After busy offseason, 2005 opens with familiar face

For the first time since 1985, Jerry Rice will be sitting in a recliner for the start of a season instead of getting ready to run past some overmatched cornerback into an end zone. There is neither an Anderson (Gary) nor an Andersen (Morten) listed as any franchise's field goal specialist for the first time in nearly a quarter-century. Not a single tailback in the NFL now has the given name Emmitt.

There's no one named Vinny, for the first time since 1987, at quarterback, either. It's suddenly Chow Time in the NFL instead of the college game, and Nick Saban definitely will not contend for a national title in 2005. On the flip side, guys like Charlie Weis and Dave Wannstedt have fled the NFL for college campuses. Nary a team on the West Coast or East Coast or anywhere in between is running the original version of the West Coast offense. And, oh yeah, the orphaned-by-the-storm New Orleans Saints could become the league's version of a traveling road show.

Did we mention that Randy Moss is now playing in Oakland, that two-time league MVP Kurt Warner is with a third different franchise in three seasons, that Ricky Williams has returned from his one-year, mind-expanding hiatus to visit hydroponics advances in third-world countries, or that Marshall Faulk is a backup?

It is, as usual in the NFL, a repainted landscape as the league embarks on its 86th season. If every three-month segment of the calendar evokes some degree of metamorphosis, autumn brings more change than most others, if for no other reason than its correlation to the meatiest part of the NFL's schedule. There is, to be sure, no more obvious a constant in the league than its lack of constancy.

Yeah, in the NFL, the more things change, the more they, well, change.

And so, as the league kicks off Thursday evening, makeover is again in the air. Except for this caveat: Even with all the notable alterations -- the departure of both coordinators, the forced absence of spiritual leader Tedy Bruschi, some tweaks to the starting lineups on both sides of the ball -- New England is again the prime favorite to win another Super Bowl title.

No team has ever won four Super Bowl titles in five seasons. Heck, just three franchises possess four or more Super Bowl championships, period. And of course, there has never been a Super Bowl three-peat. But in another year featuring new faces in new places in the NFL, the blessed trinity of very familiar Patriots mugs -- owner Bob Kraft, head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady -- could be in their favorite venue once again on the night of Feb. 5.

Atop a podium, with all the silly metallic confetti raining down on them and microphones in their faces, clutching another Vince Lombardi trophy.

"They're about as constant as it gets in this league," Jacksonville Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio said. "Even with the changes they've had, no one expects them to be very different at all, because it's like they've bottled the formula [for success]. They just keep moving on. So, yeah, the way I see it, they're still the team to beat."

There is a sense in some quarters of the league that the departures of Weis and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, the absence of Bruschi, retirement of inside linebacker Ted Johnson, release of cornerback Ty Law and free-agent departure of guard Joe Andruzzi could bring the Patriots back to the rest of the pack in the AFC East. Assuming you buy into that logic, though, consider this: In each of the last two seasons, New England won the division by four games. Even if you halve that margin, it still means the Patriots can start making postseason plans sometime around mid-December.

For the hopeful, there is the fact that New England, after beginning defense of its title with Thursday night's contest against Moss and the Oakland Raiders, faces a torturous schedule. But if some team is going to unhinge the Pats, it had better be early in the campaign. Because if New England gets on a roll, the chance to make history and establish itself as a dynasty in an age when there aren't supposed to be any will be extra incentive for the team's veterans.

"This is a team," strong safety Rodney Harrison said, "where it seems like the closer we get to [a Super Bowl appearance], the more it drives us. Yes, there has been change here in the offseason. But I think we've got things figured out. And when we have it figured out, we are a tough team to beat. That's a [hallmark] of this team."

Arguably the most critical constant for the Patriots is Belichick, whose incessant gospel to his players is that last season counts for nothing, that the accomplishments and press clippings of the past won't impress anyone this year, that the NFL opens a new book filled with blank pages every season. Whether the book has a different ending in 2005 than it has the last two seasons (and three of the last four), remains to be seen.

Certainly, the rest of the league has undergone its characteristic and annual upheaval in an attempt to catch up to the champions.

While the free-agent exodus and big-money deals for veterans slowed again, there was still enough movement to shake things up. There are only three new head coaches, and none is likely to challenge for even a division title, let alone a Super Bowl title in his first season. The bigger shakeup came on coaching staffs. The NFL will have 20 new coordinators in 2005, including a dozen on defense. There are eight new starting quarterbacks, 10 tailbacks starting this weekend who were not starters on opening day a year ago, and just five offensive or defensive starting units that are back intact from 2004.

So while the Patriots remain a model continuum, the rest of the league's franchises, in a somewhat ill-advised fashion, seem to be counting on their own lack of stability to help narrow the talent gap on the defending champions. But then, that seems to be the way of the NFL, a league in which all but seven teams have been to the playoffs at least once since 2000, with 18 franchises making multiple appearances.

"I just think that, even with what New England has done in terms of [continuity], there is still a feeling in the league that if you're standing still, you aren't moving forward," said New Orleans tailback Deuce McAllister, whose team must overcome the fact that it has been uprooted and faces an uncertain future. "Maybe this is the year that the old shakeup works for somebody. We'll see."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.