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Thursday, September 4, 2008

What lies ahead in the NFL: Ten questions to answer in 2008

1. Who winds up with more wins this season, Brett Favre or Aaron Rodgers?

It was the NFL's ugliest divorce since Joe Montana's breakup with the San Francisco 49ers. Brett Favre, kicked to the curb by the Green Bay Packers … for Aaron Rodgers.

Now everybody must live with the decision.

Rodgers' first NFL start comes Sept. 8 against the NFC North rival Minnesota Vikings, while Favre transports his ironman record streak of 275 consecutive quarterback starts (including playoffs) to the New York Jets.

Said Packers general manager Ted Thompson, "We needed to move on."

Favre, 38, is the winningest quarterback in NFL history (160 victories in the regular season), with a record 442 touchdown passes on his résumé. But despite that and a knack for the improvisational big play, he has been anything but magical in recent playoff losses. His last pass as a Packer was intercepted in overtime of the NFC title game, setting up the New York Giants' winning field goal.

Rodgers has been groomed for this moment since being drafted in the first round in 2005. He steps into an offense that ranked second for passing yards in 2007, with the bulk of the Packers' 13-3 team intact.

But it has hardly been a seamless transition for either quarterback.

A shaky Rodgers has already been booed at Lambeau Field — at a scrimmage.

Meanwhile, Favre labors to learn one of the NFL's most complex offenses.

"It's stuff that, with each day, I shouldn't say it becomes easier," he says of mental errors, "but it is easily correctable. … The whole season in itself will be, as I've always felt about my career, that you're learning each game."

Regardless of his comfort with coordinator Brian Schottenheimer's offense, Favre — the Jets' most celebrated player since Joe Namath — can draw on his veteran savvy. New York, which has aggressively upgraded all offseason, suddenly see itself transforming from a 4-12 also-ran into a playoff contender.

Said Jets owner Woody Johnson, "We've added a great player who helps us."

Rodgers will also face high expectations even though many pundits (see page 16) view the Minnesota Vikings as NFC North favorites. It helps that the young quarterback is supported by an emerging defense and playmakers such as receivers Greg Jennings and Donald Driver, with tailback Ryan Grant in the backfield.

"There is a lot of mulling about what the season is going to be like," Rodgers says. "There are still a lot of people I have to prove myself to. That's not my main motivation. But it's definitely in the back of my mind."

Quarterbacks typically receive too much of the credit and too much blame.

In the Favre-Rodgers equation, it is a theory waiting to unfold.

2. Which new coach is under the most pressure?

Bill Cowher stuck with his TV job. Jim Mora wouldn't interview for the Washington Redskins coaching job, either, opting to wait it out in Seattle as Mike Holmgren's successor. Steve Spagnuolo withdrew from the process and got a fat raise after coordinating the New York Giants defense that helped win a Super Bowl XLII jackpot.

Gregg Williams? The initial presumptive frontrunner as the Redskins' next head man last season bolted for Jacksonville in a huff after multiple interviews for the job.

It took 32 days for Redskins owner Dan Snyder to hire a coach after Joe Gibbs stepped down on Jan. 8 … and come up with Jim Zorn.

"Dan went through a tremendous process," said Zorn, 55, technically hired from within after signing on as offensive coordinator earlier in the offseason. "I don't think it worked out necessarily how he thought in the beginning, but he went through the process."

Translation: Zorn was hardly the first choice.

After laboring as Holmgren's quarterbacks coach the past seven years, Zorn was chosen over former Giants coach Jim Fassel. The Redskins also interviewed former head coach Steve Mariucci and Indianapolis Colts defensive boss Ron Meeks.

In working through the process, Snyder and team executive vice president of football operations Vinny Cerrato concluded of Zorn: "We'll probably only have him for one year," Cerrato said, "then he'll be a head coach."

Better to lock him up long-term goes the thinking in D.C.

Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck says Zorn, who never held primary play-calling duties in Seattle, "reminds me of a young Joe Gibbs."

That's a well-intentioned endorsement, but it should be noted that Hasselbeck was 5 years old when Gibbs began his first stint as Redskins coach in 1981.

