AFC's burning questions

Jason Cole
Yahoo! Sports

More training camp: Top NFC questions

Here are the top 10 questions in the AFC going into training camp:

1. How will quarterback issues affect the conference's balance of power?

Most experts believe the AFC is loaded with six to nine teams that could make a legitimate Super Bowl run. Is there any reason to dispute that? There's plenty of reason for doubt because the conference is rife with quarterback concerns. That starts with four serious contenders who have major quarterback questions and a total of 10 teams that either have a question or are making a change.

That includes the Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers. Ben Roethlisberger's return from his offseason motorcycle accident is an obvious topic. In fact, the season opener between the Steelers and the Miami Dolphins on Sept. 7 will be part of this theme as the Dolphins hope to have Daunte Culpepper ready to go in his recovery from a triple-ligament injury to his right knee last season. In addition, the Cincinnati Bengals' Carson Palmer is trying to come back from a knee injury in the playoffs and the San Diego Chargers will finally begin the Philip Rivers era.

The Baltimore Ravens are trying to get Steve McNair up to speed quickly so they can contend, while the Cleveland Browns, Tennessee Titans, Buffalo Bills, Oakland Raiders and New York Jets try to work through their quarterback issues. This doesn't even include the Denver Broncos, whose coach, Mike Shanahan, will have to handle the fragile psyche of starter Jake Plummer while developing first-round pick Jay Cutler, and the Jacksonville Jaguars, whose backup David Garrard, in the eyes of some people, might be better than injury-prone Byron Leftwich.

2. Is Daunte Culpepper really that close to returning for Miami's season opener?

Culpepper looked very good in the Dolphins' mini-camp in June, taking all the snaps he was supposed to take, scrambling laterally and running downfield. He was not at full speed, but given that he was still three months away from the opener and a little more than seven months removed from surgery, he looked great. The better question is this one: What is he – the guy who was an MVP candidate in 2004, or the guy who struggled in 2005?

Culpepper is a phenomenal talent with some yips in his game. He still holds the ball longer than most coaches would like, and he got away with that in the past because of his athletic ability and the fact that Randy Moss cured a lot of evils. Culpepper's failures in 2005 with the Minnesota Vikings are not solely because of Moss' departure. Culpepper also lost Pro Bowl center Matt Birk and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan. That's a trifecta of ugliness that even the best quarterbacks don't survive.

But if you really examine Culpepper's last year in Minnesota, he had two horrible games to open the season, including a five-interception debacle against Cincinnati where he threw four of the picks in the second half after the game was already out of hand. From there, he was OK, playing two very good games. Culpepper is also motivated to prove people wrong, particularly Vikings coach Brad Childress. Under the organization of Dolphins head coach Nick Saban and the tutelage of experienced offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey, a return to form is a good bet for Culpepper.

3. Which is the most intriguing team to watch in camp?

The Ravens – by far. They are loaded with great personalities, from head coach Brian Billick to star safety Ed Reed. They also have significant questions, starting with the health of linebacker Ray Lewis, both physically and mentally. Lewis is returning from offseason surgery and even asked for a trade because he wanted a new contract. There's also McNair, who arrived in June and is under the gun to learn the offense and his teammates. Fortunately, McNair has former Tennessee teammate and favorite receiver Derrick Mason around to help out, but it's not easy for any quarterback to learn a system on such short notice, particularly a QB who tends to miss a lot of practice because of the many legitimate injuries he has had during his career. That said, McNair is going to be motivated after getting tossed to the curb by the Titans in such abrupt fashion.

Beyond all of this, there's the question about whether running back Jamal Lewis is done or whether he can get back to his 2,000-yard form of 2003. Spice all of this with the expectations of owner Steve Bisciotti and you have a wonderful mix of storylines. On top of all that, McDaniel College in Westminster, Md., is a pretty nice setting. You're less than an hour from Baltimore and about 30 minutes from Valley Forge, making a two- or three-day trip there pretty palatable. It's not San Diego or Napa, Calif. (where the Raiders train), but there's some pretty nice potential for a short-term excursion.

