NFC's burning questions

More training camp: Top AFC questions

Here are the NFC's top questions heading into training camp:

1. Has the NFC finally caught up to the AFC in terms of elite teams?

Clearly, the AFC was weakened in the offseason. The conference is jammed with question marks at quarterback, and several of the elite teams suffered roster attrition. Pittsburgh's losses in Antwaan Randle El and Jerome Bettis are more significant than anyone realizes, Indianapolis' offense will be hard-pressed to stay balanced with Edgerrin James' departure, Jacksonville doesn't have any proven No. 1 wide receivers and has issues at linebacker, New England continued to lose pieces on defense that will affect continuity and San Diego is dealing with a first-time starter at quarterback.

Meanwhile, several of the good-but-not-great NFC teams made significant free agent and coaching pickups. We won't know how the talent will play out on paper, but undoubtedly, there appear to be several NFC teams that could hang with anyone in the AFC. The Seattle Seahawks could have easily walked away with the Vince Lombardi trophy last season, and they look even better with the additions of Julian Peterson and Nate Burleson. The loss of All-Pro guard Steve Hutchinson hurts, but the continued development of some of the younger defensive players could make the Seahawks dominant.

We already knew about Seattle, though. It's the rest of the middle-of-the-road playoff teams in the NFC that really juiced up in the offseason.

The Carolina Panthers' additions in Keyshawn Johnson and Maake Kemoeatu were pivotal. And if both DeShaun Foster and Kris Jenkins return healthy, the Panthers should be easily worthy of a Super Bowl berth. Beyond the Big Two, the New York Giants made some significant additions in free agency and could jump to an elite level with the continued development of Eli Manning. The Washington Redskins loaded up on offense and have arguably the best coaching staff in the NFL. The Dallas Cowboys should see immediate dividends from Terrell Owens and has a defense loaded with potential. Even the Atlanta Falcons should take a big step forward on defense with the addition of John Abraham and Lawyer Milloy (not to mention a healthy Edgerton Hartwell).

2. Did Seattle do enough in the offseason to repeat as NFC champ?

The Seahawks clearly have top talent, but the road to the Super Bowl has gotten far tougher in the conference. While they are far and away the best team in their own division, the additions in Carolina, Dallas and New York appear to make the overall picture in the NFC look like a four-team sprint to Miami in February.

It's not entirely clear just how good Seattle's offseason was. Take Julian Peterson, for example. He had a good year with the San Francisco 49ers last season, but still didn't resemble his Pro Bowl form before his Achilles injury. Is he capable of returning to that kind of play? Absolutely. And if he does, Seattle's front seven has the potential to be the best in the NFL. But the chemistry and talent realization remains to be seen.

The same goes for Nate Burleson and the Seahawks' wide receivers. Burleson has had one good season (but certainly not Pro Bowl level), and he's coming off an injury-marred 2005 campaign. That's troublesome considering he has joined a duo in Bobby Engram and Darrell Jackson that has been plagued by injuries. And of course, there is the issue of losing Steve Hutchinson. Even without Hutchinson, the offensive line's depth is actually solid. If Floyd Womack can be at least a capable (and healthy) replacement, Shaun Alexander should have another very productive season.

Beyond the roster, Seattle's division should give them a leg up on the rest of the conference elite. The Cowboys and Giants have to grind it out in an NFC East that is loaded from top to bottom, and the Panthers have to contend with an improved Atlanta and a tough Tampa Bay Buccaneers team in the NFC South. Another plus for Seattle is the fact that the non-divisional schedule looks relatively soft, with home tilts against the Giants and San Diego, and road games at Chicago, Denver and Tampa Bay. A 12-4 or 13-3 season definitely looks possible, but there won't be an easy game in the playoffs.

3. How long before T.O. melts down in Dallas?

There shouldn't be a meltdown any time soon, but make no mistake, there will be drama. Terrell Owens can't help himself. Whether it's a sideline rant caught on camera or a subtle dig at Drew Bledsoe, he will do something to draw attention. The release of his book just prior to training camp is just another in a long line of examples of a guy who doesn't give a thought to timing and impact inside the locker room. The book will make Owens money and has drawn headlines, but as expected, it has already opened a mild spigot of controversy before he's even stepped onto the field.