Even so, Zorn and the three other new head coaches in the league this season — Miami's Tony Sparano, Baltimore's John Harbaugh and Atlanta's Mike Smith — are in the same spot as Gibbs was in 1981: None has ever been an NFL head coach.

Unlike his fellow neophytes (all pegged for rebuilding projects), Zorn inherits a playoff team. And he works for one of the NFL's most demanding owners in Snyder, an aggressive marketing whiz who reigns over one of the league's richest teams but has had mixed results in trying to solidify his coaching ranks.

Before Gibbs' recent four-year stint under Snyder, Steve Spurrier flamed out within two years, Marty Schottenheimer was one-and-canned, and Snyder's initial (and inherited) coach Norv Turner couldn't make it beyond the 13th game of his second season.

Snyder has never been afraid to make bold moves, which does not ensure Zorn job security. In addition to cycling through coaches, he had a $100 million payroll in 2000 after signing free agents Bruce Smith, Deion Sanders and Jeff George. In 2004, he swapped all-pro cornerback Champ Bailey for running back Clinton Portis.

In July, the Redskins wasted no time in obtaining Jason Taylor, the 2006 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, after defensive end Philip Daniels suffered a season-ending knee injury in Zorn's first camp practice.

Such aggressiveness obviously comes with high expectations that begin at the desk of a passionate owner. Add that to the idea that Zorn coaches in Washington — where quarterback controversies can fuel small talk on Capitol Hill and the fan base is as rabid as they come — and there's enormous pressure.

And Snyder just might have Cowher's phone number saved on speed-dial.

3. Will LaDainian Tomlinson finally play in a Super Bowl?

They were three plays that LaDainian Tomlinson will never forget.

Yet they can't be found on any L.T. highlight reel.

No, these were the three snaps the San Diego Chargers superstar was limited to in the AFC title game loss at New England in January. Tomlinson, so close to his first Super Bowl that he could smell it, left Gillette Stadium wondering what might have occurred if his sprained left knee hadn't forced him to spend the bulk of his first title game on a cold, hard bench.

Then came the proverbial insult heaped on injury. Some critics — most notably \Deion Sanders of NFL Network — slammed Tomlinson for not gutting it out as quarterback Philip Rivers (torn anterior cruciate ligament) and tight end Antonio Gates (dislocated toe) did in limping through the game.

"Big-time players," Sanders scolded, "must play big-time games."

There are a mountain of issues to question as the Chargers gear up for another run — Rivers' right knee, Gates' left toe, center Nick Hardwick's right foot, Shawne Merriman's equilibrium after the linebacker dismissed doctors' advice to skip the season and have his left knee surgically repaired — but Tomlinson's heart isn't one of them.

"All the things I've played through my whole career and haven't missed a game. Now all of a sudden I'm not tough?" Tomlinson said as he started his rehab. "You think I just wanted to sit on the sideline and not go in the championship game? That's ridiculous."

Heading into his eighth season, the NFL's two-time rushing champ has dropped hints that he might play just two or three more seasons.

The clock is ticking to get a ring.

It's possible this could be the year. The Chargers, eliminated from the past two playoffs with close losses to the Patriots, might have the most talented roster in the NFL. Again, though, the Patriots and Indianapolis Colts — the only teams in the NFL with more victories than the Chargers over the past four years — seemingly set the standard.

But San Diego lurks. The Chargers beat the Colts twice last season. In the title game, they played the Patriots tough despite their hefty toll from injuries.

Says Rivers, "We're battle-tested."

The passionate Merriman, with an NFL-high 39½ sacks the past three seasons, might epitomize the team's determination. Despite two torn ligaments, he's willing to strap on a brace, risk further damage and play — putting off surgery for another day.

Tomlinson can relate. He rushed back to play in the title game, only to discover he wasn't explosive enough to be on the field.

Said Tomlinson of Merriman, "How do you tell a warrior to sit down?"

He knows the answer. You don't tell. It takes a lot more than that.

4. Who throws more touchdown passes this season, Tom Brady or Peyton Manning?

When Peyton Manning threw 49 touchdown passes in 2004, he broke Dan Marino's single-season record that had stood for 20 years.

