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Answering Service What will be the first really big game on this year's schedule? (And four other questions worth asking on the eve of the 2001 NFL season)

Sept. 10, 2001
Sept. 10, 2001

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Sept. 10, 2001

Answering Service What will be the first really big game on this year's schedule? (And four other questions worth asking on the eve of the 2001 NFL season)

1 What will be the first really big game on the 2001 schedule?

This is an article from the Sept. 10, 2001 issue Original Layout

Sprawled on a couch at a New York City nightspot last spring,
Ravens defensive end Rob Burnett spotted a chiseled,
clean-shaven gentleman and rose to block his path. Eddie George,
the Titans' All-Pro running back, stopped and locked eyes with
Burnett. Then the two men embraced. "Everything was real cool,"
Burnett says, "but that's not typical. There's a lot of Raven
hatin' out there, because a lot of people don't like the way we
do things, and they hope and pray that we fail. I say, 'Don't
hate--congratulate.'"

Although George indeed congratulated Burnett on Baltimore's
victory in Super Bowl XXXV, on the whole the Titans remain
bitter about the 24-10 loss to the Ravens in last season's AFC
divisional playoff. Baltimore cornerback Chris McAlister got the
Titans' blood boiling in the days leading up to the game with
his assertion that George had "folded like a baby" in a 24-23
Ravens win on Nov. 12. Then, to fire up the Adelphia Coliseum
crowd before the playoff game began, a tape of Baltimore's
locker room celebration following the November meeting, in which
coach Brian Billick mocked an SI cover story proclaiming
Tennessee the NFL's best team, was replayed on the giant stadium
screen. Finally, after producing the best regular-season record
(13-3) in the league, the Titans were denied a return trip to
the AFC Championship Game.

On Oct. 7, when the two teams wage their first battle of 2001,
at Baltimore's PSINet Stadium, much more will be riding on the
outcome than an early leg up in the AFC Central. The results of
this game--plus the Nov. 12 rematch in Nashville--could
determine the division champion and a first-round bye in the
playoffs. "I'd be lying if I said I'm not thinking about them,
because our games with the Ravens were the most spirited and
most competitive we played last year," says Tennessee tackle
Brad Hopkins. "Plus, our two teams have completely different
personalities. We're a bunch of blue-collar guys who don't have
big egos. We just strap it on and play."

The teams' contrasting personalities can be traced to their
coaches. Whereas the Titans' Jeff Fisher would probably rather
spend his nights locked in a bathroom than invite cameras and
microphones into team meetings, Billick granted NFL Films full
access to training camp for an HBO series. Each coach is popular
with his players, but while Fisher frowns on inflammatory
statements, Billick practically encourages them. "Brian allows us
to do things that players want to do," says Ravens tight end
Shannon Sharpe. "That's why he gets so much out of us."

As the psychological warfare heats up in the coming weeks,
neither side is likely to blink. "We're not going to turn this
into some ER episode," Hopkins says. "You're not going to hear
anything from our camp. You might want to check out HBO."

Says Sharpe, "You can't become so obsessed with one team that
you lose the ability to focus on other teams, but Tennessee is
kind of getting that way with us. All we hear from the Titans is
that they wear their hard hats to work and don't do a whole lot
of talking. Well, they shouldn't be talking, because until they
win it all, what do they have to talk about?" --Michael Silver

2 Have the Bucs improved enough on offense to win the Super Bowl?

Yes, but we say so with an asterisk. During the preseason rookie
left tackle Kenyatta Walker, the team's first-round draft choice,
was efficient if not dominant. Free-agent acquisition Brad
Johnson led two impressive first-quarter drives against the
Falcons last Friday night and responded afterward to those who
have questioned his arm strength: "My arm's great. That stuff
about not being able to throw deep is not factual." There is
harmony between the players and new offensive coordinator Clyde
Christensen because he plans to feature marquee wide receiver
Keyshawn Johnson more than the Bucs did last year while making
mighty mite Warrick Dunn the centerpiece of the running game.
"The offense is primo," Keyshawn said after Friday's game. "We're
ready to play great."

There is one concern. That would be this Dunn-as-the-workhorse
notion. He is only 5'9" and 180 pounds, and no Super Bowl
champion has had as light a back take on such a heavy burden.
Still, because Dunn has been remarkably durable--he missed only
one game because of injury in his first four years, while
averaging more than 14 carries a game--the Bucs believe he can be
their mail carrier. It's a role he began to fill last November
after fullback Mike Alstott got hurt. Now Dunn will be asked to
do it for 16 games. "We want to be a ball-control offense," coach
Tony Dungy says, "and I think we can be smart about it and do it
with Warrick."

