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Gettin' Trendy: Sleepers, surprises and flops come out in camp

Every year about this time, you can count on trendy NFL predictions making the training-camp rounds. You could practically set your calendar to them, like the swallows returning to Capistrano. If NFL training camps are in full-swing, it must be time to pick some NFL sleepers, surprises and flops.

After all, who doesn't want to be trendy? Why Doc Martens, when you can slip on some Toms? Why post something on MySpace when you can Tweet? So let's separate fact from fiction and sift through the trendiest picks circulating this summer. Which ones have wings? And which won't fly?

Why this pick makes sense:This is a classic case of addition and subtraction. No more Terrell Owens. No more Jessica. No more tabloid headlines.

No more kinder, gentler, pushover Wade Phillips, either. Phillips promised to wield a heavier stick and hold players more accountable on the field and off, after coming thisclose to getting fired last season. Thus far, Phillips is sticking to the plan and players acknowledge seeing a much tougher coach in camp.

And we haven't even mentioned Adam "Pacman" Jones and Tank Johnson yet. They got the boot, too.

It could only lead to better things, including in the standings. Personal discord often leads to locker-room discord. And if the Cowboys ever wondered exactly where the line was for Drama Overload, the 2008 season crossed it.

This summer, players and coaches are talking and playing football. Pretty much only football. Let's not forget that with or without T.O., Tank and Pacman, the Cowboys remain one of the most talented teams in the league.

Romo has been working hard on passing technique and protecting the ball, and Felix Jones is emerging as a spectacular talent.

Sure, the Cowboys may always teeter on the brink of some kind of neurosis, simply because they are Jerry Jones' Cowboys and drama is part of the business plan.

But they were the most under-achieving team in the NFL a year ago. With clearer heads, a harder-working and determined Romo and Phillips taking more charge of discipline, things could get a lot better.

Why it may not fly: T.O. was a pain, all right. He was also a pain for defenses, even with bouts of the drops and his production falling off significantly. He commanded attention and Romo will miss him. Do you really think Roy Williams will offer the same kinds of threat?

As for Romo, did his penchant for making the big flub at the most inopportune times leave with T.O. and Jessica? It's hard to believe those distractions caused Romo to make big mistakes. He has yet to prove he can carry a team to the next level.

Still, the biggest hurdle to overcome remains Wade Phillips' job status. At the first sign of trouble, after the first two-game skid, the rumors are sure to start. There is no distraction quite like a coaching change. It's not a matter of if, but when names like Mike Shanahan, Bill Cowher or Brian Billick begin to surface.

How long will the players really respect Phillips' tough-guy stance, too? After 30 years of being the same kind of guy, coaching the same kind of way, could anyone expect Phillips to change? Hardly.

Oh, yeah, a couple other reasons it may not fly: the Eagles and the Giants.

So will it happen? Not likely. The Cowboys should be better and have first-rate talent, but even if everything goes swimmingly, it would be hard to pass the Giants and Eagles. With Phillips looking over his shoulder, it will be impossible.

Why this pick makes sense: If there was a Trendy Pick Lifetime Achievement award, it would bear the San Diego Chargers' name. Year after year, the Chargers are everyone's pick to go ahead and finally take the last step. Year after year, they fail.

As a famous former President from southern California would say, well, there you go again.

It's true. With Shawne Merriman returning healthy, a tremendous quarterback in Philip Rivers looking better than ever, a balanced offense, a healthy defense and LaDainian Tomlinson starving for a ring, here go the Chargers. Again.

Usually, the Chargers find a way to get full reading so many press clippings. Several factors point to a different end to this story. Foremost, the franchise player, Tomlinson, is now 30. That's a magic number for NFL players. It's that time when they look back at what they have and haven't accomplished, and come to significant decisions.

Tomlinson seems to have "the look" in training camp this year. He is determined to do anything to get that elusive ring, similar to the John Elway look after so many times falling short.

The Chargers are healthier, too, than they've been in a couple of years. And in a division they should easily win, getting some rest and a bye come playoff time could make a world of difference.

Why it may not fly: Norv Turner is the head coach. Some would say that alone makes a Super Bowl run impossible.

Turner infamously has taken more than one team to terrific starts and high hopes, only to see them deflated. He is a brilliant play-caller who has yet to be a strong leader for an organization.

Unfair? Not really. The Chargers certainly could make injuries an excuse for the dismal end to the 2008 season. But the fact remains that since MartySchottenheimer was ousted after a 14-2 season, Turner's Chargers have slipped to 11-5, then 8-8.

And what about the clock on the wall? Time is undefeated. Tomlinson may have a chip on his shoulder in hopes of proving critics wrong, but he is 30. That doesn't change. And Merriman broke down last year. He's not old, but he's been suspended for steroids and steroid-users have been known to break down much more easily.

The Chargers also have serious questions to answer along the offensive line and in the secondary, where time is catching up as well. They should have enough to win the division, but against better competition another disappointment could loom.