Three years later, Tom Brady topped Manning with 50 TD passes.

But records are secondary to the big mission. Manning's record-breaking season, remember, ended with a loss to the Patriots in the divisional playoffs. Brady's feat was a footnote to the would-be perfect season that went up in flames with his first Super Bowl loss.

Championships, not records, are the ultimate measures of success for the NFL's best quarterbacks. As Brady has built a 3-1 edge over Manning in Super Bowl victories, either the Patriots or Colts have represented the AFC in five of the past seven Super Bowls.

They are among the favorites to win Super Bowl XLIII — after another much-anticipated midseason showdown at Indianapolis on Nov. 2.

Still, there's intrigue when considering that neither of the star quarterbacks played a single preseason down while nursing injuries.

Manning had surgery July 14 to remove a bursa sac from his left knee and didn't begin practicing until late August. Brady sat out with a right foot injury the team maintains isn't linked to the ankle injury that fueled concern — and much speculation — after the AFC title game.

Both expect to start the season.

Pleased with his progress, Manning said, "Having to do rehab, having to miss practice, it's not really the situation you want to be in."

Said Brady: "I'm feeling very good … I'm trying to get better as fast as I can in the ways I know how. It's been making improvement. There's no doubt about it."

Obviously, all bets are off if the faces of their respective franchises are not healthy. Yet other issues bear watching.

The Colts, who allowed an NFL-low 16.4 points per game in 2007, hope that speed-rushing defensive end Dwight Freeney returns to his all-pro form after foot surgery. Meanwhile Bob Sanders, a wrecking ball of an all-pro safety whose whirling dervish style might contribute to his litany of injuries, comes off shoulder surgery. Center Jeff Saturday, the O-line anchor, might be lost for the season with a knee injury. And after missing 11 games in 2007 with a knee injury, Hall of Fame-credentialed receiver Marvin Harrison is in search of a rebound season.

New England, which spent the offseason in 2007 upgrading Brady's receiver corps (see: Randy Moss, Wes Welker), used this year's off-peak months retooling the secondary. With a new secondary coach in zone-blitz whiz Dom Capers, the Patriots' defense should be more aggressive — which translates into more single coverage. Gone are three key players (starting cornerback Asante Samuel, nickel back Randall Gay and safety Eugene Wilson). The rebuilt secondary includes rookies Jonathan Wilhite and Terrence Wheatley and veteran corners Deltha O'Neal and Lewis Sanders.

The idea: mesh quickly.

As for the quarterbacks, history suggests they will get up to speed soon enough.

5. Will the Giants repeat history and have a super collapse?

It was the biggest Roman Numeral upset since Joe Namath guaranteed the Jets' victory against the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III.

The New York Giants spoiled the Patriots' bid for a perfect season — and all of those "19-0" T-shirts, caps and preprinted commemorative books.

Now the Super Bowl XLII champs seek another stunner: avoid a meltdown. After each of the franchise's first three Super Bowl appearances, the Giants had oh-so-embarrassing encores.

Playoffs? The Giants have never followed a Super Bowl berth with a winning season.

The trend might say as much about parity as it underscores the difficulty to repeat.

"No two seasons are ever the same, no two teams are ever the same," Giants coach Tom Coughlin told the crowd at the team's kickoff luncheon.

His point cannot be disputed.

Already, the Giants have a different look from last year's edition. Consider the dominant pass rush, which performed at a peak when it mattered most in pressuring the daylights out of Brady in the Super Bowl. Powered by a deep rotation of linemen, New York led the NFL with 53 sacks last year.

Yet the men who accounted for half of the sacks are gone. Michael Strahan retired. Linebackers Kawika Mitchell and Reggie Torbor left as free agents. And defensive end Osi Umenyiora, the team leader with 13 sacks in 2007, was iced by a torn lateral meniscus that marked the most devastating injury blow in the league during preseason.

New year.

"Of course you would be a little bit more comfortable if you had a guy like Osi out there, (but) we don't, and we have to move forward," says middle linebacker Antonio Pierce. "You can't dwell on it."