4. Who is the best AFC coach in the worst position?

This is a little different than simply asking, "Which coach is on the hot seat?" By that tired standard, it's clearly Brian Billick with Marty Schottenheimer a close second in San Diego. But the deeper question is about how there are coaches in the AFC who are just in a bad situation. Schottenheimer and Chargers general manager A.J. Smith don't get along. They had a public tiff over the decision to let quarterback Drew Brees go. It got so ugly that team president Dean Spanos had to sit them down to tell them to play nice. Likewise, Billick was read the riot act by Bisciotti at the end of last season, basically being told that his management style had to change. That's an elaborate way of saying, "You better make the playoffs." Yes, Billick is openly confident and rubs some people the wrong way. But he's also a really good coach. If the Ravens let him go, he won't be out of work very long.

Beyond those two, Jeff Fisher's days in Tennessee could be running out. He and G.M. Floyd Reese are not as bad as Schottenheimer and Smith, but they obviously don't agree. The decision to draft Vince Young will get Fisher some scholarship time to rebuild, but the question is whether he wants to go through the rebuilding. Like Billick, Fisher would be a hot commodity on the coaching market if he was available. Kansas City Chiefs coach Herm Edwards pulled that strategy last offseason by getting out of New York before the Jets went into serious retooling. That said, Edwards doesn't have long to get the job done before the Chiefs have to rebuild. In Denver, Mike Shanahan has a championship team but also a starting quarterback he doesn't trust in Jake Plummer. Then again, that's Shanahan's doing since he picks the players. Bottom line, Billick is under the gun the most, but Fisher is saddled with the worst situation.

5. Among the Titans, Jets, Bills, Houston Texans, Browns and Raiders, which rebuilding team is in the best position right now?

Well, you can throw out the Raiders because they don't even really know that they're rebuilding. Under managing general partner Al Davis, Oakland isn't exactly in the market to buy green bananas. It's win now or suffer the consequences. The Raiders are suffering and their only real hope is that quarterback Andrew Walter develops fast enough that Aaron Brooks doesn't get on the field. Either that, or Brooks needs to get the fact that he's wasting his talent with his horrendous decision-making. But back to the original question.

You can eliminate Buffalo because the quarterback position is a disaster and the offensive line isn't far behind. Cleveland is the farthest along in the process, but there are some serious questions about just how good the Browns will be at the skill positions between the limitations of quarterback Charlie Frye and running back Reuben Droughns and the injuries to wide receiver Braylon Edwards and tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. Houston has too many holes right now after years of fruitless personnel harvesting. While we understand the logic behind taking Mario Williams over Reggie Bush, the Texans didn't do enough this offseason to help quarterback David Carr.

That leaves the Titans and the Jets and two very different philosophies. Tennessee has the best potential with quarterback Vince Young and rookie running back LenDale White. But the Titans will be extraordinarily lucky if both pan out. It's also going to take Young at least three years to learn the NFL game. By that time, White may eat his way out of the league. New York took a pragmatic approach by drafting offensive linemen D'Brickashaw Ferguson and Nick Mangold in the first round. Sure, the Jets are woefully short of skill players and have a huge question at quarterback (three young guys is not the best setup). However, in the NFL, practicality usually wins over potential. Take the Jets.

6. Which 2005 playoff team is in the greatest danger of regressing in 2006 because of training camp?

Jacksonville is in a very problematic situation this year and it is because of more than its brutal schedule. But let's start there. In the first four games, the Jaguars host Dallas and Pittsburgh and then go to Indianapolis and Washington. Brutal. After a pretty soft five-game run (Jets, Eagles, Titans and a pair against the Texans), Jacksonville finishes with five of seven games against the Giants, Dolphins (away), Colts, Patriots, and Chiefs (away). Doubly brutal. Of course, schedules can be deceiving in this era because teams can go bad or good in a hurry. However, that's a far cry from the 12-win cakewalk the Jags had last season.

The worst part is what will likely unfold in training camp.

Jags coach Jack Del Rio is a devotee of hard-hitting practices. He is a disciple of Jimmy Johnson and Tom Landry, two coaches who loved to see hard hits in training camp. When you have a young team, which Del Rio has had the past two years, physical workouts are not necessarily a bad thing. However, as time goes on, you have to pull back on the contact to conserve your team. That's something Johnson never did. We'll see if Del Rio learns that lesson, particularly as his team prepares for its early run and then hopes to be ready for the finish.

