New coach Tom Coughlin inherited a New York Giants team that lost its final eight games last season and saw his predecessor, Jim Fassel, fired. He has turned over his club to a new quarterback, Kurt Warner, who may or may not have some good football left in him, and he is implementing his no-nonsense policies with only mixed results; some of Coughlin's players complained to the union about his offseason practices, leading to the Giants losing two days of workouts for violating the rules governing such activities.
So does the coach who led the Jacksonville Jaguars to two AFC title games get to ease his new team into the 2004 NFL season? Absolutely not. Coughlin's tenure with the Giants opens with a road divisional game against the Philadelphia Eagles, who have played in the last three NFC championship games, today at Lincoln Financial Field.
"Going down and playing the division champ and a team that's been in the NFC title game three years in a row,'' Coughlin said during his daily media briefing Friday, "I'd say that's a pretty difficult opener.''
Coaches league-wide have the same lament, as the NFL's schedule-makers put five games between division rivals on the opening weekend: Giants-Eagles, Lions-Bears, Ravens-Browns, Cardinals-Rams and Chiefs-Broncos.
"We always know this game is a knock-down, drag-out fight,'' Eagles Coach Andy Reid said, "and that's what we expect this week. . . . We're just trying to take care of business right now, and we have our hands full doing that.''
In addition, the NFL's season opener Thursday night was a tense rematch of last season's Patriots-Colts AFC title game. The first Monday night game of the season features two NFC playoff teams from last season, with Green Bay playing at Carolina. Many teams won't have to wait long to find out how they stack up.
"I think it gives us an opportunity to define where we are against a very good football team in a very intense environment in front of the United States. . . . I would like to believe we would play a very good football game,'' Chiefs Coach Dick Vermeil said during the week of his club's meeting with the Broncos on Sunday night, televised nationally by ESPN.
Most of Vermeil's coaching cohorts would rather not launch into divisional play immediately. But they are given no choice in the matter, so complaining is of little value.
"It's the start of our season and that's just the way our schedule has been dealt,'' Coughlin said. "We don't second-guess the schedule. We're looking forward to playing it.''
The Eagles are regarded by many observers as the NFC's Super Bowl favorite after adding wide receiver Terrell Owens and defensive end Jevon Kearse in an offseason of uncharacteristic free spending. The Giants look like the weak link in the beefed-up NFC East. "If they win more than six games,'' just-retired Broncos tight end Shannon Sharpe said last week, "Tom Coughlin deserves coach of the year.''
Fellow CBS studio analyst Boomer Esiason said the Giants' record would be "definitely south of .500,'' and the former NFL quarterback predicted that top overall draft selection Eli Manning would take over for Warner as the team's starter "before the halfway point in the season.'' Even former Giants quarterback Phil Simms has modest goals for the club's season, saying: "It'll be deemed a success if they get it organized and get it together late in the year.''
But every team begins the season with hope in today's NFL. Because of free agency and the salary cap, even the best clubs turn over about one-third of their rosters each offseason. The first half of the season will be spent identifying which teams are the contenders to be this year's version of the Panthers, who reached the Super Bowl last season after totaling eight wins in the previous two seasons. Even the Miami Dolphins did their best to take a positive outlook into the season after their turbulent offseason and preseason that included the abrupt retirement of tailback Ricky Williams.
"It has been a crazy offseason,'' recently signed defensive end Chidi Ahanotu said before the Dolphins played their rescheduled opener against the Tennessee Titans yesterday, a 17-7 loss. "But in this day and age, anything can happen. Any team can be a champion.''
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, less than 20 months removed from winning a Super Bowl, bring a 53-man roster that includes 24 players who weren't on their team last season to Washington to face the Redskins at FedEx Field in Joe Gibbs's return to coaching.
"You see throughout the league that there's going to be turnover,'' first-year Buccaneers general manager Bruce Allen said last weekend. "They turned over 20 guys on their team here after they won the Super Bowl. You're going to see a dozen new guys or more on probably just about every team in the league.''
That makes preseason prognostications -- not to mention preseason evaluations of the difficulty of teams' schedules -- next to impossible. But, no matter how injuries and momentum and luck change how a particular opponent looks from the time the schedule is released to the time the game is played, the divisional games are the ones that make coaches fret the most, no matter how overmatched a foe might appear. Gibbs gets an early re-acclimation to the NFC East by facing the Giants next Sunday on the road and the Dallas Cowboys at home the following Monday night.
"The Redskin move, specifically bringing Joe Gibbs in, has raised the bar competitively,'' Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, whose team faces a challenging opener this afternoon at Minnesota, said during training camp. "The Giants brought in Tom Coughlin. . . . Philadelphia has got to be among the top handful of clubs in terms of their chances to get to the Super Bowl and win a championship. . . . It has become so competitive.''
No matter the opponent, though, coaches and players are eager simply to get going again after months of roster reshuffling and weeks of training-camp buildup.
"I've been looking forward to this for some time,'' Buccaneers Coach Jon Gruden said. "We need to play. It's time to go. We had training camp long enough. We've had plenty of [offseason workouts]. Now it's time to go play.''