Opening Arguments Here are five hot topics for debate as the NFL's 32 teams prepare to kick off the preseason

August 03, 2003

1 Will the Bucs repeat?

No Super Bowl champion has successfully defended the title since
the Broncos did it at the end of the 1998 season. For once,
though, the victorious coach isn't calling past winners and
reading motivational books, trying to figure out what it takes to
stay on top. At 4 a.m. on a late-July day, it's business as usual
for Tampa Bay's nonstop coach, Jon Gruden, at the workstation
just off his training-camp bedroom. "I need a play," the
raspy-voiced Gruden says, "one play to finish this offensive
script for practice this morning." He thinks for a moment, then
rustles some papers before coming up with 200 Jet Gash Triple
Right F Right for his daily duel with defensive coordinator Monte
Kiffin. "This one's been in the laboratory for two years."

So what does Tampa Bay have to fear most? The early grind, maybe.
The teams that play in the Super Bowl have the shortest
off-season as it is, and this year the Bucs were one of four
teams that had to report to training camp early because they were
playing in an extra preseason game. (They play the Jets in Tokyo
this Saturday, and the Packers and Chiefs meet in the Hall of
Fame Game in Canton, Ohio, on Aug. 4.) "I think it's ridiculous,"
Tampa Bay quarterback Brad Johnson says. "The league should
reward the Super Bowl winner, not make it play five preseason
games. The starters will fly halfway around the world to play one
series."

Gruden doesn't seem to be overly worried about that, or the loss
of three starters. The most noteworthy departure was safety
Dexter Jackson, the Super Bowl MVP and free agent who went to the
Cardinals; he'll be replaced by nickelback Dwight Smith. With a
core group of still-hungry veterans who go hard every day in
camp, the Bucs have an excellent chance to repeat.

2 Will the Broncos finally become a title contender again without
John Elway?

In the four years since Elway retired, Denver is 34-30 with one
postseason appearance--and a first-round exit at that. "I've been
around for every one of those [games]," says wideout Rod Smith,
"and all I can say is, Horrible, horrible, horrible. We can't
tolerate that. This is the year that all changes."

Coach Mike Shanahan made two significant moves to try to get his
team over the hump. Concerned that aloof quarterback Brian Griese
was losing the respect of his teammates, Shanahan released him
even though the Broncos will have to take a $6.9 million
salary-cap hit next year; free agent Jake Plummer, who at times
ran hot but was mostly cold during six seasons with the
Cardinals, was signed to replace Griese. Shanahan also said
goodbye to defensive coordinator Ray Rhodes, whose unit, in a
game against the Raiders last season, allowed Rich Gannon to
complete 21 straight passes; Larry Coyer, formerly the team's
linebackers coach, takes over the defense.

Plummer has never completed more than 59.2% of his passes and has
only once thrown more touchdown passes than interceptions in a
season. However, if Shanahan can turn his quarterback into a
passer with a 64% completion rate and a plus-10
touchdown-to-interception differential, Denver will win the AFC
West.

3 Which NFL rookie is under the most pressure?

That's an easy one. It's Jets defensive tackle Dewayne Robertson,
the fourth choice in the April draft. Whereas the top three
picks--in order, quarterback Carson Palmer (Bengals) and wideouts
Charles Rogers (Lions) and Andre Johnson (Texans)--will be
tutored extensively by their mediocre clubs before being thrown
to the wolves, the plan is for Robertson to be thrust immediately
into the pass-rushing tackle slot by a team with Super Bowl
aspirations. The Jets, a playoff participant the past two seasons
despite ranking 19th and then 24th in the NFL in total defense,
need interior pressure from the 317-pound Robertson to reduce the
time a quarterback has to make plays against New York's suspect
secondary.

To move up in the draft and get Robertson, the Jets essentially
gave up leading receiver Laveranues Coles and their own
first-round pick, No. 22. (Coles accepted a free-agent offer
sheet from the Redskins, which the Jets did not match, and New
York received a first-round compensatory pick; the Jets then
traded their two first-round picks for the Bears' spot at No. 4.)
"I'm not saying he's Warren Sapp," says New York general manager
Terry Bradway, "but [Robertson] has a lot of his qualities:
quickness, burst, great hits on the quarterback."

Robertson had but 10 1/2 sacks in 32 games at Kentucky. He'll
have to produce more than that to be worth the ransom the Jets
paid for him.

4 Will Jeff Garcia's back hold up?

The 49ers quarterback was lifting weights on July 14 when he
suffered a back injury later diagnosed as a bulging disk. After
his first training-camp practice under new coach Dennis Erickson
last Saturday, Garcia pronounced his back sound. But how
comfortable can San Francisco be, knowing that backup Tim Rattay
(no career NFL starts) is one wrenching sack from having to take
over for Garcia? "Who knows what the future holds?" Erickson
says. "But the doctors say he's fine right now."

The 49ers need Garcia if they expect to hold off the Rams and the
Seahawks in the NFC West, and they especially need him to get in
his reps at training camp because of the changes Erickson is
making in the West Coast offense. "We're going to give Jeff more
freedom than he's had at the line of scrimmage to do what he
wants," Erickson says, "and we'll probably get the ball downfield
more." That should please outspoken wideout Terrell Owens to no
end. Of course, keeping Garcia on the field has everything to do
with keeping Owens happy.

5 Who will win the Tim Couch-Kelly Holcomb quarterback battle in
Cleveland?

Based on what coach Butch Davis has been saying, it'll be
Couch--though Holcomb performed better (92.9 quarterback rating
to Couch's 76.8) in about one third the playing time last year
and passed for 429 yards in an AFC wild-card playoff loss to the
Steelers. Surrounded by a poor lineup, Couch, the first pick in
the 1999 draft, has not developed as expected. Davis, who was on
the Dallas staff when Troy Aikman had a horrible first two years,
realizes that a quarterback has to be judged in part by the
supporting cast he has to work with.

"Tim Couch didn't do anything to lose this job," Davis said last
week. "Of our nine wins, he won eight of them. He had some heroic
comebacks." As he begins his third year in Cleveland, Davis knows
that the expectations are high. "We've [entered] a three-to
five-year window where we'll have a chance to be really good
every year," he says.

Davis hopes to name his starter by mid-August. Couch will have to
be pretty lousy to lose the job. --P.K.

COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO (GRUDEN) ROOKIE CHRIS SIMMS IS IN GOOD HANDS WITH GRUDEN COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES (PLUMMER) PLUMMER MUST HAVE A CAREER YEAR COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO ROBERTSON HAS A TALL TASK COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER (OWENS) OWENS SHOULD BE A HAPPY CAMPER COLOR PHOTO: RON SCHWANE/AP COUCH (LEFT) AND HOLCOMB: CLOSE CALL

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)