The best and the worst and other observations and predictions for the 89th NFL season, which gets under way Thursday night:
Why the NFL game is better than the college game: No celebration rule, no NCAA, no Brent Musburger, plus this revolutionary idea: Playoffs!
Best reason to turn up the sound during NFL telecasts: Cris Collinsworth, best football analyst ever.
Best reason to turn down the sound during NFL telecasts: Phil Simms.
Best rule change: Receivers must get both feet inbounds, even if they're pushed out of bounds while they're making an airborne catch. Finally, the defensive backs get a break. The trend toward turning the NFL into a flag league (please, see the no-contact-with-receivers-after-5-yards rule) suffers a temporary setback. The NBA once thought its game would be ruined if it allowed zone defenses; the NFL needs to chuck the 5-yard rule.
Most overrated team: The New York Giants happened to get hot at the right time last season, while all their rivals went cold. Win or lose, they'll receive inordinate attention, just as they always do, because the New York media treat them like the nation's hometown team.
Most overrated quarterback: One hot playoff run does not make Eli Manning a great quarterback. A lot of average quarterbacks have won Super Bowl titles, including Brad Johnson, Trent Dilfer, Doug Williams and, yes, Joe Namath. Manning ranked 25th in pass efficiency last season one spot ahead of another highly overrated player, Vince Young.
Teams ready to move up in the world: Browns, Saints, Cowboys, Vikings, Jaguars.
Team destined for mediocrity (at best): The Cardinals, now and forever. If you gave them 22 All-Pro players, they'd still break even in a good year.
Best football player in America: Brian Westbrook, the Eagles' versatile running back. He is what Marshall Faulk and Priest Holmes were in their prime.
Strangest off-season storyline: The Brent Favre saga. The Packers don't want him after a 13-win season, but they still consider him so good that they refuse to release him or trade him to another team in their conference.
Second-strangest off-season storyline: In April, the Bengals cut bad-boy Chris Henry after his fifth arrest. In July, Coach Marvin Lewis vowed the Bengals would never re-sign Henry "There is a responsibility to be a NFL player. It's a privilege, not a right." One month later, the Bengals re-signed Henry in a power move by owner Mike Brown. Way to back up your coach and hold your players accountable, Brownie.
Player who will deliver the most pleasant surprise this year: Aaron Rogers, Favre's replacement.
Most underrated players: Jacksonville quarterback David Garrard, Dallas running back Marion Barber.
Best thing that happened to a local player in the off-season: The Dolphins signed Chad Pennington, which means they will no longer play John Beck, who isn't ready yet anyway. It certainly didn't hurt Steve Young to wait and learn. Good luck to rookie quarterbacks Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco, who will start for the Falcons and Ravens, respectively.
Second best Brett in a New York uniform: Former Ute Brett Ratliff played brilliantly in the preseason, beating out Kellen Clemens for the No. 2 quarterback job to the other Brett, Favre. Ratliff is an undrafted free agent who was waived last season and then was re-signed to the Jets' practice squad.
Mike Vick Coach Killer 2 Award Winner: Vince Young. Norm Chow is out as the Titans' offensive coordinator. After failing to persuade the team to draft Matt Leinart instead of Young, Chow says, "Everyone knew who I wanted and ... the minute that they took Vince, I told my wife, 'I think my days are numbered here."'
Local player most in need of a change of address: Alex Smith, the No. 1 pick in the 2005 draft. It's simple: The spread offense does not prepare college quarterbacks for the NFL (see Vince Young). Smith is doing it all backward he was thrown into action prematurely his first three years in the league, and now he's on the sideline as a backup to someone named J.T. O'Sullivan, a career backup who played for the Frankfurt Galaxy last season and is now playing for his sixth NFL team in six years. O'Sullivan, who's played just five NFL games, will earn $600,000 this season to Smith's $10 mil.
Wide receiver who has replaced Terrell Owens as most self-absorbed, attention-starved player: Chad Johnson, who officially changed his name to Ocho Cinco not exactly like Cassius Clay becoming Muhammad Ali. To borrow a line from Seinfeld (with a name substitution), the thing about Chad is, he's an idiot. He should have changed it to Alguien Me Abrazo (somebody hug me).
Most intriguing questions at the outset of the season: Will Brett Favre take the Jets to the playoffs (yes)? Isn't Terrell Owens overdue for a meltdown (yes)? Will Matt Leinart ever grow up (don't know)? Will Aaron Rogers thrive (yes)?
Local player most likely to become a star: After a superb rookie season, Eric Weddle, the second-year safety from Utah, will start for the Chargers in the NFL's best secondary. Charger officials and fans are raving about him.Super Bowl picks: Dallas vs. New England.
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