TEN PRESSING ISSUES IN WHAT WILL BE A BIZARRE PRESEASON
1. What will the free-agency/training-camp/rookie-indoctrination mayhem really be like?
Pretend for a minute that you're Texans coach Gary Kubiak. On the third day of camp you take a half hour out of your morning—which you should be devoting to a play-installation meeting with your offense—to visit with Bengals restricted free-agent cornerback Johnathan Joseph. During practice one of your own free agents, strong safety Bernard Pollard, stops by, and you take 15 minutes to tell him how much you'd like him to stick around. That night you welcome two holdout rookies for evening meetings. After 10 p.m. you have four phone calls with other free agents. For teams expecting to be heavily involved in the free market—Jacksonville, Carolina—coaches and G.M.'s will have the oddest camp they've ever experienced.
2. Which team will be hurt the least by having no off-season?
New England. The best coach with the best quarterback adjusting on the fly? The Pats, 14--2 last year, will take their chances, thanks.
3. Whither James Harrison?
It will be a surprise if the Steelers don't call Harrison (right) on the carpet for talking about commissioner Roger Goodell the way Sam Kinison talked at a roast, only worse. (In the August issue of Men's Journal, Harrison referred to Goodell as, among other things, a "devil.") The team probably doesn't have the moxie to suspend Harrison (uh, the Steelers open against the hated Ravens), but demanding a public apology sounds about right.
4. And Carson Palmer?
In 1984, Cincinnati first-round pick Ricky Hunley didn't like his contract offer and ripped ownership to shreds. For weeks. He didn't get his way, held out until October and was eventually traded. The Bengals, owned now as then by the Brown family, have never kowtowed to unhappy players. Now comes Palmer, the quarterback, who is fed up with the Double A operation of the team and says he'll retire unless he's traded. Mark my words: Palmer is going nowhere this summer. There's a slight chance he could be moved at the trading deadline. But not before. And probably not even then. Chances Palmer plays anywhere but Cincinnati this year? Ten percent.
5. One more: Charles Woodson?
"Well, I saw him swinging a golf club recently, so I guess his shoulder's O.K.," Green Bay linebacker Clay Matthews said last week. Woodson (left), the Packers' defensive leader, had a heartbreaking Super Bowl, fracturing his clavicle just before halftime. Woodson is 34 and seems determined to resume his role as defensive cornerstone.
6. WWJD? (What Will Jerry Do?)
It had to burn Cowboys owner Jerry Jones that two storied franchises played in his stadium in the Super Bowl last February—and neither was his. Jones could reprise the good ol' days and overpay for a great free-agent corner (see "Sanders, Deion") to get the spotlight back. There are those around the league who think free agent Nnamdi Asomugha will take his talents to South Fork. Stay tuned.
7. Which coach is under the most pressure?
New Cincinnati offensive coordinator Jay Gruden has never been an NFL coordinator before, and he has to get an undersized rookie, second-round pick Andy Dalton of TCU, ready to start at quarterback in six weeks. Welcome to the big leagues.
8. Is Brett Favre coming back?
Please, God, no. Highly doubtful, I'm told. But since when has that stopped the torrent of speculation?
9. Can Peyton Manning throw?
It's been two months since his second neck surgery in a year and a half. He's unsigned. (He can't do a thing until he inks a deal to become the highest-paid player in history, and he's already turned down $25 million a year.) I don't think the Colts are worried about the 35-year-old's health—yet—but it's not the ideal way for a Super Bowl contender to start the summer.
10. What's the best advice for football traditionalists?
This comes from one playoff coach in the wake of the CBA megadeal: "Be patient. Don't cut some rookie you like because he keeps making mental mistakes. What did you expect? He never played pro football before, and he's got to learn everything in a month."
JOHN TLUMACKI/BOSTON GLOBE/LANDOV (BRADY)
Practice? Who needs it? Not Brady and the Pats, who are in the best shape of any team as camps open.
AL TIELEMANS (HARRISON)
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JOHN BIEVER (WOODSON, FAVRE JERSEY)
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