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We're getting close to training camps and season previews. In the meantime, many of you wrote to ask how your favorite team will do in 2004.

While I'm still forming my opinions about who will finish where, these responses should give you a head start before we jump into full-scale predictions soon.

And as always, it shouldn't always be "Ask Cris." Feel free to include your own opinions on any of my recent columns and audio/video segments, and we'll try to print the best of them in future mailbags. And although it might not seem that way, you get bonus points for including your hometown.

Now on to your emails. My responses are in italics.



With the addition of Duce Staley and their offensive line healthy again, the Pittsburgh Steelers seem ready to run the ball effectively. Tommy Maddox has always seemed most accurate in play-action situations. Will a renewed running game make Tommy Maddox as effective as he was in 2002? If so, shouldn't the Steelers be favored in the AFC North?

Willis Salomon

I wouldn't favor them, but they'll have a better season than they did last year. I don't know if Maddox will get back to the level of play he enjoyed two years ago (when he completed 62 percent of his passes), but he'll do better than last year (when he was down to 57 percent).

You're right – last year they were too one-dimensional. But the combination of Staley and a finally healthy Jerome Bettis will make Maddox more effective.

They should be able to rebound and have an exciting season.


Why do you think wide receiver Joey Galloway never succeeded in Dallas? And who got the better deal in the trade between Dallas and Tampa Bay in the Keyshawn Johnson-Joey Galloway trade?

Samuel Finnessey Jr.

I'll answer the second question first. Really, it's a very good situation for both teams. Tampa Bay wants to do things down the field and lacked the speed to do that. Dallas needed another receiver that could bang, and Keyshawn is a better complement to Terry Glenn than Galloway.

Galloway hasn't performed up to the expectations he has faced since Seattle drafted him so early and Dallas made the big trade for him. He's still limited in what he can do. He's a great downfield threat but hasn't developed an intermediate or short game like Marvin Harrison, Randy Moss, even Terrell Owens.

Given Galloway's ability and speed, I'd expect him to make more yards after the catch.


Is this the 11th hour for the current Chiefs' roster? With both starting WRs over 31, Priest 31, a kicker who's 44, and a 34-year-old Trent Green; is it this year or never? Is it really possible with a tougher schedule than last year and tougher competition in the AFC West except for the Chargers.

Chris Fanning

Yes, this is a big year for Kansas City. Given the age of their roster, it will be exciting to see if they can bounce back from last year's postseason disappointment and field a defense that can limit teams to 24 points or so.

If teams find a way to limit Priest Holmes, the Chiefs need a receiver to dominate. Eddie Kennison or Johnnie Morton need to elevate their game to make Kansas City's offense truly unstoppable – although the Chiefs still won't struggle to score points.


What is your opinion on the QB situation in Dallas?

Jim Duckworth

It's really up in the air. There is no frontrunner, although I expect Quincy Carter ultimately to be the starter, and I like Vinny Testaverde as a backup or Plan B.

Basically, this is where Dallas should have been two years ago. Carter would be further along had he been able to learn under someone like Testaverde. It's hard to put a value on Carter starting so much last season, but hey – he got them into the playoffs.

He'll have to improve for the Cowboys to go further.


Why are you so critical of the Bears? Is it because you played in the same division as them? They have a lot more talent than you give them credit for.

Kenny Busch

Well, their talent has to display something. Every team has talent. Between their quarterback situation and an inability to run the football – plus holes on the defensive front – they're not as talented as the Vikings or Packers in the NFC North.

And Detroit improved more in the offseason than Chicago.


Eddie George: Staying or leaving the Titans?

Mike

It's hard to release a veteran who has contributed so much, but Tennessee will do what's best for its team. To me, that means keeping George, finding a way to reduce his salary and alternate him with Chris Brown so that George has a better chance to be healthy when they need him most.


Do you think the Dolphins and Dave Wannstedt have finally learned that they need to be more unpredictable and have more flexible game plans to compete with the elite teams in 2004, or am I in for more of the same this year as a fan?

