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.
6. Will anything or anyone dim the Super Bowl afterglow emanating from the Giants?
This is New York we're talking about, so of course the good vibes will come to an abrupt halt far sooner than they should. Either Michael Strahan will be playing the retirement/leverage game for more money (Do you love me $8 million worth?) or Jeremy Shockey will be griping about still seeing an NY on his helmet, but something's going to pop.
As sure as Tom Coughlin's face gets red, New York will have to deal with some of the ancillary issues that come with winning the Big One. Even Coughlin's own son-in-law, Giants guard Chris Snee, wants his contract upgraded and might make for a potential training camp distraction. Yep, the victory parade is over all right.
7. Will the future be now for the Seahawks and Colts this year?
Seattle and Indianapolis will play out their 2008 seasons under a different type of microscope than the rest of the league, given that Seahawks head coach Mike Holmgren has definitively decided to retire next year and the Colts' Tony Dungy is thought to be leaning strongly toward taking the same step.
Their successors have already been named -- Jim Mora in Seattle, Jim Caldwell in Indy -- and that could open up a whole new front on the typical second-guessing game as we know it. Every decision made by Holmgren and Dungy this year will be held up and inspected in light of the present-versus-future debate, and that could quickly grow tiresome for a couple of coaches who own Super Bowl rings.
Mora and Caldwell won't make a collective wave among them, but the fans and us media types won't be able to leave the farewell story line alone all season. It might even make us all pine for the nostalgia of the Brett Favre retirement watch -- but I doubt it.
8. What will happen in Chad Johnson's standoff with Cincinnati?
Keep in mind that Johnson won't really be giving up anything but some training camp sweat until he starts missing regular-season paychecks. That's when we'll know if all his bluster means anything, or if he has no intention of letting his mouth cost him real money. I suspect he already knows that his plan to talk his way out of town is not off to a rousing start.
Bengals owner Mike Brown isn't the nervous type who's going to worry about losing the PR battle -- not that he is -- and cave in to the pressure. The man, for years, had a website in his own town passionately devoted to his removal, and he never blinked, so I don't think No. 85 is going to hold him hostage. Unless somebody makes another really stupid trade offer for him, Johnson plays in Cincinnati this season. Look for him to see the light in time to start cashing those regular-season paychecks.
9. Can Donovan McNabb pick up where he left off at the end of 2007?
When I saw McNabb early in training camp last year, I thought he was in midseason form. When I saw him in midseason, I thought he was toast in Philadelphia after 2007. So don't ask me which McNabb we're going to get this year. But if the No. 5 who wound up winning his final three starts of last season is there from day one this summer, we can all put the Kevin Kolb talk on the shelf for another year.
McNabb finally looked comfortable in December on his surgically repaired knee, and maybe he really did need the year that it is said to take to recover fully from an ACL. All I know is that he'll never have much of a margin for error in Philly, and especially not at his age (32 in November), with all three of the Eagles' NFC East opponents coming off of playoff trips last season. As McNabb's 10th season as the face of the Eagles franchise dawns, it doesn't feel like hyperbole to suggest it's now-or-never time for him in Philly.
10. Will there be any Super Bowl or Spygate hangover effect for the Patriots?
I sincerely doubt that a mention of last year's Super Bowl meltdown or a certain videotaping scandal will ever cross Bill Belichick's lips this season. I've got to believe we're in for the full "We're moving on'' treatment, delivered in a relentless monotone. But you can't say that approach won't work, because we've seen New England's singular skill for focus and concentrating on the task at hand produce results time and time again.
The Patriots had some weaknesses exposed in the Super Bowl, especially along their offensive and defensive lines, but that just means that Belichick once again has been given all the motivational tools he could possibly require. Somehow he'll have the Patriots completely forgetting about the 18 wins last year, at the exclusion of their one, rather shocking, three-point loss. We can all count on that.