BOSTON — The one thing clear about the National Football League season, which begins Sept. 12, is that nothing is clear.
That's the joy of football, American style. Experts predict who is best, then players play. The players always come up with the correct answer. It's a game loaded with sophistication. Its nuances are many.
But the best way to figure what's likely to happen is to look at each team's quarterback. If he's experienced and good and stays healthy during the 16-game regular season, his team has a superior chance to be in the hunt with the big dogs. Conversely, inexperience, inability, or injury at QB will doom a team to nipping and yipping at the heels of opponents.
The 31-team National Footbal League (NFL) is divided into two conferences, the American (AFC) and the National (NFC). The winner of each conference plays in the Super Bowl, this time in Atlanta, Jan. 30. Each conference has three divisions. Here's how they're shaping up:
Denver has won the Super Bowl twice in a row and the Broncos are saddling up to go rope a never-accomplished third straight. They have enormous talent - notably premier running back Terrell Davis - and even more notably, the best and smartest coach working, Mike Shanahan.
All is well and in place. Except that the Broncs' starry QB, John Elway, retired. Journeyman Bubby Brister, out of football in 1996 because nobody wanted him, has been Elway's backup in recent years and now gets his job.
Brister won four games as a starter last season when Elway was hurt, but filling in and starting are different tasks. Chris Miller was signed with an eye toward having him as No. 2 quarterback, and perhaps, No. 1. But his career has been slowed by head injuries and now, arm troubles. Brian Griese will be good some day but maybe not these days. Fortunately for Denver, it plays in the weakest of the six divisions.
Next best: Seattle looks most likely to challenge - except its QB is Jon Kitna. He did pass in one game for 456 yards and seven touchdowns, but that was when he was playing at Central Washington against Pacific Lutheran. Only two seasons ago, Kitna was competing in Spain.
However, the Seahawks, 8-8 last year, have a star coach, former Packer boss Mike Holmgren. He's making more than $4 mil a year, so expectations are high. Kitna's receivers are adequate. But Seattle is a classic underachiever. It must play closer to its talent to improve its results substantially.
Others: Kansas City fired coach Marty Schottenheimer after years of frustration but is lost in the weeds. Proud Oakland has been humbled and will remain so. San Diego may have made a cataclysmic mistake a year ago, drafting misbehaved and poorly performing QB Ryan Leaf No. 1. Then he was injured the first day of practice last month. Vet Jim Harbaugh gives a sliver of hope.
This should be a year to remember for Jacksonville. Quarterback Mark Brunell has poise and savvy. Even better, Brunell has standing near him on each play running back Fred Taylor, him of special talent. And maybe even better, Brunell has in front of him the two best offensive tackles in the league, Tony Boselli and Leon Searcy. The Jaguar defense still needs work, especially the pass rush. It's looking better in the early going. Jacksonville, 11-5 last year, has sniffed at success. This year it should end up inhaling.
Next best: Probably Pittsburgh. But that depends on whether QB Kordell Stewart, a five-year veteran, can get it back together. He has been dreadful of late, and the Steelers have been funk-prone; in 1998, they lost six of their last seven games. Running back Jerome Bettis ("the Bus") is around, motor always running, but looking as if his transmission is wearing out.
Others: Tennessee (ne the Houston Oilers) finally has a home in Nashville. But the Titans also have Steve McNair at QB and Eddie George at running back. Much was given to both so much was expected. So far, the promise has been unfulfilled. Field goal kicker Al Del Greco is superior. Baltimore has troubles everywhere. Cleveland has its team back, after a three-year hiatus, and for an expansion team, the Browns will be OK. The question is whether No. 1 NFL draft pick Tim Couch will be all-pro or all-couch. He's looking good early. Cincinnati should not charge admission to its games.
This has got to be the year for Miami, if Dan Marino is ever going to be a part of a Super Bowl win. He's in his 17th year, much slowed, but loaded with moxie and still possessing that storied quick-release arm. Running, long a Dolphin bugaboo, has been improved, with the addition of running back James Johnson of Mississippi State and fullback Rob Konrad of Syracuse.
Coach Jimmy Johnson has two poster boys for misbehavior, wide receiver Tony Martin, who spent his off-season in legal trouble over money laundering, and running back Cecil Collins, booted out of two colleges. If Johnson can keep them on short leashes, all to the good.
The defense looks competent, especially in the line. A nagging concern is key linebacker Zach Thomas, banged in the head last month. He insists he's fine. Without him, Miami isn't.
Next best: This is football's best division and it's close. The nod goes to the Bill Parcells-led New York Jets. He can be a bit crotchety, but he can also be brilliant, as evidenced by his care and feeding of perennially underachieving QB Vinny Testaverde. Suddenly, Testaverde, who broke hearts in Cleveland, Tampa Bay, and Baltimore, is a trophy at the Jets.
Running back Curtis Martin needs to take pressure off Testaverde as Terrell Davis did for Elway. The Jets are solid offensively and defensively. And really solid at coach.
