Which team will be the Oakland Raiders of this NFL season?
Will it be Atlanta, which came so close last year to advancing to the NFC championship game?
Will it be Cleveland, which needed only one heady decision by Brian Sipe to make it to the AFC title contest?
Or might this year's unheralded club be more of a longshot, perhaps the Detroit Lions, the Denver Broncos or the Minnesota Vikings?
Remember, at this time last summer, talking about Oakland's winning a Super Bowl was just as ludicrous. The Raiders were scrambling, even going so far as to trade longtime quarterback Ken Stabler. A playoff berth seemed out of the question.
Yet the Raiders won the Super Bowl over Philadelphia in most impressive fashion, and now are one of the handful of favorites, along with San Diego, the Eagles and Dallas, to return to the next Super Bowl, to be held in Pontiac, Mich.
Oakland was molded into a contender during last year's training camp, which should be ample proof of the importance of these annual excursions into the heat of the summer.
For a number of teams, these training camps will have special meaning this season, thanks to coaching changes that were expected in some cases and shocking in others.
Bum Phillips has assumed the task of rebuilding the New Orleans Saints after the team's embarrassing showing last year. Phillips might prove a quick miracle worker, since the Saints have enough talent to have been a .500 team only two seasons ago. Phillips will give them stability, which could be enough to get them untracked.
Ed Biles, one of the more highly regarded assistant coaches in the league, takes over for Phillips in Houston. Even with Earl Campbell, the Oilers could fall off unless Biles can smooth the unhappiness over the loss of Phillips, who was popular with his players. And even Biles can't perform a transplant on Stabler's aging throwing arm.
Dan Reeves has been trying to get out of Tom Landry's shadow for years. But no one could have predicted his ascent to the Denver head coaching position would be at the expense of Red Miller, another popular man who was fired for failing to get to the Super Bowl more than once.
Reeves, like Washington's Joe Gibbs, is offensive-minded, and it will be interesting to watch how these men change the strongly conservative offenses they have inherited.
Interestingly, the one coaching switch that might have the most effect on the league involves a demotion: Jack Pardee's fall from the top of the Redskins to an assistant under Don Coryell at San Diego.
Pardee is being asked to rework the Charger defense, which Coryell feels is inadequate for a championship contender. It's possible that even a little help from Pardee will make this team good enough to get into the Super Bowl -- and Pardee has what many feel is one of football's best defensive minds.
Other than coaching changes, the league had a quiet offseason. There were few trades and, once again, no free-agent movement. But because of the baseball strike, the opening of training camps comes at a time when there is a thirst for sports news.
That means a team like the Pittsburgh Steelers, for example, will have its camp watched even closer than usual. There is good reason. The Steelers fell hard from the top last season and then failed to sign their top draft pick, not a good sign for a club that needs all the young blood it can get. But at least Terry Bradshaw has dimmed the spotlight from those movie sets long enough to play one more season.
Player unrest continues on many teams, and there likely will be a number of contract holdouts developing throughout the league. A major problem is that few No 1 draft choices have been signed. Only one-third of the 28 clubs have their top picks under contract.
But the clubs are trying not to trigger the kind of player unrest that resulted from the $2 million contracts given to Lam Jones (by the Jets) and Johnnie Johnson (by the Rams) last summer. The Rams were torn apart so much that they never did live up to expectations during the ensuing season.
Now Los Angeles has a new problem, caused by the move of quarterback Vince Ferragamo to Montreal of the Canadian Football League. Pat Haden regains the quarterback position, but he has been slowed by injuries the last few seasons.
This could be the season the Rams fall despite constant good drafts and a stockpile of talent, while Atlanta, young and threatening, opens a gap in the NFC West. Certainly, if the Falcon youngsters improve as dramatically this season as they did last, it will be hard for any opponent to cope with them.
Likewise, Dallas feels it is ready for a return Super Bowl engagement. The Cowboys were supposed to be weaklings last year, but a masterful coaching job by Tom Laundry and Danny White's suprising performance at quarterback combined to push them into the NFC title game. No one is disregarding them, especially the Redskins, who host them in the season opener for the second straight year.
Two Cowboys in particular bear watching. Tony Dorsett lifted weights seriously for the first time, reflecting what he says is an improved approach to the game. And Charlie Waters again is trying to come back from a knee operation. If he makes it, the always questionable Cowboy secondary will have one less headache.
What makes this time of the year so attractive for pro football fans is the optimism of every camp, even those of the perennial losers.
Will this be the year the Giants stop stumbling and start winning? Will this be the season St. Louis, buoyed by a fine draft, begins a return to the glory of the Coryell years? Or will owner Bill Bidwill somehow mess up things again?
And what about poor Bart Starr and his beleaguered Green Bay Pakers?He was stripped of his general manager's title and almost of his coaching position. This, finally, may be his last chance. And his chances don't seem very good.
While we are discussing coaches, how has New England's Ron Erhardt managed to keep his job? And it's about time the Patriots stop being considered one of the league's most talented clubs and instead be viewed as what they are: another of the NFL's solid middle class.
It's that middle class, a bunch of evenly matched teams, that is a result of Pete Rozelle's attempts at parity. That's why it isn't that difficult for a team to be 6-10 one season, and 10-6 the next. Or vice versa. Just ask Atlanta or Washington.
Rozelle, however, won't have much time this summer to watch over his creation. He is in the midst of his own courtroom Super Bowl against Al Davis and the Oakland Raiders, a battle that has produced almost daily airings of the league's dirty laundry.
That's not a pleasant sight, but things may get worse next season, when the players' contract runs out. A strike appears almost inevitable, which could disrupt things even more than baseball is being hampered by its strife.
So enjoy this season -- and training camp. The NFL may never be the same.