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Curtain never falls on league's drama


For most sports, the offseason actually means a genuine dormant period when little of consequence happens and other athletic pursuits take center stage.

In the NFL, though, the drumbeat never stops and the spotlight always shines.

The dust had hardly settled from the Steelers' Super Bowl victory when the NFL combine was grabbing attention from baseball spring training. A few weeks later, drama over football's labor agreement overshadowed college basketball conference tournaments. And for many fans, the highlight event of April is the first round of the NFL draft, which is being held in just two weeks, rather than the first pitch of a new major league season.

Although it's only been 2 1/2 months since Pittsburgh won its fifth Vince Lombardi Trophy, the incessantly bustling NFL has already generated a fistful of highlights. Here are 10 of the top stories.

1. Hooray for the CBA. The labor agreement hammered out under a deadline rush in Dallas in March did nothing short of preserve the NFL structure as teams and fans have come to know it since limited free agency was introduced. Without a new collective bargaining agreement, football likely would have more resembled baseball, with players switching teams more often and wealthier clubs enjoying substantial competitive advantages. Not long after the agreement was reached, NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue announced his retirement after a reign during which the league enjoyed unparalleled prosperity.

2. Quarterback moves. Two signal-callers with Pro Bowl pedigrees, but badly damaged body parts moved to teams who hope they'll mend and return to star form. The Saints signed former Charger Drew Brees (shoulder) and the Dolphins traded for ex-Viking Daunte Culpepper (three torn knee ligaments). Brees might be able to start throwing in June, and it's unclear whether Culpepper will be ready for the season's start. Culpepper was also cleared of wrongdoing in the Vikings "love boat" scandal of last season.

3. Favre waffles. So far, all-but-certain Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre hasn't been able to decide whether he wants to head into another NFL campaign. Last season was a disaster for Green Bay (4-12) and Favre threw a career-high 29 interceptions and just 20 touchdowns. Favre's vacillation puts the team in a bad spot because second-year quarterback Aaron Rodgers will need veteran backup help if the 36-year-old retires.

4. TO to Dallas. Like the NFL itself, wide receiver Terrell Owens is a story for all seasons. Whether he's making touchdowns, making commercials or making trouble, he's always making headlines. After an escape from San Francisco, an almost-trade to the Ravens and a banishment from Philadelphia, Owens' one-man thrill show landed in Big D. Where he once rudely danced on the Cowboys' star, he'll now wear one on his helmet. And oh yeah, he'll reportedly make $10 million this season.

5. Living on the Edge. Arguably the most glamorous free agent to switch teams, running back Edgerrin James, left the high-powered Indianapolis Colts to sign with perennial loser Arizona, actually making the Cardinals a threat in the NFC West as they open up in a new stadium next season. James' four-year contract reportedly will pay him $14.75 million this year and potentially $30 million for the duration of the deal. Along with James, the Cardinals have wide receivers Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald, who combined for 205 catches, more than 2,800 yards and 17 touchdowns last season.

6. Wandering toes. Two of the best kickers in the league, one a likely Hall of Famer, were allowed to test free agency and signed with other teams. The more surprising development was New England failing to hold onto Adam Vinatieri, who has made some of the most memorable clutch field goals in league history (two Super Bowl winners) and could be a rare kicking inductee at Canton one day. Vinatieri signed with the Colts, who were in the market for a kicker after showing Mike Vanderjagt the door. Vanderjagt, despite a glittering 87.5 percent career field goal average, missed too many important tries, including one that cost the Colts a chance to tie Pittsburgh in a playoff game last season. Meanwhile, Dallas, with chronic kicking problems, was happy to get Vanderjagt.

7. Coaching changes. Ten NFL teams have new head coaches, representing nearly a third of the league. In some cases, it meant relative unknowns getting a big break, such as Eric Mangini with the Jets and Rod Marinelli with the Lions. Long rumored to be a head coaching candidate, former quarterback Gary Kubiak will try to resuscitate the Texans. Hall of Fame offensive tackle Art Shell returned to the Raiders, where he played for 15 years and was the head coach from 1989 through 1994. And Herm Edwards moved from the Jets to Kansas City with the Chiefs giving up a fourth-round draft pick because Edwards was still under contract to his former team. The other new coaches are Scott Linehan (St. Louis), Dick Jauron (Buffalo), Mike McCarthy (Green Bay), Sean Payton (New Orleans) and Brad Childress (Minnesota).

8. Williams in trouble, again. One of the league's most enigmatic personalities, Miami running back Ricky Williams failed another drug test. Williams and his representatives are currently contesting those test results. After already failing three drug screens for admitted marijuana use, a fourth violation of the league's drug policy will get Williams barred for the season. He had returned to football in 2005 after a yearlong hiatus and rushed for 743 yards and a 4.4-yard average despite missing the first four games (because of a former drug suspension) and being used sparingly in his first two games back. The Dolphins want an expedited decision so they can figure out what to do about the position even though they have Ronnie Brown, last year's first-round draft pick, returning for his second season.

9. The Wonder Kid. The NFL Scouting combine is supposed to be all about 40-yard dash times and bench press repetitions, but the most talked about number this year was Texas quarterback Vince Young's score on the Wonderlic, a commonly used intelligence test. Initial reports that Young's Wonderlic score (there are 50 questions on the test) approached his time in the 40 were called inaccurate by some team officials. An apparent second try on the test resulted in a higher score alternately reported as a 15 or 16, but still below where most teams like to see a quarterback score. It remains to be seen how it all plays out on draft day, but it certainly didn't help Young's stock, which was soaring after a spectacular, game-winning performance in the Rose Bowl against Southern California.

10. Rising stars. Most of the big college names didn't even work out for scouts at the combine, opting to show their wares at so-called "Pro Days" on their home campuses, a fairly common practice in the New Age NFL. But the players who do work out and who do well take on an immediate glow with league staffs. Some who excelled and probably made themselves some money by raising their draft positions were Vanderbilt quarterback Jay Cutler, who snapped off throws with precision; 6-foot-3, 254-pound Maryland tight end Vernon Davis, who ran a 4.38 40-yard dash; and Florida wide receiver Chad Jackson, who leaped to the front of the wide receivers with a blistering 4.32 in the 40.

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