Less than six months after Adam Vinatieri's field goal gave New England its first Super Bowl victory, the NFL is back. Most training camps open this week in a new 32-team, eight-division league marked by the return of a franchise in Houston.
But things are likely to be the same on the field, where 10 seasons of the salary cap has ensured that any team truly has a chance to win the title. The Patriots proved that last season, but enter this one as no better than the third choice in their own division.
That's not to demean a team that turned team chemistry into an art form as Bill Belichick mixed backup quarterback Tom Brady with a group of journeymen he had coached at previous stops and turned them into champions.
It's just that no one has repeated in five seasons, and no one but St. Louis stays good for very long.
The Baltimore Ravens, who preceded the Patriots as champions, are Exhibit A. They have just 16 players left from the team that beat the New York Giants 34-7 for the 2000 championship and will have to get lucky to get to .500 this year.
"We knew that we would be facing some serious cap issues in 2002, but the opportunity to win two Super Bowls in a row was overwhelming to us," said personnel director Ozzie Newsome, who spent heavily last year in an attempt to repeat. "What we're facing today is not something that's unexpected."
One statistic defines what's happening in today's NFL: the past three champions were a combined 17-31 the year before they won the Super Bowl.
The Rams were 4-12 in 1998; the Ravens were 8-8 in 1999; and the Patriots were 5-11 in 2000.
Camps open with more stringent medical measures in place because of the death last summer of Minnesota offensive tackle Korey Stringer, who died after a workout.
This year, medical monitoring has been stepped up, some dietary supplements have been banned, and the agreement with the players union has been updated to allow team physicians to go beyond the standard in administering physicals.
Meanwhile, every team thinks it can be the next New England.
Even the Houston Texans can dream after an expansion draft netted them a crop of current and past all-Pros, such as offensive tackle Tony Boselli, still just 30. He was let go by Jacksonville because of a series of recent injuries - he just had arthroscopic shoulder surgery again - and his salary cap numbers are huge.
Add quarterback David Carr, the first pick in the draft, and there are fans in Texas who seriously believe the new guys have a chance. They've sold 57,000 season tickets, more than the Oilers ever did.
"You have to remember that our guys have never played together," said coach Dom Capers, who coached Carolina to a 7-9 record in 1995, their first season in the league. "Other teams have a lot more cohesion."
Actually, the turnover is extreme in some places, such as Buffalo, Minnesota, Tampa Bay and Indianapolis. They may have as much trouble learning each others' names as the Texans.
Another team to watch is Washington, where Steve Spurrier becomes the fourth coach in the three seasons that Dan Snyder has owned the team. Spurrier is convinced all he needs is the "system" he used at Florida and has brought in journeyman NFL quarterback he coached at Florida - Danny Wuerffel and Shane Matthews.
Spurrier is one of six new coaches, most of them "old" ones.
Tony Dungy was fired by Tampa Bay and signed on in Indianapolis; Jon Gruden left Oakland to replace Dungy, and Snyder fired Marty Schottenheimer after a season. Schottenheimer ended up in San Diego.
Bill Callahan replaced Gruden in Oakland, and Mike Tice replaced Dennis Green in Minnesota, both moving up from assistants' jobs. John Fox, the Giants' former defensive coordinator, replaced George Seifert in Carolina.
The other X factor is the new alignment - 32 teams, eight divisions with Seattle switching from the AFC to the NFC, and play in the West with St. Louis, San Francisco and Arizona, in league that is more geographically correct.
That means each team will play only six of its 16 games within its division. There will be six playoff teams from each conference - the four champions and two wild cards, leaving open the possibility that teams will miss the playoffs with better records that a champion in a weak division.
Just look at last year.
If there had been an AFC South, Tennessee would have won it with a 7-9 record and made the playoffs. The odd team out would have been Baltimore, which was the final wild-card team at 10-6.
This year, the AFC East seems loaded, with the Patriots and two other playoff teams, the Jets and Dolphins. New York and Miami are improved on paper, but it's hard to see three playoff teams from one division.
"I think we all realize that can happen," Snyder said last month when asked about the possibility. "But I don't think we'll address it until it happens."
Indeed, the issue came up a year ago, when the league realigned. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue essentially echoed Snyder - that the NFL will address the situation if it happens.
The obvious solution would be to add more wild-card teams.
Given how quickly teams go from bad to good and vice versa, they could go beyond that by letting everyone in.
In the absence of that, how about these two teams meeting in the Super Bowl in San Diego: Cleveland (7-9 last season) vs. Minnesota (5-11)?
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