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It’s raining on NFL’s parade

Dave Goldberg Associated Press

This should be a glorious year for the NFL.

So far, it’s been anything but.

The death of San Francisco’s Thomas Herrion after an exhibition game in Denver on Aug. 20 put football in perspective. That perspective was lacking for most of a preseason dominated by the squabble between Terrell Owens and the Philadelphia Eagles, a sideshow that took up so much attention it annoyed everyone from commissioner Paul Tagliabue to Peyton Manning and Ray Lewis.

Then Herrion, a backup offensive lineman trying to make the 49ers, collapsed and died after that preseason game, a far more somber moment for the NFL than Owens’ predictably erratic behavior.

What this season will likely be about is:

“The New England Patriots, perhaps the best constructed team in any sport, seeking to become the first team to win three straight Super Bowls.

“Glamorous stars in their prime: Manning, Tom Brady, Julius Peppers, LaDainian Tomlinson, Ed Reed, Donovan McNabb, Daunte Culpepper.

“Veteran stars (Brett Favre, Lewis, Priest Holmes, Curtis Martin, Michael Strahan) and rising stars (Antonio Gates, Ben Roethlisberger, Jonathan Vilma).

“Key players coming off injuries or absences such as Titans QB Steve McNair, Jets QB Chad Pennington and Miami RB Ricky Williams. Or big names in new locales: Randy Moss in Oakland, Kurt Warner in Arizona and even 42-year-old Doug Flutie returning to New England.

“A league at the top of the sports world with a new multibillion dollar television contract already complete and, perhaps soon, an extension to the labor deal. That’s in contrast to the problems of other leagues: steroids, strikes, declining television ratings.

“The promise of intriguing rookies, ranging from San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith, the first player taken in last April’s draft, all the way down to a fourth-rounder, Brandon Jacobs, a 260-pound running back for the New York Giants who has been brilliant in the preseason.

Still, all that has been almost totally ignored. Even the Patriots seem just an afterthought to a lot of media outlets, most prominently a certain cable sports network where it’s all T.O. all the time – with daily up-to-the-minute reports on Owens, who has monopolized the airwaves since his heroic performance in the Super Bowl nearly helped the Eagles overcome the Patriots. He wants a new contract; he’s criticizing McNabb, he’s in camp, he’s out of camp, he’s defying his coaches …

But New England’s Richard Seymour, Pittsburgh’s Hines Ward, San Diego’s Gates, the New York Jets’ John Abraham and Green Bay’s Bubba Franks also were camp holdouts, and hardly anybody knew about it.

Gates agreed to a six-year contract after he was put on an NFL suspension list by the Chargers, meaning he will miss the season opener – a screwup of major proportions by both the player or his agent and the team.

But always the spotlight got back to T.O.

“It has as much effect on the league as a summer firefly will be gone this September,” Tagliabue says, perhaps in frustration with what has become the ultimate media circus.

Still, T.O. has overshadowed what has seemed to be overwhelming interest in the NFL in the preseason: 60,000 fans in Green Bay for a scrimmage between the Bills and the Packers; 18,000 more in Foxborough for an evening workout by the Patriots (and yes, the Red Sox were playing that night); a capacity 4,000 fans in the stadium in Mankato, Minn., for Vikings scrimmages; an average of 1,300 for Bills scrimmages in Rochester, N.Y.; 7,000 fans in Thousand Oaks, Calif., on the opening day of Dallas’ camp there.

“There are soldiers fighting in Iraq right now that love the game of football,” Lewis said. “They don’t want to turn the TV on every day and listen to the Philadelphia Eagles and Terrell Owens’ saga. We’re covering the Philadelphia Eagles more than we’re covering the New England Patriots and they’re the Super Bowl champions.”

Indeed they are, with a team that apart from Brady and Seymour seems able to plug in interchangeable parts and win. If they do it again, they become the first to win four Super Bowls in five seasons.

