterback rating (70.9) in the AFC, get them the ball? On defense, the Ravens boast all-world linebacker Ray Lewis and strong safety Ed Reed, who led the NFL in interceptions (9). They've added free-agent cornerback Samari Rolle to the mix, and 38-year-old Deion Sanders has signed for another year of "Prime Time."
3. Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals finished 8-8 in 2004, but figure to be better this year after closing out the season with seven wins in their last 11 games. Most of the run was attributed to quarterback Carson Palmer (the No. 1 pick in 2003), who lost 20 pounds to increase his mobility, wide receiver Chad Johnson (95 receptions for 1,274 yards) and running back Rudi Johnson (1,454 yards and 12 touchdowns). The Bengals were glaringly weak against the run, a surprise since coach Marvin Lewis earned his stripes as a defensive coordinator. The team was 26th in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game, which is why Lewis made defensive end David Pollack and linebacker Odell Thurman, both from Georgia, his first two draft picks.
4. Cleveland Browns
There is some kind of jinx over this city, which new coach Romeo Crennel must exorcise. He takes over a 4-12 team that lost nine straight games and was so bad that coach Butch Davis resigned with five games left in the season. Crennel got a taste of the jinx during the off-season when tight end Kellen Winslow, the team's No. 1 pick in 2004 who missed 14 games with a broken leg, was injured in a May motorcycle accident that will keep him out in 2005. Crennel temporarily solved the quarterback dilemma by bringing in Trent Dilfer, who won a Super Bowl with Baltimore, and also drafted two gems, wide receiver Braylon Edwards from Michigan and quarterback Charlie Frye from the University of Akron. Frye is the future, but Edwards is the present, as is running back Reuben Droughns (1,240 yards), obtained from the Denver Broncos.
1. Indianapolis Colts
What more can Peyton Manning do? Last year, America's poster boy set NFL season records in touchdowns (49), passing yards (4,557) and quarterback rating (121.1), and was more popular than a Thanksgiving turkey in November, throwing 19 touchdowns in four games. The Colts have the hottest trifecta in the league, with Manning, running back Edgerrin James (1,548 yards) and wide receiver Marvin Harrison (86 receptions and 15 touchdowns). Manning also has a new lethal weapon in Reggie Wayne, who caught 77 passes for 1,210 yards and 12 touchdowns. However, the only notable player on defense is defensive end Dwight Freeney (16 sacks), which explains why Indianapolis drafted six defensive players. The Colts may be Secretariat on offense, but they won't get to the Super Bowl with a defense that turns every game into the Indy 500.
2. Jacksonville Jaguars
This should be quarterback Byron Leftwich's breakout year. The 9-7 Jaguars were 5-2 in his second season before he missed four games with an injured knee. Wide receiver Jimmy Smith (1,172 yards) can still cut it, while running back Fred Taylor overcame injuries to run for 1,224 yards. Coach Jack Del Rio, a former linebacker, has assembled a hard-hitting defensive unit, but his team is vulnerable in the secondary, which is why he drafted three defensive backs. The real buzz, however, is No. 1 pick Matt Jones, a 6-foot-6, 242-pounder. A quarterback at Arkansas, Jones runs a 4.37 in the 40-yard dash and will be converted to a wide receiver. The Jags can now play jump ball in the red zone, which is crucial for a team that had 11 games decided by seven points or less in 2004.
3. Houston Texans
The third-year expansion Texans continued their progress with a 7-9 season in 2004. Playing behind one of the NFL's worst offensive lines, quarterback David Carr endured a league-high 49 sacks, yet threw for 3,531 yards. The signing of tackle Victor Riley in free agency won't necessarily keep Carr from having more sleepless nights, since Houston brass paid little attention to the offensive line in the draft. Running back Domanick Davis rushed for 1,188 yards and 13 touchdowns, while wide receiver Andre Johnson starred with 79 receptions for 1,142 yards. Now if head coach Dom Capers could only persuade Yao Ming to suit up and play tight end, the Texans might have something. Defensively, the Texans have plenty of question marks after finishing 24th in pass defense and last in the league in sacks with only 24, which is why they drafted defensive tackle Travis Johnson in the first round.
4. Tennessee Titans
Head coach Jeff Fisher will be fighting for his life this season after a disastrous 5-11 campaign. And with no additions in free agency, he's in dangerous waters. Quarterback Steve McNair, injured most of the season with a bruised sternum, talked about retirement but has decided to come back after off-season surgery. Although wide receiver Tyrone Calico is healthy again, McNair will have less to work with after wide receiver Derrick Mason's departure due to salary cap restraints. Maybe former USC offensive coordinator Norm Chow can work his magic. If not, somebody throw Fisher, who lost five starters to free agency, a life jacket.
1. Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs have firepower. Yet even though they finished first in the league in offense and second in scoring, they missed the playoffs. The problem? Try a defense that was ranked 31st in the NFL. Fortunately, the free-agent additions of linebacker Kendrell Bell, defensive end Carlos Hall and defensive backs Sammy Knight and Patrick Surtain will immediately help, as will linebacker Derrick Johnson, a No. 1 draft pick out of Texas. Quarterback Trent Green set a Kansas City record with 4,591 yards in 2004, passed for 27 touchdowns and connected on 66 percent of his throws. Tight end Tony Gonzalez caught 102 passes for 1,258 yards, while running back Larry Johnson was also a bright spot, gaining 581 yards filling in for Priest Holmes. The Chiefs are a dangerous team that can shoot it out with anyone.
2. San Diego Chargers
Even though they face a tougher schedule than last year, the surprising Chargers are still the team to beat and may be better than 2004 when they won the AFC West (12-4). The boobirds were after Marty Schottenheimer, but he proved that he's one helluva coach. Quarterback Drew Brees, a victim of the same bird droppings, soared as the NFL's third-ranked passer (104.8) with 3,159 yards, 27 touchdowns and only seven interceptions in leading the Chargers to the playoffs for the first time since 1995. It helps to have running back LaDainian Tomlinson, who gained nearly 1,800 all-purpose yards and scored 18 touchdowns last year. So, too, tight end Antonio Gates, who came out of nowhere with 81 receptions, 964 yards and 13 scores. The Chargers didn't lose anybody significant to free agency, and drafted speedy Maryland outside linebacker Shawne Merriman for their 3-4 defense.
3. Oakland Raiders
Shrewd owner Al Davis orchestrated the biggest trade in the off-season when he snatched Randy Moss, the league's best wide receiver (13 touchdowns), from the Vikings. The networks recognized as much and booked the Raiders for five national games beginning with the the NFL opener against New England on September 8. "It's payback," says Davis with a smile. Lining up with speedy wide receiver Jerry Porter, Moss gives the Raiders the vertical passing game they've advocated so strong-armed quarterback Kerry Collins can deliver the bombs. Davis also took care of the running game by luring bruiser LaMont Jordan from the Jets, but needs defensive tackle Warren Sapp to bounce back from an off year. The Raiders went 5-11 in coach Norv Turner's first year, but are loaded on offense and could challenge for the West title if they can play better defense.
4. Denver Broncos
Coach Mike Shanahan must be a UPS man believing in the company's slogan: "What can Brown do for you?" He signed four underachieving defensive players from Cleveland—tackles Gerard Warren and Michael Myers and ends Courtney Brown and Ebenezer Ekuban. Shanahan also raised eyebrows by drafting running back Maurice Clarett in the third round after being out of football for two years while sending Reuben Droughns and his 1,240 rushing yards to Cleveland. Quarterback Jake Plummer set a club record with 4,089 yards, but again failed to win a playoff game. Wide receivers Rod Smith (79 receptions, 1,144 yards) and Ashley Lelie (54 receptions, 1,084 yards) are prime targets, but the Broncos lack depth. Newly signed Jerry Rice would help more if he were 10 years younger.
1. Philadelphia Eagles
here's trouble in the City of Brotherly Love and it has nothing to do with Allen Iverson. Wide receiver Terrell Owens, who set a club record with 14 touchdowns, was a no-show at minicamp as he demanded a new contract and then took a jab at quarterback Donovan McNabb, saying, "I wasn't the guy who got tired in the Super Bowl." McNabb, who had a big year (3,875 yards, 31 touchdowns, 104.7 rating), refused to get into it with Owens, but the relationship is strained. With Freddie Mitchell released, McNabb needs another receiver and may have gotten him with the second-round draft pick, Georgia's Reggie Brown. Amazingly, the Eagles were well under the cap, but didn't sign anyone of note in free agency. Still, with Owens, McNabb and running back Brian Westbrook, and elite defensive coordinator Jimmy Johnson, they're solid enough to win the division for an unprecedented fifth straight time.
2. Dallas Cowboys
Coach Bill Parcells has a penchant for bringing back former players, which is why quarterback Drew Bledsoe, after three lackluster years in Buffalo, is replacing quarterback Vinny Testaverde. It's also why Drew Henson remains at the backup spot. Parcells appears to have solved his running back problems with Julius Jones, so he's turned his attention to the other side of the ball after the Cowboys were lassoed defensively, giving up 405 points and 31 touchdown passes. He zeroed in on the draft to install a new 3-4 defense and came away with six defensive players, including LSU defensive end Marcus Spears and Troy outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware, who reminds the Tuna of Lawrence Taylor. Parcells, in the third season of a four-year contract, is getting itchy.
