By Jeff Drews
The Pittsburgh Steelers are the early favorites. The thirty something Raiders aren’t far behind. The Miami Dolphins think running back Ricky Williams will be the difference and the Tennessee Titans claim they’re ready to get back to the big bowl.
As many of you are aware of, training camp has begun around the National Football League.
Lets take a sneak peek to see how things are stacking up in the AFC.
The AFC East
Buffalo Bills… Expectations are high as quarterback Drew Bledsoe takes over the reigns of the Bills offense.
After eight years as the New England Patriots starter, he got hurt last season and was replaced by an unknown rookie named Tom Brady. Bledsoe stayed replaced except for half of the AFC Championship Game at Pittsburgh. Brady, not Bledsoe, was the quarterback of record in the Patriots’ Super Bowl shocker.
It has been a long time since Bledsoe led the Pats to Super Bowl XXXI. Now everybody talks about the Patriots going from 5-11 in 2000 to beating the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI.
The Bills are gambling that Bledsoe still has something left to give. To get him, they sent New England their first-round draft pick in 2003.
Miami Dolphins… The arrival of running back Ricky Williams from New Orleans has the Dolphins thinking Super Bowl. Miami already has a top-rated defense led by Zach Thomas and Jason Taylor.
The Fins are hoping Williams can stay healthy and rush for another 1,245 yards like he did last season. If he does, then they can ride this train all the way to the playoffs. Too bad they still need a quarterback.
New England Patriots… Motivating the defending Super Bowl champs to repeat is the top priority for head coach Bill Belichick. So to make his point, he asked former Celtics Hall-of-Fame center Bill Russell, who won 11 NBA titles, including eight consecutive, to address the team.
Last year at this time, Belichick took the team to the IMAX Threatre to watch Ernest Shackleton’s “Voyage of Endurance,” a story about overcoming life-threatening conditions and putting aside individual thoughts for the good of the crew. The message got through. The Patriots unified and went on to win the Super Bowl.
This season, Belichick again bused the Pats to the IMAX Theatre.
The players guessed a film would be involved. They were correct. When the show finally began, it was a documentary on Russell’s life.
The film depicted how difficult life was for Russell. It also looked at his leadership as a civil rights activist. But the film focused on how Russell was the consummate team player who gave up individual glory for the good of the group. The film showed championship after championship, and after every one it was pointed out how focused the Celtics were on winning another.
After the film ended, Russell walked out on stage. He was greeted by a standing ovation. Russell talked for 40 minutes about the focus and hunger needed to win. The players soaked up every word.
New York Jets… Vinny Testaverde missed most of the offseason while recovering from foot surgery to remove a benign tumor. But he’s a 100 percent now and should be fine for the regular season.
Testaverde still has one of the best arms in the game and has a solid group of receivers that will include second-year speedster Santana Moss, the emerging Lavernues Coles and the always reliable Wayne Chrebet. But if you still doubt Testaverde, just ask yourself: Who was the best players on the field in the playoff loss to the Raiders last January? It was Testaverde.
Curtis Martin might be the most durable and reliable running back in the NFL. Even atage 29, he has shown no signs of slowing down. LaMont Jordan’s improvement will only help.
The AFC South…
The Indianapolis Colts… Head coach Tony Dungy was hired to bring one thing to Indianapolis. Defense.
From the opening of training camp, Dungy has told his defense he expects them to swarm to ball carriers like piranhas. On every play, all 11 players are expected to run to the ball and get their hands on the runner. No excuses, not even the big 300-pound guys.
This is all part of a new “speed kills” defensive scheme introduced by Dungy and implemented by defensive coordinator Ron Meeks. This defense will be better than last year’s unit simply because it can’t be any worse.
However, Meeks is overseeing top-to-bottom defensive personnel that possesses speed and athletic ability. These characteristics are tailor-made for the demands of the Cover-2.
Nobody is saying the new system is going to turn the defense in to the 1985 Chicago Bears. But the new system, and an off-season dedicated to adding defensive players, should mean a little something.
The Colts’ 29th-ranked defense was blamed for much of the team’s 6-10 slide and subsequent firing of coach Jim Mora, who refused to accept president Bill Polian’s mandate to remove defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. The 486 points allowed last season were the second-highest total in Colts history.
Finally, the Colts need consistency on offense. Last year’s offensive numbers were so misleading, they might as well been prepared by WorldCom’s accountants. When they were good, they were great, scoring ridiculous sums of points. In their losses, they were unproductive and plagued by turnovers.
A healthy Edgerrin James, Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison and a solid defense should propel the Colts back into the playoffs.
The Tennessee Titans… Expectations in Nashville are high this season for the Titans. After a dismal injury plagued 7-9 season, running back Eddie George and quarterback Steve McNair are finally healthy.
This is great news for George. He played with a painful toe injury and his statistics suffered. He gained 939 yards rushing on 315 carries. It was his first season he failed to gain 1,000 yards on the ground.
Probably because the Titans were trailing most of the time, McNair set career highs in passing yards (3350) and TDs (21). Head coach Jeff Fisher could really open up the passing game this season if he can keep McNair’s shoulder healthy.
Because of the injury to George last season, the Titans have eight running backs in training camp. The team will most likely keep four.
Defensively, Tennessee must improve its pass defense, which ranked 31st last season.
Unfortunately, injuries will shelf starting cornerback Samari Rolle and first-round pick defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth for most of August..
Rolle has a sever ankle sprain. Apparently, the sprain is so severe that he has an avulsion fracture, which is when the ligament is stretched so violently it pulls a small piece of bone away.
Haynesworth also has a severe ankle sprain. The injury occurred after he stepped on a teammates foot during workouts.
Haynesworth is supposed to fill the void left by Jason Fisk and Josh Evans who left via free agency. The Titans believed Haynesworth’s presence would open up pass rushing opportunities for defensive ends Kevin Carter and Jevon Kearse, who combined last season for a disappointing 12 sacks.
Unfortunately, the Titans will probably miss Kearse for the season opener due to a elbow injury. But once he is healthy, opposing quarterbacks should be on alert.
With an improved defense and a healthy offense, the Titans could be Super Bowl contenders.
Jacksonville Jaguars… The salary cap ended the Jaguars season before it even started.
The Jaguars were forced by the salary cap to make a major overhaul of their team in the offseason and now they have a younger, cheaper team. Jacksonville has 47 new faces this season.
Gone are the pillars of the Jacksonville franchise; Tony Boselli, Kevin Hardy, Aaron Beasley, Keenan McCardell and Hardy Nickerson. They are replaced by players most people have never heard of.
To make matters worse, All-Pro wide out Jimmy Smith has not reported to training camp yet because he wants a new contract.
However the successful return of Fred Taylor from a groin tear gives the Jags something to smile about. Running back Stacy Mack is a solid back up should Taylor get injured again.
Houston Texans… This team might be the AFCs whipping boy.
(This was the first in a series previewing the National Football League by Seymour Herald contributing writer Jeff Drews.)