Almost as quickly as Desmond Howard darted through the New England Patriots last January to give Green Bay its first Super Bowl victory in 29 years, the NFL is back.
So are the Packers.
As training camps open, Green Bay is a clear favorite to repeat and give the NFC its 14th straight Super Bowl victory. The key Packer missing is Desmond Howard, now in Oakland with Jeff George as Al Davis once again hopes a strong arm and speed can take the Raiders to a title.
This next week will mark the debut of 11 new coaches - including Cincinnati's Bruce Coslet, who took over in midseason for David Shula and is running his first training camp with the Bengals - giving more than a third of the 30 teams a new look.
Those "new" guys include 60-year-old Dick Vermeil, returning in St. Louis 15 years after he left Philadelphia complaining of burnout; Mike Ditka, taking over in New Orleans five years after leaving Chicago; and, most notably, Bill Parcells, who left New England after taking the Patriots to the Super Bowl to take over the New York Jets, 1-15 last season and 4-28 over the last two.
THE PACKERS have risen to the top at a good time.
Because almost every team in the NFL was squeezed by the salary cap, Green Bay had almost all its key players back when veterans reported for camp on Friday.
One free agent, outside linebacker Wayne Simmons, couldn't find another team willing to pay him the money he was seeking. Another, defensive tackle Gilbert Brown, took less than he was offered by Jacksonville to stay with a winner.
Besides Howard, the absentees are kicker Chris Jacke, wide receiver Andre Rison, tight end Keith Jackson and defensive end Sean Jones.
Rison, who was "rented" when injuries struck the wide receiving corps, was unneeded with Robert Brooks back; Jacke was released; and Jackson retired along with Jones, who will be replaced by Gabe Wilkins.
Howard had three punt returns for touchdowns in the regular season last year and another in the playoffs, plus that 99-yard kickoff return in Green Bay's 35-21 win over New England in the Super Bowl. He is one of the centerpieces of the new AFC West, the NFL's most active in the offseason.
George and Elvis Grbac in Kansas City give the division two new strong-armed quarterbacks and Grbac gets Brett Perriman and Rison as deep threats. Chad Brown, who had 13 sacks last season, joins Cortez Kennedy and Sam Adams to pressure quarterbacks in Seattle. Neil Smith moves from Kansas City to beef up the defensive line in Denver.
"It's got to be the most competitive division in the NFL," says coach Mike Shanahan of the Broncos. "I don't see a weak link."
That could benefit Denver, which is hoping to win a Super Bowl before 36-year-old John Elway runs out of years, and will have to work harder to win the division.
Last year, the Broncos began 12-1, clinching home field with three weeks left in the regular season, making them a favorite to win the AFC. But they waited five weeks for a meaningful game and when they played it, they stumbled - losing 30-27 to Jacksonville at Mile High Stadium, where the Broncos are usually unbeatable.
THE JAGUARS are another team in the spotlight as camps open. Like the Carolina Panthers, the other expansion team, they reached the conference title game. But like the Panthers, who beat out San Francisco in the NFC West and defeated Dallas in its first playoff game, the Jaguars now have a tougher schedule and more attention: No one takes them lightly now.
Here's a look at the league heading into training camp:
Besides an injury to two-time MVP Brett Favre, the other thing that could derail the Packers is the dreaded post-Super Bowl letdown.
"I think my No. 1 job as head coach is not diagraming plays or even calling plays. It's to make sure the players stay as hungry as they were last year," says coach Mike Holmgren, an assistant on the 1988-1989 San Francisco 49ers, the first team in a decade to repeat.
"I'm sure most of the guys are saying, `I can't give any more.' But you can; we will, because that is the only chance we have of getting back there."
Nobody in the NFC Central seems capable of stopping Green Bay, although Tampa Bay is improving and Bobby Ross, who left San Diego and took over in Detroit, should make the Lions a playoff contender.
Dallas, aging on the offensive line and without the suspended Leon Lett and the retired Charles Haley on defense, will be favored by default to win the NFC East. Philadelphia was a legitimate challenger last year, but has quarterback questions, and the other three teams are in various stages of rebuilding.
Carolina and San Francisco should fight it out again in the West. Last year, they both finished 12-4, but the Panthers beat the 49ers twice and are 3-1 lifetime against the Niners.
San Francisco, which has missed the playoffs only twice since 1981, is still competitive - as long as Steve Young and Jerry Rice stay healthy.
Last year's "failure" - the Niners lost in Green Bay in the NFC semifinals - prompted owner Eddie DeBartolo and team president Carmen Policy to bring in Steve Mariucci, who spent one year coaching at Cal and before that was the quarterbacks coach in Green Bay. He succeeded George Seifert, who stepped down with a career winning percentage of .755, best in NFL history.
CAROLINA WAS NO FLUKE and has added linebacker Micheal Barrow, signed from Houston as a free agent. Tshimanga Biakabutuka comes back healthy at running back and Kerry Collins, in his third season, looks like one of the good young quarterbacks.
Scratch the rest of the division: Ditka in New Orleans, Vermeil in St. Louis and Dan Reeves, who takes over in Atlanta, all are rebuilding.
New England, which was competitive in the Super Bowl, has been overlooked in the AFC West's overhaul. Parcells' absence also hurts the Pats.
But new coach Pete Carroll has a solid nucleus, highlighted by offensive triplets that rival Dallas' in quarterback Drew Bledsoe, wide receiver Terry Glenn and running back Curtis Martin, augmented by tight end Ben Coates.
With Jim Kelly retired, Billy Joe Hobert and Todd Collins are competing for the quarterback spot in Buffalo and the Bills have to be considered a team in transition. Jimmy Johnson is still counting on young players to support Dan Marino in Miami and six wins would be a successful season for Parcells' talent-short Jets.
So the main challenger to the Patriots in the division looks to be Indianapolis, which made the playoffs at 9-7 a year ago despite injuries to just about every starter on offense and defense.
Pittsburgh, which has dominated the AFC Central the past few years is opening camp committed to Kordell Stewart as the full-time quarterback. The Steelers keep losing players - Chad Brown and Rod Woodson, among others, are the latest - and keep winning.
But Jacksonville might be the favorite this year, particularly if Mark Brunell can continue the progress he made at quarterback last season. The Jaguars have a nucleus of budding stars, particularly on defense, where linebacker Kevin Hardy, defensive end Tony Brackens and cornerback Aaron Beasley all shined as rookies.
The Houston Oilers are now the Tennessee Oilers, with Steve McNair ready to blossom at quarterback. Just having a home crowd will help them. And Cincinnati finished 7-2 last year after Bruce Coslet took over for Dave Shula as head coach and could carry the momentum into this season.
Don't count out anyone - the four teams behind Denver last year were all between 9-7 and 7-9 and all have made positive changes except, perhaps, San Diego.
But in January? Look to Green Bay.
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