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Ready for some football? Don Banks SI Article


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Ready for some football?


As training camps loom, here are 10 story lines to watch

Posted: Tuesday July 08, 2003 4:56 PM

At this time of year, once the Independence Day smoke clears, you can see the new NFL season looming on the horizon. In July, as funny as it always sounds, it's fireworks followed by football.

In another 10 days, Green Bay and Tampa Bay will set up sweaty training camps to the north and south. Ten days after that, everybody, veterans and rookies alike, will be back at work, slogging through those first few stages of the long 2003 grind.

As usual, there are plenty of topics of interest. Much to debate and discuss on the road to Houston and Super Bowl XXXVIII. The NFL world seems to roll over every offseason these days, and this year was no exception. True, we don't have expansion, realignment and a bevy of new awkwardly named stadiums to get acquainted with this year, but we do have:

The peculiar sight of Emmitt Smith wearing Cardinal red rather than a silver-lined star. Boston's in San Diego and Seau isn't. Tampa Bay can play defense, but can the Bucs defend? Soldier Field got bumped up a rank or two, but not everybody's crazy about the promotion. Marvin Lewis has landed in the graveyard of coaches, but looks like he has a resurrection in mind for Cincinnati.

The Tuna is back on the hook, but for Act IV of his never-ending saga he's in land-locked Dallas, with a team that has 5-11 tattooed on its chest. Priest Holmes will be trotting out the most scrutinized hip since Bo Jackson. Willis McGahee on one leg still gives Buffalo two choices in the backfield. The man they call "Mooch" is in need of a miracle in going home to Motown. And another Redskins spring spending spree could mean patience is again the first casualty in Washington.

And that's just skimming the surface. As the NFL's training camps beckon, here are the 10 story lines we can't wait to see develop:

1. Bill and Jerry's excellent adventure: It's not like there's tremendous pressure on Bill Parcells to win right away in Dallas. After all, Parcells' first three NFL teams averaged only 5.7 wins in his first year on the job, which is still twice as successful as they were the previous season (2.3 wins). So, if he keeps that ratio in order, the Cowboys win 11 games and return to the playoffs. Right?

Then again, at 5-11 last year, the Cowboys are the biggest winner the Tuna has ever inherited. Think about that. The Giants, Patriots and Jets respectively won four, two and one game the year before Parcells took over. My gut tells me that Parcells and Dallas owner Jerry Jones do their share of commiserating this season, and lay the groundwork for year two, which has always been a playoff run on the Parcells' track record.

2. You don't get to be a Saint unless you die in the end: Maybe the Saints should lobby the NFL for a return to the 12-game schedule. In 2001, they were 7-5 and then lost their last four, getting outscored 160-52. Last season, they were 9-4, then dropped three in a row to last-place teams. Bye-bye playoffs on both counts. That's a seven-game, two-year losing streak when you can least afford it. Ouch.

Have the Saints cured their late-season swoon-itis? We won't know that for a while, will we? But New Orleans is hoping that by upgrading its defensive speed with safety Tebucky Jones and cornerback Ashley Ambrose, and getting rid of the likes of veterans Kyle Turley, Sammy Knight and Norman Hand, December won't be so cold and cruel.

3. Couch to take a seat in Cleveland? There are quarterback situations, quarterback competitions, and quarterback controversies. Cleveland has the third and most serious of these conditions, with a capital C. Put them on truth serum, and almost everybody in the Browns organization -- players, coaches and executives alike -- believe they're a better team with Kelly Holcomb at the helm. Last year's surprise playoff run confirmed that.

But Cleveland head coach Butch Davis is going to give fifth-year incumbent Tim Couch one last chance to prove them all wrong. Why? Because life is always easier for all concerned when the team's franchise quarterback plays like a franchise quarterback. On the surface, it's a wide-open race. But in reality, it feels like Couch already has lost this battle.

4. The Snake heads for the mountains: Two guys who wish it was still 1998 -- Mike Shanahan and Jake Plummer -- have hooked up in Denver this year. If they can turn the clock back five years, they're going to be tough to beat. But you can't say that about either one of them over the course of the past four seasons. The Broncos are just 34-30 with one playoff berth and no postseason wins since their back-to-back Super Bowl championships.

As for Plummer, getting out of Arizona has proven to be a smart career move for others recently, and it may well work out for him, too. It's just that those Elway shadows are growing larger all the time in the Rockies. Nine and seven will get you feted in Arizona. It gets you run out of town in Denver. Isn't that right, Brian Griese?

5. Some would call it Death Valley: I'm prepared for the reality that it's going to be odd and jarring the first time I see Emmitt Smith in a Cardinals uniform at training camp. But at least this much will seem familiar: By now, Smith knows what it feels like to be surrounded by 5-11 talent on a team going nowhere. All Smith has to do is continue in his role of aging icon playing for pride.

Everybody realizes Smith is in Arizona partly to sell tickets, which is fine, provided the Cardinals don't make him play wearing a sandwich board and an 800 number. It's just that nothing sells tickets like a winning team, and that's where Arizona is perpetually understaffed on the marketing front. Let the victories outnumber the losses in the Valley of the Sun, and Smith's acquisition will represent more than the fading light of a once-bright star.

