Is this finally the year for Dan the Man and the Don?

And the five other key questions that will decide the NFL season which starts tomorrow. By Matt Tench
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The Independent Online
Dan Marino is 33 and has wonky knees. Don Shula is 65 and has a wonky defense. It has become a pre-season ritual to suggest that it is now or never for the two elder statesmen of Miami society, but with the former Dallas head coach Jimmy Johnson lurking menacingly on a Florida Keys fishing boat, Shula knows time is running out for him and his quarterback. Their reappearance at the Super Bowl is long overdue.

Certainly Shula's off-season activity displayed all the long-term strategy of a Tory backbencher. A succession of veterans were secured at considerable expense - notably Eric Green, Pittsburgh's giant tight end, and Steve Emtman, the Indianapolis defensive linemen - as the Dolphins stockpiled talent in the manner of a Hollywood mogul.

Green brings a troublesome reputation, but at 20st should provide extra protection for Marino, plus a massive target on the shorter passing routes. Emtman, the first pick of the 1992 draft, was awesome in college but has been plagued by serious injuries as a pro. Hence the Colts' decision to cut him and his enormous salary.The Dolphins offered most in the ensuing auction, a sizeable risk given his medical record. Emtman and Trace Armstrong, who arrived from Chicago, are expected to bolster a defense that always seems to lack impact once winter begins to bite.

Shula, as every American anorak knows, has won more games than any other head coach, a deceptively meaningless statistic. Having been a head coach for 32 years, the victories continue to stack up but, despite consistently producing talented teams, he has not taken a one to the Super Bowl for 11 years (and not won one for 22).

Marino, the best pure-passing quarterback of a richly-talented generation, bridled at suggestions a year ago that his return from serious injury would signal a decline in playing standards. He proceeded to enjoy one of the best seasons in a dazzling career. With the injuries beginning to linger, though, he knows time may be short. "It starts to hit you," he said in training camp last month. "Next year you might not be playing. Obviously, I think I'm going to be. But one day you're a little kid seven years old, and then all of a sudden the thing you love is over."

Marino's brilliance has become an NFL commonplace, but whether he can take the Dolphins further than the AFC Championships games they lost in '95 and '93 depends more on the return of the injured running backs Terry Kirby and Keith Byars. And whether that defense can reach the level of the NFL's elite.

Can Philadelphia move to the

West Coast?

There was a marked lack of protest in Philadelphia, that most querulous of American sporting locations, when Rick Kotite was fired as the Eagles head coach in January. Likewise there were few arguments when his successor, Ray Rhodes, ditched the existing attacking strategy in favour of the "West Coast offense" with which the San Francisco 49ers have been winning championships for more than a decade.

Rhodes was defensive co-ordinator at Candlestick Park last year and brought with him Ricky Watters, the 49er half-back who scored three TDs in the Super Bowl. Watters is particularly dangerous when catching the ball and will be a vital component in the West Coast, which depends upon establishing the short passing game to set up the run (a direct contradiction of the game's received wisdom).

More important even than Watters' contribution, will be that of Randall Cunningham, the enigmatic Eagles quarterback. Cunningham, a marvellous, maverick talent as capable of running out of the pocket as passing from it, has never recovered from being heralded as "the ultimate weapon" by Sports Illustrated. A succession of devastating injuries, some bad coaching and his own inability to establish himself as a true team leader have prevented a rare gift from being fulfilled. There was much talk of a trade early in the year, but Rhodes promised Cunningham a chance to reestablish himself. "It's what I've wanted to do for a long time. I feel born again," Cunningham, a devout Christian, said recently. With a year left on his contract he is in search of redemption.

Will the new boys be blocked?

Almost certainly. Blocked, battered and beaten. For the first time since 1976 the NFL has increased its number, the Jacksonville Jaguars and Carolina Cougars taking the total of teams to 30. In keeping with the league's directionally challenged map, Jacksonville join the AFC Central, while Carolina enter the NFC West.

The last time the numbers went up, Tampa Bay lost all 14 games in their first season, while Seattle mustered just two victories. Free agency may allow this year's newcomers to improve on that, but not by much. The Jaguars are marshalled by Tom Coughlin, whose penchant for silly rules includes insisting all players have both feet on the floor during team meetings.

More can be expected from the Panthers. Their head coach, Dom Capers, was the man who put the blitz into Pittsburgh and he has already assembled a formidable defensive unit. The offense looks more vulnerable, especially after the departure of Barry Foster, the former Steeler running back, earlier this week.

The Panthers could press the St Louis Rams for fourth spot in the NFC West. The Rams moved from Los Angeles in the spring, but are no closer to solving the endemic problems of a franchise in freefall. Certainly the appointment of Rich Brooks did little to alter perceptions. Elkie Brooks has a higher profile. The other team to leave LA in the off season, the Raiders, should do better. They returned to Oakland, their spiritual home, with a new head coach, Mike White and the guarantee of better support.

