Friday July 18th, 2008

Let's be honest; the NFL offseason borders on interminable. It's nearly six months long, and you can make it seven for those luckless teams that missed the playoffs. All that down time allows for a near-endless cycle of debate about the issues, questions and challenges facing each and every one of the 32 franchises that make up Roger Goodell's fiefdom. (A related note: That debate keeps me gainfully employed).

But eventually the footballs do start flying again, and when the full contingent of Washington Redskins report to training camp Saturday and begin practicing Sunday, the NFL will officially be back as part of our daily landscape from now until early February. To preview what's ahead in the coming six, sweat-filled weeks, I ask nine burning questions that might not have occurred to you:

1. How long until Vinny Testaverde shows up in the Dolphins' camp?

No, no, no. Bill Parcells wouldn't dare try that one again, even if the Tuna does have his well-known affinity for trusting only veteran quarterbacks with the keys to his offense. Besides, the 44-year-old Testaverde announced his retirement this offseason, and everybody knows once a quarterback hangs 'em up, that's the end of the story. There's no going back. It's finished and done.

Well, most of the time, anyway. Unless you get the "itch'' to play again.

No, Miami's next starting quarterback will be the winner of the Josh McCown-John Beck-Chad Henne derby, and I still say Parcells' Dolphins will wind up going against his history and entrusting the No. 1 role to the rookie from Michigan. Henne has a track record of being a quick study, and his offseason work with the Dolphins leaves him well-positioned to lock down the job with a solid preseason showing.

2. Which team will be switching its helmet logo to a red cross this summer?

Here's a hint: Early in camp, the Colts' PUP squad (those on the physically unable to perform list) might be the strongest team in the NFL, at least on paper. There's quarterback Peyton Manning with his left knee recovering from recent surgery to remove an infected bursa sac. There's defensive end Dwight Freeney still rehabilitating the Lisfranc surgery on his left foot that cost him the final eight games of last season. There's receiver Marvin Harrison returning from that lingering 2007 knee injury, and don't forget that Indy will also be cautious this summer with safety Bob Sanders, who's still getting over a shoulder problem.

If you thought the Colts were reluctant to play their starters much in the preseason in years past, you ain't seen nothing yet. And you certainly won't this year, when Indy happens to have an NFL-high five of those meaningless exhibition games to slog through. Get ready for a Jim Sorgi-palooza.

3. Will Matt Leinart be taking his Gatorade through a beer bong at Cardinals camp?

Hey, a party's a party, but Arizona's third-year quarterback faces a pretty sobering reality in the desert: Either he steps it up this year or Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt will be tempted to go back to that two-QB rotation that had Leinart seeing red early last season. Until Leinart proves he can handle every bit of Whisenhunt's offense, veteran Kurt Warner is going to be perpetually warming up in the bullpen.

Leinart broke his collarbone five games into last season and spent the rest of the year on the shelf. That makes this year's training camp doubly important for him. He's got to shake the rust off and reassert his clear-cut stature as the Cardinals' franchise quarterback. Generally speaking, year three for a young NFL starting quarterback means it's time to take the training wheels off.

4. Who will field the most motivated unit in the entire NFL this season?

Within the collective heart of the three-man Baltimore linebacking corps beats just one mantra this year: Show me the money. Ray Lewis might say he bleeds purple, but he's entering a contract year and he's desperate for his career's last big splash of green. The Ravens wisely didn't give into his entreaties for a new deal this offseason, and hope to get a monster year out of a player whose reputation has surpassed his production of late.

Baltimore's Bart Scott likewise is in the final season of his contract, and needs a bounce-back performance if he's going to remain in the Ravens' plans. And then there's Terrell Suggs, who the team franchised this offseason at $8.5 million, but failed to come to a long-term agreement with. An extension must now wait until after the season, when Baltimore figures to make him its leading priority in terms of potential free agency.

