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State of the NFL: League continues to grow heading into season

Everyone entering the Kennedy Center ambled onto a bright red carpet down a lengthy hallway with flags from several countries hanging overhead when the NFL community gathered earlier this week in Washington, D.C., for Gene Upshaw's memorial service. The atmosphere, the service, induced solidarity. It was a cue that the best of the NFL emerges when its distinguishable and fragmented parts coalesce in common good and goals.

That is a message that should resonate throughout the league's 89th season.

All players will wear on their left chest a "GU 63" patch saluting Upshaw's 15 years as a Hall of Fame player and 25 years as Players Association executive director. His wife, Terri, and sons Eugene Jr., Daniel and Justin will assist in the coin toss of Thursday's Redskins-Giants season opener in Giants Stadium.

The loss of Upshaw is a reminder that the collective bargaining process looming over the league's future requires extraordinary teamwork. That the singular Super Bowl hopes of the league's 32 teams will flourish or flop based on interlocking teamwork. That NFL quarterbacks remain cornerstones in focus and in leadership and that injuries and player conduct can take a brutal bite in ardent plans. That through strident teamwork new stadiums are continuously arriving and that the global interest and impact of the NFL game is growing. That this new season brings change, new faces, new sleepers and unpredictable finishes.

Upshaw lived to see this become the exacting truism for the 2008 NFL season: Fast starts are worthy. Strong mid-seasons are noble. But a flourishing finish is superior.

Times are always changing

The Giants embody the hope each team brings into the 2008 season.

A year ago they started 0-2. They were 3-5 in home games. They finished 10-6, matching the 1988 San Francisco 49ers for the worst regular-season record of a Super Bowl champion. They rode 11 straight road victories and a hot streak in the postseason to the franchises' third Super Bowl championship.

"I think we had arguably the greatest victory this franchise has ever had," said Giants co-owner John Mara of his team mastering the 18-0 New England Patriots. "As great as it was, you move on. We turned the page well before training camp. In this league, people are not concerned about the champions defending their title. You start from scratch.

"Our No.-1 concern as a league right now is can we have a new labor agreement? When you cut through the rhetoric in the labor talks through the years, there was a lot of good there with Gene. Is his loss going to make the process an even bigger hurdle? It's impossible to tell that. It depends on what the players association does in finding its successor. I hope it's not a hurdle for the future. It is a hurdle now. But there is a lot of time. We have to give it all our best. We can find a CBA that works for us all, the teams and players as well."

The league's owners in March opted out of their current labor deal with the players, a deal that expires after the 2010 season. That move means the 2010 season will be played without a salary cap. The owners in 2006 agreed to the current deal, which grants players 60 percent of league shared revenue. That number, owners say, has grown too costly.

Owner Dan Snyder brings his Redskins to the Meadowlands Thursday night with one eye on league history and the other on its future.

"Gene was a big loss to the league," Synder said. "They've got to replace him. It is something we are going to watch closely. The players must look to the right leader for the future and carry on his legacy. In my opinion, it's the strongest union out there. The players have to carry on the torch."

In the last round of bargaining talks, the owners believe their lack of universal unity and teamwork cost them in the negotiations. In this round, the players association looks vulnerable to such. Selecting Upshaw's permanent replacement is expected to produce a testy battle among the players and the union's power brokers.

For now, interim executive director Richard Berthelsen will work to keep those fires in check.

"We will use some of the lessons we learned from the man," Berthelsen said of Upshaw. "From an NFL economic standpoint, we must talk about the CBA. In a way, we see us facing similar issues we faced in 2006. Owners at the bottom say they need more revenue sharing to afford the cap. Owners at the top don't want to do that. The only thing they agree on is players need to give back more money.

"(Commissioner) Roger Goodell and I have talked several times since Gene's passing. We've talked most about several things the league was doing in his memory. Once we get back into the routine of business, once the season is onward, I would imagine we will talk more about the CBA. I have been around a long time, since '72 working in bargaining, and there is always gloom and doom. The league has been well managed. It's the ideal TV sport. It has proved its attraction time and time again."

Global attractions

The games, the competition, the remarkably gifted playmakers, the one-of-a-kind finishes help drive it.

Half of last year's games were decided by 8 or fewer points. For the 12th consecutive year five teams made the playoffs after missing out the year before.

NFL programming this season will be available in 230 countries spanning 24 time zones and including 32 languages. Regular-season games will be played on Oct. 26 in London (New Orleans vs. San Diego) and on Dec. 7 in Toronto (Miami vs. Buffalo).

"That speaks volumes about how good our game is," Mara said. "We have competitive balance. It's unpredictable and it's exciting. No one can pick this year's champion; very few, if any, picked us last year. I think fan anticipation for this season is at its highest ever. That means the NFL is great entertainment."

Synder added: "The game is globally accepted. Excitement is what we do."

The passing game remains a nucleus of the game's appeal. Last season seven quarterbacks threw for more than 4,000 yards, the most in a season in league history.

The dots in quarterback play are connected across the league.

