Opening of camps good news for NFL A look at key factors for league's 30 teams as training begins

July 16, 1996|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

There's one positive thing that can be said about the NFL's off-season: It's over.

As the majority of NFL teams open training camp this week -- including the first one in Baltimore since 1983 -- the league hopes to obscure a nightmarish off-season that tarnished its carefully cultivated image.

The league's star-crossed players -- from Michael Irvin to Brett Favre to Lawrence Phillips -- seemed as likely to show up on "A Current Affair" and "Hard Copy" as on ESPN while winding up on police blotters all over the country.

But all the incidents show no signs of diminishing the game's popularity. It is still the nation's most popular sport in all the polls, and taxpayers are willing to offer sweetheart deals to entice teams to move. Once the 30 teams start playing preseason games in two weeks, the fans and the television networks are likely to be willing to overlook the league's problems.

With two of the top three teams, the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers, distracted by problems involving Irvin (cocaine possession) and Favre (addiction to painkillers), the San Francisco 49ers go into the season as the team to beat simply because they didn't suffer any major off-season disruptions.

The best bet is that the winner of the NFC title game will win the Super Bowl for the 13th straight year. The AFC is still the NFL's version of the Washington Generals.

Here's a look at the key factors surrounding each of the 30 teams (with last year's regular-season record in parentheses):

NFC East

Dallas Cowboys (12-4): The Cowboys are still the best team if they ever can get it on the field. But Irvin's legal problems and Emmitt Smith's contract issues could undermine them.

Philadelphia Eagles (10-6): The Eagles have an average team with just one superstar (Ricky Watters), but coach Ray Rhodes drove them to the playoffs by the force of his personality last year and will try to do it again.

Washington Redskins (6-10): Heath or Gus? Gus or Heath? The Heath Shuler-Gus Frerotte battle will dominate camp, but there's no guarantee the Redskins can win with either one.

New York Giants (5-11): Is Dave Brown an NFL quarterback? This may be his last chance to prove he is. The Giants will go only as far as his arm can take them.

Arizona Cardinals (4-12): A new coach (Bill Tobin) faces the same, old problem. Owner Bill Bidwill has no clue how to run an NFL team.

NFC Central

Green Bay Packers (11-5): Can Favre beat his demons and addictions? The Packers could be super if he can.

Detroit Lions (10-6): Can Wayne Fontes survive another year? It may be in Detroit's best long-term interests that he doesn't.

Chicago Bears (9-7): Bryan Cox is being counted on to put muscle into a defense that didn't remind anybody of the Monsters of the Midway last season.

Minnesota Vikings (8-8): If this is the year Warren Moon starts acting his age (40 on Nov. 18), the Vikings will have real problems.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-9): If Trent Dilfer can play quarterback and Tony Dungy is the head coach he's supposed to be, the Bucs could be a surprise team.

NFC West

San Francisco 49ers (11-5): The 49ers still miss Watters, but they may not need a running game if they can keep Steve Young healthy and Jerry Rice doesn't start to slow down at age 33.

Atlanta Falcons (9-7): The Falcons, as usual, don't get it. They built their run-and-shoot offense around Jeff George, and then low-balled him in contract talks even though they can't win with Bobby Hebert.

St. Louis Rams (7-9): The Rams are gambling on Steve Walsh at quarterback and Phillips at running back. That seems like a loser's bet.

Carolina Panthers (7-9): The expansion Panthers could be a better team and not match last year's record, because Kerry Collins still is learning the quarterback position in his second year.

New Orleans Saints (7-9): Jim Mora, the best current coach never to win a playoff game, is in the final year of his contract. He needs a big year from Jim Everett.

AFC East

Buffalo Bills (10-6): Get out the candy bars, men. The Bills still are trying to figure out how to win the Super Bowl. They won't win it, but Marv, Jim, Thurman and Bruce may make it one more time as a last hurrah.

Indianapolis Colts (9-7): Was Jim Harbaugh for real or was last year a fluke? The answer will determine what kind of a season the Colts have.

Miami Dolphins (9-7): Jimmy Johnson is going to have the Dolphins back in the Super Bowl -- and soon. If you don't think so, just ask him.

New England Patriots (6-10): The Patriots hope Terry Glenn runs patterns better than he drives and gives Drew Bledsoe the target he needs.

New York Jets (3-13): Call it trickle-down economics. The Jets spent a fortune on free agents, including quarterback Neil O'Donnell, but are likely to find out it's hard to buy a winning team.

AFC Central

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