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Sam Farmer / ON THE NFL

Mysteries abound for new season

August 31, 2008|Sam Farmer and ON THE NFL

Pro football isn't just for the young. Not this season.

Look at the way 38-year-old Brett Favre wrenched the spotlight away from the Super Bowl champion Giants in New York. Or how Jeff Garcia, also 38, locked down the starting quarterback job in Tampa Bay. Or the pressure 37-year-old Kurt Warner put on Matt Leinart in Arizona to earn that starting job.

Heading into the opening week of the NFL season, there are plenty of age-old questions.

Will the Browns and Saints ever rise? Will the Patriots and Colts ever fall? And will Chad Pennington ever truly find a home?

We have the questions and the answers about some of the drama unfolding for Week 1:

Why should Colts fans be as concerned about Saturday as Sunday?

Because Saturday -- Pro Bowl center Jeff Saturday -- will be a spectator when Indianapolis opens against Chicago at new Lucas Oil Stadium. As if Peyton Manning doesn't have enough concerns playing on a tender knee after sitting out the exhibition season, now he has to break in rookie Steve Justice.

So what's the big deal about switching out centers? He just snaps the ball, right? Tell that to former Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon, whose offense was thrown totally out of whack in the Super Bowl against Tampa Bay after All-Pro center Barret Robbins went AWOL in Mexico and wound up missing the game.

The knee injury to Saturday, who probably will miss at least six games, could wind up hurting Manning more.

What's perfect about these Patriots?

So far, their offensive line is a perfect mess. Like the Colts, New England has a banged-up star quarterback -- Tom Brady has a bum foot -- and concerns about those protecting him.

Right guard Stephen Neal is nursing a shoulder injury and for now will be replaced by the promising but inexperienced Billy Yates. Starting left tackle Matt Light missed most of the exhibition season because of an injury, sitting out all games except for two series in the finale. And backup Ryan O'Callaghan is out for the year because of a shoulder injury.

New England's normally reliable line broke down in the Super Bowl, and there's no indication the pieces are back in place yet.

What's the most interesting Week 1 matchup?

The Jets at Miami. It will be fascinating not only to watch Favre, but to see Pennington go up against his former team. Despite his physical limitations, Pennington knows the Jets better than they know themselves. He's a competitor, and he has looked pretty good this summer.

The Jets know all of Pennington's weaknesses too. They know, for instance, he doesn't have the arm to throw to the outside on the deep outs. They know he doesn't move well in the pocket, and they'll be applying maximum pressure to rookie left tackle Jake Long, the No. 1 pick.

Is there a subplot to the Shawne Merriman story?

Yes. Merriman, who announced last week his decision to play despite two torn ligaments in his left knee, is nearing the end of his contract with the Chargers. In 2009, he'll be in the final year of that deal, and playing for either a new one with San Diego or a blockbuster contract with another team. Studies show that players who undergo reconstructive knee surgery usually see a significant statistical drop-off in their first year back. For Merriman, that first year would be 2009. That's also the contract year for three big-money Chargers: quarterback Philip Rivers, left tackle Marcus McNeill and receiver Chris Chambers. So San Diego might not even have the money to re-sign Merriman.

Maybe that didn't factor into Merriman's decision. Maybe he simply cannot resist his urge to play.

Regardless, the Chargers are firming up contingency plans, this week signing Merriman's backup, Jyles Tucker, to a five-year extension.

When will we know if the Browns are for real?

Right away. They open against Dallas, which should be one of the NFC's top teams. The Browns, coming off a 10-6 season, are looking to move beyond a shaky summer in which they lost all their exhibition games, something they hadn't done since 1972. Injuries played a big part. The offensive line took a beating, and some of Cleveland's star players were reduced to spectators. Quarterback Derek Anderson (concussion) logged only 27 plays, three times more than top receiver Braylon Edwards (cut heel). Both are expected to be ready for the Cowboys.

Who is this season's Super Bowl dark horse?

Don't overlook New Orleans. The Saints can put points on the board, and now they might have a defense to match. It was that defense, remember, that collapsed in last season's NFL opener at Indianapolis.

This off-season, New Orleans attacked the problem by trading for middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma, drafting USC tackle Sedrick Ellis, and signing some talented free agents: defensive end Bobby McCray and cornerbacks Randall Gay and Aaron Glenn.

Is Favre building much of a fan base in New York?

Of course he is, starting with the guys on his new team, where idol worship is in full bloom. Some Jets sheepishly admitted they got the jitters talking to him the first time.

Favre is the first huge arm the Jets have had since Vinny Testaverde five years ago, and New York's receivers have had to adjust to catching fastballs.

Then, there's the superstar stuff. After first-year tight end Dustin Keller caught Favre's first touchdown pass, No. 4 signed it for the rookie.

Keller vowed to start a trophy case with that ball. Ah, kids.

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sam.farmer@latimes.com

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