Both teams emerged from the lockout without much damage, putting them among the early favorites to represent the NFC in the title game. The Saints are a veteran squad bolstered by free agency and the strong leadership of quarterback Drew Brees. No team had better attended offseason workouts while the league and players association were negotiating through July.
“We got a lot of young guys ahead of the curve during that process so that walking into camp, it's not that big of a shock to them when they get the playbook and it's that thick and they haven't had a chance to really look at it,” Brees said.
“I feel like we've been together because, in reality, we were together.”
Green Bay gets back a handful of players sidelined a year ago, enhancing a squad that went from sixth seed to champions without them. Most notable will be dynamic tight end Jermichael Finley and starting running back Ryan Grant, who provide even more help for Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers.
“The drive we've got in this locker room is amazing,” Finley said. “I think this is going to be a special team right here.”
To get to the regular season, the 32 teams had to survive a frenzied post-lockout period featuring wild bidding wars for veteran free agents and compressed pursuits of undrafted rookies.
Not starting the season, for the first time in two decades, is Brett Favre. Also among the missing are receiver Terrell Owens (unsigned and injured), quarterback Carson Palmer (unhappy and unofficially retired) and receiver Randy Moss.
Another all-time great quarterback, Peyton Manning, had neck surgery in May and wasn't activated by the Indianapolis Colts until last week. His consecutive starts string of 227, including the playoffs, is the second longest in NFL history for quarterbacks behind Favre, and could be in jeopardy.
Donovan McNabb is starting anew (again) in Minnesota, Matt Hasselbeck has headed to Memphis, Vince Young left Nashville for Philadelphia, where he will back up $100 million man Michael Vick, and Kevin Kolb, through the most impactful trade of the summer, is first-string in Arizona.
Other new faces to watch in different places include Reggie Bush in Miami, Chad Ochocinco in New England, and Nnamdi Asomugha, the grand prize of free agency in Philadelphia.
The CBA settlement made more than 450 players unrestricted free agents, as the minimum to qualify went back to four years; it was six in 2010, an uncapped year. The salary cap was set at about $123 million, then the frenzy began.
Eagles revamp squad
The Philadelphia Eagles, already a solid Super Bowl contender, revamped their squad and have been declared the champion of free agency, for what that's worth. The Eagles added cornerback Asomugha, DLs Cullen Jenkins and Jason Babin to their defense, receiver Steve Smith, running back Ronnie Brown and Young to their offense.
“Whatever it takes to try to get there, that's what we're going to do,” team president Joe Banner said of the Eagles' Super Bowl-or-bust mentality. “The expectations are high internally as well as externally, and I think that's a good place to be.”
A tough place to be is anywhere that new coaches are trying to install their systems, learn about their players and, somehow, win games following a wasted spring and half of summer. Ron Rivera in Carolina might have the biggest challenge as he takes over the NFL's worst team of 2010.
It won't be easy for Jim Harbaugh in San Francisco, Pat Shurmur in Cleveland, Mike Munchak in Tennessee, Hue Jackson in Oakland, John Fox in Denver, Jason Garrett in Dallas and Leslie Frazier in Minnesota. At least Garrett and Frazier got in some time as interim head coaches a year ago.
Their jobs seem secure for at least one season. Veteran coaches under the most pressure to produce in 2011 will be Tom Coughlin with the New York Giants, Jack Del Rio with Jacksonville, Gary Kubiak with Houston and Tony Sparano with Miami.
For months, there was some doubt if games would even be played as scheduled. Instead, the only victim of the longest work stoppage in NFL history was the exhibition Hall of Fame game.