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.
Tony Dungy, the Bucs' coach, snatched Pro Bowl wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson from the New York Jets and signed two old pros he knew with the Minnesota Vikings, guard Randall McDaniel and center Jeff Christy, to strengthen the offensive line, but his quarterbacks are second-year man Shaun King and journeyman Eric Zeier. The Bucs' defense, anchored by pass-rusher Warren Sapp, is good enough to beat most teams by itself and dominate the NFC Central, but against the better teams in the playoffs, the Bucs' offense will sputter with its inexperienced passers as it did in last January's playoffs.
With a more experienced quarterback, the Bucs would have a chance to be the first team to go to the Super Bowl in its own stadium--Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, the site of Super Bowl XXXV on Jan. 28, 2001. Sorry, but the Redskins will be there as the NFC representative.
In most years, the Vikings and the Dallas Cowboys would be considered Super Bowl contenders, but the Vikings suddenly are depending on a virtual-rookie quarterback, Daunte Culpepper, and the Cowboys, without Sanders and Irvin, have fallen off their high horses.
With a bolstered defense, the Indianapolis Colts will win the AFC East title in a breeze. Coach Jim Mora has the NFL's most explosive offense with quarterback Peyton Manning, running back Edgerrin James and wide receiver Marvin Harrison. Each of the other AFC East teams has a new look.
Without Bruce Smith, running back Thurman Thomas and wide receiver Andre Reed, the Buffalo Bills won't be the same, but in Wade Phillips, at least they have the same coach. Now that Bill Parcells is behind a desk, Al Groh is the Jets' coach for quarterback Vinny Testaverde's return after having missed virtually all last season with a torn Achilles tendon. Bill Belichick, who had been the Jets' defensive guru, is the Patriots coach and Dave Wannstedt is the Dolphins' coach with a new quarterback, Jay Fiedler, who will have people wondering if Dan Marino wouldn't still be better.
In the AFC Central, the Tennessee Titans will dethrone the Jacksonville Jaguars for the divisional title. Although the Jaguars have the better passer, Mark Brunell, and a better defense, the Titans have the Jaguars' number; they beat the Jags twice last season and again in the AFC title game. The Titans also have the NFL's best workhorse running back, Eddie George, and its most spectacular sacker, Jevon Kearse.
In the AFC West, which the Seattle Seahawks won almost by default last season in Mike Holmgren's first year as their coach, the Denver Broncos will return to first place now that running back Terrell Davis has recovered from knee surgery. Despite the free-agent departure of tight end Shannon Sharpe to the Baltimore Ravens, Brian Griese will emerge as a quality quarterback under the tutelage of Mike Shanahan, now the only NFL head coach to have earned a Super Bowl ring as the head coach of his current team. (George Seifert, now with the Carolina Panthers, won two with the San Francisco 49ers; Holmgren won one with the Green Bay Packers.)
In the playoffs, the Colts will emerge as the AFC ambassador to Super Bowl XXXV, and when they outscore the Redskins, 35-27, they'll suddenly be the new names that everybody in the neighborhood is talking about. Hopefully, without any police cars around.
Pulitzer Prize winner Dave Anderson is a sportswriter for The New York Times.
DAVE ANDERSON'S FOOTBALL PICKS
East Indianapolis NY Jets Buffalo New England Miami
Central Tennessee Jacksonville Baltimore Pittsburgh Cleveland Cincinnati
West Denver Oakland Seattle Kansas City San Diego
East Washington Dallas NY Giants Arizona Philadelphia
Central Tampa Bay Green Bay Minnesota Chicago Detroit
West St. Louis Carolina Atlanta San Francisco New Orleans
Super Bowl XXXV: Indianapolis Colts 35, Washington Redskins 27