Mathias Kiwanuka, a first-round defensive end in 2006 who switched to linebacker, heads back to the trenches. And versatile Justin Tuck, picked as Super Bowl MVP on some ballots, remains to give New York a legitimate force wherever he lines up. Yet with Umenyiora and Strahan (the near-certain future Hall of Famer rejected an appeal to return) gone, Tuck's job will get much tougher without the star rushers attracting double teams.

Other losses and setbacks linger.

Safety Gibril Wilson left as a free agent. Disgruntled Pro Bowl tight end Jeremy Shockey was traded. Injuries sidelined wideout Plaxico Burress for the bulk of training camp and forced the Giants to sign John Carney while kicker Lawrence Tynes nurses an iffy knee.

Few experts expect the Giants — who made the playoffs last season as a fifth-seeded wild card — will even win the NFC East crown. After all, the Dallas Cowboys won that last year.

No matter.

"With the predictions and opinions, we could really care less," Pierce said. "Those are the same people that last year told us we wouldn't do nothing."

6. Will 'Pacman' Jones turn the corner in Dallas?

Start with the numbers when considering the case of just-reinstated Dallas Cowboys cornerback-returner Adam "Pacman" Jones.

• Career picks: 4.

• Career punt-return TDs: 4.

• Arrests since entering the NFL in 2005: 6

• Incidents with police involvement: 12.

The Cowboys, who obtained Jones from the Tennessee Titans in April, are rolling the dice that he was stung enough by a 17-month suspension that he has shed the habits that led to so much off-the-field trouble.

If so, a Super Bowl contender has added an impact player to pair with Terence Newman for one of the NFL's best cornerback tandems. Jones also is a constant threat to instantly change momentum with a big-play return.

If it doesn't work, at least the Cowboys tried.

"Can I say I would never, ever make the same mistakes? No, I can't say that," said Jones, whose last NFL game was on Dec. 31, 2006, a few weeks before he became a focal point in a shooting at a Las Vegas strip club that left a security guard paralyzed.

"I'll make sure I put myself in way better situations than I have put myself in the past."

Jones pledges to stay out of nightclubs, devote more time to his family and focus on spirituality.

One more incident, though, and his career could be blown.

"I know my responsibilities to the NFL," Jones said. "I'm going to hold my own and do what I need to do to make sure I stay where I am right now."

If there's any team equipped to support Jones, it is the Cowboys, whose player development program is hailed as one of the most effective in the league.

In addition to his hands-on involvement, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has poured extensive resources into programs headed by former running back Calvin Hill since the mid-1990s — when the team's image was tarnished by a series of off-the-field incidents.

Hall of Fame receiver Michael Irvin has said the support from the program saved him, while defensive tackle Tank Johnson— suspended after gun violations led to his demise with the Chicago Bears — has avoided such trouble since joining the Cowboys.

Now Pacman Jones is positioned to be another symbol of success — or failure.

"He understands the opportunity that he can lose or he can gain," Jerry Jones said. "He can make 'em forget the negative things. After being at the bottom of the barrel holding his breath for two years, he can change his life and the perception of that life."

At least that's the plan.

7. Which new acquisition besides Brett Favre will have the biggest impact?

Free agency isn't what it used to be.

Sure, 132 players switched teams this year as free agents, and there were some notable extra-rich deals. Cornerback Asante Samuel was guaranteed $20 million as part of a six-year, $57.14 million package to move from New England to Philadelphia. Running back Michael Turner jumped out of Tomlinson's shadow in San Diego to a leading role in Atlanta, sprung with a six-year, $34.5 million contract. And five-time all-pro guard Alan Faneca left Pittsburgh to become a Jet with more than half of a five-year, $40 million deal guaranteed.

But nothing was reminiscent of Reggie White landing in Green Bay back in 1993.

The really big moves came on the trade market, which facilitated movement among key players like never before. The Favre deal was the most prominent and dramatic.

Jason Taylor, Jeremy Shockey, DeAngelo Hall and Shaun Rogers were among other impact non-free agents getting alternative tickets out of their former towns.

