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20 QUESTIONS ENTERING THE 2003 NFL SEASON

Eagles Have Landed, but Remember the Titans

September 01, 2003|Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writer

Twenty questions about the 2003 NFL season:

1 When will Jerry Jones and Bill Parcells have their first Texas-sized, finger-pointing blowup? It could be awhile. So far, both guys are playing nice. Parcells accepts the constant presence of Jones, who says, "It's my sideline," and acts as a de facto general manager. Jones accepts Parcells' role as not only coach but personnel director. Neither has particularly high expectations for this season, and that eases some of the pressure. Jones said the problems didn't start with Jimmy Johnson until the success came. Parcells, the first Cowboy coach with previous NFL head-coaching experience, hasn't led a team to the playoffs in his first season. But he got the Giants, Patriots and Jets there in his second. So maybe 2004 is when he and Jones start fighting over who deserves the credit.

2 Is Brett Favre going to retire after this season? He would love to go out the way John Elway did, so if the Packers win the Super Bowl, my gut says yes. But this Favre retirement speculation has been going on for a few years, and was only heightened recently when the All-Pro quarterback put his Green Bay mansion for sale on EBay. (He subsequently took it off after a wave of bogus offers.) You can't read too much into the fact he wants to sell his house. It's a lot of upkeep, and his elder daughter is living in Mississippi, where she's finishing high school. He, his wife and their younger daughter live in a condominium during the season.

3 How does the disposal of the "Randy Ratio" help Minnesota quarterback Daunte Culpepper? In all sorts of ways. The Randy Ratio was basically a publicity stunt to inspire fans and receiver Randy Moss, who was promised at least 40% of pass attempts would head his way. Moss caught a career-high 106 passes, but had career lows in touchdowns (seven) and yards per catch (12.7). Culpepper was utterly boxed in; he had to force a lot of passes just to keep the ratio intact.

Culpepper has looked far more relaxed and sharp this summer. He didn't throw an interception in an exhibition game and only three of his passes were picked off all summer in what was roughly a season's worth of throws. This is a guy responsible for 32 turnovers last season -- 23 interceptions and nine lost fumbles -- more than the total of 21 teams. One of the big differences is that Culpepper has learned to throw the ball away when nobody's open.

4 Has Pittsburgh's pass defense improved enough to carry the Steelers beyond a division title? My guess is no. The team has made some changes, drafting USC safety Troy Polamalu and replacing safety Lee Flowers with a faster, more athletic Mike Logan. But corners Chad Scott and Dewayne Washington are soft and overpaid. They will get more help in coverage from the safeties this season. One thing that could help the Steelers put additional pressure on quarterbacks is that they are using the nickel defense more, which allows 250-pound linebacker Kendrell Bell to rush up the middle rather than around the edge, where he is often about 100 pounds lighter than opposing tackles.

5 The Eagles have been knocking on the door for two years, but twice fell one victory shy of the Super Bowl. Is this their breakthrough season? I think it is. In years past, though, the defense has shouldered more than its share of the load. Now, with five new starters on defense, the offense has to come through. Having a healthy Donovan McNabb helps. He only started feeling good around April, even though he returned for the playoffs after breaking an ankle during the regular season. Duce Staley missing most of training camp was a blessing; it got backup running backs Correll Buckhalter and Brian Westbrook lots of extra work. The defense is less experienced and smaller with the loss of Hugh Douglas, Shawn Barber and Barry Gardner, but it's quicker. There will be new starters at both ends, two linebacker spots and strong safety.

6 Is Jevon Kearse still "the Freak?" Not now, but the Titans are holding out hope. Injuries and contract disputes have taken the edge off the freakishly talented Tennessee defensive end. He missed 12 games last season and had only two sacks. He had a couple of problems -- first, a broken left foot in the opener that required two surgeries, then a sprained left ankle when he returned. He looked pretty good at the beginning of camp this summer until the ankle problems flared. The contract stuff has lingered for a while and seems to be a distraction. The Titans really need him and could make a serious Super Bowl run this season.

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