Thursday January 20th, 2005

The long NFL offseason, which is just days from ending, is all about the search for answers. The fun part is that once the pads go on and training camps begin opening next week, we start finding out which teams did their homework and which did not.

With Super Bowl XXXIX in Jacksonville six-and-a-half months away, and plenty of new faces in new places, the NFL is about to launch its 85th season with the certainty that there is no certainty as to what will transpire between now and Feb. 6. And that's the beauty of it.

Here are five of the juiciest preseason questions to ponder as all 32 camps spring to life between July 27 and Aug. 2. And be sure to check back Thursday for five more questions.

Not really. After first requesting a June date for his federal drug trial, and then preparing as if August was the likely target, attorneys involved in the case believe it could be as late as February before Lewis gets his day in court. The best guess is that while the federal judicial system won't be sympathetic to Lewis's football schedule, the court's heavy docket means he probably won't have his 2004 regular season interrupted by legal proceedings.

The Ravens aren't blindly counting on that scenario, but with no court date set, they are growing more optimistic that he'll be available to them through the playoffs if need be. If Lewis does stand trial between now and the Super Bowl, Baltimore head coach Brian Billick has said the Ravens are far better off in terms of running back depth today than they were in 2001, when Lewis went down for the year with a training camp knee injury.

"If we had Musa Smith and Chester Taylor in 2001, we might have gone back to the Super Bowl,'' Billick said.

Smith, a third-round pick in 2003, would presumably handle the bulk of the work if Lewis misses time this season, with Taylor also seeing plenty of action. Together they can't be expected to make up for Lewis' league-leading 2,000-yard rushing production of 2003, but the Ravens are confident they'll be more than serviceable.

It's not that anyone's in denial about the desultory year the Bills signal-caller had last season, because the 11 touchdowns, 12 interceptions and mind-boggling 49 sacks tend to speak for themselves. But with quarterback-friendly coaches like Mike Mularkey, Sam Wyche and Tom Clements now in Buffalo, we should find out if Bledsoe's problems are fixable, or if we've seen the first step in a rapid decline of his passing skills.

Wyche, the quarterbacks coach, is convinced that Bledsoe still has the arm and the smarts to succeed. But Wyche sees bad habits that Bledsoe fell into as the Bills' passing game disintegrated as the season progressed. Far too often, Bledsoe looked for No. 1 receiver Eric Moulds, found him well covered, and then felt the pressure coming and took the sack. Wyche is stressing that Bledsoe should quickly move on to his second and third receivers in that scenario, dumping the ball off for a short gain -- anything to avoid negative yardage.

The Bills are also giddy about first-round receiver Lee Evans, believing he'll give Bledsoe the reliable secondary target that was missing last year after Peerless Price left for Atlanta.

Wyche has also worked hard on keeping Bledsoe's release point up around his ear, because last season, with near constant pressure in his face, the veteran quarterback had a tendency to pull the ball in toward his chest and arm pit in the course of throwing. The result was often glaring inaccuracy.

Bledsoe may never again be Pro Bowl material. But if the Bills protect him better, and veteran line coach Jim McNally is on hand to make sure that happens, there's no reason to believe Bledsoe can't play well enough to buy Buffalo a year of development for first-round quarterback J.P. Losman.

Of the 20-plus new faces in Tampa Bay, none are more important than those of the men who will make up the remodeled offensive line. The Bucs' front five last season was a disaster site that should have been marked off with yellow police tape. It's not so much that Tampa gave up a ton of sacks (only 23), but the constant pounding that quarterback Brad Johnson absorbed affected everything on offense and severely limited Jon Gruden's play-calling.

Normally, replacing almost an entire offensive line in one offseason is a recipe for chaos. Cohesiveness and continuity is paramount at the position. But that logic tends to go out the window if the starters who are being replaced weren't worth a darn to begin with. The Bucs certainly didn't get younger up front, but they did get better, almost by default. Former 49er Derrick Deese, even at 34, is an upgrade over Roman Oben at left tackle. The same for ex-Panther Todd Steussie, 33, who shifts to right tackle for the first time in his career, replacing the overmatched Kenyatta Walker.

The Bucs got Matt Stinchcomb, 27, late of the Raiders, to handle left guard, instead of Kerry Jenkins, and were counting on veteran Matt O'Dwyer, 31, to improve the right guard position manned by Cosey Coleman last year. This week, however, O'Dwyer underwent surgery to repair a torn pectoral muscle and is out indefinitely, forcing Tampa Bay to turn back to either Coleman, Jenkins, Jason Whittle or Sean Mahan.

It's simple, really. If the Bucs protect their quarterback, and get newly acquired receiver Joey Galloway to stretch the field, they have the makings of an offense that can talk Super Bowl. But if the line allows Johnson to get pummeled, Tampa's playoff chances will be busted.

Of the seven teams with new head coaches, all of them have plenty of room for improvement, having finished 2003 in the four-to-seven win range. But it's the sad-sack Cardinals, with just one playoff season since moving to Arizona in 1988, who really have nowhere to go but up.

That's why, with apologies to the restorative powers of Joe Gibbs, Tom Coughlin and Norv Turner, our money is on Dennis Green to produce some results and positive momentum for a franchise that has been wandering in the desert for far too long. The Cardinals new head coach has his detractors, but he also has a track record that's hard to quibble with. He made the playoffs in eight of his 10 seasons in Minnesota (1992-2001), and is widely regarded for his skill in getting stellar production from the quarterback position, no matter who he runs out there.

Both of those notches on his belt are going to come in handy in Arizona, where Green must convince his confidence-challenged Cardinals that they can consistently win in the NFL, and get the inexperienced Josh McCown to play well despite getting his first full-fledged starting opportunity. With receivers Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald, running back Marcel Shipp, and guard Leonard Davis, Green has a nice nucleus of offensive talent. In Minnesota, he always knew what to do with that kind of firepower. Then again, with the Vikings nothing but the playoffs sufficed. In Arizona, Green could go 7-9 or 8-8 this year and the city will throw him a ticker-tape parade.

Some might assume that the math that will decide the Cowboys' starting quarterback job is this: Quincy Carter led Dallas to 10 wins last season, so the No. 1 slot on the depth chart belongs to him. But I see it this way: Vinny Testaverde owns twice as much NFL experience (18 seasons) as the other four Cowboys quarterbacks combined (Carter, four seasons; Chad Hutchinson, three; Tony Romo, two; and Drew Henson, none).

After all, what does Parcells value more than veteran poise and leadership at the game's most pivotal position? The fact that the Dallas head coach is so familiar with Testaverde, who helped lead Parcells' 1998 Jets to the AFC title game, only further builds the case for the Vin Man.

As many strides as Carter made in the first half of last season, spawning a host of coming-of-age stories, he was still plenty erratic by Parcells' standards. Carter finished with 21 interceptions, 17 touchdown passes, 37 sacks and a run-of-the-mill 71.4 quarterback rating.

All of which means Carter better be on his game this preseason from Day 1, or Parcells will find enough reasons to turn back to Testaverde. Don't say we didn't warn you, Quincy.

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