- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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Some truths are easy to figure out in advance.
Last year in the NFL, for example, it didn't take a seer to forecast the improvements of the Jaguars and Bengals. Those teams had been improving for the past couple of years. They had the right coaches and the right quarterbacks. Plus, their schedules were favorable enough to predict good records and playoff berths.
This spring, it was also easy to forecast the retirement of commissioner Paul Tagliabue once the collective bargaining agreement extension was complete. Tagliabue looked worn out and tired. The CBA extension was tricky because of the differences between high- and low-revenue teams. With the NFL in great financial shape, Tagliabue knew it was time to leave his post.
Now, the 10 undeniable truths of the 2006 season. Some are easy to figure out. Some are not.
1. Eric Mangini has the toughest job of this year's rookie head coaches. Everyone wants him to be the next Bill Belichick, but Jets fans must give him time to develop into that type of coach. Did everyone forget Belichick had just one winning campaign in five seasons with the Browns and was an assistant for four years before getting the New England job? Mangini takes over a Jets team that got too old after three trips to the playoffs and needs to be totally rebuilt. The quarterback position is completely uncertain. Who starts? Will it be Chad Pennington coming off two shoulder surgeries? Will it be Patrick Ramsey, the former Redskin? Will it be Kellen Clemens? Nobody knows. Mangini is one of the bright minds in the game, but the truth is he will have to be Coach of the Year to have a good first season. The Jets are at the bottom of the league for talent, and coaching can only take a team so far.
2. The truth is that Nick Saban, who learned NFL defenses under Belichick, will catch or pass the Patriots in the next year. If Daunte Culpepper continues to make his miraculous comeback from triple knee ligament surgery, the Dolphins could catch the Patriots this year. The Patriots are showing signs of slowing down, even though they should win 11 games with a much easier schedule than they had in 2005. Except for Tom Brady and Richard Seymour, the Patriots' roster is running out of Pro Bowl-caliber players. In contrast, Saban is assembling a big, physical team and has a quarterback in Culpepper who can compete with Brady. Saban surprised many by winning nine games as a first-year coach. Coming out of LSU, Saban was about as sure a lock to be a successful NFL coach as we've seen in the past 10 years. He's bright. He's tough. He devises winning game plans. He's building a winner in Miami. The Dolphins-Patriots battles should be good for years with Belichick and Saban going at it. Saban can't get too lax, though, because the Patriots had a good draft. If Miami slips for a year or two, the Pats will be back challenging for the AFC East.
3. Ben Roethlisberger, 24, will mature into a Pro Bowl-caliber passer this season, and he can partly thank his recent motorcycle accident for assisting in the process. The motorcycle accident was a wake-up call for him. Roethlisberger is a good kid. His stubbornness in riding a motorcycle without a helmet and buying faster, more dangerous bikes represents his flirtation with the wild side. Those days are gone. He will come out of this accident more focused and much more humble. Before the accident, Roethlisberger spent the offseason working on plays to make the offense more open to passing. He's lifting weights and trying to get his body ready for the first practice at the Steelers' training camp in Latrobe, Pa. Though his face is puffy with bruises from the accident, he could have a full training camp.
4. Scoring will drop to around 40 points a game in the next year or two, and the Competition Committee will have to look at ways to reopen the offense. The offensive benefits of the enforcement of illegal contact by defensive backs started to vanish in only two years. Scoring went from 41.7 combined points a game in 2003 to 43 in 2004 once officials starting flagging contact downfield. Last year, defenses adjusted and scoring dropped to 41.2. Teams have figured out the value of drafting speedier defenders and have made that more of a priority in the past three years. More than half the league upgraded the weakside linebacker position with faster players. Safeties are faster because many are former cornerbacks. And with some of these defenders also playing on special teams, punt returns for long gains are rare. The combination of directional punting and faster gunners makes it difficult for good punt returners to break into the open field. Don't be surprised if scoring drops a point per game this season.
5. Randy Moss will rebound to have a good second season with the Raiders. Moss sounds more relaxed these days. His first season in Oakland made him miserable. He struggled with a groin injury that zapped most of his breakaway speed. He kept quiet and didn't promote controversy, but the few times he talked he sounded as though he was losing his enthusiasm for the game. Moss has been giving a few more interviews thanks to his smoothie business venture. Moss sounds as relaxed as he did when he had back-to-back 100-catch seasons with the Vikings in 2002 and 2003. Watch for him to be back at a Pro Bowl level this season, putting up big numbers.
6. Terrell Owens will have a few on-the-field scrapes with quarterback Drew Bledsoe, but those spats won't create the dissension that tore up the Eagles' locker room. Owens will be on pretty good behavior during training camp and the regular season. Bledsoe won't change his style of being a vocal leader in the huddle, and that will cause some minor problems with Owens. Bledsoe will probably yell at Owens for running a wrong route. Owens will probably yell back. Those things happened with Keyshawn Johnson last season, but none developed into a problem. The ultimate test will come in the playoffs if the Cowboys make it that far.
7. The Carolina Panthers are probably the most talented team in the NFC, but it's going to be hard for them to get one of the top two seeds. Those should go to the winners of the NFC West and NFC North, most likely the Seahawks and the Bears. The problem facing the Panthers is their schedule. They have to play four games against the NFC East and they play in a very difficult NFC South. John Fox has a talented offense. Three years of good drafting and solid free-agent signings have made them a faster, more talented defense. But while many forecasters are picking the Panthers for the Super Bowl because of their talent, it's still hard for a third or fourth seed in the NFC to go to the Super Bowl.
8. Peyton Manning will have his best postseason thanks to the league's recent rule change that allows quarterbacks to handle the balls prior to games. This is huge. Quarterbacks won't be able to practice with them, but they'll be given game balls early enough during the week that they'll be able to rub them down and make them easier to grip. The process will continue through the conference championship games. Manning can't blame slick footballs for his poor play in playoff games, and he will have a comfort level in those games he's never had before. A confident Manning is a dangerous Manning because few quarterbacks can get on a roll as well as he can. Manning needs to get through his playoff struggles, and this little change will help.
9. Brian Billick is on the hot seat, but his Ravens won't fail this year. They should make the playoffs. The addition of Steve McNair gives Billick the quarterback credibility he's needed for years. The Ravens have talent. McNair can throw to Todd Heap, Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton. Jamal Lewis is perhaps the league's most talented big back, and he's had a healthy, calm offseason. The defense is one of the best in the conference. The only question facing the Ravens is the play of the offensive line, and that's where Billick will step up. He'll introduce better offensive plays to protect the line and to protect McNair.
10. NFL players' union boss Gene Upshaw is wise not to jump to the idea of blood testing for human growth hormone, so don't expect testing in the immediate future. Talks coming out of Congress and on radio talk shows suggesting the NFL to blindly go into HGH testing is ridiculous. It might take years for scientists to come up with the proper tests to detect HGH, so Upshaw can't let his players take those tests until then. Life isn't perfect. The NFL has done the best job of all the sports in policing itself for steroids. The process started in the 1980s, when players told Upshaw in a survey they wanted to rid the league of performance-enhancing drugs. Their position was they didn't want to be forced to use steroids to compete against steroid-enhanced competitors. The union has been good about adding new bans for substances once they were found to be bad for the health of the players. Heck, the NFLPA even went as far as to work with specific companies to make sure the body supplements are clean of banned substances. The FDA doesn't ensure the contents of supplements are clean of things that would create positive tests for steroids or banned substances. Once the HGH tests are sound, the players will allow those tests. Let's concentrate on finding those ways of detecting HGH before demanding players sign off on blood tests that waste people's time and money.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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