Hot issues facing NFC teams as training camp opens
What happens with the Green Bay zoo?
Brett Favre has sure made a mess of things, huh? First he retires, then he wants back in. The Packers say, thanks, but we like Aaron Rodgers. The feud between Favre and GM Ted Thompson has been simmering for a while; now it’s boiling over and everyone looks bad – Favre for flip-flopping, Thompson for coldly, and curiously, telling a legend to take a hike. Given Rodgers’ lack of experience and the way he plummeted in the 2005 draft, you wonder why Green Bay is so fired up to hand him the reins. It’s not as if Favre is washed up. Check out his 2007 stats – 28 TDs (his most since 2004), 15 INTs (fewest since 2001), 4,155 yards (most since 1998), a 95.7 rating (highest since 1996) and a career-high completion percentage of 66.5. All while leading the Pack to a 13-3 record and a spot in the NFC final. Without Favre, the Pack’s huge edge at quarterback over the rest of the NFC North evaporates.
Will the Pacman-Cowboys marriage last?
Speaking of soap operas, Dallas is always good for a slew of story lines. One of the biggest this summer will center on CB Adam Jones, who has dropped the “Pacman” nickname in order to try to make a break with his arrest-littered past. The former Titan was suspended for all of last season and still has to be reinstated by commissioner Roger Goodell. The Cowboys would love to have him boost their return game and add depth to a secondary that features Terrence Newman, Anthony Henry and rookie Mike Jenkins. Can Jones stay out of trouble? Can ex-Dolphins LB/icon Zach Thomas (concussions) stay healthy? Can WR Terrell Owens keep his sanity? Can head coach Wade Phillips keep his job? He’ll need a couple of playoff wins ... and the Cowboys haven’t had even one of those since the wild-card round following the 1996 season.
Will the Giants come back to Earth?
The 2007 G-men weren’t a great team. Like the 2001 Patriots they were a good club that got on a terrific postseason roll. The 2002 Pats couldn’t keep the magic going and missed the playoffs. To avoid a similar fate, the Giants will have to hope that the light bulb that went over QB Eli Manning’s head in the playoffs (6 TDs, 1 INT, 95.7 rating, up from 23/20/74.0 in the regular season) remains on. And they’ll be counting on DE Justin Tuck to pick up the slack (and sacks) for retired Michael Strahan. Tuck, who had 10 sacks in a reserve role last year, could have been Super Bowl MVP for the way he harassed Tom Brady. Making him a starter reduces the Giants’ depth. One solution – let Matthias Kiwanuka, who converted to OLB last season, take some snaps at end. New York avoided one potential distraction Monday by trading disgruntled TE Jeremy Shockey to the Saints.
What will Mike Holmgren’s swan song be like?
In an odd, but not unique, arrangement, the Seahawks already know whom their next head coach will be. It’s ex-Falcons boss Jim Mora, Seattle’s defensive backs coach, who will take over the reins in 2009 when Holmgren retires. (The Colts are using a similar approach, with Jim Caldwell on deck to replace Tony Dungy.) Holmgren is 86-68 in nine seasons with the Seahawks and his team will be favored to capture its fifth straight West division crown in his farewell. Dumping RB Shaun Alexander in favor of ex-Cowboys star Julius Jones will help, as will importing O-line coach Mike Scolari and his zone-blocking scheme from Kansas City. Mora’s short-term task: Get his DBs to play as well as they did in 2007, when Seattle allowed an NFL-low 15 TD passes.
Can Jared Allen and Bernard Berrian buy Tarvaris Jackson some time?
Jackson is the Vikings’ third-year QB, who was bad last season – the league’s 28th-rated passer he had nine TDs and 12 INTs. Hence, the Favre speculation/tampering charges. While Minnesota waits for Jackson to develop, it shored up some weaknesses in the offseason by trading for Allen, who led the NFL with 15.5 sacks last year as a Chiefs defensive end, and signing Berrian, a deep-threat receiver for the Bears. Allen comes with baggage (two DUIs with KC), but Minnesota needs to get its 32nd-ranked pass defense in line with its top-ranked run D. Berrian is a downfield presence who should aid Jackson and, hopefully, provide some breathing room near the line of scrimmage for RB Adrian Peterson, a 1,341-yard sensation as a rookie last season.
