Hey, NFL fans: Stop and spell the flowers

Believe it or not, Philadelphia Eagles running back Duce Staley doesn’t know how to spell “chrysanthemum.”

And thanks to the Eagles’ team Web site, we all know it.

Now, I consider myself an above average NFL fan with a penchant to know most of the minutiae going on around America’s favorite professional sports league, but I’ll admit that this news came as sort of a wake-up call.

Only when stories like Staley’s alphabetic woes in a recent spelling bee at his old school make headlines is it obvious that the 2001 season is upon us.

The tundra is still splendidly spongy in Green Bay and baseball diamonds are still visible in Oakland and San Diego, but in just three days the kickoffs will fly for real and the season will begin.

It seems that all that can be written has been written and then some. Tickets have been purchased, fantasy rosters have been completed, bets have been placed, and the family of football fans around the land is ready for the big day to arrive.

So ready, in fact, that they’ll resort to reading about spelling contests to quench their burning pigskin passion.

Thus, in the hopes of exploiting an obviously huge market, I present predictions for the upcoming football season:

1. The Ravens won’t return to the Super Bowl. In fact, they might not even make it back to the playoffs.

In the NFL, stifling defense plus a great running game adds up to a championship team. But when Jamal Lewis blew out his left ACL on a freak play during training camp, the Ravens instantly lost half of that equation. And the other half isn’t too dependable either.

Leon Searcy is gone, Tony Siragusa and Sam Adams both played way over their heads last year, and each one’s health is only slightly better than Dick Cheney’s. Ray Lewis may have been the best player in football last year and he’ll be good again, but there’s no way the defense can be the block of granite it was last year.

With the feeble Terry Allen carrying the ball on offense, a few cracks on defense might cause the whole team to crumble.

2. The Rams will stampede back to the top.

While the Ravens are Super Bowl defenders on the decline, the champs one-year-removed will return to their post at the top of the league. As a recent Sports Illustrated cover proclaimed, running back Marshall Faulk is indeed the best player in the game. And with the return of a healthy Kurt Warner-Isaac Bruce connection and the emergence of Torry Holt and Az Hakim as legitimate receiving threats, the Rams offense might even outdo its astounding performance two years ago.

Head coach Mike Martz has filled the holes in the defense that doomed the Rams last year, and with an absolutely unstoppable offense, the most exciting team in the league will run and gun its way to another title.

3. Kordell Stewart will surprise a lot of people.

I know, I know, Kordell Stewart is probably lucky that he still has a job, let alone a starting spot in the NFL. But there’s a reason that the Steelers have stuck with him for the last four years — he’s an unbelievable raw talent, and Bill Cowher thinks he can refine Stewart into a great quarterback.

The Steelers’ move out to brand new Heinz Field — where the team has never had to play “ketchup” in its two 20-0 preseason shutouts — gives Kordell a clean slate in a very tangible way. Stewart said after last week’s win over Buffalo that he hasn’t felt this good since 1996, when the Steelers came within one game of the Super Bowl. With the Steelers’ perennially tough defense keeping the ball in the hands of the offense and the ageless Jerome Bettis dominating on the ground, Kordell is in the position to start making up for years of disappointment.

4. Former Yalie Eric Johnson will score at least one touchdown.

I know this sounds like a long shot, but it’s not that impossible. The 49ers are extremely high on Johnson, and an injury to starting tight end Greg Clark has given Johnson a lot of exposure in the preseason. Scouts said this spring that Johnson’s hands are as good as the top tight ends’ in the league, and he has come a long way on his blocking.

Johnson doesn’t yet have enough experience at the position to earn the full-time job, but don’t be surprised to see him on third down around the goal line. If the Niner Johnson is anything like the Yalie Johnson, he’ll find away to get the ball in the endzone.

5. Daniel Snyder and Marty Schottenheimer will not both survive the season.

The real question is which one will snap first — the meddling owner Snyder or the no-nonsense head coach Schottenheimer. Snyder has sworn that he will stay out of his new coach’s hair, but with the team the Redskins are fielding this year, fireworks seem destined to break out. Problem-child Jeff George hardly took a snap in the preseason, while Michael Westbrook has been too busy getting hurt and fighting with his teammates in recent years to develop the considerable potential that he has shown.

And the defense. Uhh. The defense is, well, awful.

Running back Stephen Davis is good enough to hold the team together for a while, but if he gets hurt, the Secret Service might have to start protecting Schottenheimer.

So there you have it, more material to get you through shopping period and up to the start of the season Sunday.

I’m confident that these predictions will come true, but if they don’t, at least I can take solace in the fact that I was school spelling bee champ in fifth grade.

And unlike Duce Staley, I know how to spell “chrysanthemum.”

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