With the second season now upon us, a few thoughts on highlights and lowlights from the NFL regular season.

Offensive player of year: Quarterback Kurt Warner, St. Louis Rams. He literally came out of nowhere, as in arena football and NFL Europe, and led the Rams to the playoffs for the first time since 1989.

Defensive player of year: Tackle Warren Sapp, Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The anchor of one of the stingiest units in the NFL, he's a tackling terror and pass rusher extraordinaire, and a leader in the locker room.

Offensive rookie of year: Indianapolis Colts running back Edgerrin James, the best rookie running back to hit the league since Eric Dickerson gained 1,808 yards rushing in 1981.

Defensive rookie of year: Tennessee Titans end Jevon Kearse, slightly undersized but a dominant pass rusher who set a rookie record with 14 1/2 sacks and has a league record nine forced fumbles, easily beating out Redskins cornerback Champ Bailey, who slipped slightly over the second half of the season.

Coach of year: tie, Jim Mora, Colts, and Dick Vermeil, Rams, good friends who both did magnificent jobs in turning around moribund teams. Honorable mention to Redskins' Norv Turner, for keeping his team and his head together under some very trying circumstances.

Executive of year: Colts President Bill Polian, who provided the players to fuel the greatest single-season turnaround in league history. Runner-up, Charley Casserly, fired Redskins GM, who traded for Brad Johnson and still left the team with three first-round picks in April.

Free agent acquisition of year: Polian bringing in 13-year veteran linebacker Cornelius Bennett to solidify the Colts' defense, just edging out Jeff George of the Vikings, signed for $400,000, who helped the Vikings recover from a 2-4 start.

Trade of year: Rams acquiring Marshall Faulk from Colts for a second- and fifth-round pick. Close second, Redskins getting Brad Johnson from the Vikings for a first- and third-round pick in '99 and a No. 2 this year.

Worst trade of year: The Saints giving away their entire draft to the Redskins to take running back Ricky Williams.

Disappointments of year: The early demise of the defending champion Broncos, Jets, Falcons and Packers, the Dolphins' second-half fade after starting 7-1, Brett Favre, Kordell Stewart, the firing of Ray Rhodes.

Whine of year: Minnesota's Randy Moss saying he was bored during games.

Choke of year: Redskins allowing Cowboys to rally from a 21-point fourth-quarter deficit to win the season opener.

Comebacks of year: Cleveland Browns return to the NFL; Jets finish 8-8 after 1-6 start; Vikings make playoffs after 2-4 start; Brad Johnson.

Big spender of year: Houston businessman Bob McNair pays a record $700 million for an expansion franchise, not including a new $319 million stadium.

Apathy of year: From Los Angeles pro football fans (all 17 of them?), who seem not to care whether the NFL returns. Surf's up, dude.

Trendsetter? What has Dan Snyder wrought?

Yes, that really was longtime New York Giants owner Wellington Mara taking a page from the Redskins owner by telling his players last week how disappointed he was by two straight disheartening losses, especially with a possible playoff spot at stake in two must-win situations.

Mara, one of the most respected owners in the league, hadn't done that in more than 30 years. He told the players, in essence, that many of their jobs would be on the line in their season finale against the Dallas Cowboys. The Giants did play hard, but still lost.

A New Order

Out with the old and in with the new is the major theme of the first playoffs of the century. Three of the 12 postseason participants were mostly nonfactors over the previous decade. St. Louis, Indianapolis and Tampa Bay combined for 289 losses and 14 last-place finishes between them.

The Colts had not won a division title since 1987. The Bucs last won their division in 1981. The Rams had been out of the playoffs since '89. But all three teams claimed division titles and first-round byes, with the 13-3 Rams capturing home field throughout the playoffs.

The Broncos and Falcons, last year's Super Bowl teams, did not make the playoffs, the first time in league history the two teams playing for the world championship the year before could not qualify for the postseason. The Broncos are the ninth defending Super Bowl champion to miss the playoffs the following season.

Oh yes, seven of the 12 starting quarterbacks in the playoffs never have started a postseason game.

European Connection

When Jay Fiedler, the Dartmouth grad and distant relative of late Boston Pops conductor Arthur Fiedler, opened at quarterback for Jacksonville Sunday, he became the 11th ex-NFL Europe quarterback to start in the NFL this season.

Others are the Rams' Warner (13-3), Redskins' Johnson (10-6), Seahawks' Jon Kitna (8-7), Dolphins' Damon Huard (4-1), Ravens' Stoney Case (2-4), Eagles' Doug Pederson (2-7), Saints' Jake Delhomme (1-1), Cowboys' Jason Garrett (1-1), Bears' Jim Miller (1-2) and Ravens' Scott Mitchell (0-2).

By the way, Jacksonville is 5-1 in games started by backup quarterbacks since the franchise started playing in 1995.