They won’t talk about it, of course. Coach Bill Belichick won’t allow it, to the point that the most innocent allusion to three straight by Brady early in camp was excised from the transcript of his chat with reporters.

Nor will it be easy.

In the offseason, the Patriots lost both coordinators to head coaching jobs: Charlie Weis (offense) to Notre Dame, Romeo Crennel (defense) to the Cleveland Browns. That’s the normal reward/penalty for winning, and it leaves a void.

“It’s not the same camp without Charlie yelling at us,” jokes wide receiver Deion Branch, the MVP of last February’s 24-21 Super Bowl win over the Eagles.

But replacing them may not be a joke. The offensive game planning has been taken over by a four- or five-man group headed by Belichick, a defensive specialist, and including Brady, who could be one of the few QBs of the modern era to call his own plays.

More important could be the absence of linebacker Tedy Bruschi, who suffered a mild stroke shortly after the Super Bowl and has decided to sit out the season. His loss was compounded when Ted Johnson, the other inside linebacker, retired after a series of concussions.

For now, that leaves a key component of the 3-4 defense in the hands of journeyman Monte Beisel and 35-year-old injury-prone former Pro Bowler Chad Brown, who has played outside most of his career.

Challengers to the Pats?

Buffalo and the New York Jets could be contenders in the AFC East, although the Bills will go at quarterback with J.P. Losman, who threw all of five passes as a rookie last season. Jets QB Pennington is coming back from rotator cuff surgery on his throwing arm.

Pittsburgh was 15-1 last season, but lost at home to the Patriots in the conference title game.

The Steelers won’t win 15 again as teams try to exploit some of the inexperience Roethlisberger showed in the playoffs after going 13-0 in the regular season. Baltimore, with Lewis seemingly revived in the return to a 4-3 defense, should challenge the Steelers in the North, and Cincinnati is improving slowly.

Indianapolis, with Peyton Manning coming off a record 49 touchdown passes, is the heavy favorite in the South, but Dwight Freeney is the only impact player on a defense that suffers because most of the team’s money has gone to offense. The other problem is beating the Patriots, The Colts, who play indoors, have been knocked out of the playoffs in Foxborough the last two seasons and have lost six straight to New England and 10 of 12 since Manning has been the quarterback.

San Diego, a surprise 12-4 last season, probably won’t do that again in an improved AFC West, where Oakland has added Randy Moss from Minnesota, which tired of his antics. The Chargers also will be without Gates for the first game because they suspended him and reported it to the league a day before he ended his holdout.

The NFC once again seems to have far fewer good teams.

The Eagles are the class of the NFC despite the Owens saga: his holdout, his exile from camp after an argument with coach Andy Reid, and his silent return. But look for Carolina and Peppers, which reached the Super Bowl two seasons ago, to rebound from a spate of injuries to compete with Michael Vick and Atlanta in the South.

Minnesota looks like the class of the North, with Green Bay and Favre fading and Detroit rising. The Vikings might, in fact, benefit by the trade that shipped Moss to Oakland – addition by subtraction, especially in chemistry.

The West, won by Seattle at 9-7 last season, again looks like a fight among the average: the Seahawks, St. Louis and an improved Arizona, with San Francisco at the bottom.

In fact, the bottom is where the three new coaches are – that’s why they got their jobs.

The 49ers, with Mike Nolan taking over, will start a rebuilding job. The Browns now have Crennel, who has been cleaning house, and Miami hired former LSU coach Nick Saban and welcomed back Williams, who sat out last season and will have to sit out the first four games this year for a drug suspension.

Still, this is the NFL and one key injury can change every prediction.

Except the fact that T.O. will do something to grab attention again.

“We take it day to day,” Eagles safety Brian Dawkins acknowledged the day the cantankerous receiver returned to practice. Who knows what will happen any time – now, next week, before Game 5?”

“I just wish the best for him, that he can somehow get it together and understand life,” says Deion Sanders, still working as a nickel back for Baltimore. “He’s a good guy.”

A lot of people might thing otherwise. Starting with Andy Reid.

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