Tom

Besides acquiring David Boston, the Dolphins haven't done anything in the offseason that makes me think they will do anything different. They have been one-dimensional in the past and need more big plays out of the passing game.

A.J. Feeley hasn't looked any better than Jay Fiedler in offseason workouts, so instead of making the situation better, it actually is more difficult. There's a lot of pressure to play Feeley, and if they play Fiedler, they have to deal with the same old mundane "he can only take you so far," "he can't win in the postseason" pressure.

Chris Foerster has never been an offensive coordinator, but he had to take over for Jason Collier due to Collier's health problems. That's pressure.

After talking to some of the guys, I'm worried that the pressure will be insurmountable.


First of all, thanks for all the great years in Minnesota. You had the best hands the game has ever seen!

I am still a big Vikings fan. Last year definitely was a "tale of two seasons" with a great start and a lousy finish.

Which Viking team will show up this year: the 6-0 version or the 3-7 group?

Rob Saltiel

Somewhere in between. They will make the playoffs. They got a lot better defensively. Antonio Wingfield is the best cornerback they've had in 10 or 15 years. They can play a lot more combination coverages with him.

And we know offensively they will score a lot of points.


With the addition of Dunta Robinson, Jason Babin, and a healthy David Carr, can Houston be a playoff threat?

The Texans are better, but given the competition in their division and conference I don't think they'll make the leap into the playoffs. Their improvement isn't likely to generate five or six more victories.

Domanick Davis looks like a solid running back. David Carr is developing, and Andre Johnson showed he is more than just a big-play threat. He has more athletic ability than people thought.


Why do so many analysts doubt the Cleveland Browns' chances for next year? The offensive line is healthy and they have two good running backs, not to mention a changed offense. I think that the defense will be much improved this year, just because the younger players are more experienced and everyone has a year under their belt in Dave Campo's system. What do you think?

Ken

The problem with Cleveland is that they've added a lot of pieces. It will hard for them to get continuity right away. Jeff Garcia will be good, and Kellen Winslow will help him out. Garcia doesn't have a huge arm and will have trouble throwing the ball when the wind starts blowing off the lake.

But why are people down on them? Look at the rest of the division. Cincinnati has passed Cleveland. Pittsburgh's defense makes the Steelers better, and Baltimore is the best team in the division.


I enjoy reading your responses to questions regarding various football teams. However you never mention anything about the Seahawks. It's as if they don't exist. Now I know they haven't given many people reason to take notice in their history but the last 2-3 years they have been on the brink with one piece missing. This team has a tremendous offense yet you never mention one of the many good players on that offense. Then again neither do any of the other sports writers. So what gives?

Scott

Last year, I missed on Seattle. The Seahawks performed a lot better than I thought they would. This year, I'm not going to miss on them because I'm predicting them to win the NFC West. That may be a bad omen for them. …

But their receivers drop too many balls. If Darrell Jackson and Koren Robinson can become more consistent, the Seahawks' offense can be tremendous. Shaun Alexander and Matt Hasselbeck are great.

They outplayed Green Bay in the playoff game they lost last year, and I expect big things from Seattle this year.


As a lifelong St. Louis fan, I was wondering what you think of their team this year. They unloaded a questionable Kurt Warner, lost some talent on defense and don't have mush depth at quarterback. Is it time to start rebuilding?

Aaron Kaplan

It's not rebuilding mode but they're not as strong for a number of reasons. If something happens to Bulger they're really in trouble.

Will the combination of Marshall Faulk and Steven Jackson work? Faulk doesn't look at himself as a player who can be platooned. So are they going to let their first-round pick sit on the bench or put him in the game and risk angering the star?

Defensively they've lost some bodies. Between Grant Wistrom leaving and Leonard Little's legal problems, they have holes to fill.


Keep the questions pouring in and enjoy training camp!