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  Posted: Tuesday September 03, 2002 3:09 PM

Sports Illustrated's Don Banks tackles three issues from around the league:

 1  Which NFL Kickoff Weekend matchup holds the most allure? 

  Brian Griese Brian Griese
Brian Bahr/Allsport
Well, given that I just picked St. Louis to top Denver in San Diego in late January, that makes the Rams' season-opening trip to the Mile High City a bonafide Week 1 Super Bowl preview, does it not?

But predictions aside, St. Louis at Denver, right off the bat, should tell us tons about these two perennial heavyweight contenders. (Quick aside: Has it been written into the NFL's bylaws that Denver must open against one of the previous season's Super Bowl teams? This makes it three in a row for the Horsies -- at St. Louis in 2000, and home against the Giants last year. They've split so far, 1-1).

By now we know that no team cares less about results in the preseason than the Rams. St. Louis proved that point but good, going 0-4 and being outscored 101-69 last month. If the Rams had played Washington this preseason, the pedal-to-the-metal Redskins might have won 73-3. St. Louis head coach Mike Martz cares about one thing in August: Keeping his turbo-charged roster healthy.

That means we can all disregard the Rams' struggles, right? I mean, they can just push a button and turn on the juice in Week 1. Or can they? Heading into their past three playoff seasons, St. Louis has gone 2-2, 2-2 and 3-2 in the preseason. This year, there's no momentum whatsoever coming out of the exhibition-game schedule. Throw in the Super Bowl, and the Rams are on a five-game slide.

Martz is closing practice for the season's first three weeks, so you know he's devising something devilish for Mike Shanahan and the Broncos defense to contend with. What's it going to be? A Marshall Faulk triple reverse? An Eric Crouch halfback option pass? A direct snap to Terrence Wilkens?

Whatever it is, the Broncos have to be ready for it. With a Week 2 trip to San Francisco looming, Denver really needs this one to avoid the prospect of an 0-2 start. The Broncos have never started 0-2 and rebounded to post a winning record, let alone make the playoffs.

This should be a great early test of quarterback Brian Griese's career touch-up project. After hearing all offseason how 2002 will be a week-by-week Sunday afternoon referendum on his performance and leadership skills, Griese knows he can't start slow and keep the wolves at bay.

As bad as things got at times last season for the 8-8 Broncos, they were still tough at home, as always. In their first season in Invesco Field, they went 6-2, albeit with tough seven-point losses to Baltimore and Washington. A little home-field advantage in this game will go a long way toward making everyone believe that Denver might just hold up its end of this potential Super Bowl preview.


 2  With one starting QB benched even before his team's opener -- Carolina's Chris Weinke -- who's the next No. 1 on the hot seat? 

  Chris Weinke Chris Weinke
Chris Stanford/Allsport
So many options. So little space. Who do you like? Baltimore's Chris Redman? Cincinnati's Gus Frerotte? Washington's Shane Matthews? Miami's Jay Fiedler? The aforementioned Mr. Griese? There's no shortage of candidates.

But if I had to lay a buck on somebody's starting tenure being short-lived, say two to three weeks at best, I'd go with Detroit's Mike McMahon, who wasn't even expected to make it to opening day as his team's No. 1 by some. With rookie Joey Harrington pushing him, and the Lions headed for another long year of growing pains, McMahon is vulnerable to the same logic that prevailed in Detroit on draft day.

Which is that while McMahon might develop into a decent to good starting quarterback, Harrington has all the gifts to be either very good or special. So why not take the plunge with Harrington now, and expedite the potential rewards reaped from drafting him third overall? That's the reasoning I expect will prove inescapable before long to Lions head coach Marty Mornhinweg. Especially since he needs to win enough games this season to keep himself off the hot seat.

Other quarterbacks who aren't on the longest of leashes this September include Kansas City's Trent Green, San Diego's Drew Brees, Dallas' Quincy Carter, the Giants' Kerry Collins and, should their offenses struggle mightily, Tampa Bay's Brad Johnson and Pittsburgh's Kordell Stewart. And of course, swapping Jim Miller for Chris Chandler in Chicago will always be a distinct possibility.

Count 'em up. That's close to half the league that has a quarterback situation worth keeping an eye on. Surprising? That's life in today's NFL.


 3  Which coordinator will have the biggest impact on his new team? 

  Norv Turner Norv Turner
Stephen Dunn/Allsport

What would happen if Redskins defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis winds up being more responsible for Washington's success this year than offensive genius/head coach Steve Spurrier? That'd be the plot twist we didn't see coming.

In fairness, Lewis took over a unit that had more going for it than the Redskins' offense. Washington's defense finished a very respectable 10th in the league last year, and Lewis had building blocks like linebacker LaVar Arrington and cornerback Champ Bailey already in place.

But with veterans Jeremiah Trotter, Jessie Armstead, and Renaldo Wynn added to the front-seven equation, and future Hall of Famers Bruce Smith and Darrell Green still on hand, Lewis has enough playmakers to turn the Redskins into a unit that can steal a few headlines from Spurrier's vaunted Fun 'N' Gun offense.

Atlanta's new defensive coordinator, Wade Phillips, could give Lewis some competition for this distinction. Phillips has had a history of turnaround success stories in new locales, and his Falcons are geared for speed and better things in his trademark 3-4 defensive formation.

On offense, most eyes will be on Miami's Norv Turner, who comes to the Fish after a year as the Chargers' offensive coordinator. Turner's West Coast-style offense has as its first priority bringing the Dolphins' long-moribund ground game to life behind newly acquired running back Ricky Williams.

But when teams stack the defensive front in order to stuff Williams, Turner has devised ways for quarterback Jay Fiedler, receivers Chris Chambers and Oronde Gadsden, tight end Randy McMichael, and fullback Rob Konrad to make a defense pay. Williams, too, will handle his share of the pass receiving load out of the backfield.

Don't overlook new Bills offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride, either. Though he had brief, rough stays in his last two stops -- Pittsburgh and San Diego -- Gilbride will put weapons like quarterback Drew Bledsoe, fullback Larry Centers and receivers Eric Moulds and Peerless Price to good use. If its offensive line solidifies, Buffalo could be one of the AFC's surprise wild-card contenders.


 


 
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