Can things get any worse for the

Seattle Seahawks?

Surely not.

The finale to last season was bad enough. The team was on its way to another losing season, the crowds were at record lows and head coach Tom Flores was about to be sacked. Overshadowing it all was an accident in early December in which a truck driven by one of the Seahawks struck a utility pole. Mike Frier a defensive tackle on the team, was in the back and had his spine irreparably damaged.

Dennis Erickson, an outstanding college coach at the University of Miami, was lured back to his home state to take over. His appointment did not bring a change in fortune. In April, Erickson was arrested for driving while intoxicated, and has since followed a counselling programme with regular visits to Alcoholics Anonymous. On being introduced to his players at training camp Erickson asked them to forgive him. A few weeks later a series of articles in Florida newspapers claimed he ran a "lawless" regime in Miami, in which violence, sexual assault and drug abuse went largely uncontrolled.

In early July, Brian Blades, the Seahawks' outstanding wide receiver, was involved in a shooting incident in which his cousin Charles was killed by bullets fired from Brian's gun. Details of the tragedy remain confused, with Brian insisting the gun went off accidentally, but there remains the possibility that he will be charged with manslaughter.

Can the Seahawks recover from this grim series of catastrophes? Could anyone? A winning season is probably beyond them, but presumably it will be a relief just to be playing again.

Are the 49ers and Cowboys

still the class of the NFL?

Probably. Certainly their contest in last year's NFC Championship game was on a higher level than any that preceded it, and reduced the one that followed it, the Super Bowl, to the level of farce. Little has occurred in the off-season to reduce the gulf between these two and the rest. True both have lost significant performers. The 49ers will surely miss Ricky Watters, but they would not have let him go unless they were confident that full-back William Floyd can pick up the slack. The most intriguing of a posse of hungry backs competing for Watters' roster spot is Ricky Ervins, himself a brilliant rookie in Joe Gibbs's final year in Washington. Were Ervins to repeat that form the 49ers would be as offensively mesmerising as ever.

As for the Dallas Cowboys, their losses have tended to be lower profile, though there is a growing feeling that the youth and depth that was once their great strength is beginning to fade. The biggest name to go was wide receiver Alvin Harper - for big bucks to the Buccs - but it is the confident young playmakers like Kenny Gant (also to the Buccs) and James Washington (appropriately to the Redskins) that will be most missed.

None of their NFC brethren appear to have closed the gap on the Big Two, but the AFC may, at last, be ready to mount a credible Super Bowl challenge. Apart from the free traders of Miami, the New England Patriots can be expected to build on last season's encouraging campaign, while the intimidating defenses of Pittsburgh and Cleveland will continue to dominate, though neither possesses a Super Bowl quarterback.

Still, for the fourth year running, the Super Bowl winner seems destined to emerge from an NFC Championship showdown between the 49ers and the Cowboys. Which brings us to the last question ...

Why is the most important

player in American football

playing baseball this weekend?

There is every likelihood that Deion Sanders will this autumn determine the destiny of the Super Bowl. The best cornerback, and probably best defensive player, in American football, his talent and confidence provided the impetus for the 49ers finally to overthrow the Cowboys. Not surprisingly the 49ers want him back. Still less surprisingly, the Cowboys would like to gazump their keenest rivals. "I'd be shocked if Deion Sanders doesn't join us," Jerry Jones, the Cowboys owner, said last week. The Cowboys have offered Sanders the chance to play at wide receiver as well on defense. Virtually no one else need make an offer, though Miami, based in Sanders' home state, have expressed an interest.

The complication is that Sanders is also a professional baseball player, a sport at which he is less gifted but which carries less danger of having his senses rearranged. He refuses to start playing football until his baseball season is over.

Sanders, who is fairly opinionated on most subjects, has been distinctly reticent on his football future. His trade to the San Francisco Giants baseball team in June seemed to enhance the 49ers prospects, though their probable non-appearance in the baseball play-offs would raise Sanders' price, and make it even harder to fit Sanders into the 49ers salary cap. The Cowboys and Dolphins face similar financial problems, but creative accountancy is the name of the game these days, and whoever is nearest to matching Sanders' asking price of around $4m for eight to 11 games will probably get their man. And the Super Bowl.

MATT TENCH'S PREDICTIONS

EAST Miami N England Indianap's Buffalo NY Jets

AFC

CENTRAL Pittsburgh Cleveland Cincinnati Houston Jack'ville

WEST Denver San Diego Oakland Kansas C Seattle

EAST Dallas NY Giants Philad'a Wash'ton Arizona

NFC

CENTRAL Chicago Minnesota Detroit Tampa B Green Bay

WEST SF 49ers N Orleans Atlanta Carolina St Louis

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