As Pittsburgh kick of the season against the Tennessee Titans tonight, Barry Wilner looks at two quarterbacks with a point to prove.
The Super Bowl race begins
Tom Brady is throwing passes and avoiding paparazzi, and the NFL is the better for it. He is the reason the New England Patriots are again favoured to play in the Super Bowl. The expectations are only high until you consider what Brady has done this decade - aside from marrying a supermodel and becoming fodder for the entertainment media. The star quarterback has guided New England to three NFL championships in four Super Bowl appearances.
Two years ago, he put together the greatest season any passer has compiled, resurrecting Randy Moss's career in the bargain. Brady has not lost a regular-season game since the 2006 season. He directed the Patriots to a 16-0 record in 2007, and went down with a knee injury in last year's season-opener. When he was knocked out by the Kansas City Chiefs, the NFL lost some pizazz, and there were no play-offs for the Matt Cassel-led Patriots. More significantly, there was no Brady.
No chase for more records; no political candidates knocking down his door for endorsements; no flood of TV commercials. Pretty much no Brady sightings as he recuperated. Is he fully recovered? The left knee seems to be holding up but then he hurt his right shoulder after being tackled in a preseason game against Washington, making many wonder if, at 32, was Brady getting a tad brittle. "I know how I feel, how comfortable I am back there, and I try to convey that I feel like that was part of last season" said Brady, who starts the season at home to the Buffalo Bills.
"You've just got to try to work as hard as you can to get back to your normal self and I really feel like I am. I think if I make a poor play, I never have thought, 'Well, I wonder if it was because of my injury last year.' I think, 'Well, I've got to make improvements.' Just like every year where things don't really go your way." On the other end of the spectrum of NFL starting quarterbacks, you find Jason Campbell, the Washington Redskins starter for the last two-and-a-half seasons.
As the Redskins resumed preparations yesterday for Sunday's game at the New York Giants, Campbell said he has never been more excited about the team's outlook. Nor has he ever been under more pressure. The Redskins twice tried to trade Campbell in the off season and, in the last season of his contract, he knows he is entering a make-or-break year in Washington. He does so with confidence - citing improved pass protection in the pre-season and the development of second-year wide receiver Malcolm Kelly as notable improvements on offence - but knows the only meaningful barometer will be the team's win-loss record.
"No matter what you think about what you can do, or how you feel about things, it's all about going out there on the field and proving it," said Campbell, a 2005 first-round pick who is beginning his fifth season with the Redskins. "I look at our team and I feel good about where we're at and all the work we put in to get here. "People from the outside may look at it differently, but the only thing that matters is what we believe and what we do."
Poor production on offence was considered the Redskins' biggest deficiency last season as the team went 2-6 over the second half of the schedule, finished 8-8 and failed to qualify for the play-offs for the seventh time in Daniel Snyder's 10 seasons as owner. The Redskins produced just 16.6 points per game, ranking 28th in the 32-team league. Campbell was sacked 38 times (just three quarterbacks were sacked more), and a productive No 2 receiver did not emerge to take some of the load off top wideout Santana Moss.Campbell is upbeat about the new season though, especially the potential of Kelly.
Throughout the pre-season, Kelly impressed while displaying a knack for making catches in traffic. He has made tremendous strides from his rookie season, when he appeared in only five games because of knee problems. The Redskins are hopeful Kelly (listed at 6ft 4ins, 103kgs) finally fills their long-time need for a big target in the passing game. "Malcolm is just a very impressive young player," Campbell said. "When you see the way he reaches out and catches the ball, his leaping ability and the way he makes plays even if you don't throw him a perfect ball, it gives you a lot of confidence."
Campbell's 1-for-7 performance in the second pre-season game against the Pittsburgh Steelers renewed concerns among some fans and media members about his ability to lead. Roundly criticised on sports-talk radio, Campbell closed the pre-season with consecutive effective outings. "I don't think any other quarterback in the league had the pressure put on by you guys [the media] for a second pre-season game," said Vinny Cerrato, Washington's executive vice-president of football operations.
"I think he's responded to every challenge thus far." Challenges will come thick and fast for Campbell and Brady this season, whether or not they can be overcome is another question. * With agencies