3. New York Giants
The coming of Eli Manning didn't play too well on Broadway. Coach Tom Coughlin drew criticism for replacing Kurt Warner (5-4 at the time) with Manning, who won his only game the last week of the season. The Giants brought in wide receiver Plaxico Burress and tackle Kareem McKenzie to help his development, but it may not be enough. If it wasn't for running back Tiki Barber, who led the NFL in total yards from scrimmage with 2,096 and was second in the NFC in rushing with 1,518 yards, the Giants wouldn't have won six games. Manning needs more help from tight end Jeremy Shockey and a starting wide receiver corps that had zero touchdown catches in 2004. But even if the passing game improves, the chances of the Giants winning their division this season are slim.
4. Washington Redskins
The hysteria generated by the return of Joe Gibbs after being away for 13 seasons didn't live up to expectations. Major offensive woes contributed to a 6-10 year, the first losing season in Gibbs's Hall of Fame career. The biggest downfall was at quarterback, where Mark Brunell flopped. Even running back Clinton Portis had an average year (at least for him) with only 1,315 yards, a 3.8-yard-per-carry average and five touchdowns. The offense was so inept that it failed to score more than 18 points in any of its first 11 games. Wide receivers Santana Moss and David Patten are key additions, but if quarterbacks Patrick Ramsey or Jason Campbell, the Redskins' No. 1 pick out of Auburn, can't deliver, Gibbs might motor back to NASCAR sooner than expected.
1. Minnesota Vikings
Mike Tice had more staying power in 2004 than a good cigar and got the Vikings into the playoffs, where he beat the Packers at storied Lambeau Field. Randy Moss turned out to be a distraction with his tasteless antics, and that's why I admire Tice's resolve. Trading Moss gives quarterback Daunte Culpepper full control of the offense, which he deserves with his 4,717 yards, 39 touchdowns and 110.9 rating, second in the NFL behind Peyton Manning. Culpepper was sabotaged by a purple-people-eaten defense, which Tice appears to have bolstered by exploiting the free-agent market and signing defensive tackle Pat Williams, cornerback Fred Smoot, free safety Darren Sharper and linebacker Sam Cowart. Tice, who works for peanuts, deserves a raise.
2. Green Bay Packers
Just when everyone thought 36-year-old Brett Favre would retire, he fooled them all. The gunslinging 15-year veteran returns fitter and stronger following a rigorous off-season program with a personal trainer. The ultimate competitor threw for 4,088 yards and 30 touchdowns in 2004, and recorded 10 wins for the fourth straight season. Favre has wide receiver Javon Walker back (89 receptions for 1,382 yards), but lost his starting guards, Marco Rivera and Mike Wahle, which is troublesome. Running back Ahman Green battled injuries and his output slipped to 1,163 yards, but he should be healthy. More importantly, the Packers need to strengthen their secondary and get another wide receiver for Favre after using their No. 1 draft pick on Cal quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
3. Detroit Lions
In his third season, coach Steve Mariucci reached out to an old 49ers friend and signed quarterback Jeff Garcia. The move was a signal to Joey Harrington that he must become more consistent or else. Wide receiver Charles Rogers is back from a season-long injury and joins wideouts Roy Williams (817 yards) and Mike Williams, a No. 1 draft pick out of USC. The Lions also found a running back in rookie Kevin Jones (1,133 yards with a 4.7-yard-per-carry average). The suspect defense is led by tackle Shaun Rogers and looks to improve on a season in which Detroit lost six games by a touchdown or less.
4. Chicago Bears
The curse of the Bears continued last year, as they lost quarterback Rex Grossman in the third week along with star linebacker Brian Urlacher, who missed seven games and limped noticeably in others. Running back Thomas Jones was the bright spot (948 yards), yet that didn't stop coach Lovie Smith from making Texas running back Cedric Benson his No. 1 draft choice. The Bears also plucked a star from free agency, wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad, who caught 93 passes for 1,405 yards and 16 touchdowns last year with the Carolina Panthers. The offense, however, will need help from a putrid defense that ranked dead last in the NFL. Dick Butkus, where are you?
1. Atlanta Falcons
In his first year as coach, Jim Mora guided the Falcons into the playoffs, winning the division with an 11-5 record. But quarterback Michael Vick is the X factor. With 902 rushing yards, Vick's running ability is fearsome, but his passing (2,313 yards, 14 touchdowns, 12 interceptions) is erratic and he was sacked more than any other quarterback. Warrick Dunn rushed for 1,106 yards and nine touchdowns, but wide receiver Peerless Price wasn't exactly priceless with only 45 receptions for 575 yards. Wideouts Michael Jenkins and Roddy White should help Vick's aerial attack. On defense, the Falcons flew from last to 14th and should improve, so expect Atlanta to repeat as division champs.
