New NFL elite might not have long stay at top

Success of Rams, Titans has teams loading up in hope of rapid rise

Pro Football

July 23, 2000|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

Only one of the NFL's 1998 division winners (Jacksonville) managed to repeat.

Three of the four conference finalists in 1998 failed to make the playoffs last year.

The two Super Bowl teams last year - St. Louis and Tennessee - posted 4-12 and 8-8 records in 1998.

That's a picture of how unpredictable the NFL has become in the era of the salary cap and free agency.

As the league kicks off what it calls a new century of NFL football, the big question is whether teams are going to continue to go up and down as if they were on pogo sticks, or whether new contenders such as the St. Louis Rams, Indianapolis Colts and Tennessee Titans will return to the playoffs.

"I think that's what this season will tell us," said Tennessee general manager Floyd Reese. "It's one of the more interesting seasons we've had in a while."

Although it's unlikely that the NFL will see such dynasties as the Green Bay Packers of the 1960s, the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s and the San Francisco 49ers of the 1980s, it could be possible for teams to put together three- or four-year runs before free agency erodes them.

"I think there are probably two or three teams, maybe more in my opinion, who have the tools to be in the elite and remain in the elite for a while. If you have a quarterback, a running back, are able to knock the quarterback down and have cover corners [cornerbacks], you have a chance to be competitive every year," Reese said.

John Butler, the Buffalo general manager who has kept the Bills in contention even though the team has no players left from its 1990 Super Bowl team, says staying healthy is the key since teams don't have much depth.

"The healthiest teams have the best chance," he said.

Ravens coach Brian Billick said, "Repeating is tougher than it used to be."

A look at the 31 teams as they begin training camp:

Teams to beat

St. Louis: With 19 of 22 starters returning, the Rams seem poised for a shot at becoming the sixth team (Pittsburgh did it twice) to repeat. But the Rams face several obstacles, starting with the departure of their coach, Dick Vermeil, and a tougher schedule. Mike Martz, who's never been a head coach at any level, has to show he can make the transition from play-caller to team leader. Martz has a lot of tools on offense with Marshall Faulk running the ball and Kurt Warner throwing to a quartet of first-rate receivers.

Tampa Bay: Coach Tony Dungy still believes in defense and running the ball just like in the old days. But can he get to the Super Bowl with second-year quarterback Shaun King? Not that Dungy will ask King to do a lot. His main job is not to lose. He now has Keyshawn Johnson as a high-priced decoy, but King will have to make plays at some point.

Washington: After Daniel Snyder's $100 million spending spree on such veterans as Deion Sanders and Bruce Smith, the Redskins are the odds-on-favorite in Las Vegas to win the Super Bowl. But most football people are still skeptical that Snyder can buy a title with aging, overpaid veterans. The Redskins have lost five straight games to Dallas, beat one team with a winning record last year and have a killer schedule that includes games against both of last season's Super Bowl teams and the two conference runners-up.

Jacksonville: The Jaguars have made the playoffs four straight years, made two trips to the AFC title game and repeated as division champion. Yet they have failed to get to the Super Bowl, and their window of opportunity may be closing. Quarterback Mark Brunell has to prove he can carry the team to the Super Bowl and solve the Tennessee defense. The Jaguars were 0-3 against the Titans last season.

Tennessee: The Titans fell a yard short in the Super Bowl, but what gets overlooked is that they were a wild-card team and they were middle-of-the-pack in yardage - 13th on offense and 17th on defense. But they're a big-play team with Steve McNair and Eddie George on offense and Jevon Kearse on defense. They also have a solid coach in Jeff Fisher.

Indianapolis: Entering his third season, Peyton Manning is one of the NFL's best quarterbacks. Joe Montana won a Super Bowl in his third season, and the Colts like to think Manning can do it, especially with Edgerrin James in the backfield and Marvin Harrison at wide receiver. But their defense ranked only 15th in yardage last year and made few big plays.

Contenders

Buffalo: No team has done a better job in the salary-cap era than the Bills. Now they have to show they can do it without the veteran leadership of Bruce Smith, Thurman Thomas and Andre Reed. They also lost three other starters from their defense that was ranked No. 1 last season and didn't sign a single unrestricted free agent. On offense, quarterback Rob Johnson has to prove he can stay healthy and keep Doug Flutie on the bench.

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