That said, Owens is no dummy. He knows he can't let the Philadelphia Eagles situation happen in Dallas even if he doesn't truly seem humbled by what happened last year. It helps that Bill Parcells is probably better suited to deal with Owens than any other coach in the league. Parcells has dealt with plenty of massive egos in his time, and if he senses that Owens is doing more damage than good, he won't hesitate to shut down the situation. Bledsoe is no mild-mannered quarterback, either. He won't be bullied they way Jeff Garcia was, and he won't engage in the silent, passive-aggressive approach that Donovan McNabb took behind closed doors. If there is a problem, Bledsoe won't wait to get into Owens' face.

In the short term, Owens' existence in Dallas should be a mixture of good and bad, with tense moments combined with major offensive dividends. In the long term, it's hard to see Parcells and Bledsoe being around much longer. This may blow up, but it could very well happen under a new regime in 2007 or 2008.

4. Is Eli Manning ready to join the league's elite quarterbacks?

A lot of that will depend on how reliable the Giants' surrounding players can be. Eli's brother, Peyton, really made his jump to star status in his third year, when his touchdowns-to-interception ratio jumped to 2.2 from 1. But what Peyton Manning was blessed with – and Eli may not be – is a pair of skill players who were dominant at their respective positions in Edgerrin James and Marvin Harrison.

Clearly, Eli has one of the NFL's best running backs in Tiki Barber, who raked in a combined 2,390 yards rushing and receiving last year to go along with 11 total touchdowns. Unfortunately, Barber turned 31 this offseason, and he is getting close to that invisible wall that running backs hit in their early 30s. And Barber is certainly getting to the point where the team doesn't want him carrying the load like he did in the final six regular-season games last year, when Manning threw four touchdowns and 10 interceptions and completed over 60 percent of his passes only once. If Barber breaks down, Manning would have a tough time dealing with defenses that won't respect Brandon Jacobs or Chad Morton.

More importantly, Manning will need consistent strides from Plaxico Burress, who is still showing the same focus and attitude problems he had during his days in Pittsburgh. Amani Toomer was surprisingly effective in the red zone last season, but he has faded as a downfield threat. Much of the big-play responsibilities will fall on Burress and Jeremy Shockey. That's a significant problem when you consider neither of those players spent the offseason in New York working on routes with Manning. Marvin Harrison and Peyton Manning have probably spent more time working on timing in one offseason than Eli, Burress and Shockey have in two years.

That's not Eli's issue. He stayed in New York and worked in the offseason at the team's facility, while Shockey and Burress spent the summer at Florida working out at the University of Miami. It smacks of a deeper problem – specifically whether Burress and Shockey have bought into Manning being the team's unquestioned leader. At this point, it doesn't appear to be the case. Until they do, it'll be hard for Eli to make the jump into the league's top two or three passers.

5. Is this the make-or-break season for Michael Vick with the Falcons?

It could be. But this all depends on what you think of Vick's standing in Atlanta. Is he untouchable? Most people in NFL circles would say he is – a coaching staff would be retooled before Vick would be traded or allowed to leave – but there is a growing minority in the league that believe Vick will never be able to reach a Super Bowl level if can't become a more consistent and effective passer.

Furthermore, many in this minority believe there is a reason why Matt Schaub is being kept around when the Falcons have had some decent offers for the backup QB. The idea that they could go with Schaub down the line still seems too far-fetched. But then again, so was the idea of Marc Bulger stealing Kurt Warner's job in St. Louis. The bottom line is that Vick has been a winner, going 32-20-1 in his 53 career starts. Lest we forget, he's also been to an NFC championship game. That's enough to overlook the fact that his passer rating has been mediocre the last two seasons (78.1 in 2004 and 73.1 in 2005).

