Siz­ing up NFL at sea­son’s start

Ques­tions and an­swers about the league as pre­sea­son be­gins:

Austin American-Statesman - - SPORTS BRIEFING - PauL DO­mOw­ITch

The clock con­tin­ues to tick on the NFL’s col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ment, which ex­pires in March. What are the chances of the play­ers and own­ers strik­ing a new deal in the next few months?

About the same as Mel Gib­son be­ing named Man of the Year by the NAACP. Ne­go­ti­a­tions are pro­ceed­ing at a snail’s pace, and I don’t re­ally think we’re go­ing to see any­thing done un­til Fe­bru­ary. Wouldn’t even be sur­prised to see it drag into the first cou­ple of weeks of March.

What was the best thing the league did in the off­sea­son?

I’d love to tell you it was can­ning Rich Eisen and Jamie Dukes from the NFL Net­work, but un­for­tu­nately, they’re still there.

Roger Good­ell gets a big thumbs-up from me for slap­ping Ben Roeth­lis­berger with a six-game sus­pen­sion even if the au­thor­i­ties in Ge­or­gia didn’t see fit to pros­e­cute him for his col­lege-bar bath­room es­capades. But Good­ell and the league get my high­est mark for their smart de­ci­sion to back­load the sched­ule with di­vi­sion games this sea­son. In the last three weeks of the sea­son, there will be 28 di­vi­sion matchups, in­clud­ing all 16 of the games in Week 17.

What ef­fect will Roeth­lis­berger’s sus­pen­sion have on the Steel­ers’ play­off hopes?

Prob­a­bly not as much as the de­par­ture of wide re­ceiver San­to­nio Holmes and the Achilles’ ten­don in­juries to right tackle Wil­lie Colon and wide­out Li­mas Sweed.

For starters, if Roeth­lis­berger can be­have for a few months, Good­ell likely will re­duce his six-game sus­pen­sion to four games. The Steel­ers play just one di­vi­sion game in the first month of the sea­son — against Bal­ti­more — and that will be at Heinz Field. They’ll rely heav­ily on their de­fense and the run­ning of Rashard Men­den­hall in Roeth­lis­berger’s ab­sence. If Den­nis Dixon, By­ron Leftwich or Char­lie Batch can keep mis­takes to a min­i­mum, the Steel­ers will be no worse than 2-2, and prob­a­bly 3-1, when Roeth­lis­berger gets back.

Can Mike Holm­gren find hap­pi­ness and con­tent­ment as the pres­i­dent of the Cleve­land Browns?

Un­likely. The Wal­rus is a hands-on guy. When he hired Tom Heck­ert as gen­eral man­ager, he said Heck­ert would have fi­nal say on all per­son­nel mat­ters. But he has spent much of the off­sea­son look­ing over Heck­ert’s shoul­der, and the rest sit­ting in his lap. Most peo­ple around the league think he’ll fire Eric Mangini af­ter the sea­son and take over as the head coach, which is the job he’s most qual­i­fied for.

Does LaDainian Tom­lin­son have enough gas left in his 31-year-old tank to help the Jets?

Yeah, as long as they use him prop­erly. He no longer can be a work­horse run­ning back, but still can be ef­fec­tive as a 12-touch-a-game guy. The Jets need Shonn Greene to fill the 300-carry void left by Thomas Jones and then pick their spots with Tom­lin­son. If they don’t overuse him, he’ll be a nice ad­di­tion.

Can the Saints re­peat as Su­per Bowl champs?

When you have a score-at-will of­fense like they have, it’s cer­tainly doable. But they can’t ex­pect their de­fense to force 39 turnovers and score eight touch­downs again. Those take­aways man­aged to off­set the fact that they fin­ished 26th against the pass and 21st against the run and al­lowed 23 or more points in eight of their last 12 reg­u­lar-sea­son games. They did lit­tle in the off­sea­son to up­grade their de­fense.

Who’s your sleeper team this sea­son?