Who quarterbacks the Cardinals?
Does second-year coach Ken Whisenhunt usher in the Matt Leinart Era for good or does he ask 38-year-old Kurt Warner to visit the Fountain of Youth again? While Leinart, the hard-partying 2006 first-round pick, was ineffective last season (2 TDs in five games), Warner was a revelation with 27 touchdowns, equaling his output for the previous five seasons. He threw 21 TDs over the final eight games as Arizona closed on a 5-3 run for its first non-losing season (8-8) since 1998 and only its third since 1985. With that kind of history, can the Cards afford to take a step back with Leinart? Whoever gets the gig will benefit from throwing to WRs Larry Fitzgerald (100 catches, 1,409 yards, 10 TDs) and Anquan Boldin (71-853, nine TDs).
Can the Saints stop the pass?
Would you pay $12 million over four years for Randall Gay? You might if you were the Saints, who were desperate to stop the bleeding after surrendering 32 TD passes in 2007, tied for the worst mark in the NFL. New Orleans wasn’t a great defensive club during its breakout ’06 season, and it needed to get sturdier to build upon that NFC championship game appearance. Instead, the Saints regressed as free agent CB Jason David proved to be a bust. The Drew Brees-led passing game is top notch, and getting RB Deuce McAllister back from a torn ACL should help balance the offense. It will be up to Gay (the former Patriot), LB Jonathan Vilma (obtained in a trade with the Jets), and rookie DT Sedrick Ellis (a first-round pick) to beef up the defense.
Can Mike Martz fix the 49ers’ offense?
Last year, with Martz coordinating the Lions’ attack, QB Jon Kitna tied for the league lead in INTs (20) and was sacked an NFL-high 51 times. So the bloom is off Martz’s rose just a little. Maybe that makes him a perfect fit for the Niners, who were supposed to own the West last season but crashed to a 5-11 record amid a wasteland offense that ranked last in points and yards. Enter Martz, San Fran’s fourth OC in as many years. The Niners’ biggest problem is quarterback, where former No. 1 overall pick Alex Smith regressed so much last season in Year 3 that he finds himself battling former rookie free agent Shaun Hill for the starting job. Martz does have some intriguing pieces – tight end Vernon Davis, running backs Frank Gore and DeShaun Foster, and new receivers Isaac Bruce and Bryant Johnson.
Can Jake Delhomme pick up where he left off?
The Panthers QB got off to a sizzling start last season (8 TDs, 1 INT) before suffering a season-ending elbow injury in Week 3. Carolina was a disaster thereafter, running through three QBs – David Carr, Vinny Testaverde and Matt Moore – who combined for 11 TDs and 16 picks en route to a 7-9 finish. Delhomme had Tommy John ligament-replacement surgery in October and was on the field by May. His welcome-back gift basket included: new receivers D.J. Hackett (the ex-Seahawk) and former Panthers star Muhsin Muhammad; highly touted running back Jonathan Stewart, a first-round pick out of Oregon; and a completely revamped offensive line. Delhomme, 33, has been solid as a starter, throwing 97 TDs and 59 INTs in four-plus seasons. If he’s all healed up, Carolina could snatch the South crown.
Can Jim Zorn bring out the best in Jason Campbell?
Poor Todd Collins. The former Walpole High star, who lives in Quincy in the offseason, rescued the Redskins down the stretch last season, subbing for an injured Campbell (dislocated kneecap) and quarterbacking Washington to 4-0 finish to the regular season and a stunning playoff berth. His reward – a ticket back to the No. 2 job. No surprise since the Redskins are rightfully high on Campbell, who has 22 TDs and 17 TDs in 20 career starts. Jim Zorn, Joe Gibbs’ successor as head coach, was a fine QB himself with the Seahawks and tutored Matt Hasselbeck for the last seven seasons in Seattle. He figures to be a good mentor for Campbell, who will be counting on rookie receivers Devin Thomas and Malcolm Kelly. Getting DE Jason Taylor from the Dolphins helps the defense.
Eric McHugh may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.