Ten intriguing offseason questions
We all know the NFL headline machine never really gets unplugged, but the next two months unfold at the most leisurely pace of any on the league's calendar. While we wait for things to pick up, here's a sneak peek at 10 of the most intriguing topics I want to know more about once training camps start springing to life in late July.
1. Will a Pacman Jones era or error start unfolding in Dallas?
All indications point toward Jones being reinstated by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell some time before training camp, provided the ex-Titan doesn't give him reason to reconsider that conventional wisdom. Having spent draft weekend in Dallas, I couldn't get over how often Jerry Jones referred to his new cornerback as "Adam," as if a change of name hopefully changes his history.
That said, for now I'm buying the notion that Jerry Jones' calculated gamble is going to pay some dividends this year. They call them the Cowboys not the Choir Boys, but Dallas does have an asset at its disposal in player development consultant Calvin Hill, who I expect will take on Pacman as his own personal reclamation project. Things have worked out so far for Tank Johnson in Dallas, and even Terrell Owens got with the program last season.
2. Is JaMarcus Russell ready for his close-up in Oakland?
Russell really didn't have a rookie season to speak of in 2007, and that's only going to cost him in terms of Year 2 development. It's clear the Raiders don't want to put too much of the offensive burden on their young starter's shoulders, and that spells plenty of work for running backs Darren McFadden, Michael Bush and Justin Fargas.
But you can't exactly hide a quarterback in the NFL, and that's why it could get ugly at times for Russell this season. My hunch is that Oakland head coach Lane Kiffin will try to identify the three or four things that Russell does best, and concentrate like a laser on them. A realistic expectation for his 2008 work would be flashes of greatness surrounded by inconsistency.
3. What will be the feel-good story of the NFL preseason?
Put me down for the doubleheader of Potomac-area positive vibes being generated by the league's two most energetic and enthusiastic new head coaches in Baltimore's John Harbaugh and Washington's Jim Zorn. Neither has ever even been a coordinator in the NFL, let alone a head coach, but we'll have to find out if that's a plus or minus on their behalf. Harbaugh has the tougher task, taking over a veteran-laden Ravens team that's pretty set in its ways, and trying to whip it into a more disciplined and cohesive bunch.
It's almost hard at this point to remember when Baltimore wasn't Brian Billick's team, but I don't think it'll take long for Harbaugh to put his own imprint on the Ravens or work through his learning curve. He's a strong motivator, a good judge of people, and he'll quickly figure out which players have been hesitant to buy into his program and move on. All the work won't be done in 2008, but Baltimore is on its way back.
4. What makes the Bears optimistic that anything will be different on their quarterback front?
Got me. I really don't see whatever it is that Lovie Smith and Jerry Angelo continue to cling to. Despite having almost the same exact type of inconsistency at the game's most pivotal position for three years in a row now -- some would say it has been more like everything post-Sid Luckman -- the Bears are content to stake another season on the play of Rex Grossman and Kyle Orton. Consider the passer ratings those two have hung up the past three years: 59.7 for each of them in 2005, 73.9 by Grossman in 2006, 66.4 by Grossman in 2007, 73.9 by Orton in 2007. And the Bears already tried the new quarterbacks coach routine last year, getting so-so results from the addition of Pep Hamilton.
What's that definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results? That's about sums it up in Chicago.
5. Where will a sense of urgency be the greatest this preseason?
You don't have to remind Sean Payton and the Saints where the road to the Super Bowl ended last season. That trip was effectively cancelled by early October, when they got off to an 0-4 start and saw that heightened bar of expectations come crashing down on their French fleur-de-lis'. You're going to hear plenty about the importance of starting fast out of New Orleans this summer, because Payton is determined that his club's season isn't going to be over before it even really begins for a second year in a row.
The Saints at least have a nice big early target to shoot for in Week 1, when they open the season by playing host to their division's defending champion, Tampa Bay. Then come games at Washington, another NFC playoff team in 2007, and at Denver. New Orleans has re-tooled its defense nicely, and looks ready to take another stab at the big prize. But the Saints now know they have to be early risers this season.