The plan: Play high-percentage offense with Johnson's precision
passing (his 61.8 career completion percentage ranks third
alltime), preventing teams from stacking the line to contain
Dunn. Build a lead early in the second half. Finish off foes by
sledgehammering them with eight to 10 carries in the fourth
quarter by the 248-pound Alstott.

Dunn, the smallest of the 23 NFL backs to gain at least 1,000
yards last season, is a poor man's Barry Sanders. Last year Dunn
had a career-high 248 carries, and during one late four-game
stretch, all of them Tampa Bay victories, he had no fewer than
20 carries and as many as 28. So he isn't afraid of the pressure
he faces or the beating he might take. As the Buccaneers wrapped
up a 1-3 preseason, he wore his typical don't-worry, be-happy
look. "I think I can do it," says Dunn. "I just have to be
smart. I have to know what hits to take and what hits to avoid,
but I've known how to do that since I came into the NFL."

If Dunn is still standing in early January, Tampa Bay should be
sitting pretty. --Peter King

3 Will there be a surprise Super Bowl team like the 1998
Falcons, the '99 Rams or the 2000 Giants?

In the middle of last year's 1-15 debacle, San Diego's All-Pro
linebacker, Junior Seau, said, "I pray that I don't end up
playing out my career on teams that don't have a chance."
Fast-forward to training camp this summer, when Seau looked
across the line and realized the Chargers' offense, toothless for
so long, had been reborn under offensive coordinator Norv Turner
and quarterback Doug Flutie. "The defense had dominated the
offense for so long in practice," Seau says. "Now it's like we're
playing chess every day; we even have trouble against the vanilla
plays. Flutie has so much energy, and Norv's the smartest coach
I've practiced against in 12 years as a pro."

Say what you want about Flutie--he's too short, he's 38, he's
never been a long-term NFL starter, he's a bad foil for Terry
Bradshaw in those long-distance commercials--but you have to
give him this: He's no Ryan Leaf, on or off the field. Importing
the perennially underappreciated Flutie (30-14 as an NFL
starter) should pay big early dividends for new general manager
John Butler, because an immobile quarterback could get killed
playing behind San Diego's leaky line. Butler also improved a
decent pass rush by signing free-agent end Marcellus Wiley, and
he addressed an awful cornerback situation by signing
better-than-average cover men Ryan McNeil and Alex Molden. From
the draft came TCU tailback LaDainian Tomlinson, who should make
a horrendous running game much better.

Better offense, better players and the league's stingiest run
defense over the last three years combined, in a division loaded
with good backs, will all be factors. However, don't
underestimate the importance of the schedule in our pick of the
Chargers as the sleeper of this season. No schedule in recent
history may have been more suited to a fast start than San
Diego's. After opening with the Redskins at home, the Chargers
face four serious contenders for the cellars of their respective
divisions: the Cowboys, Bengals, Browns and Patriots. The next
three foes--the Broncos, Bills and Chiefs--will be tougher, but
all of them have to travel to San Diego.

It may sound like a foolish prediction, with Super Bowl
contenders Denver and Oakland in the same division, but San
Diego has a real chance to be playing in January. Let's face it:
If the Chargers aren't in the postseason hunt in November, coach
Mike Riley (9-23 in two seasons) will know it's time to update
his resume.

"As bad as we've been, we've got to keep our mouths shut and go
to work," says defensive tackle John Parella. "It's been a long
time since I've looked at our team and said we've got a
chance--but we do." --P.K.

4 Which one of last year's playoff teams might be fighting for
its postseason life by mid-October?

The Dolphins have arguably the toughest early schedule in the
league, with five of their first six games coming against the
Titans, Rams and Jets on the road plus the Bills and the Raiders
at home. All five opponents either made the playoffs or jostled
for a spot in the final weeks of last season, and three
(Oakland, St. Louis, Tennessee) are strong contenders to reach
the Super Bowl. For winning the AFC East in 2000, Miami was
"rewarded" with a first-place schedule that turns out to be a
high price to pay for success.

Naturally, the Dolphins shrug it all off, and with good reason:
Over the past 10 seasons they are a league-best 26-9 in
September. "We have a tough schedule, but we're used to playing
big games every week," says center Tim Ruddy of the rugged AFC
East. However, if the Dolphins come out of those first six games
with a losing record, another telltale number will loom: an 8-11
regular-season record in December over the past five years.