The linebackers' dash for the cash should make things interesting for Baltimore's veteran-laden defense this season. The Ravens, one would think, will benefit from the chase. At least before Lewis, Scott or Suggs do.

5. Who will be more choir boy than Cowboy at Dallas' training camp?

Six weeks of good behavior is all that stands between Pacman, oops, Adam Jones and reinstatement to the NFL. If the ex-Titans cornerback and poster child for the league's get-tough approach to personal conduct can't stay off commissioner Goodell's radar screen between now until Sept. 1, then heaven (and Michael Irvin) help him.

I don't know exactly what there is to do at night in Oxnard, Calif., where the Cowboys will return to train this year, but I'm guessing there won't be a lot of personal time built into Jones' schedule outside of bathroom breaks. After his experience of the past year and a half, when his NFL career was very much in limbo, six more weeks of waiting should be a snap.

6. What's the over-under on Lane Kiffin making it through the Raiders entire camp as head coach?

If memory serves, it's been 30 years since an NFL head coach was whacked during the preseason. What, you forgot the Rams lowered the boom on Hall of Famer George Allen after just two exhibition games in 1978, launching the team's Ray Malavasi era? Time flies, eh?

Kiffin's job status was on life support at times during the early offseason, but even Raiders owner Al Davis isn't impulsive enough to throw his baby-faced coach out with the bath water in the middle of August. No, the real question figures to be whether Kiffin can survive until the end of September, when Oakland reaches its Week 5 bye?

Make no mistake, Davis and Kiffin can barely stand each other. But it is losses that will prompt the owner to push the eject button. The Raiders in the season's first four weeks face all three of their AFC West opponents, along with a Week 3 trip to Buffalo. If Oakland goes 0-4 or 1-3 in that span, and looks anemic on offense doing it, Big Al could tell Lane to hit the road.

7. How many headlines will Michael Strahan create for the Giants this year in camp?

Just like last year, Strahan won't be in Albany when the Giants convene next week, but that doesn't mean he won't be making news again. He's a bona fide TV commentator now, and that means he's getting paid for his opinions. Don't you just know he's going to have a few about the men in Blue? I figure mid-August is right around when he'll start flexing his verbal muscles, causing some sort of distraction for his old coach, Tom Coughlin, and maybe a few ex-teammates.

At the very least, you know Strahan is going to have to out-Tiki Tiki Barber, who got last year's Giants camp off to a rousing start by questioning Eli Manning's leadership abilities from his newly created TV analyst perch. They're probably already clearing space on the back pages of New York City tabloids.

8. What will be the big-trend story of the preseason in the NFL?

There is that little Favre matter to untangle, but that'll get settled once Jimmy Carter flies to Wisconsin and gets involved. My hunch is by the middle of next month, they'll be a growing cacophony of protest from the league's coaches regarding the new 80-man preseason roster limit. It'll be blamed for everything just shy of the demise of our nation's literacy rate.

Fewer kickers and punters and snappers (Oh my!) is one of the consequences of teams no longer having the NFL Europa roster exemptions at their disposal. But when some key starters begin going down to season-ending injuries because they had to play more in preseason games, that's when the, uh, spit, will hit the fan. Count on it.

9. Who besides the video guy is going to get the most scrutiny in New England this preseason?

I'd say for the first time in quite a while the pressure's on the Patriots offensive line, who are now known as the Turnstile Five after the Giants defensive front repeatedly blew past them in last February's shocking Super Bowl upset. New England's offensive line got exposed in that game, and the result was quarterback Tom Brady getting hit like we've never seen before.

Brady makes the Patriots line look better than it really is at times because he gets rid of the ball so quickly and smoothly, anticipating pressure by calmly moving around in the pocket. Not that New England runs any slouches out there, but left tackle Matt Light in particular has been handed his motivational fodder for 2008, and the group as a whole needs to prove that what happened against New York was the aberration, not the blueprint that Patriots opponents will be able to follow.

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