Work in Sports
September's flavor of the month? How about the Ravens?
With the mind-numbing, full-price practice games finally finished and the first Sunday of the real thing on the immediate horizon, here are three Burning Questions as we head into Week 1 of the NFL's regular-season schedule. SI's Don Banks will check in with them every Tuesday during the NFL season:
1. Question: By the end of September, which team's quick start will have everyone talking and may even land it on the cover of a few magazines as the season's biggest early season story?
Answer: The pick here is Brian Billick's Ravens. And it's not like Baltimore wowed anybody this preseason. Yes, the Ravens went undefeated for the third preseason in a row, proving that they know how to win when it doesn't count better than anybody.
But they didn't do it in an especially impressive fashion. For four weeks in a row the Ravens just sort of got by. Quarterbacks Tony Banks and Trent Dilfer were nothing to write home about. And due to injury or holdout, Baltimore got very little bang for its buck from first-round picks Jamal Lewis and Travis Taylor.
But behind it all there's a sense of growing confidence in Baltimore. A sense that now is the Ravens' time. With the clouds of the Ray Lewis situation cleared away, everyone comfortable and at home in Year 2 of the Billick program, and owner Art Modell having moved to secure the long-term financial viability of the franchise (meet new co-owner Steve Bisciotti), the karma seems right in Baltimore.
Modell, with his gift for hyperbole, called these Ravens maybe his best team in 40 years of NFL ownership. That's getting ahead of things, but who can blame the 75-year-old patriarch, whose teams have been within a play of going to the Super Bowl five times?
The Ravens' objective is crystal clear. On draft weekend, Modell announced that anything less than a playoff trip in 2000 would be a disappointment. The franchise, which hasn't been to a postseason game since 1994 in Cleveland, seems primed for success.
That said, the Ravens need Jamal Lewis to supply a running game, and they need Banks to pick up where he left off with a 4-0 finish as a starter last year. The Ravens won five of their last seven last year to scramble to a respectable 8-8, but digging out of that hole won't mean as much if they create a new one for themselves early this year.
Playing in the AFC's toughest division, Baltimore opens at Pittsburgh this week and then goes home to face division champion Jacksonville. If the Ravens can take advantage of the Steelers' quarterback mess, they'll be set up for a changing of the guard type of game in Week 2 against the Jaguars. Then come winnable games at Miami and home against Cincinnati.
Looks like 4-0 or 3-1 from this vantage point. You heard it here first.
2. Question: Which rookies can we expect to make the biggest early season impact, at least in relative terms?
Answer: We could bore you with the cases for Courtney Brown, LaVar Arrington and Jamal Lewis, but how much analysis does that take? Looking a little deeper into the draft, there are some names to know.
In Green Bay, the more you got to see of No. 14 pick Bubba Franks, the more you liked. The Packers' offense is in love with the tight end, and nothing disrupted things in Green Bay last year more than the early loss of Mark Chmura to a neck injury.
Franks is still running second-team tight end behind Tyrone Davis, but that doesn't mean much. The Packers are so crippled at running back that the two-tight end set will get plenty of early work, and that means Franks is going to get the ball. He's raw in spots, but it's coming together quickly for the University of Miami standout, who entered the NFL as a junior. Look for Brett Favre to feed him often, at least until Dorsey Levens recovers from mid-August knee surgery.
In Chicago, all eyes have been on first-round linebacker Brian Urlacher, who went ninth overall. But a funny thing happened on Urlacher's way to stardom: He lost his starting strongside linebacker role to second-year man Rosevelt Colvin. It's not that Urlacher really lost the job as much as Colvin won it.
That said, Urlacher will play on nickel downs and the Bears are already toying with the idea of sliding him into the middle linebacker role for selected series early in year, giving him quality playing time instead of mop-up duty. The same sort of approach helped rookie quarterback Cade McNown come along quickly in 1999.
But the Bears rookie who really looks ready to go from day one is second-round free safety Mike Brown. Despite playing what defensive coordinator Greg Blache considers the toughest role in his defense, Brown beat out fifth-year veteran Shawn Wooden (acquired from Miami) for the free safety job and is drawing rave reviews for his heady, physical style of game. Brown started just the last game of the preseason, but doesn't make the same mistake twice and already understands the defense like as seasoned pro.
In Cincinnati, the Bengals will be better because they've turned their receiving corps into the all-FSU unit. The starters will be Peter Warrick and Ron Dugans, the team's first- and third-round picks out of Florida State. Warrick has already flashed his play-making abilities in the preseason, but look for him, Dugans and quarterback Akili Smith to be one of the league's most potent combinations by midseason.
Finally, there are two little men who should not be forgotten among all the big names. Fifth-round New Orleans running back Chad Morton (5-8, 186) was the find of the Saints camp, and coach Jim Haslett will invent ways to get him on the field. In Minnesota, fifth-round punt returner/receiver Troy Walters is even smaller (5-7, 171), but last week he took a punt back for a 62-yard touchdown against Indianapolis and will push return specialist David Palmer for the first-team punt return duties.
3. Question: Which preseason injuries most changed the landscape of their team's look and chances in 2000?
Answer: First, a disclaimer. If quarterback Brett Favre's right elbow tendinitis doesn't clear up pretty soon, nothing else that happens in Green Bay this season will matter much. No one player means more to his team's viability than Favre does in Packerland. And it's not even close for No. 2 on that list.
Elsewhere, Arizona's loss of receiver Rob Moore to season-ending knee surgery two weeks ago greatly reduces the Cardinals' chances of making any real noise in the NFC East. Second-year receiver David Boston may step up and fill in just fine, collecting Moore-like statistics and providing a nice threat opposite Frank Sanders. But that just leaves the Cardinals thinner at their No. 3 receiving position and does nothing to replace the role of team leadership that Moore provided.
Like the Cardinals, the Saints suffered a devastating blow this preseason when starting tight end Cam Cleeland went down with a torn Achilles' tendon in the first game. The Saints' whole offensive scheme worked around Cleeland's abilities to both catch passes over the middle and block. With him healthy, the Saints were happy about having former Viking Andrew Glover as their No. 2 tight end.
But without Cleeland, the Saints are rather limited with Glover in the No. 1 role. Glover can't match Cleeland's abilities to block and catch passes, and now the Saints have to rely on rookie tight end Austin Wheatley in the No. 2 role. Wheatley caught just 18 passes combined in his final two seasons at Iowa, and he's as raw as they come. But now he has to play.
Even Glover is a question mark. He has struggled with a bone bruise in his knee for most of the preseason and missed two weeks of practice. He's nowhere near 100 percent, might not get there all season, but still has to play every down.
One other injury figures to greatly affect a team for the foreseeable future. When Pro Bowl right tackle Leon Searcy went down with a quadriceps injury in Jacksonville -- he's not expected back until November -- it weakened an already injury-depleted Jaguars offensive line to dangerous levels. Zach Wiegert is a guard/tackle lined up in Searcy's spot for now.
With left tackle Tony Boselli only returning to the lineup for 10 plays last week after season-ending knee surgery in January, and center John Wade out recently with a broken foot, the Jaguars line has let starting quarter Mark Brunell take a beating this preseason. If that trend continues, it'll take Jacksonville's Super Bowl hopes with it.