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Is NFL cap making ‘balance’ a bad word?

Either offense or defense wins titles, not both

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When the Indianapolis Colts open training camp Thursday, they will be desperately trying to upgrade a defense that could allow Peyton Manning, Edgerrin James, Marvin Harrison and their high-powered offense to carry them past the first round of the playoffs.

In Tampa, new quarterback Brad Johnson will try to energize a dreary offense that's hamstrung one of the NFL's best defenses for the past three seasons.

This is NFL 2001, where the salary cap doesn't allow teams to excel on both offense and defense, but excellence on one side wins Super Bowls. Balance seems bad: Teams that spend for both offense and defense tend to be mediocre on both.

"If you have a good offense, you tend to want to enhance it, and the same goes if you have a good defense," said Bill Polian, the Colts' president. "We're spending a lot on our offense, including re-signing our offensive linemen to protect Peyton. That gives us very little to spend on defense."

It's a theory proven by the last two NFL champions.

The Baltimore Ravens won last season with a defense that allowed the fewest points in modern NFL history and beat the New York Giants 34-7 in the Super Bowl. In 1999, the champions were the St. Louis Rams, with one of the top offenses the NFL has seen.

But the Rams were only 10-6 last season and lost their first playoff game because the defense allowed a league-high 471 points, almost double the previous season. So when they open camp Wednesday, they'll have a new defensive coordinator in Lovie Smith and as many as seven new starters, led by six-time Pro Bowl cornerback Aeneas Williams, obtained in a trade with Arizona.

"I've never seen an offense move this fast, and if we can get the defense up to par, there's no telling where we can go," said another newcomer, linebacker Mark Fields, signed as a free agent from New Orleans.

Optimism, of course, is rampant at the start of camp.

But such faith also is realistic in a league where more than half of the 31 teams can go to camp believing if they stay healthy and things break right, they have a shot.

Here's why:

In the past three seasons, there have been six different teams in the Super Bowl. In the last two, none of the four participants were better than .500 the previous season.

The Rams were 4-12 in 1998, then won it all in 1999, beating Tennessee, which was 8-8 the previous season; the Ravens went from 8-8 to champions, and the Giants, 7-9 in 1999, improved to 12-4 and beat Minnesota 41-0 in the NFC title game.

Non-Super Bowl teams have made major turnarounds, too. The Colts went from 3-13 in '98 to 13-3 in '99, and New Orleans from 3-13 to 10-6 and its first playoff win last season.

But what goes up often goes back down, like Jacksonville, a power from its second NFL season in 1996 until last year, when injuries were a major reason for a fall to 7-9. Now, cap problems mean that as many as 18 rookies could make the team, and the Jaguars will have to depend on players such as oft-injured running back Fred Taylor to remain in perfect health.

The Vikings are another team that could fall. They've made the playoffs in eight of Dennis Green's nine seasons as coach, although they've never reached the Super Bowl. Now, Green, whose defense was exposed in that NFC title loss to New York, must find a way to win after losing running back Robert Smith and defensive tackle John Randle, among others.

In the AFC, Baltimore and Oakland are the favorites, with Denver, Indianapolis and Tennessee as potential contenders. In the NFC, the Rams and Bucs are on top in the early line — St. Louis because it upgraded its defense and Tampa Bay because it upgraded its offense.

The Giants are relegated to the NFC's second tier, in part because they got through 2000 without major injuries and with a relatively soft schedule. This year, they've already lost wide receiver Ike Hilliard to foot surgery for at least the preseason, and the schedule is harder. New York is favored to do no more than win the NFC East where Philadelphia looks like the only competition.

Currently, one of the operative words in the NFL is "window." As in the window of opportunity to go all the way before the salary cap forces a team to shed solid veterans it can no longer afford. That means depth comes from rookies, and second- and third-year players, making injuries to starters more damaging.

San Francisco and Dallas, which combined won eight of the 20 titles from 1981-2000, are good examples.

The 49ers are slowly rebuilding — five rookies started on defense last season — after crashing two years ago under the weight of the cap.

Despite owner-general manager Jerry Jones' rather preposterous prediction his team will finish 10-6, Dallas (5-11 in '00) seems like one of a few teams entering camp without realistic playoff hopes. Tony Banks, a failure in St. Louis and Baltimore, replaces the retired Troy Aikman at quarterback.

Banks is one of several quarterbacks trying to prove themselves anew.

Another is 38-year-old Doug Flutie, released by Buffalo. He signed with San Diego, where John Butler, the former Buffalo general manager, seems to have energized a team that was a league worst 1-15 last season, with six losses by three points or less.

Despite the Super Bowl win, the Ravens dropped both Trent Dilfer and Banks and signed Elvis Grbac, on paper an upgrade. Dilfer, who quarterbacked the Ravens in the Super Bowl, remains unemployed, waiting for a desperate team to dial his number.

Tampa Bay, perhaps at the back end of its "window," will be going with Johnson, signed from Washington. Seattle, meanwhile, gave up a first-round draft choice to get Matt Hasselbeck, Brett Favre's backup in Green Bay, and dropped Jon Kitna, who signed with Cincinnati.

With Flutie gone, Rob Johnson will have the Buffalo job to himself under new coach Gregg Williams. Jeff George will have to prove himself again in Washington, where Marty Schottenheimer — who has never been a George fan — is the new coach.

The Redskins were one of the favorites last year after signing Bruce Smith, Deion Sanders, George and others, but they finished 8-8. This season, no one expects much.

"There's new hope," said 41-year-old cornerback Darrell Green, who will be entering his 19th NFL season. "There's a new sheriff in town, and he's making the town better."

The way things are these days, the Redskins are the perfect Super Bowl pick.