Others: Buffalo has plenty of chance, with QBs Doug Flutie and Rob Johnson, along with two other veterans, defensive end Bruce Smith and running back Thurman Thomas. Playoffs are not out of the question.
The same for New England, which could happen if QB Drew Bledsoe can settle in as the consistent player he's capable of being. A huge downer for the Pats was an injury to linebacker Ted Johnson, who likely will miss at least three months. Only Indianapolis is not in the mix, but the Colts will be soon, since they have a star-in-waiting at QB, Peyton Manning. All he needs is time. "I look for stepping stones," Manning says, "not stumbling blocks."
Atlanta was a surprise attendee at last year's Super Bowl. This year, opponents will be more wary. A key for the Falcons is steady, steely-eyed coach Dan Reeves. He's old school, but somehow his new age players buy it.
Chris Chandler, an 11-year veteran, will be at quarterback again and trying to prove his mediocre Super Bowl performance was an aberration. Unsettling early this season was the holdout by all-pro running back Jamal Anderson. When it was worked out, Reeves said curtly, "It's agreed on and done."
Next best: San Francisco just might be able to take Atlanta to the woodshed. The 49ers have lots of new faces, but they also still have Steve Young, whose talent just keeps hanging on. Wide receiver Jerry Rice remains a shadow of his former catches.
Team management made a leap of faith, signing enormously talented and equally misbehaving running back Lawrence Phillips. He's a player who can lift a team to majestic heights or reduce it to rubble. The secret weapon is newly acquired fullback Tommy Vardell, who blocks with a vengeance. But little known is that he runs well inside and outside and catches passes.
Others: New Orleans (last winning season - 1992) drafted the best running back in college football last year, Heisman winner Ricky Williams. Coach Mike Ditka says this is proof he wants to run the ball, but he concedes lack of offensive line depth mitigates against it. St. Louis can see no light at the end of the tunnel because it can't even see the tunnel. It's an unhappy place. At Carolina, the Panthers hired former 49ers coach George Seifert, who won two Super Bowls. He has two points of concern: offense and defense.
Whither Minnesota? The Vikings were splendid last year, 15-1, before coming a cropper in an overtime playoff loss to Atlanta. The crux of this season will be whether they were torn asunder by the experience or their resolve was hardened by it.
Randall Cunningham, enjoying an NFL rebirth, is the QB, and they need him in the pink. That's because the backups are Jeff George, who has caused problems for every team he has played for, and Daunte Culpepper, a glittery prospect out of Central Florida who is way too young to help this year.
Coach Dennis Green also has to keep hoping that gifted wide receiver Randy Moss remains scared straight. Moss had his troubles off the field in college, which is why he played at Marshall University after being turned loose by Notre Dame and Florida State. The Vikings are good but fragile.
Next best: Green Bay. Former coach Holmgren defected to Seattle. But QB Brett Favre remains in Title Town. The concern is that Holmgren was a huge influence with Favre, on and off the field. Might Favre be rudderless? Defensive end stalwart Reggie White retired but Ron Wolf, the best general manager in the biz, remains.
Others: Tampa Bay has a fine defense but also has slow-developing QB Trent Dilfer, who is having increasing difficulties with the media. A possible sleeper added to roster: Brainy QB Eric Zeier, who played college ball at Georgia. Given a chance, he well could make the Buccaneers swashbuckle. Detroit is lost in space, with or without Barry Sanders. Charlie Batch is quarterback. Case proved. Chicago has one problem: It lacks talent everywhere.
Dallas may regain its swagger. Too much off-field nonsense has routinely distracted the Cowboys. So far, things are more tranquil. QB Troy Aikman, 10 years in the league, is sound and settled running the team. The club added Rocket Ismail for Aikman to throw to. Always nearby is running back Emmitt Smith, a nine-year vet, who still has the touch. Play-me-anywhere Deion Sanders (10 years in the NFL) is a plus: It's not so much what he does as what he might do. Either way, it works. But so far this year, he has been slowed by a toe injury.
Concern is the 'Boys seem undisciplined; they had 17 penalties in their first preseason game. For coach Chan Gailey to guide the team to wins, everyone around Dallas has to forget who they were and focus on who they are.
Next best: Arizona, which is fully capable of running down Dallas. The Cardinals stopped the Cowboys in the playoffs last season. The familiar key is third-year QB Jake Plummer, who's doing better but needs to throw more touchdowns than interceptions. At his beck and call are two quality receivers, Rob Moore and Frank Sanders.
Others: Washington, victimized by poor drafts and poorer quarterbacking, has lots of new players, including former Viking QB Brad Johnson. Still a long way to go. The New York Giants are so far down that they decided to gamble on QB Kerry Collins, who couldn't handle off-the-field life in Charlotte or New Orleans. Now New York? Philadelphia can only wait for its QB draftee, Donovan McNabb, from Syracuse to grow up. He was the first of five quarterbacks taken among the first 12 players in April; Philly fans booed.
The most likely Super Bowl: Jacksonville vs. Minnesota. The second most likely: Denver vs. Atlanta. But might experts be wrong and the Super participants end up being Cincinnati and Philadelphia? Certainly.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society