"I wanted a long-term deal, and they obviously weren't going to give me what I wanted," Jared Allen, the new Minnesota Vikings defensive end, said of his departure from the Kansas City Chiefs. "It came down to, 'We can both make each other happy. You need draft picks. By trading me, you can get value with draft picks and I can go someplace I can be happy.'

"That's how it worked out. Luckily, I came here."

Allen, who led the NFL with 15½ sacks in 2007, got his new deal. After the Vikings dealt a first-round pick and two third-round choices, and swapped slots with Kansas City in the sixth round to get Allen, they signed him to a six-year, $72.36 million contract that is the richest ever for a defensive player.

He joins forces with a pair of all-pro defensive tackles — Kevin and Pat Williams— to form the nucleus for arguably the NFL's best defensive line. The Vikings have led the league in run defense the past two seasons, but in adding a relentless edge rusher, they can suddenly envision even more dominance in the trenches while alleviating pressure on their secondary.

Says Pat Williams, "That's all we were missing."

Look no further than the Giants to vouch for the value of a powerful defensive line.

8. Will the Cleveland Browns live up to expectations?

After finishing with the first double-digit victory campaign since the franchise returned in 1999 — but missing the playoffs last season — the bar has been raised in Cleveland.

The 2007 Browns, 10-6, had a six-game improvement over 2006. It was an emphatic statement about where they are headed under head coach Romeo Crennel and GM Phil Savage.

Now what?

"I feel the pressure," says Braylon Edwards, who set a franchise record with 1,289 receiving yards on 80 catches last season. "But we have to know that we're not winning the Super Bowl today. We just have to focus, be patient, get better … a day at a time."

It is obvious that someone expects more. Five of the Browns' games are slated for prime time, the type of national TV exposure typical for elite teams.

And there's plenty of reason to believe.

Edwards and tight end Kellen Winslow II are exceptional playmakers for big-armed quarterback Derek Anderson, with wideout Donte' Stallworth also added to the mix. Tailback Jamal Lewis revitalized his career in 2007 (turning in rushing stats not seen since Jim Brown's days) behind an emerging line that includes guard Eric Steinbach and Joe Thomas— the left tackle who made the Pro Bowl as a rookie.

The defense added two-time Pro Bowl tackle Shaun Rogers and converted former Packer Corey Williams from tackle to end to help solidify the front wall of Crennel's 3-4 unit, 27th against the run in 2007.

Still, other factors suggest that a ticket to the playoffs can't be stamped automatically.

First, there's the matter of last year's AFC North winner, the Pittsburgh Steelers. Cleveland has lost nine consecutive games against its archrival.

"Until we can beat Pittsburgh," Crennel says, "Pittsburgh has to be the favorite."

The Browns host the Steelers in Week 2, then close the regular season at Heinz Field.

Also consider the rest of the schedule.

Last year, the Browns were 1-3 against playoff-bound opponents, while none of their other nine victories was achieved against a team with a winning record.

But the schedule is much tougher this time around, with the AFC North pitted against the NFC East and AFC South — which both sent three teams to the playoffs last season — in the scheduling cycle. Cleveland has the NFL's sixth-toughest schedule, with eight games against teams that made the playoffs last season.

"Everybody's got a tough schedule," says Anderson, mindful that each AFC North team ranks high on the strength-of-schedule meter. "The good thing about it, we all gotta play."

Anderson comes off a breakout season in his first year as a starter. He passed for more yards (3,787) than any Browns quarterback since Bernie Kosar in 1986, was one TD pass shy of tying the franchise-record 30 that Brian Sipe notched in 1980 and kept No. 1 pick Brady Quinn waiting in the wings.

But Anderson's 56.5% completion rate was in the lower quartile for NFL passers, and his inaccuracy was sometimes masked by acrobatic catches from his receivers. And he threw 19 interceptions, one shy of the league high.

"Most of them, I felt were going to the right spot," Anderson says of his picks. "I don't think there were consistent, bad decisions. It's not like I don't know what I'm doing. So I don't worry about it. Mistakes happen. I'm not going to be perfect all the time."

In the Week 16 loss at Cincinnati, when the Browns could have clinched a playoff berth with a victory, Anderson had five interceptions.

Perfect, no. Anderson and the Browns still have much room for growth.