7. What is it going to take to make the playoffs in the AFC?

Contenders are going to have to be careful this season. Sure, people will point to Pittsburgh's great finish after being 6-5 and say that you can always recover. The truth is that the Steelers are the exception, not the rule. Yes, it's important to be playing well at the end of the season, but don't be surprised if a 10-6 team doesn't make the playoffs this year. Heck, maybe more than one 10-6 squad won't get there if some of the AFC bottom feeders are truly terrible. As San Diego showed last season, one or two missteps along the way can cost a team a playoff spot. That will again be true and means that teams will have to be exceptionally sharp coming out of training camp. It will be interesting to see how that impacts the way clubs practice or even play in exhibition games.

8. Is Larry Johnson the real deal and could he supplant LaDainian Tomlinson as the NFL's best running back?

It would be easy to dismiss Johnson's 2005 season as some aberration – a combination of playing in the defensively challenged AFC West and in an era when rushing numbers are going through the roof because of offensive and defensive changes. Furthermore, this is the same Johnson who didn't do much of anything the first two years of his career and who the Chiefs almost were willing to give away two seasons ago. But Johnson seems to have taken former coach Dick Vermeil's famous "diaper" comment to heart and he now runs really hard.

Johnson has better speed than Priest Holmes and pretty good moves. But the real key to Johnson is that he has the speed and moves along with a 230-pound body. He is strong enough that he can also be a grinder for a team that needs to milk a lead. That said, he doesn't have the electricity of Tomlinson. Sure, this might sound a little like the old Emmitt Smith vs. Barry Sanders debate. But Tomlinson has more power in his game than Sanders. If the Chargers can make a playoff run this season, the debate won't be as close as some might think.

9. Which AFC rookie will have the biggest impact?

All eyes will be on Houston defensive end Mario Williams as people evaluate the decision the Texans made to pass on Reggie Bush. Likewise, the progress of Vince Young will be watched carefully, although it's unfair to expect him to play very much right away. The reality is that cornerback/safety Michael Huff of Oakland and free safety Jason Allen of Miami are positioned to have the biggest on-field impact this year.

Huff will get to play all the time and about the only thing that will hold him back is that the Raiders might not be all that competitive. Allen, by contrast, will be on a team that will contend for a playoff spot. Like the Dolphins' rookies last year (Ronnie Brown, Channing Crowder and Travis Daniels), Allen is a bright and confident player who will play a lot and will be put in a position to make plenty of interceptions. Where Lance Schulters got four interceptions last season, Allen could get another three just because he is faster and a better athlete.

The player who could really impact the AFC is Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler. Not because of his playing ability but rather Cutler's presence and its long-term ramifications could completely unnerve Jake Plummer, a guy who has had more than his share of problems over the years. As good as Plummer was during the regular season in 2005, he came unglued in the AFC championship game. Plummer's signature play during his career is throwing a pass left-handed for an interception – that should tell you plenty about how his brain functions under pressure. Now, with Cutler being groomed, it could mean meltdown city for Plummer.

10. So who looks good for the AFC championship game?

A year removed from their disappointing finish to what had been a great run for most of the season, the Indianapolis Colts return everybody with the exception of running back Edgerrin James. That's a huge loss, no question. But James wasn't the breakaway threat he had been in previous years and Indianapolis thinks it has that threat now in rookie Joseph Addai.

The key for the Colts is that they need to build early leads in playoff games to avoid exposing their undersized defense and putting undue pressure on their running game, which isn't exactly hearty. Is that possible? Over the past 10 years, teams such as St. Louis and Oakland have reached the Super Bowl with a similar strategy. The opportunity is there. Indy just needs to focus on the task at hand and do enough in the regular season to make sure it has home-field advantage again. Last year, Pittsburgh ruined the Colts' run, but they should be able to use that as a lesson, not as a reason for doubt.

As for the team that will challenge Indianapolis for a shot at the Super Bowl, most people will go with the New England Patriots or Broncos as the obvious choices. But here's just a hunch that, only a year after Bill Cowher finally broke his Super Bowl jinx, good friend Marty Schottenheimer leads the Chargers to the AFC title game and gives the Colts all they can handle in a classic playoff game.

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