"We've been mentally and physically exhausted," wideout Oronde
Gadsden says of the late-season dropoff. "We've had some pretty
rigorous training camps. We come out of the gate firing on all
cylinders, but it takes a toll on people at the end of the year."

The December lineup this season offers little relief, beginning
with a home date against Denver (the Broncos will be coming off
nine days' rest) and then three games (the Colts, at the 49ers
and at the Patriots) in a span of 13 days. In preparation for
the long haul, though, second-year coach Dave Wannstedt ran far
fewer full-contact drills in camp than his predecessor, Jimmy
Johnson, did. At one point in August the players went 13
straight practices without donning full pads. Injuries factored
into Wannstedt's decision to tone down workouts (left tackle
Brent Smith was the major casualty, tearing the ACL in his left
knee during a July 27 full-contact drill), but the team welcomes
the change, whatever the reason for it.

"If we can get through those first six games 5-1, or at worst,
4-2," says Gadsden, "that would be a good indicator that things
are going the way we planned." --Jeffri Chadiha

5 Will Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon have another magical
season?

If the Raiders want to reach their first Super Bowl in 18 years,
they better pray the answer to that question is yes. For the most
indispensable player on any contender this season may be Gannon,
a 35-year-old quarterback who seven years ago spent his autumn
Sundays building a model train set in his basement while mulling
a contract offer from the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

As we learned when Gannon went down in the second quarter of a
16-3 loss to Baltimore in the AFC Championship Game last January,
Oakland's prospects are poor without him. (Backup Bobby Hoying
had the dubious distinction of throwing 224 passes without a
touchdown while with the Eagles in 1998 and has thrown only seven
passes during the past two seasons.) "You have to watch our film
to understand what he means to this offense," coach Jon Gruden
says of Gannon, who earned first-team All-Pro honors in 2000.
"The guy makes so many plays."

A scrambler without blazing speed and an accurate passer without
a Herculean arm, Gannon threw for 3,430 yards and 28 touchdowns
with only 11 interceptions last year, ran for 529 yards and was
a serious MVP candidate for much of the season. Yet some
skeptics wonder whether Gannon can continue to perform at that
level, and he understands their trepidation. Asked last week if
it's logical to assume he'll be similarly successful this year,
Gannon replied, "Not at all. That's a dangerous assumption. You
have to approach it like every year's a new year, and you have
to earn your completions and your wins."

Don't count Gannon's teammates among the skeptics. "People
speculating like that provides extra incentive for him to prove
them wrong," says wide receiver Jerry Rice, who signed with the
Raiders after 16 record-setting years with San Francisco. Adds
Oakland fullback Jon Ritchie, "Talent doesn't disappear from one
season to the next. From our perspective Rich is better prepared
for this season than he was for last season. If anything, he
should be better."

Gannon's teammates have to be as protective of his body as they
are of his reputation. They won't soon forget his departure from
that AFC title game after mammoth Baltimore defensive tackle
Tony Siragusa landed on Gannon and drove his right shoulder into
the turf. "He actually hurt the shoulder on our third play of
the game, when [defensive end Michael] McCrary jumped the snap
count, came around our left side and blindsided him," says Gruden.

During the off-season Oakland acquired additional receiving help
for Gannon, bringing in sure-handed former Rams tight end Roland
Williams to replace the undependable Rickey Dudley and signing
former 49ers running back Charlie Garner to fill the scatback job
formerly held by the retired Napoleon Kaufman. Unlike Kaufman,
Garner is a gifted receiver, and he and Williams might catch more
balls than Rice and fellow wideout Tim Brown, two of the most
productive pass catchers in league history.

That won't be a problem, Gruden promises, as long as the
headstrong Gannon is the guy making decisions. "That's the great
thing about Gannon," Gruden says. "He doesn't discriminate when
it comes to distributing the ball." --M.S.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BOB ROSATO Clashing personalities The brash Ravens will have no problem getting focused for games against George (27) and the blue-collar Titans.COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Finishing touch In its grand scheme Tampa Bay will turn the ball over to the punishing Alstott to protect a lead.COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Good stuff Seau, anchor of one of the top run defenses, likes the Chargers' new-look offense.COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK No gimmes Quarterback Jay Fiedler and the Dolphins won't catch any breaks in the schedule.COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK On the spot Gannon must have another Pro Bowl year if the Raiders expect to go places.