2. Carolina Panthers
The defending NFC champions saw their Super Bowl dreams go up in smoke following an injury-riddled season. Coach John Fox did a phenomenal job of bringing the Panthers back from a 1-7 start to 7-9, with a hospital list that numbered 14 starters, notably running backs Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster and wide receiver Steve Smith. Quarterback Jake Delhomme (3,886 yards, 29 touchdowns) continues to progress but has to cut down on his interceptions. Wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad, who left for the Chicago Bears, will be missed, meaning wide receiver Keary Colbert needs to step up big. Carolina also picked up a good running back in the draft, Louisville's Eric Shelton, as medical insurance for Davis and Foster.
3. New Orleans Saints
Instead of threatening to leave, owner Tom Benson should first take a good, hard look at his chronic underachieving team. Last year, the Saints were up and down like a drunk on Bourbon Street, starting 4-8 before finishing 8-8, which earned coach Jim Haslett a two-year contract extension. The Saints have a trio of playmakers on offense: quarterback Aaron Brooks (3,810 yards), running back Deuce McAllister (1,074 yards) and wide receiver Joe Horn (94 receptions, 1,399 yards). However, the defense needs overhauling after giving up 405 points—second most in the NFC. The bottom line here is that the Saints will be playing the blues again in the French Quarter.
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Coach Jon Gruden, who looked like William the Conqueror when he won Super Bowl XXXVII three years ago in his first season with the Bucs, has a team that lost its swagger after going 12-20 the last two campaigns. Brian Griese surprised everyone by posting the third-best quarterback rating in the NFC (97.5), completing almost 70 percent of his passes, and wide receiver Michael Clayton set a team rookie record in three categories (80 receptions, 1,193 yards, 7 touchdowns) and will be a star for years to come. So, too, will the Buccaneers' No. 1 draft selection, Auburn running back Carnell "Cadillac" Williams, whose speed and elusiveness will be a welcome addition.
1. Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks were expected to make a strong Super Bowl run in 2004, but they barely won the West with a 9-7 record. The team has talent in running back Shaun Alexander (1,696 yards, 16 touchdowns), quarterback Matt Hasselbeck (3,382 yards) and wide receiver Darrell Jackson (87 receptions, 1,199 yards, 7 touchdowns). Seventh-year coach Mike Holmgren brought in several free agents, including linebacker Jamie Sharper and defensive end Bryce Fisher, to upgrade the defense. Fans hope the newcomers will help the Seahawks make a serious January run; otherwise, Holmgren's future may be in doubt.
2. St. Louis Rams
The simple fact that the Rams beat the division-winning Seahawks three times last season gives them hope. St. Louis became the first 8-8 team to win a playoff game; it dominated the mediocre West with a 5-1 record, but faltered on the road with only two wins in eight games. Quarterback Marc Bulger was efficient (3,964 yards and a 93.7 rating) and wide receiver Torry Holt had a productive season, co-leading the NFC in receptions (94) that produced 1,372 yards. Steven Jackson will replace Marshall Faulk as the featured back. Coach Mike Martz, aware that this could be his last season if he doesn't get deep into the playoffs, grabbed free-agent linebackers Dexter Coakley and Chris Claiborne to stiffen his defense.
3. Arizona Cardinals
Despite having an owner who won't spend money, coach Dennis Green did a creditable job in his first year in the Valley of the Sun. Injuries to a solid receiving corps—Anquan Boldin, Larry Fitzgerald and Bryant Johnson—contributed to a 6-10 season, but there is hope this year if they remain healthy, especially after Green brought in Kurt Warner to jump-start the offense. Of course, there's plenty of talk that Warner has little left after being sacked 39 times in nine games with the Giants. Green made two good draft picks: cornerback Antrel Rolle from the University of Miami and running back J. J. Arrington from California, who led the NCAA in rushing with 2,018 yards and could make the Arizona desert green.
4. San Francisco 49ers
San Francisco head coach Mike Nolan has an enormous challenge ahead of him and is light years away from success. There isn't much talent on this 2-14 team other than tight end Eric Johnson (82 receptions, 825 yards) and linebacker Julian Peterson. Nolan and the 49ers need Utah quarterback Alex Smith, the No. 1 overall selection in the draft, to become their Joe Montana. Otherwise, the 49ers are as bad as it gets in the NFL. v
Danny Sheridan is the sports analyst for USA Today and provides the daily odds on all sporting events.