| ||Tuesday, September 7|
|John Elway, Reggie White and Barry Sanders are gone.
The Cleveland Browns and instant replay are back. And the Denver Broncos are trying to become the first team to win three consecutive Super Bowls with a quarterback whose father failed to accomplish that feat a quarter-century ago.
Welcome to NFL '99, where the commissioner remains upbeat.
"It seems that every time you lose a great player, there are two great players to replace him," Paul Tagliabue says.
He can certainly point to a lot of candidates, led by wide receiver Randy Moss of Minnesota, quarterback Peyton Manning of Indianapolis and running back Fred Taylor of Jacksonville. Their rookie seasons last year put them all on the brink of superstardom.
Then there are rookie running backs Edgerrin James of the Colts and Ricky Williams of the Saints, and five quarterbacks taken in the first round of the draft. Subtract the cantankerous, disappointing and now injured second-year quarterback Ryan Leaf and Tagliabue might have his new stars to replace the departing ones.
But Denver is thinking most about another second-year quarterback, Brian Griese, who will replace Elway after throwing just three passes in 1998.
Griese's father, Bob, quarterbacked the Miami Dolphins to Super Bowl victories in 1973 and '74 but couldn't repeat the third year.
Elway's job was supposed to go to Bubby Brister, a 37-year-old journeyman who was 4-0 as a starter for the Broncos last season. But Brister struggled in four exhibitions, Griese starred against second- and third-stringers, and coach Mike Shanahan awarded him the job.
Elway's retirement after 16 seasons was no surprise -- he almost left after winning his first Super Bowl in 1998 following three losses a decade ago. Before last January's victory over Atlanta, he said he was 99 percent sure he would leave and added the additional 1 percent in April, when he announced his retirement.
As for White, he left even though his final year with the Packers was good enough to earn him Defensive Player of the Year honors. At 36, the NFL's career sack leader had recurring back problems as well as his elusive Super Bowl ring. He earned it when Green Bay beat New England in 1997.
But Sanders' retirement was a shock, particularly since he departed needing just 1,458 yards to break Walter Payton's career rushing record. He had little to say, although his family, friends and teammates indicated he was tired of playing on a team, the Detroit Lions, that seemed to be going nowhere.
He said nothing to anyone, ignoring nearly a dozen attempts by Lions coach Bobby Ross to reach him, then announced his departure in a faxed statement just as training camp opened.
Then there are the Browns, whose return this year was mandated when Art Modell took the old Browns from Cleveland after the 1995 season and turned them into the Baltimore Ravens. They had to leave their history, colors and name behind for the new team and build a "Dawg Pound" for their most ardent fans in the new stadium.
But the new Browns have a San Francisco flavor.
They're owned by Al Lerner, Modell's former partner in Cleveland. They're run, however, by Carmen Policy, the 49ers' president during their glory years, and Dwight Clark, the Niners' former GM and the man who made "The Catch" from Joe Montana that sent them to the first of the five Super Bowls they won during the '80s and '90s.
They also went to camp with 12 former 49ers on their roster, including Ty Detmer, who will start the season at quarterback ahead of Tim Couch, the No. 1 overall pick in the draft and the first of those five QBs chosen.
With the help of some good free agents, they hope to approach the success of the '95 expansion teams, Jacksonville and Carolina, who went to the conference championship games in their second seasons.
"I see signs, just not enough signs," coach Chris Palmer said as the Browns struggled through the exhibition season.
Instant replay, last used in 1991, was brought back after a number of controversial calls in 1998.
Unlike the old system, which allowed a replay official to stop the game whenever he saw something questionable, it gives coaches two challenges per game (using a buzzer to the officials). Teams that lose the challenge also lose a time out.
In the last two minutes of every half, a replay official can stop the game to review a questionable call. The review is supposed to last no more than 90 seconds.
But results in preseason have been spotty.
An exhibition game between Jacksonville and the New York Giants was delayed 10 minutes by a replay official in the final two minutes and the final call appeared to be wrong. There have been other longish delays and missed replay calls, something the league attributes to "working out the bugs in preseason."
"It's not going to be perfect," says Mike Holmgren, co-chairman of the league's competition committee who worked hard for several years to bring back replay. "We tried to put in the best system that could get the necessary votes."
Holmgren, who went from Green Bay to become coach and general manager in Seattle, is one of nine new coaches, including Palmer in Cleveland.
The others are Brian Billick in Baltimore, Gunther Cunningham in Kansas City, Mike Riley in San Diego, Andy Reid in Philadelphia, Dick Jauron in Chicago, Ray Rhodes in Green Bay and George Seifert in Carolina. Like Holmgren, Rhodes and Seifert are on their second jobs: Rhodes was fired after last season by the Eagles, and Seifert coached the 49ers to Super Bowls in 1990 and 1995.
Despite Elway's retirement, Denver could make it three Super Bowls in a row, but only if Griese and Brister play well. Everyone else is back, led by Terrell Davis, who was MVP last year after becoming just the fourth player to run for 2,000 yards. Free-agent cornerback Dale Carter and rookie linebacker Al Wilson improve the defense.
But to get to the Super Bowl, the Broncos will have to get by Jacksonville and the New York Jets, whom they beat in the AFC title game last season.
The Jaguars, who have made the playoffs in three of their four NFL seasons, have reinforced an oft-injured and shaky defense with free-agent safety Carnell Lake and new coordinator Dom Capers, the former Carolina coach.
In the NFC, Minnesota, led by Moss and Randall Cunningham, is the favorite by default after a 15-1 season than ended in a disappointing loss to Atlanta in the conference title game. The Falcons, who finished 14-2 last season, will contend with San Francisco in the East and Dallas and the Giants the best of a mediocre East.
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