The NFL is back. What, you never thought it left?
Seems that way, with all the offseason headlines. As training camps get set to open, Brett Favre says he might come back after announcing his retirement. Or he might be traded. Or he may stay retired. And on and on.
Everyone from Roger Goodell on down will keep an eye on Bill Belichick to make sure he's not cheating.
And the Dallas Cowboys, with their 33 ½ Pro Bowlers (the half being the newly self-christened "Adam" Jones) have been conceded the NFC's Super Bowl spot. Jerry Jones says so and so do the "experts."
The team that shocked the Patriots and won the Super Bowl last season?
If you pay attention to the jibber-jabber, the New York Giants will be lucky to make the playoffs.
In fact, when the Giants were discussed at all during the offseason, it was to write off their upset over the Patriots as a fluke and dismiss them for 2008. A few folks were nice enough to "rank" them sixth or so among 32 teams in May and another had them 10th. ESPN's "official" televised preview dismissed them as the third-best team in the NFC East behind Dallas and Philadelphia.
That's enough incentive in itself for the Giants.
"I don't feel that respect. Talking to guys throughout the league, a lot of them said: 'You guys played a hell of a game,'" Antonio Pierce, New York's middle linebacker, said last month after the Giants ended their minicamp.
"A hell of a game? So the other 16 games in the regular season and the three playoff games really didn't do anything for us. You hear that among players. We played a good game at the right time. Your quarterback got hot at the right time, your defense started playing ball at the right time."
The Giants have their own history to contend with.
The first two times they won the Super Bowl, after the 1986 and 1990 seasons, they failed to make the playoffs the next year. But there are asterisks: 1987 was a strike year and the Giants' strike replacement team was 0-3. In 1991, Ray Handley, one of the worst NFL coaches of the last quarter-century, was thrown in after Bill Parcells resigned in May -- and after the likes of Bill Belichick and Tom Coughlin already left for head coaching jobs elsewhere.
Coughlin, of course, is now Giants coach and, of course, is spouting the usual cliches to ensure his team will only look ahead. "It's a new season," he says. "We go to camp and start fresh and don't look back."
Naturally, his quarterback says the same thing.
"We played four good games at the end of the season. That's kind of the way I looked at it," Eli Manning says. "But you look earlier, we played five or six games that were not good at all. I've made a lot of bad throws."
Nonetheless, this remains a good team, and a young one.
Six rookies played major roles in the Super Bowl and the remarkable string of road playoff wins in Tampa, Dallas and Green Bay that preceded it.
That group includes starting CB Aaron Ross; WR Steve Smith, who had five catches in the Super Bowl; DT Jay Alford, who had a last-minute sack of Tom Brady after the Giants had taken a 17-14 lead with 35 seconds left; TE Kevin Boss, who had a 45-yard reception replacing the injured Jeremy Shockey; and RB Ahmad Bradshaw, who led the team in rushing in the postseason.
Barring injury, all are likely to improve.
Yes, the Giants lost some good players: four defensive starters from the Super Bowl, including Michael Strahan, who retired after 15 seasons ranked fifth on the NFL's career list. But general manager Jerry Reese and his predecessor, Ernie Accorsi, knew that was coming and drafted accordingly. They took Matthias Kiwanuka, who missed the Super Bowl with an injury, Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora. They still give New York one of the league's best pass-rushing trios.
Of the other defectors, only safety Gibril Wilson was a longtime starter and the Giants weren't about to match the $39 million deal, $16 million guaranteed, he got from Oakland. Linebacker Kawika Mitchell, who signed with Buffalo, was a one-year fill-in who will be replaced by promising third-year-man Gerris Wilkinson, and Reggie Torbor, who went to Miami, was a special teamer who started because Kiwanuka was hurt.
Then there are the "distractions."
They include Shockey's discontent at being asked to block in addition to catch, and his apparent unhappiness because much was made of the Giants winning with Boss in his place. Still, New York turned down an offer from New Orleans of second- and fifth-round draft choices for the multi-time Pro Bowler.
There's WR Plaxico Burress' unhappiness with his contract, which is being renegotiated -- justifiably. He is three years through a six-year, $26 million deal that was signed after he left Pittsburgh with a reputation as an underachiever; the Giants were really the only bidder.
Last year, playing on a bad ankle that prevented him from practicing, Burress caught 70 passes for 1,025 yards and 12 touchdowns; caught the winning TD pass with 35 seconds left in the Super Bowl; and burned Pro Bowl CB Al Harris for 151 yards on 11 receptions in the NFC championship game in Green Bay.
He sat out minicamp but no longer seems unhappy, telling folks while promoting his book that he's near a deal and that his pal Shockey will also be happy. In fact, while Shockey's discontent seems genuine and is hardly unprecedented, there a catch: Shockey and Burress are clients of Drew Rosenhaus, an agent who goes into withdrawal whenever he and his clients are out of the limelight.
In any event, the Giants enter camp as a very solid team.
The offensive line has no superstar. But David Diehl, Rich Seubert, Shaun O'Hara, Chris Snee and Kareem McKenzie have been together three years and are one of the NFL's most cohesive groups, a must for an OL.
The receiving corps, led by Burress, veteran Amani Toomer and Smith, is so deep the Giants might be forced to cut currently injured Super Bowl hero David Tyree. The retirement before last season of Tiki Barber turned the running back position into an efficient committee of huge Brandon Jacobs, slashing Derrick Ward and the elusive Bradshaw. It's so deep the Giants traded Ryan Grant to Green Bay, where he became the Packers' leading rusher.
This year's rookies can't be expected to produce like last year's, one of the best classes ever in New York.
But first-rounder Kenny Phillips could replace Wilson at safety without a blip, and if he doesn't, veteran Sammy Knight was signed as a stopgap.
And, of course, the final piece of the puzzle is Manning. He often was mediocre after being acquired in a complicated draft day deal in 2004 -- San Diego took him with the first pick, then dealt him to the Giants -- but was a revelation at the end of last season.
Beginning with the final regular-season game, a three-point loss that allowed the Patriots to finish the regular season unbeaten, Manning went from inconsistency to stardom. In his last five games, he had 10 TD passes and just two interceptions (6-1 in the playoffs) and orchestrated a late Super Bowl-winning drive, the kind that gives any QB a pedigree that never should go away.
Unlike brother Peyton, Eli rarely lets his real thoughts get out.
"Our goal is to get better," he says. "We are not talking about Super Bowls. We are just saying we have to get better because we have to become a better team this season. And so that is what we are working on."
Few teams repeat as Super Bowl champions, so don't write the Giants in, which is what everyone is doing with the Cowboys.
But don't write them off either.
Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press