Thursday night the Redskins' Jason Campbell tries to duplicate the maturity and growth of the Giants' Eli Manning on the same field as Manning. Manning looks for more success.

Aaron Rodgers must fill the colossal shoes of Brett Favre in Green Bay. Favre joined the Jets and that led to Chad Pennington joining the Dolphins -- both say hello in a Jets/Miami season-opener at Miami on Sunday. Injuries and illness meant that Baltimore's more experienced quarterbacks -- Kyle Boller and Troy Smith -- give way to rookie Joe Flacco. Rookie Matt Ryan takes his first snaps in Atlanta as the Falcons continue to crawl from the shadow of Michael Vick.

Alex Smith, the first pick of the 2005 draft, is trying to discern what happened in San Francisco as he backs up journeyman quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan. Matt Leinert does the same while watching Kurt Warner start for Arizona as does Rex Grossman, supplanted by Kyle Orton in Chicago. No team is smiling more at quarterback than Carolina with the return of injured starter Jake Delhomme. Tony Romo looks to maintain his cool and guard against the blinding glare of super-sized demands in Dallas.

Injuries, player conduct and suspensions have a growing impact in the game and in the results.

The league's top tier quarterbacks -- Tom Brady (foot) and Peyton Manning (knee) -- both are nursing injuries that could impact their teams' starts. The Giants begin to learn the true effect of losing during preseason action defensive end Osi Umenyiora (knee) for the season. Out for certain this opening week due to injuries are an assortment of familiar faces and new ones that might have impacted the games in memorable ways, among them Baltimore safety Ed Reed (neck and shoulder), Indianapolis center Jeff Saturday (knee), Detroit backup quarterback Drew Stanton, young Cincinnati receiver Marcus Maxwell, Chicago stout tackle Tommie Harris and Cleveland dynamic kick returner Joshua Cribbs. The Redskins learn Thursday night how much, if at all, prize end Jason Taylor can go with his sore knee.

An opening day victory means plenty -- 9 of the 12 playoff teams from last season won their first game.

The Jacksonville Jaguars offensive tackle Richard Collier was shot early this week, marking the third NFL player shot in the last 18 months. The league continues through various programs and personnel to guide its players in conduct. Conduct is key: Several players will miss this week's opening games due to league penalties for their off-field conduct, including New England's Kevin Faulk and Denver's Brandon Marshall.

There are, indeed, stories of redemption and new opportunity. The acclaimed cases are Adam Jones in Dallas and Chris Henry in Cincinnati, though Henry must sit out his team's first four games.

Ownership/relocation issues should become clearer this season among franchises including Pittsburgh, Jacksonville and Buffalo.

Difference makers

Looking for breakout players?

Asante Samuel could jolt Philadelphia, DeAngelo Hall brings his brand of brashness to the Raiders and Jeremy Shockey gives New Orleans an elusive deep-middle threat. Though others are more hyped, the key addition in the league might well be tight end Alge Crumpler in Tennessee, in from Atlanta. If he does for quarterback Vince Young what all of the game's best tight ends do -- provide a security blanket and ignite the Titans' passing attack at the center and at the heart of defenses -- the Titans could become beasts.

Pay attention to these defensive hammers: Green Bay linebacker Nick Barnett and Cincinnati defensive tackle Domata Peko. Barnett is as good an open-field tackler in the game and a prime playmaker. Peko gives non-stop effort and will emerge this season as a noticeable force.

Looking for breakout teams? Detroit should give it a strong shot. The Jets have especially renewed hope. Buffalo looks built for the long haul. Cleveland believes this is its time. Jacksonville is coming. Tennessee looks tough from the floor up. Minnesota is explosive. New Orleans is devising a new march.

It is an especially intriguing year for the Patriots.

They gained an NFL record 16-0 regular season. They have won 19 consecutive regular-season games. But the Super Bowl XLII loss to the Giants -- the lone loss surfacing in the last game -- hit the franchise hard in the gut from top to bottom. The Patriots have won three Super Bowls in the Bill Belichick era and had never lost in the big game. We know what often happens to Super Bowl losers; the following season, malaise and bad luck creeps in. How will the Patriots -- 0-4 in the preseason -- respond? It is a new, fresh test for the Patriots. Their mantra, like many teams in the league this season, is … FINISH.

"Think of the Giants' win last year, which followed our victory and Pittsburgh's, and that's three straight years where the team favored going into the playoffs didn't win it all," said Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy, whose team opens against the Bears on Sunday night in $720 million Lucas Oil Stadium. "That has increased the mindset of this season to 'let's just get in and see if we can get hot.' You are not thinking about home-field advantage. You are not thinking about a perfect regular season. You got to get in, get healthy, get hot. You are not putting as much emphasis on who looks good the first part of the year or even the first half. It is something I have thought a lot about. How do you peak in December and January?"

And on that first day in February, too, when Super Bowl XLIII will be played in Tampa. In a season that remembers Gene Upshaw, some of those answers are found in his example: Leadership, teamwork, in a game and league growing bigger and broader.

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