So, will it happen? Yes. This time, yes. The Chargers could finally get over the hump. Ultimately, players make the biggest difference, and while the Steelers, Patriots and Colts are deservedly favored, San Diego's talent takes a backseat to no one.

Why this pick makes sense: The Niners finally seem to have gotten it right. After multiple attempts at finding the next Bill Walsh with coaches who were in over their heads, incapable of getting the job done or flat-out inept, the tough Hall of Famer has stepped in and raised expectations.

He's the anti-Walsh. Walsh used brainpower to convince you to fall in line with his philosophy. Singletary just beats your brains in. OK, maybe not. But he is using attitude, toughness and old-school ways to round his tawdry team into shape. The Niners are doing tackling drills this summer, for gosh sakes.

And why not? The Niners were a soft franchise. They needed the swift kick in the pants that Singletary has brought, and has continued to bring, during camp.

They're clearly improved in key areas, too. Obviously, a Mike Singletary team is going to play good defense. They were good last year and should be better, especially against the run. Middle linebacker Patrick Willis may be the best in the game at his position.

The running game also could be key in terms of ball control and Glen Coffee should be a great complement to Frank Gore. Confidence is high throughout camp as well, with a 5-2 run at the end of 2008, earning Singletary the job and raising expectations.

Run the ball and defend the run. Be tough. Be accountable. Work on fundamentals. Yup, Mike Singletary is in charge. That's a great start.

Why it may not fly:Coach Singletary's act is going to play only so long. It's sad, but true in this age of Twitter, when it only takes one player to call Mad Mike a loon for the perception to become reality all across the Internet.

And when a head coach's favorite drill is called the "nutcracker" -- you don't want to know -- that's pushing the envelope.

Singletary is pushing this team like it never has been pushed before. That can be a good thing, but it can also backfire, especially when the roster is so thin and the quarterback is, frankly, bad.

The 49ers briefly flirted with the idea of signing Michael Vick, which pretty much shows you the confidence they have in Alex Smith or Shaun Hill. Perhaps Vick was on Singletary's radar because San Francisco's offensive line allowed an NFL-worst 55 sacks in 2008. Vick's speed would come in handy while running for his life.

The Niners also have yet to sign first-round draft pick Michael Crabtree and have questions all over, including rushing the passer and at cornerback, which is not a good combination. Opposing teams are going to spread the field against the Niners.

So, will it happen? No way. Singletary deserved this chance he's gotten, but too many things are stacked against him. He'll get this club playing good football and toughen it up, but by midseason, expect a big crash. And Singletary could go down in the rubble.

Why this pick makes sense: Late last season, someone noticed the Texans were getting better. Now, everyone is hopping on board. After years of pain and agony (much of it self-inflicted) the Texans finally are earning attention as a rising organization that will break through in 2009.

The Texans have one of the best offenses in the game. Period. Gary Kubiak's and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan's play calling were superb down the stretch last season when quarterback Matt Schaub led the team to a 5-1 finish. There may not be another team out there with a better receiver-tight-end-running back combination than Andre Johnson, Owen Daniels and Steve Slaton.

The offensive line returns intact for the first time in the organization's history. There is superstar talent Mario Williams, looking like a man possessed thus far in camp, anchoring a much-improved defense. Smart decision-makers finally are in charge, with the Texans' draft selections since Kubiak took over in 2006 nothing short of superb.

The perennial division-contending Colts and Titans have suffered significant personnel loses and fallen back to the pack, so to speak. There is Pro Bowl-type talent at defensive end (Williams), linebacker (DeMeco Ryans), right tackle (Eric Winston), running back (Slaton), wide receiver (Johnson) and tight end (Daniels). The foundation is set. The Texans also have the most favorable schedule in their existence.

Why it may not fly: The first thing a playoff-bound team must do is contend in its own division. And despite a few departures and shortcomings, the Tennessee Titans and Indianapolis Colts don't seem to be going anywhere just yet. No NFL division champion had more than the Titans' 13 wins in 2008. No second-place team in an NFL division had more than Indy's 12.

Peyton Manning is still Peyton Manning. Jeff Fisher's winning formula won't exactly blow up in his face just because Albert Haynesworth bolted for Washington. And the Texans have had an abysmal record within the AFC South.

The Texans have yet to get a full season out of Matt Schaub, too. Some of his injuries have been flukes, but ultimately he's missed a lot of time. Are you banking on Dan Orlovsky to carry the playoff load? Yeah, right.

Also: The Texans may have finished 5-1 last year, but they also started 0-4. They are a notoriously bad to begin the year.

And there is a reason there are so many new faces on the defensive side, including first-year defensive coordinator Frank Bush. The Texans stunk defensively. They ranked 22nd in the NFL in total defense and 26th in scoring defense.

So, will it happen? Yes, print those playoff tickets, Texans fans. Matt Schaub is due a full, healthy season. And when he's on the field, nobody stops this offense.

