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Original Issue

Inside The NFL

Clear Sailing
A concussion finally behind him, the Rams' Kurt Warner wants to
get back to business

Last Friday morning, as a bright sun burned the dew off the Fox
Run Golf Club in Eureka, Mo., Rams quarterback Kurt Warner
prepared to tee off in a celebrity golf tournament--without
wearing sunglasses. That was news. Good news.

Until April, when his sensitivity to bright light finally
disappeared, Warner had suffered from the effects of
postconcussion syndrome, stemming from a hit in St. Louis's Dec.
24 regular-season finale, against the Saints. However, unlike
Steve Young and Troy Aikman, quarterbacks who retired in part
because each had endured a series of concussions, Warner had
suffered only this one concussion in five years. (His only other
was the result of a hit in an Arena League game.) "Three or 3
1/2 months go by, and you're thinking, This should be over by
now," Warner says of his latest concussion. "But now I feel no
effect. I'm not going to worry about one concussion."

The Rams will play this year without the security blanket they
had in backup Trent Green, who was traded to the Chiefs in April.
Warner's backups are Joe Germaine, who in his two seasons has
thrown 16 passes, and 33-year-old journeyman Paul Justin, who was
active for only five games last year. Still, the Rams gambled
that a young defensive tackle--Damione Lewis from Miami, whom they
took with the No. 12 pick acquired from K.C.--would be more
valuable than a backup with Green's experience. "I'll miss
Trent," says Warner, who sat out five games last year with a
broken pinkie. "He was a good sounding board for me, but it was a
good deal for him and good for us."

Warner's margin of touchdowns to interceptions, a startling plus
28 in his MVP season of 1999, dipped to plus 3 last year, and he
is determined to overcome defenses that played him smarter and
pressured him more in 2000 than they did the previous year. He
hopes to succeed with a short and intermediate passing game that
will be improved by having running back Marshall Faulk and tight
end Ernie Conwell at full strength. (Knee injuries hampered both
last year.)

Over the last two years Warner has completed 66.2% of his passes.
By comparison Joe Montana, in his most accurate back-to-back
seasons, completed 65.3% of his throws. Healthy, Warner could
develop into an alltime great too. That's why Rams fans were
happy that he was playing golf with a clear head last week.

Shanahan's New Recipe
Broncos Mix Things Up

Any prosperous executive will tell you that one key to success is
adapting to change. Maybe that's why the Broncos have seldom
fallen out of contention under coach Mike Shanahan, who has used
free agency and the salary cap to his benefit since taking over
in 1995. The NFL doesn't chart such things, but Denver's signing
of 27 free agents this off-season must be a record.

"Every year is so full of change," Shanahan says. "I enjoy trying
to put a competitive roster together. This year, compared to the
past several, there's a buyer's market. For a few years salaries
went crazy, and now some teams can't spend in free agency because
they were so far over the cap. We've been able to get quality at
a discount."

Counted among the Broncos' signings are four unrestricted free
agents who were on their roster last year. Denver has also
re-upped with four of its restricted free agents, including
quarterback Brian Griese. After winning the NFL
passing-efficiency title last season, Griese got a six-year,
$39.6 million contract. For a backup Denver brought in Steve
Beuerlein, who over the past two years, with the Panthers, threw
for more yards than either Brett Favre or Drew Bledsoe did.
Shanahan got Beuerlein for a Wal-Mart price of $4 million over
four years.

Still, most of the checks Shanahan has written have gone to shore
up the defense. The biggest payout went to Titans cornerback
Denard Walker (six years, $26 million), who will be counted on to
strengthen a secondary that surrendered 26 touchdown passes last
year. Tyrone Poole, formerly of the Colts, was signed to a
one-year deal for the NFL veteran minimum of $477,000 and should
be a solid nickelback. Defensive tackle Chester McGlockton, late
of the Chiefs, will get a chance to shed his underachiever label.
The Cowboys thought 32-year-old defensive tackle Leon Lett was
done, but Shanahan doesn't think so. "He hasn't missed an
off-season workout in our program," says the coach.

Because many of the free agents took cap-friendly deals, Denver
won't be strapped if those veterans don't pan out. "When we won
our Super Bowls," Shanahan says, "we were near the top of the
league in offense and defense. Last year only one team [Seattle]
allowed more yards per play than we did. You can't win playing
like that. So we had to address our defense. These guys can play,
but every year is new. You have to build chemistry. You have to
define roles. We'll see if we've done enough."

Ray Lewis Unplugged
Winning a Title Is Not Enough

During a break from a recent NFL Films shoot with two Hall of
Famers, former Bears linebacker Mike Singletary and former
Steelers cornerback Mel Blount, Super Bowl MVP Ray Lewis allowed
himself to be a fan for a minute. Lewis leaned over to Singletary
and said in a low voice, "I watched you all the time. I wanted to
play like you!"

Where he ultimately ranks among the great middle linebackers has
become vitally important to the Ravens' Lewis. "I have so much
admiration for the great ones who came before me--Dick Butkus,
Mike Singletary, Ray Nitschke," he says. "But when I finish
playing, I want to be known as the greatest middle linebacker of
all time. That, plus winning, is driving me."

So much of Lewis's greatness last season--he was a consensus
All-Pro, he returned an interception 50 yards for a touchdown to
clinch a playoff win at Tennessee, he suffocated the Giants'
offense in the Super Bowl--was overshadowed by the double-murder
charges he faced in early 2000. (The charges were later dropped.)
He wants to make headlines only with his play next fall, so he
has spent the off-season shuttling between his home in Baltimore
and Atlanta, where he works out with Baltimore tight end Shannon

"I'm probably peaking too soon in my conditioning," says Lewis,
"but I'm driving myself to be a little bit better at every aspect
of my game."

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Warner was coming off an MVP season, but his numbers dropped during an injury-plagued 2000.

COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER The Broncos didn't have to pay much for Poole, who should play a prominent role as a nickelback.


The NFL is on the hottest streak of commissioner Paul
Tagliabue's 12-year reign. In the past month the league has
realigned without dissent, won a court battle with Al Davis and
extended the labor agreement three more years, through 2007....

Smart move by new Browns coach Butch Davis, spending a third of
each minicamp practice this spring on special teams play. He
knows his offense and defense aren't good enough yet to carry
the team to victory in the tough AFC Central, so he hopes to
gain an edge with his kicking and return units....

The Rams are among several teams waiting for 33-year-old
free-agent defensive tackle Cortez Kennedy to lower his demand
for a $1 million salary next season to about half that....

The Lions are disappointed they did not land Jerry Rice, who
signed with the Raiders. Under 49ers offensive coordinator Marty
Mornhinweg, Rice caught 75 passes last year. Now Mornhinweg is
the coach in Detroit, but Rice didn't want to play on artificial
turf or uproot his family from the Bay Area. Detroit hopes
Herman Moore, who recently accepted a $1.8 million pay cut, to
$1.5 million, can rebound after two subpar seasons....

Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe, who has completed 60% of his
passes in only one of his eight pro seasons, is concentrating on
hitting his receivers in stride during off-season workouts. "I
need to be more accurate, putting the ball on the right side of
the receiver so he's running upfield when he catches it,"
Bledsoe said at minicamp last week.