9. Which rookie running back is this year's Adrian Peterson?

Few would argue that electric former Arkansas tailback Darren McFadden, snagged with the draft's fourth pick overall by the Oakland Raiders, was not the prospect to swoon over in the NFL draft.

But McFadden will be hard-pressed to duplicate Adrian Peterson's rookie feats with the Minnesota Vikings. Peterson finished second in the NFL with 1,341 rushing yards and set the league's single-game record with a 296-yard blistering of the Chargers.

No doubt, McFadden has a skill set packed with the explosion, even if he doesn't possess Peterson's power. The Raiders will rush him between the tackles, spring him on the edges, swing him out for dump-offs and screens in the passing game and use him on returns.

After quarterback JaMarcus Russell missed all of his rookie camp in a contract dispute after being picked No. 1 overall last year — resulting in a learning curve setback that kept him off the field nearly all season — the Raiders were ecstatic that McFadden signed early enough to make it to Day 1 of training camp.

No wonder he's drawn raves for picking up the system.

Even so, McFadden won't be running behind one of the NFL's best offensive lines, unlike Peterson. But similar to Peterson in 2007, McFadden also won't open the season as the starter, with returnee Justin Fargas having a splendid camp and second-year man Michael Bush also in the mix.

But running back remains the position that scouts feel players can make the quickest adjustment from college — as Eric Dickerson demonstrated with his rookie-record 1,808 rushing yards in 1983 — but in today's game there are few every-down backs.

All five first-round backs seem destined to share the load. Carolina's Jonathan Stewart (picked 13th overall) will complement DeAngelo Williams. McFadden's college teammate, Felix Jones (22nd), will offer a changeup to bruiser Marion Barber III in Dallas. College workhorse Rashard Mendenhall (23rd) will spell Willie Parker in Pittsburgh, while Tennessee's Chris Johnson (24th) shares duties with LenDale White.

Yet chances are strong that someone will emerge from the deep crop — which included Chicago's second-rounder, Matt Forte, and Detroit third-rounder Kevin Smith, who will open the season as starters — to stake a claim as the "next great thing" at running back.

After all, it has been 16 years since the NFL didn't have a rookie rush for 1,000 yards.

10. What will 'Ocho Cinco' come up with next?

Muhammad Ali was once Cassius Clay. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar changed his name from Lew Alcindor. And Ahmad Rashad was drafted as Bobby Moore.

Now the Cincinnati Bengals' flamboyant wide receiver, formerly known as Chad Johnson, has legally changed his name to Chad Javon Ocho Cinco — and it has nothing to do with his religion.

Ocho Cinco loosely translates to Johnson's uniform number, 85, though "ochenta y cinco" is more accurate.

"It's something I don't think anyone has ever done before," Johnson, er Ocho Cinco, told the team's website. "Have I ever had a reason for doing what I do? I'm having fun."

The season hasn't started, but it has already been quite a year for No. 85.

He boycotted the offseason program and demanded a trade — and a new contract.

He got neither.

Fast-forward to preseason: Johnson partially tore the labrum in his left shoulder in his summer debut. He expects to be ready for the season, and with his typical showman's panache, Ocho Cinco performed 20 push-ups in the locker room recently to demonstrate the strength in his shoulder.

Then came news of his name change.

Chalk it up as another in the series of attention-grabbing antics that began with choreographed touchdown celebrations then morphed into productions with props. After one TD, he once "proposed" to a cheerleader. Another time, he scribbled a message on a whiteboard for then-suspended pal Terrell Owens, and flaunted it for TV cameras. In last year's opener, he went to the bench and draped a faux Hall of Fame blazer over his jersey.

During warm-ups before a game in 2006, he covered the name on his jersey with an "Ocho Cinco" nametag. Quarterback Carson Palmer ripped it off before kickoff.

With a ruling from a Broward County, Fla., court, though, Johnson could now challenge the NFL to wear the name while generating a marketing buzz.

It is unclear how the Bengals will respond to Johnson, whom coach Marvin Lewis took a tough stand against during the drama in the spring.

But for a franchise with a reputation tarnished in recent years by a slew of player arrests, it is more attention that has nothing to do with excellence between the lines.

