The NFL: Ten stories for a new year

First & Ten

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Another National Football League season is upon us, which means fantasy football, not the presidential campaign, becomes the primary topic of Monday morning discussions.

From Broadway Brett to the Romeo Romo, everyone will be trying to dismantle a theme that just seems to keep recurring: How to keep the New England Patriots from an unbeaten season. If you don't think that's a possibility -- didn't we just go through this? -- well, then, you haven't been paying very close attention.

In Dallas, they're building a new stadium that is almost as large as Jerry Jones' ego, a structure that will generate so much additional revenue for the Cowboys they should have little problem posting bail for newcomers Pac-Man "Call Me Adam" Jones and Tank Johnson, should the need arise.

And, in Cleveland, they are doing the unimaginable, which is actually thinking the Browns are finally poised to win a division title. Stay tuned for that one. It will be no small coincidence if they play the song "Who Let The Dogs Out?" when Shaun Rogers takes the field.

Here, then, are the top 10 stories to watch in 2008, keeping in mind that Barack Obama's desire for change may not occur in the NFL.

1. Brett the Jet

Yes, like Michael Jordan playing for the Washington Wizards, Joe Namath playing for the Los Angeles Rams and Johnny Unitas wearing the uniform of the San Diego Chargers, Brett Favre will switch from the green-and-gold of the Green Bay Packers and don the green-and-white of the New York Jets -- changing his mind about retirement and enduring a messy divorce with the Packers. It sure makes Alan Faneca's arrival in New York seem trivial.

2. Giant losses

Before they even get a chance to defend their Super Bowl title, the New York Giants will proceed without their two Pro Bowl defensive ends, Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora -- a double blow to a team that redefined what it means to pressure the quarterback with a defensive line. After Umenyiora had season-ending knee surgery in the preseason, the Giants tried -- and failed -- to woo Strahan out of retirement. That means Justin Tuck, their top backup last season, gets elevated to the front line, trying to fill shoes as big as Manhattan.

3. Lightning dolt

After being told by four doctors to have surgery and not play this season, San Diego Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman has ignored the advice and will continue to play as long as he can, even though he has been told he will do more damage to the torn cartilage in his knee. Merriman, apparently, doesn't take to professional suggestion. The Chargers advised him to have surgery at the end of the 2007 season and he ignored that. In the words of the great Foghorn Leghorn, "Boy's about as sharp as a bowlin' ball!"

4. 16-0 Part II?

With an easy schedule and playing in an easy division, the New England Patriots could conceivably repeat the near-miss of last season, when their perfect season was ended in the Super Bowl. Their biggest loss in the offseason was cornerback Asante Samuel, who signed in free agency with the Eagles. But it was Samuel, you'll remember, who dropped an interception in the Super Bowl that allowed the Giants to score the winning touchdown.

5. Bringing down the (big) house

After bringing out the broom and sweeping trouble out the door with a new get-tough policy, the NFL will welcome back reinstated cornerback Adam Jones to the Dallas Cowboys and wide receiver Chris Henry to the Cincinnati Bengals. Since 2005, Jones and Henry -- once teammates at West Virginia University, if you can imagine that -- have been arrested a combined 11 times. Note to Roger Goodell: Bonnie and Clyde weren't arrested that many times.

6. Send in the Browns

In an attempt to stop Willie Parker, who has rushed for 613 yards in the past five games against them, the Cleveland Browns have beefed up their defensive line. They traded for former Green Bay defensive tackle Corey Williams and signed defensive tackle Shaun Rogers from the Detroit Lions in the offseason, hoping to find the pieces that will lift them to the division title after tying the Steelers at 10-6 last season. Maybe they better hope Derek Anderson doesn't wake up from his dream season of 2007.

7. Of Tuna, Thomas and Taylor

The Miami Dolphins, winner of just one game last season, have nowhere to swim but upstream, and what better way to accomplish that in a hurry than to import a Tuna. Bill Parcells has been brought in to oversee the football operation, and among his more controversial decisions was to rid the Dolphins of their two biggest stars -- defensive end Jason Taylor and middle linebacker Zach Thomas. Wait until Miami fans see Chad Pennington try to throw downfield.

8. Holmgren, Harbaugh and a guy named Smith

After taking two different teams to the Super Bowl, Seattle Seahawks Coach Mike Holmgren said this will be his final season as an NFL head coach -- a declaration that could be the emotional impetus to lift the defensive-strong Seahawks to the Super Bowl. As Holmgren exits, three new head coaches make their NFL debut: John Harbaugh in Baltimore, Tony Sparano in Miami and Mike Smith in Atlanta.

9. The Rusty Curtain

Good thing Mike Tomlin said the Steelers needed to get younger and stronger on the defensive line, huh? Since the end of last season, they re-signed defensive end Travis Kirschke, who is 33 and has a history of chronic back problems; brought back defensive end Orpheus Roye, who is 36 and entering his 13th NFL season; and didn't use any of their seven draft picks on a defensive lineman. Imagine what might have happened if he said the Steelers needed more experience on the defensive line?

10. Tick ... tick ... T.O.

Apparently wanting to recapture the days when real Cowboys carried guns, Dallas will not only have Adam Jones in the lineup but also Tank Johnson, former troubled defensive tackle of the Chicago Bears. Their bad-boy problems would appear to dwarf the presence of recalcitrant wide receiver Terrell Owens, who, despite his many tantrums, does not carry guns or frequent strip clubs. Still, he's a dynamite stick waiting to explode.


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