Whether the Oakland Raiders, coming off a 5-11 season, deserved a spot in the NFL's season-opening showcase is debatable, but they will be the other team on the field tonight in Foxboro, Mass., as the New England Patriots begin their pursuit of what would be a fourth Super Bowl title in five seasons. And the Raiders, win or lose, at least should be able to provide an early indication of how successful the Patriots will be.
The Patriots enter the season with major questions on defense. Their highly successful defensive coordinator, Romeo Crennel, is in Cleveland, having become the head coach of the Browns. Perennial Pro Bowl cornerback Ty Law is in New York, having signed with the Jets after being released by New England early in the offseason. And linebacker Tedy Bruschi, perhaps the defense's heart and soul, is sitting out the season after suffering a stroke in February.
The Raiders might not be able to stop anyone on defense, but they have an offense that will put the Patriots' rebuilt defense to the test. Oakland's offseason trade for wide receiver Randy Moss should give the Raiders a potent passing game, with quarterback Kerry Collins now in his second season in Coach Norv Turner's system and able to throw the ball high and far and allow Moss to run underneath it. The Raiders also added tailback LaMont Jordan in the offseason, so they should be able to run the ball effectively enough to keep defenses off balance.
Patriots Coach Bill Belichick has received plenty of the credit for his club's tactical wizardry on defense during its run of dominance, and rightfully so. But Crennel was a more-than-capable top lieutenant who had been with Belichick so long that he usually didn't even have to ask what Belichick wanted to do in a game. He knew. Crennel's successor, Eric Mangini, is regarded as a rising star in the coaching ranks, and the Browns and Miami Dolphins tried but failed to pry him away from New England in the offseason. But now he's taking a step up. He'll have to prove that he can handle it, and he's overseeing a unit that suddenly is without two of its most accomplished players from recent seasons.
Belichick, meantime, must pay more attention to the offense this season than he's done in past years. He didn't replace offensive coordinator Charlie Weis after Weis left to become Notre Dame's head coach. Weis had great autonomy to run the offense, leaving Belichick free to focus on other areas. Now Belichick probably will handle at least some of the offensive play-calling duties this season. Belichick is stretched thinner than ever, and that puts pressure on Mangini to do his part without needing his boss to run the defense in a hands-on manner as well.
Quarterback Tom Brady practically could serve as his own offensive coordinator at this point, and the Patriots locked up their two offensive cornerstones -- Brady and tailback Corey Dillon -- to long-term contract extensions during the offseason. The offense should be able to score plenty of points tonight against the Raiders, if needed. But it won't necessarily be a promising sign if that's what is required for the Patriots to win.
Terrell Signs With Denver
The Denver Broncos, needing a wide receiver after Jerry Rice's retirement, signed David Terrell, the former first-round draft choice by the Chicago Bears who just was released by the Patriots.
The Bears cut Terrell early in the offseason after they signed Muhsin Muhammad as a free agent. Brady urged the Patriots to give a chance to his former college teammate at Michigan, but Terrell failed to stick in New England. . . .
The Jets signed offensive tackle Scott Gragg, formerly of San Francisco. . . .
Buffalo starting guard Chris Villarrial suffered an ankle injury in practice, leaving his status for this weekend's opener in doubt. . . .
Rookie wide receiver Roddy White participated in Atlanta's practice Wednesday and is slated to play Monday night against Philadelphia. White, the Falcons' first-round draft choice in April, missed the final three preseason games because of a sprained ankle.
Pivotal Labor Meeting
Today's scheduled meeting between representatives of the league and the NFL Players Association could go a long way toward determining whether an agreement on an extension of their labor deal is within reach. Little progress has been made recently, and it will take a breakthrough for the sides to be in position to complete a deal next month, as Commissioner Paul Tagliabue hopes.