To Johnson, it's good, clean fun. He has never had the type of problems that made the Bengals poster children for the NFL's crackdown on off-the-field conduct. But his theatrics, though popular with many fans, might threaten team chemistry and undoubtedly overshadow his brilliance as an elite player.

He ranked third in the NFL in 2007 with a career-high 1,440 yards on 93 receptions. For four consecutive seasons beginning in 2003, he led the AFC in receiving yards.

But such consistent production just isn't enough for a man who has promised to surprise his fans with a new production to celebrate touchdowns.

Knowing Ocho Cinco, he's eager to make good on his word.

Player Agency Finds a Way to Make Its No. 1s Add Up

It was a few weeks before N.F.L. training camps opened when Ben Dogra missed an early-morning call from Jets General Manager Mike Tannenbaum. Dogra, maybe the best football agent attracting the least attention, knew why Tannenbaum called.

“He’s either going to tell me: Hey, let’s start negotiating the contract for Vernon Gholston, the sixth pick, or, Hey, I’m going on vacation, so let’s talk when I get back,” Dogra said. “I’m assuming it’s a reach-out call.”

Dogra, a 43-year-old born in India but raised largely on American football, listened to the message. Tannenbaum vaguely said he wanted to “touch base.”

Dogra was the man both in the middle and on top of it all. He helps oversee the most dominant player-representation agency in football from an office that is 10 stories above St. Louis and overlooks a suburban canopy stretching to the horizon. That is what 3 percent of a player’s contract — the going rate for N.F.L. agents — buys when your agency has more top-end draft picks than anyone.

On his bookshelf was a football painted with the logos of the University of Michigan and the Miami Dolphins. It read, “Game Ball presented to Jake Long, 1st Overall Selection, 2008 N.F.L. Draft, 4/22/08.” The date — four days before the draft — marked the completion of Long’s five-year, $57.5 million contract, of which $30 million is guaranteed.

But most of the office looked like Dogra moved in last week and brought only what fit in his car trunk. It represents his no-pretense, on-the-go nature. There was a television on the floor. Several framed posters leaned against walls. Five cardboard file boxes huddled in a corner. A bobblehead doll of Ravens receiver Mark Clayton was on the desk.

In the doorway appeared Tom Condon, Dogra’s primary partner in the football branch of Creative Artists Agency, a well-known firm in the entertainment industry. He surveyed the room.

“You’ve only been here, what — 12, 13 years?” Condon asked.

Dogra and Condon, along with their associates Jim Steiner and Ken Kremer, represent about 130 N.F.L. players. Among them are 4 of the first 8 picks from April’s draft, and 6 of the top 21. They have represented four of the past five first-overall choices and 48 first-round picks since 2001, far more than any competitors.

They are the current champions in their mysterious corner of professional football.

Dogra and Condon are an unlikely and relatively new combination. Condon, 55, has long been one of the N.F.L.’s power brokers. His clients include Peyton and Eli Manning, Chad Pennington, Matt Leinart, Brady Quinn and LaDainian Tomlinson.

Condon was an N.F.L. guard for 12 seasons and a former president of the N.F.L. Players Association. He has a brain hard-wired in the complexities of contracts, salary caps and collective-bargaining agreements. He has lived through much of the N.F.L.’s growth.

“I was a 10th-round draft choice” from Boston College in 1974, Condon said, “and I didn’t have anybody recruiting me. So, yeah, I negotiated my own $18,000 contract myself.”

Dogra’s background is far different. Dogra moved from New Delhi when he was 6, and his family hopscotched before opening a restaurant in northern Virginia when he was in high school. He did not play sports but wanted an N.F.L. career. Being an agent seemed a reasonable route. After attending George Mason, Dogra chose St. Louis University Law School based on its proximity to two sports agencies, for whom he hoped to work days while studying at night.

“My dad said, ‘Is that the equivalent of going to Los Angeles and being a bartender to become an actor?’ ” Dogra said. “I said, no, because if I don’t become an agent, I’ll be in law school.”

One of the agencies was Steiner’s, which initially rejected Dogra. But he kept returning to plead for work and eventually latched on to the bottom rung, far below the agency’s five agents.