Why this pick makes sense: Scott Pioli certainly knows the formula for success -- he helped draw it up alongside names like Bill Parcells and BillBelichick. Already, Pioli has turned over the Chiefs' roster in quick order, making several daring moves along the way. No one is expecting a Super Bowl appearance, but there are lots of good vibes in Kansas City and a sense that the turnaround isn't too far down the road.

Pioli is easily among the best personnel in the business. If he says quarterback Matt Cassel is worth a six-year, $63 million contract, then he probably is. It is a huge risk putting so much faith in a mostly unproven backup quarterback. But Pioli and first-year coach Todd Haley, who has Super Bowl experience with the Arizona Cardinals, are establishing an entirely new football culture within the organization and trusting themselves with Cassel.

Gone are the country club days of not holding all players to the same standards of professionalism. The perfect example: It took 2008 first-round pick GlennDorsey five days to pass the conditioning test that allowed him to begin practice. While his teammates practiced, the $22 million out-of-shape Dorsey had to go through humiliating conditioning drills on the sideline. The message was clear. No matter who you are or how much money you make, if you slack, you sit.

Also gone are the days of hiring re-tread coaches. And the Carl Peterson front-office that got passed by a younger, hungrier, more eager NFL generation is gone, too.

Let's not forget the importance of 44-year-old Clark Hunt, either. The son of Chiefs patriarch Lamar Hunt, Clark inherited the title of Chairman of the Board of the organization when his father died in 2006. He definitely has the ambition and energy to put his own stamp on the franchise.

Why it may not fly: This is a bad team. I mean, really, really bad. Winning just six times in its last 32 games tells the biggest part of the story. But the problems run deeper.

There has been a lot of attitude and complacency on this team, a product of the previous regime. That doesn't get better overnight. Veteran players are griping, Larry Johnson is hinting at wanting a trade and the talent holes are gaping.

The offensive line is mediocre: Gone is Pro Bowl tight end Tony Gonzalez, the secondary is pitiful and the linebacking corps has been fortified with Mike Vrabel and Zach Thomas -- proven players and leaders who are on their last NFL legs.

Pioli also added 14-year veteran Amani Toomer, 14-year wide receiver BobbyEngram, 12th-year guard Mike Goff and 10th-year safety Mike Brown.

The club's sponsor should be Band-Aid.

And did we mention that the $63 million franchise quarterback never has started a playoff game or been a regular NFL starter?

So, will it happen? Nope. It's just asking too much. The Chiefs have cleared some cap space, but they are at least four or five years away.

Why this pick makes sense: The best thing about Jay Cutler to Bears fans is that he's not Rex Grossman.

This is a team that has needed only the slightest of jolts to make the leap from good to great. And Cutler is looking like he's it.

Because of a couple of off-field stories involving Cutler's uneasy departure from Denver and rumored squabble with Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher -- a name-calling episode that both players said never happened -- people forget about Cutler's talent.

He's the most productive quarterback the Bears have had since Jim Harbaugh in the early 90s (Yeah, it's been that bad for the Bears at the most important position on the field. Who'd you think I was going to say, Peter Tom Willis or Steve Walsh?) And he's possibly the most talented, ever.

On an otherwise good team, a quarterback can indeed make a huge difference, especially when that team plays defense and has a terrific running back, like the Bears do in Matt Forte. Simply put, if teams put eight defenders in the box like they did last year to stop Forte, Cutler will torch them.

Despite quarterbacking a bad Denver team, Cutler still threw for more than 9,000 yards and 50 touchdowns, while completing better than 60 percent of his passes.

Yes, Brandon Marshall sure helped, but Cutler is the real deal. The Bears could be, too, especially with the addition of Orlando Pace to protect Cutler, Forte available for play action and that defense shortening the field.

Why it may not fly: Exactly who's going to catch all those beautiful Jay Cutler spirals?

It was the biggest question the Bears faced going into camp, the biggest question now and likely will be the question until someone proves otherwise.

Devin Hester can impact a game and Forte is decent out of the backfield. Tight ends Desmond Clark and Greg Olsen are efficient, but otherwise there's 2008 third-round pick Earl Bennett, who couldn't find the field last year, and the talented and unproven rookies, Juaquin Iglesias and Johnny Knox. The Bears wideouts will scare no one.

One other thing. The Bears pride themselves on always playing great defense and certainly have Pro Bowl talent all over the field, with Urlacher, Lance Briggs, Nathan Vasher, Alex Brown, Charles Tillman and Tommie Harris.

It was that kind of talent that helped the Bears rank No. 1 in the league in scoring defense in 2005, and No. 3 in 2006, when the Bears advanced to the Super Bowl. But where has that defense gone? The last two seasons, the Bears have dropped to 28th and 21st in the league.

So, will it happen? Yup. Fear the Bears in 2009. I'm not saying Super Bowl, but if Cutler has any receiver step up, good things will happen. The Vikings flirted with Brett Favre for a reason. And the Packers playing footsy with Michael Vick? Not exactly a confidence-booster.

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