At varying points, the blame has been put on all the parties surrounding Vick. It has been the coaches, the system and the receivers. He's even blamed injuries, like last season's lingering knee problem. The finger pointing hasn't always been taken well, particularly with some veteran wideouts who grew sick of hearing how they weren't getting the job done (Dez White, for one). But the receivers have come and gone, as well as the coaching staffs and injuries. The one consistency has been Vick, who continues to struggle as a passer even when the elements around him change.

For now, it still appears Schaub is little more than a good insurance policy against a quarterback who plays in a manner that exposes him to injury. But like Bulger, if Vick gets hurt, Schaub steps in and the offense flourishes with a traditional pocket passer at the helm, the coaching staff could be posed with a legitimate choice to make – particularly when the Falcons know Vick could yield a bounty of players and picks in a trade.

6. Are there any head coaches going into the season on the hot seat?

After watching five of the 16 NFC franchises clean house in the coaching offices, it's hard to believe there could still be anyone in danger. For the most part, everyone begins the season on relatively solid ground. But the current culture of the NFL shows things can fall apart quickly for coaches – even the guys who seem rock solid when the year starts. Go back one season ago, and nobody fathomed Steve Mariucci becoming an in-season casualty with the Detroit Lions. So in some sense, there are only a precious few who are absolutely safe.

With that in mind, the one man to keep an eye on is Arizona Cardinals head coach Dennis Green. Last year was a tremendous flop for the Cardinals, despite the fact that there were a handful of significant injuries and several of their cornerstones were still maturing. Part of the issue is with Green's coaching staff. He's consistently criticized in league circles for failing to add top-notch assistants, and that could explain some of the offensive line problems and defensive inconsistencies. The addition of Edgerrin James adds another wrinkle to the situation. Owner Bill Bidwill didn't shell out a lucrative free agent deal to watch Arizona finish 5-11. The Cardinals have an abundance of talent, a new stadium and a relatively soft division. The playoff window is open. It's time for Green to produce.

One other name to keep in mind: Jim Mora Jr. The Falcons added some key pieces in the offseason, and they should be primed for another playoff run. But the failure to establish a scheme that will allow Michael Vick to flourish hurts Mora's status. And no matter what Vick says publicly, he grew very frustrated when things fell apart after a 6-2 start and a 2-6 finish last season. He couched the issue by pointing to his tweaked knee as having been a source of some of his problems, but it went beyond that. If Vick struggles again this year, issues could develop quickly between the face of the franchise and the coaches expected to help him thrive.

7. Can Keyshawn Johnson put the Carolina Panthers over the top?

No doubt, Johnson is a perfect possession type of receiver to complement Steve Smith. While Johnson had the lowest yards-per-catch average of his career last season (11.8), he also notched 46 first downs – the exact same number that Keary Colbert, Ricky Proehl, Rod Gardner and Drew Carter combined for last season. And Johnson's presence in that role with the Cowboys was a big reason for the career resurgence of Terry Glenn.

In truth, Johnson may not be the offseason's biggest signing. Maake Kemoeatu could end up being a Pro Bowl rock for the defense, while a healthy Na'il Diggs and motivated Damione Lewis could be underrated additions. But considering the offense's playoff struggles against Seattle – and the fact that Carolina will likely have to solve that defense again in the playoffs – Johnson could end up being the ingredient that makes it all come together for the Panthers.

One issue, though, is that – like Terrell Owens in Dallas – there is always a chance Johnson could corrupt team chemistry. Somehow, it's been overlooked that his attitude has gotten him shipped from two teams (the Jets and Buccaneers) and that he had his rough patches with the Cowboys, too. Now he's moving to a team and playing alongside another wideout in Smith that has his own very strong ego on the field. With their window at its peak, the last thing the Panthers can afford is a divided locker room. And while Johnson doesn't quite come with the dangers of Owens, there is an equal element of risk that comes with the potential payoff.