The Tex­ans. Matt Schaub is the best quar­ter­back no­body’s talk­ing about. He led the league in pass­ing yards and fin­ished fourth in com­ple­tion per­cent­age and fifth in yards per at­tempt last sea­son. An­dre John­son is the league’s best wide­out (216 catches, 3,144 yards and 17 touch- downs over the last two sea­sons). They’ve got one of the league’s best de­fen­sive front sevens.

Just two prob­lems: They’ve got the tough­est sched­ule in the league, and they’re in the same di­vi­sion as the Colts.

Which teams could be headed for the biggest fall?

The Pa­tri­ots and the Car­di­nals are my two prime can­di­dates. The Pa­tri­ots won the AFC East with a 10-6 record last year but got drubbed by the Ravens in the first round of the play­offs and are in the process of re­tool­ing a de­fense that wasn’t very good at pres­sur­ing quar­ter­backs last sea­son (31 sacks).

The Car­di­nals are hop­ing Matt Leinart can re­place Kurt Warner, but that’s far from a sure thing. They also traded away wide re­ceiver An­quan Boldin and lost two of their best de­fen­sive play­ers, linebacker Kar­los Dansby and safety An­trel Rolle, in free agency. Don’t be sur­prised to see the 49ers beat them out in the NFC.

Are there go­ing to be more first-round hold­outs than usual this year?

I don’t think there will be many seeyou-in-Septem­ber type hold­outs, but I think there could be a few more firstrounders who miss the first week or two of train­ing camp. With this likely be­ing the fi­nal year be­fore the im­ple­men­ta­tion of a rookie wage scale, the agents for firstrounders are go­ing to want to squeeze ev­ery dime they can out of the own­ers.

Will Sam Brad­ford be the Rams’ sea­sonopen­ing start­ing quar­ter­back?

I highly doubt it. While the Rams prob­a­bly are go­ing to end up giv­ing Brad­ford more than $45 mil­lion in guar­an­teed money, they’d be crazy to throw a quar­ter­back with a his­tory of shoul­der in­juries out there in Week 1 be­hind a line that fin­ished 25th in the league in sacks per pass play last year. There is no rea­son to rush him. He’s a po­ten­tial fran­chise quar­ter­back. But he played in a spread of­fense at Ok­la­homa and has an aw­ful lot to learn about the pro game. Rams

coach Steve Spag­n­uolo knows that bet­ter than any­one. He likely will open the sea­son with A.J. Fee­ley as his starter and play it by ear as far as when he thinks Brad­ford is ready.

What rook­ies do you think will have the biggest first-year im­pact?

De­fen­sively, Lions de­fen­sive tackle Ndamukong Suh (sec­ond over­all pick) and Raiders linebacker Rolando McClain (eighth) are go­ing to have big years. Of­fen­sively, I think the Bills hit pay­dirt with run­ning back C.J. Spiller (ninth). He’s a Brian West­brook clone who will help the Bills as a run­ner, re­ceiver and re­turn man. Might end up with 1,500 yards from scrim­mage as a rookie.

Which coaches are on the hot seat?

You can start with the Bears’ Lovie Smith. His team hasn’t gone to the play­offs since they made it to the Su­per Bowl in Fe­bru­ary 2007. This is most def­i­nitely a make-or-break year for him, es­pe­cially with the ad­di­tions of of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Mike Martz and free agent de­fen­sive end Julius Pep­pers. The Bears should be bet­ter than last year, when they fin­ished 7-9. But they’re still not as tal­ented as ei­ther the Vik­ings or the Pack­ers. So Smith prob­a­bly is in a no-win sit­u­a­tion.

Some oth­ers who need big years: the Raiders’ Tom Cable, the Jaguars’ Jack Del Rio and the Pan­thers’ John Fox.

What do you think of the new play­off over­time rule? It gives a pos­ses­sion to the team that loses the coin toss if the team that wins the toss kicks a field goal on its first pos­ses­sion.

I like it. It clearly lessens the neg­a­tive ef­fect of los­ing the over­time coin toss. But I wish they also would have put it in for the reg­u­lar sea­son.

Ndamukong Suh

Rolando McClain

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