“I literally didn’t talk to Steiner for a year and a half,” Dogra said.

They ultimately became partners. Dogra showed a knack for relating to players and their families. Within a few years, he was competing for some of the most-coveted college players against the biggest-named agents, including Condon and Kremer, an ex-N.F.L. player turned agent.

“We went nine consecutive years where Kenny and I either had the most first-round draft choices or were tied,” Condon said. “And when it was tied, it was Benny who we tied with. And then the 10th year, I thought we were going to get the decade, but he beat us. I realized this guy is formidable, considering he didn’t have the advantages that Kenny and I had.”

When Condon and Kremer switched to Creative Artists from IMG in 2006, they pondered ways to grow. Condon and Dogra had met only a couple of times, but they recognized that their differences complemented the other’s strengths and they decided to join forces.

Condon and Kremer moved last year from Kansas City, Mo., and headed to the St. Louis office, where the halls are lined with jerseys and photographs of clients, hung properly and proudly. There is a staff of 15. Four handle player endorsements, 20 percent of which goes to the agency. Others help handle whatever else comes up.

“We negotiate a contract, like we did for Matt Ryan,” Dogra said, referring to the Boston College quarterback chosen third over all by the Atlanta Falcons. “Six years, $72 million, set the record of $34.75 million guaranteed. So the deal is done? It doesn’t work like that.

“We still have constant contact during that six-year period. Now we’re working on his marketing deals. And if Matt calls and says: ‘Hey, I’m trying to do something special for my mom. Do you have any access in the Bahamas?’ We try to help out with all those things.”

The contracts for Long and Ryan caught the attention of N.F.L. Commissioner Roger Goodell, who said in June that it was “ridiculous” for rookies to receive such sums. Condon and Dogra, negotiating the biggest share of such contracts, shrugged.

“I can’t tell you how many times where I’ve talked to a general manager who said: ‘How far can this go? How much more money can there be?’ ” Condon said.

Dogra picked up the argument.

“They’re not paying out something that they don’t have,” he said. “Where is it coming from? It’s coming from ticket sales, suite sales and broadcasting rights. And if that market were to go down, it would go down proportionately for the players.”

Condon called debates about rookie contracts “a false issue,” partly because they establish a foundation for veteran contracts and partly because rookie contracts tumble steeply after those received by the top players. Carolina running back Jonathan Stewart, a Dogra client, was chosen 13th over all but got a contract worth about a third of Long’s.

“The league is substantially below the salary cap, so it’s not like they’re going to take that money and give it to the veterans,” Condon said. “They have it now, and they’re not giving it to them.”

Eventually, it comes time to joust, as Dogra and the Jets’ Tannenbaum did when they finally connected, one wanting the most for his client, the other wanting to pay the least for his team. They discussed the merits of forging ahead to make Gholston one of the first high picks to reach a deal, or waiting for the draft picks on either side of him to sign, thus setting the parameters. It was clear what Dogra wanted.

“Here’s the deal, Mike,” Dogra said. “If you think we need to wait, and we can’t do a deal by the 15th, that will be absolutely wrong. The question is: How far is our ceiling if we go first? Are we in the first stratosphere? Are we going out to the moon? And where is your floor going to be? Are you on the pavement, or are you six feet under?”

Dogra listened for a minute or two. Tannenbaum was talking about 2007, when the Jets’ first-round pick Darrelle Revis (represented by other agents) missed 21 days of camp in a contract dispute, frustrating the team and Coach Eric Mangini.

“It would be hard for both of us to make our mark on one deal,” Dogra responded. “The only mark we’re going to try to make here is we want the best deal for Gholston, you want a deal that works for the Jets and gets this kid to camp on time, and then I get the game ball from Mangini.”

In the end, Gholston missed a day of camp before signing a five-year contract that has $21 million guaranteed and could escalate to $50 million. It came before the fifth or seventh picks signed.

But on this day, Dogra pondered the bigger picture from high above the middle of the country. Every contract affects subsequent contracts, rippling through the draft class.

“Most teams have one first-rounder,” he said. “But we have six. It means more to us.”