This hasn't always been the case. Once upon a time, the league only played a few exhibition games to let rusty QBs lose a few pounds and give rookies a chance to learn some plays. Camps didn't start in early July. The season was two games shorter. The playoff format included one less game. One result was that teams (and sportswriters) could reasonably count on entering the season with their teams intact. These days, opening-day injury lists look like a maniac tossed hand grenades into locker rooms throughout the league, letting the cartilage of fate, so to speak, tear where it may.
Add to this equation free agency and its many far-reaching, subtle ramifications, and you have a situation where prognosticators are tossing darts at balloons. It's all really very American: an egalitarian world where the word of a plumber counts as much as that of a prince. It's Huey Long's Promised Land where, in fact, every man is king.
'Tis an upside down world where teams rocketing from 3-13 to 13-3 over one summer (as Indianapolis did last year), once considered impossible, is and will be forever commonplace. Teams with talent in the modern NFL are so vulnerable to injury that the loss of one critical player can destroy a contender's season. See the '99 Jets. A promising team -- say Denver -- struggles to win half its games. A bad team -- New Orleans -- will struggle with Baylor. Still, I remain a brave fellow.
The NFC West has for years produced Super Bowl winners, due in no small part to the eight easy wins San Francisco (now St. Louis) could count on against a division long soft as a jelly donut. The most mind-boggling statistic I've run across is this: The Rams play the easiest schedule in the NFL. Impossible? Au contraire, thanks to a division where the other four teams won a total of 20 games last year. You can look it up. Could the Rams crater like division mate Atlanta did last year? Absolutely. A five-win season is only a broken femur away. Of local interest are the pathetic Saints. I feel bad for Ricky, always being compared with Edgerrin James. It was James' good fortune to be picked by a team on the rise, and Ricky's mucho malo suerte to go to New Orleans. Williams should've played baseball and sat the year out. That's what I'd have begged my kid to do. It only goes to confirm an adage children hear from an early age: Life's not fair. Ask Major Applewhite.
The silliest copycat buzz enveloping the league comes out of the NFC Central, where the Bears and Gary Crowton's neat hitch passes are the new rage of the stodgy league. The Longhorns have been running that nifty little flanker screen -- every week -- since the first days of John Mackovic. But it's hard to argue with Tampa Bay. They're the only team out of 30 with a real-life defense. We remember defense, don't we? It once won Super Bowls. Daunte Culpepper, a QB who outweighs many linebackers, should be an interesting experiment in Minnesota. I see one 10-6 (Tampa) and lots of the Central's standard 7-9s.
The NFC East, after a long snooze coinciding with the calamitous rise of the Cowboy, seems to be awakening. I'm not sold on the omnipotence of the Skins, no matter how many elderly free agents they pay too much for. A few years ago, they got Super Bowl guarantees Dana Stubblefield and Dan Wilkinson, but they've barely smelled the playoffs. Still, they're improved; so is New York; so is Philly. Arizona, as always, sucks. Mostly bad news for the Cowboys. It's payback time, Dallas. Eat Dayne, Boys. Eat it raw!
So let's ignore the Rams' soft-taco schedule and assume they tank -- a commonplace occurrence, as I've already noted. So what NFC team is next season's St. Louis? Well, Atlanta (5-11) was St. Louis the year before St. Louis became St. Louis. Then they lost Jamal Anderson and Chris Chandler and reverted to form. If all the ifs -- Anderson and Chandler -- pan out, Atlanta might come back. The Bears are a remote possibility, too. Two years ago, most draft picks went to defense -- which didn't show last year, but they're all still there. Cade McNown must justify Chicago's high hopes. Dallas -- with the rare luxury of two good quarterbacks -- and the Giants, with a supposedly rehabilitated Terry Collins, a fast tank in the Great Dayne, and a defense with more potential than results, might surprise the league.
So there it is. And I'll tell you what: This "preview," poorly thought out and barely researched at all, will prove to be the equal of SI's Dr. Z. Bank on it.
Next week: My wife handicaps the AFC.