8. Which one of the NFC's rookie coaches has the best shot at the postseason?

New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton has a ton of talent to work with, but he's going to have some struggles in the ultra-tough NFC South, particularly when there is no guarantee that Drew Brees will be available to start the season. And it doesn't help that Payton filled out his staff with a relatively undistinguished group of assistants. Scott Linehan also has some talent to work with on the St. Louis Rams' roster and in an NFC West that appears to be up for grabs beyond Seattle. But with the lack of playmakers on defense, the Rams will struggle to finish .500.

Considering there are three new coaches in the NFC North, it almost has to go to someone in that division by default. Even with Brett Favre's return, the Green Bay Packers still look shaky at best. The offensive line is still poor, and with Ahman Green's best days seemingly behind him, there doesn't appear to be a clear No. 1 running back on the roster. Even the receiving corps looks rather mediocre, with Donald Driver being the only player who has proved he can be a consistent option.

The Lions' situation doesn't look much better, either. Though Detroit might have the best pair of coordinators in the division in Mike Martz and Donnie Henderson, the team still lacks discipline, not to mention an impact quarterback. It's almost inconceivable that there were three high first-round picks invested at wide receiver, and two have been almost total busts. Charles Rogers is one substance abuse violation from being suspended for one year, while Mike Williams may not even make the team. Unless Kevin Jones catches fire and the defense really comes together, it's hard to imagine Detroit playing anything better than .500 football.

That leaves the Minnesota Vikings, whose head coach Brad Childress has a roster chock full of talent and a resume to suggest he can be a successful leader. It will be interesting to see how the players take to his demeanor after he was so publicly blunt during the Daunte Culpepper fallout. It's hard to be entirely confident in the Vikings' offense, which is being led by an aging Brad Johnson and is rife with question marks at both running back and wide receiver. But the team is talented where it counts: in the trenches (on offense and defense) and in the secondary.

9. Will the Chicago Bears ever find an offense?

Even if the pieces come together perfectly, the Bears will have trouble scoring a great deal of points. Rex Grossman needs more than his health. He needs to actually develop into a quality quarterback who can move his offense consistently – something that hasn't been seen in his limited snaps. In seven starts, he has completed just over 53 percent of his passes, and that is not surprising considering he's never played in more than three consecutive NFL games and has missed a large chunk of his training camp time, too.

While everyone is applauding the signing of Brian Griese, there is a reason he is on his fourth different team in the last five years. His good numbers in 2004 – when he completed almost 70 percent of his passes for 20 touchdowns with only 12 interceptions in 11 games with Tampa Bay – suggest he still has something left in the tank. But the last thing the Bears want is to have to insert him into the starting lineup because that would mean something has gone wrong with the Grossman project again. Muhsin Muhammad isn't getting any younger and Mark Bradley's torn ACL was a major setback to a player who needed to make big strides to become a dependable No. 2 wideout. It doesn't help that the tight end spot is below average, either. Once again, Chicago's playmaking will have to come from the backfield, where the tandem of Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson should be very strong.

10. What can we expect from Reggie Bush?

He will sign and play in 2006. It may take a protracted holdout, but the talk of possibly re-entering the draft in 2007 is financial posturing at its most colorful. Once he's in camp, Bush should be everything the hype and highlights have suggested. Forget about splitting carries at USC and his minor physical setback in the rookie minicamp. Bush's skills translate to the NFL without a doubt, and the Saints will find ways to get him the ball.

New coach Sean Payton envisions Bush in a Marshall Faulk type of role, which should help keep Bush on the field even when the team is feeding carries to Deuce McAllister. Still, it's far-fetched to expect a LaDainian Tomlinson type of rookie season (1,603 yards from scrimmage, 10 touchdowns, etc.). The offensive line has some chemistry issues, with tackle Jammal Brown moving to the left side and LeCharles Bentley gone via free agency. Jeff Faine will take over at center. A few things will have to happen to keep things opened up for Bush. First, Brees has to be healthy. Second, Jermane Mayberry has to be at least adequate at left guard and Jon Stinchcomb has to be better than a backup forced into a starting role at right tackle.