Some of the season's biggest question marks involve the Patriots and Eagles.
VINDICATOR STAFF/WIRE REPORT
New England begins its quest for an unprecedented third straight Super Bowl victory and fourth in five years without the two coordinators who helped Bill Belichick win the first three titles.
And that quest also will take place without linebacker Tedy Bruschi, the heart of the defense, who is sitting out the season after suffering a mild stroke.
Philadelphia goes to camp with Terrell Owens, the catalyst in its run to the Super Bowl, threatening to hold out just a year after arriving and signing a big contract.
As NFL camps open over the next few days, New England and Philadelphia start as favorites to meet again in the Super Bowl. But this is an era of uncertainty, and even two teams that have been the NFL's most consistent in the last four years have their problems.
"Each year is its own entity," says Belichick. "There are new people and there are changes every year. You have to build and rebuild your team. Every team in the league is going through the same thing. We are part of it."
That's why 31 other teams are opening camp with hopes of succeeding the Patriots as champion.
Well, not quite 31 -- not San Francisco, Cleveland or Miami, which are starting over. Not Tennessee, which purged a half-dozen veterans from a highly successful run from 1999-2004. And not a half-dozen or more teams that just don't have the players, including Washington, where Dan Snyder has made a mess of things since buying the team in 1999.
But others can think big, emboldened by the success of St. Louis, which went from 4-12 in 1998 to a title the next year, or Carolina, 1-15 in 2001, 7-9 the next year and NFC champion the next, losing the 2004 Super Bowl on a last-second field goal by New England's Adam Vinatieri.
Even long-downtrodden Arizona, emboldened by some success in Dennis Green's first year as coach, has hopes of winning the very ordinary NFC West.
There are the usual big changes, including the trade of Randy Moss by Minnesota to Oakland after seven turbulent seasons with the Vikings where -- like Owens in San Francisco and then Philadelphia -- his play was outstanding, but he often was a locker room distraction.
Jerry Rice signed with Denver at age 42, although there is no guarantee he will make the team. Emmitt Smith, the league's career rushing leader, retired after two seasons in Arizona and 15 seasons in the league.
The most glaring focus is on the Patriots, a team that seems annually to find players who fit its unusual schemes. Most often, it's a combination of veterans who have stagnated on losers and rookies who are drafted specifically for their abilities to fit Belichick's system.
The past two years, the veterans have included safety Rodney Harrison and running back Corey Dillon. The rookies have included six who made significant contributions to the 2003 champs, and undrafted free agent cornerback Randall Gay, who ended up starting for much of the 2004 season and the playoffs.
This year, the veteran could be linebacker Chad Brown, who might help replace Bruschi. Cornerback Ty Law and wide receiver David Patten also are gone, but would anyone be surprised if David Terrell, a first-round disappointment in Chicago, reaches his potential at receiver? Or a veteran such as Duane Starks or Chad Scott helps replace Law?
Replacing the coordinators could be another story. Charlie Weis, the offensive coordinator, took the head coaching job at Notre Dame. Romeo Crennel, his defensive counterpart, is now the Browns coach.
Eric Mangini, 34, the former secondary coach, is the new defensive coordinator in New England. Belichick, a defensive specialist, will help run the offense with the help of a staff that includes 29-year-old quarterbacks coach Josh McDaniels, the son of Warren Harding coach Thom McDaniels. The uncommonly smart quarterback Tom Brady also could have input into game plans after signing a contract that will help the team stay under the salary cap: $60 million over six years, not much for a top-five QB who is a two-time Super Bowl MVP.
Philadelphia, meanwhile, remained intact in the coaching department, where Andy Reid oversees two outstanding coordinators -- Jim Johnson on defense and Brad Childress on offense.
But what can the Eagles do about Owens?
They traded for the tempestuous wide receiver knowing that with the 49ers he had run-ins with his coaches and quarterbacks. He was a model citizen last season and came back unexpectedly from a broken ankle to catch nine passes for 122 yards in the 24-21 Super Bowl loss.
But in the offseason he hired Drew Rosenhaus to renegotiate the seven-year, $49 million contract he signed a year ago. Reid has suggested in his stoic way that the Eagles won without Owens and can do so again if he decides to sit out the season. The organization has stayed on top in part by not giving into contract demands.