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NFL Roundup

By United Press International   |   Sept. 7, 2002 at 5:36 PM
The expansion Houston Texans are ready to lift off. So is Steve Spurrier.

Coaches Jon Gruden, Tony Dungy and Marty Schottenheimer and players Drew Bledsoe and Ricky Willams will debut in new locations Sunday and the defending NFC champion St. Louis Rams visit the Denver Broncos to highlight the opening full day of action in the NFL season.

The defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots host the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday night in a rematch of last year's AFC championship game.

Pro football returns to Houston Sunday night when the expansion Texans host the Dallas Cowboys.

Houston has not hosted professional football since the Oilers moved to Tennessee following the 1996 season. Owner Bob McNair's group spent $700 million to make the Texans the NFL's 32nd franchise.

The Texans have someone familiar with expansion in coach Dom Capers, who took the Carolina Panthers to the NFC championship game in just their second season in 1996. A year earlier, Capers guided the Panthers to seven wins -- the most ever by an expansion team.

The main building block for the Texans is quarterback David Carr, who was selected with the top pick in April's draft.

The Cowboys are trying to turn things around after going 5-11 each of the last two seasons.

It likely is going to be a record-setting year for Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith, who enters the season second on the NFL's all-time rushing list with 16,726 yards. He needs 540 yards to surpass Hall of Famer Walter Payton.

A master offensive innovator, the brash Spurrier turned Florida into a collegiate power, going 122-27-1 in 12 years and winning a national championship in 1996. But Spurrier finally was lured to the NFL by Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder with a five-year, $25 million contract.

Spurrier gets a chance to test his "Fun 'N' Gun" offense in the professional ranks Sunday when the Redskins host the Arizona Cardinals.

Spurrier's offense was in high gear in the preseason, averaging more than 30 points per game. But much of the production came in the second half of those contests, leaving many questions about just how effective his offense will be.

Against the Patriots in the final preseason game, the Redskins' first-team offense was held scoreless in the first half. Danny Wuerffel fumbled three times and was sacked five times in just two quarters.

Wuerffel's struggles prompted Spurrier to name Shane Matthews his starter for the season opener. Like Wuerffel, Matthews played under Spurrier at Florida, so he knows his position is not very secure.

"The way Spurrier is with quarterbacks, I could be out of there after the first series," Matthews said.

While Spurrier has some questions about his offense, the defense should be in fine hands under new coordinator Marvin Lewis, who came over from the Baltimore Ravens.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had to pay a steep price for Gruden, who gets to start proving his worth Sunday when he makes his coaching debut for his new team as the Buccaneers host their new NFC South rivals, the New Orleans Saints.

Dungy had been the Bucs' coach for the last six seasons, compiling a 54-42 record and leading them to four playoff appearances.

Tampa Bay pursued Bill Parcells and Steve Mariucci for the vacancy before ultimately luring Gruden away from the Oakland Raiders for the unprecedented sum of two first-round draft picks, two second-round picks and $8 million.

Dungy makes his coaching debut for his new team Sunday when he leads the Indianapolis Colts against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Dungy's downfall with the Bucs came was his club's offensive ineptitude. Tampa Bay failed to score a touchdown in its last three playoff games.

The defensive side of the ball is a different story, where Dungy -- a former defensive back -- has made his mark. Defensive prowess is the main reason Dungy landed in Indianapolis.

Dungy has a job ahead as he tries to turn around a Colts' defense that ranked 29th in the league last season, allowing a league-high 486 points to go with 357.2 yards per game.

Offense should not be a problem as the Colts still boast the trio of quarterback Peyton Manning, running back Edgerrin James and wide receiver Marvin Harrison.

The San Diego Chargers get the first chance to impress Schottenheimer Sunday when they travel to Paul Brown Stadium to face the Cincinnati Bengals.

For the last three seasons, Mike Riley was at the helm for the Chargers, who were a disastrous 14-34 during his tenure. Last season, the Chargers went 5-11, including nine straight losses to close the year, ending the Riley experiment.

Chargers General Manager John Butler turned to Schottenheimer, who has been a success throughout his career, posting a .500 or better record in 14 of 15 seasons as coach.

Schottenheimer went 8-8 with the Redskins before being fired by Snyder.

Schottenheimer wasted little time in making his presence felt with his new team, naming Drew Brees starting quarterback ahead of veteran Doug Flutie.

Bledsoe gets a new start with the Buffalo Bills and faces the team that changed his future Sunday.

Bledsoe thought he would be a New England Patriot for life when he signed a 10-year, $103 million contract before the 2001 season. But a hit by New York Jets linebacker Mo Lewis last Sept. 23 turned his career upside-down.

While Bledsoe was hospitalized for several weeks, Tom Brady took over as Patriots quarterback and wrote a Hollywood script, leading them to an improbable Super Bowl title.

With a new hero in New England, the 30-year-old Bledsoe became expendable and the Bills pounced on him, sending a 2003 first-round pick to the AFC East-rival for the three-time Pro Bowl quarterback.

Bledsoe is Buffalo's best quarterback since Hall of Famer Jim Kelly led the Bills to an unprecedented four consecutive Super Bowls. And Buffalo already has made an impression on him.

"In New England, I thought the fans were great, but they loved their Red Sox more than any team," Bledsoe said. "In Buffalo, this is a football town first. I feel fortunate to play here."

Williams does not want to ruin the Miami Dolphins' September streaks when they host the Detroit Lions.

Miami is virtually unbeatable at home in September, winning its last 15 games since a 1993 loss to the Jets.

That is not the only streak the Dolphins carry into this contest. They have won their last 10 season openers since a 35-31 loss at Buffalo to start the 1991 campaign.

After going 11-5 last season and enduring another quick exit from the playoffs, the Dolphins made a dramatic move to reach the next level, acquiring Williams from the Saints for a 2002 first-round pick and a conditional 2003 pick.

Williams should give the Dolphins the backfield threat they have not had. He rushed for 4,221 yards in his first three seasons with the Saints.

The Rams and Broncos meet in a season opener for the second time in three years, although the setting this time is Invesco Field at Mile High.

This also marks the first time the Broncos will play their season opener on a Sunday since 1996, ending a streak of four straight Monday Night Football openers.

Bill Callahan of the Raiders and John Fox of the Panthers also make their coaching debuts Sunday. The Raiders host the Seattle Seahawks, the only team to switch conferences in realignment, and the Panthers entertain the Baltimore Ravens.

The Chicago Bears open the 2002 season in downstate Champaign-Urbana at the University of Illinois when they meet the Minnesota Vikings.

Soldier Field is under renovation and is expected to be ready for the start of the 2003 season. Until then, the Bears will travel 2 1/2 hours for "home" games.

The Vikings are under renovation as well, with new coach Mike Tice and a host of defensive changes.

Tice, 43, was elevated from assistant head coach-offensive line coach to replace Dennis Green, who led the Vikings to eight postseason appearances in 10 years but had just four playoff wins. Tice actually was named interim coach when Green resigned last Jan. 4, three days before the team ended a 5-11 season with a loss at Baltimore.

In other games, the defending NFC East champion Philadelphia Eagles visit the Tennessee Titans and the Kansas City Chiefs meet the Cleveland Browns.

The Patriots hope to celebrate the first regular-season game at Gillette Stadium with a win on the 42nd anniversary of the first game in franchise history.

A sellout crowd will be there Monday to show its affection for the Patriots, who are coming off their first Super Bowl title.

In the first-ever Thursday night NFL season opener, the San Francisco 49ers edged the New York Giants, 16-13.

© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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