6. Still shopping for a pennant: Individually, many of the Jets-skins moves made sense. Cumulatively, they'd make me nervous if I was a Washington partisan. Always aggressive owner Daniel Snyder pulled off the biggest makeover in the NFC East since Jerry Jones splurged on a face lift. It's just that Snyder's track record on big, bold new approaches isn't all that good. The only year Snyder hasn't painted with broad strokes was 1999, which also marks the team's most recent playoff appearance.

Coincidence? Time will tell. To be sure, Snyder has given second-year head coach Steve Spurrier more weapons on offense. Namely all those ex-New Yorkers. But Spurrier still has to rely on a second-year quarterback to perform, and it is Patrick Ramsey's showing more than anything that will determine just how savvy Snyder looks at season's end.

7. Taking baby steps in Cincy: People said Marvin Lewis was crazy to take the Bengals coaching job. And they were right. Crazy like a fox. Very early on in the process, Lewis grasped something that very few others did. In Cincinnati, there's nowhere to go but up. The Bengals only won two games last year? He can practically guarantee they'll double that. And then maybe do it again next year. By then, he'll have a whole boatload of believers and a city conforming to his timetable, rather than the other way around.

Think he was going to get that kind of honeymoon in Tampa Bay? Lewis' biggest concern this year is to not win too much. That's right. Too much. Don't go jacking up expectations too high with a short-sighted 8-8 finish, Marvin. It could cost you next year. Go slow. Take your time. They'll be patient. In Cincinnati, they've already waited forever. 8. Front and center in Oakland: Question: Is Barret Robbins eligible for Comeback Player of the Year in 2003? I mean, who has a longer road to travel this season than the Raiders' Pro Bowl center, whose return from Super Bowl infamy and an illness that few really understand will be played out under a microscope?

Fans, teammates, and the media know what to say, write or do when it comes to a player battling an ACL injury or a bum shoulder. But Robbins is rather alone in his own personal hell this preseason, as he tries to regain what was lost last January. He'll need some help and the acceptance of his team to come all the way back. Here's hoping that he makes the trip.

9. A son-rise or sunset for Miami? It's one thing when a bunch of media types sit down and figure out which coaches will ply their trade this season from the time-exalted position known as the hot seat. It's quite another when a team's owner announces that a repeat of last year's failure won't cut it this time around. That's pretty much what Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga informed head coach Dave Wannstedt of a few months back. All of which is going to put the sizzle into this season in South Florida.

Wannstedt has company on that plank he's walking. Quarterback Jay Fiedler has a new backup in Brian Griese, and he's not on board just to give everyone a nice warm fuzzy reminder of the team's glory days. The Dolphins loaded up on veterans this offseason, believing they're the key to avoiding the team's history of late-season collapses. Wannstedt better hope that tact works. Otherwise he could be history himself.

10. It's never boring in St. Louis: You can't possibly talk juicy story lines without talking Rams, because no one has as many unanswered questions as those always entertaining but streaky gents with the horns on their helmets. Is Kurt Warner whole, healthy and ready to return to 1999-2001 form, or will he and his puzzling right hand give way to right-hand man Marc Bulger at some point this season? Is Marshall Faulk on the downward side of his Hall of Fame career, or will his healed wheels allow him to return with a vengeance?

Is the Rams' new offensive line as good as it looks, or will the Orlando Pace contract quagmire bog things down? And which defense is for real? The 2001 Lovie Smith-led version that looked young, fast and ready to grow together, or the 2002 model that never really found its stride? Come to think of it, head coach Mike Martz is always good for a few unexpected story lines himself. On that front, Martz and his Rams never disappoint.

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what's funny here is that there seems to be a lot more cynicism about Ramsey elevating in his second season than about other younger qbs like Carr, Harrington and even guys like Couch that have been middling at best having good 2003 seasons :laugh:

Ramsey is now surrounded with much better talent on offense than these other qbs if you include OL as well as WR, RB.

As such he can play within himself and not have to 'save the day' trying to be the 'end all' for the team on the field.

With the Redskins line, either Watson, Betts or Canidate will get good yardage. Perhaps not enough to put them into pro bowl territory, but enough for teams to have to honor the run game.

and there aren't too many teams starting off the year with two 1,000 yard receivers from 2002 :)

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Am I the only one who doesn't see the "drastic" changes these pundits claim. We have 8 returning starters on offense, (counting the RB position) and the 3 changes we made have been drastic upgrades. On the other side of the ball we have 9 returning starters with a downgrade at DT and an upgrade at safety. Also, we seem to have depth at nearly every position. We had weaknesses from last season, upgraded these positions and this is supposed to cause concern? All I know is that we have been average the last 3 years and have a lot of founded optimism for this coming year.

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I like his line about "Snyder hasn't had a good track record with big bold moves..."

Assuming that means 2000..

If you had a race, and a guy showed up one day in a very expensive go-cart, you'd laugh. If he came back a few days later in a Ferrari, i wonder how his old go-cart even registers in your mind when you're coming up to the starting line.

I'd say Don Banks doesn't have a very good track record for writing words that make sense.


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let's see.......John Clayton predicted 10-6 and a playoff berth for the Cowboys last year. Dan Pompeii thought the Lions would be a Super Bowl contender back in 2001. And Peter King thought Danny Wuerffel would throw for 3,700 yards in 2002 when reunited with Spurrier in Washington :)

seems the columnists and reporters around the NFL know even less about the game than my 3 year old nephew :laugh:

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