NEW YORK (AP) -Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady.
The 2008 NFL season starts with a tale of superstar quarterbacks - one back from retirement in new digs, the other two nursing injuries that probably won't keep them out but may hinder their effectiveness, especially early.
But there are other clouds for the NFL as it starts its 2008 season.
The league faces impending labor troubles and the possible departure of an influential owner in a family disagreement, one that accentuates the growing gap among owners between multibillionaires and multimillionaires. Meanwhile, the unexpected death of union head Gene Upshaw, who has been instrumental in labor peace for the last two decades, adds a tragic twist to the NFL story and throws uncertainty into the upcoming labor talks.
The quarterback situation will take the spotlight on the field.
Favre, who retired in April after leading Green Bay to the NFC championship game, decided in June to return for an 18th NFL season. After a protracted debate with the Packers, who had already installed Aaron Rodgers at quarterback, he was traded to the New York Jets. Putting on a different shade of green, Favre acknowledged, ``feels strange.''
Manning and Brady have physical problems, a constant in a game where big bodies collide on every play.
Manning underwent surgery to remove an infected bursa sac from behind his left knee and only rejoined the Colts on Aug. 19. ``My goal is to be back for the first game,'' said the quarterback who has started all 160 games since he entered the league in 1998, second to Favre's 253 consecutive starts, 275 if you count the postseason.
That's the goal for Brady, too, who missed the first part of exhibition season with an injury to his right foot.
It was his right ankle that hampered him late last year, including in the Super Bowl, where the Patriots' thrust for an unbeaten season ended when they were upset 17-14 by the New York Giants.
Off the field, the most pressing issue is the status of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Dan Rooney, the team's chairman. Next to the commissioners, he has arguably been the most influential figure in the league for 30 years.
Rooney's father founded the Steelers in 1932, and Dan now shares 16 percent of the team with his four brothers. Because the brothers hold interest in gambling operations, they must sell their shares and have been entertaining offers that are higher than Dan Rooney can afford to make.
``Dan has done an excellent job running the Steelers and has been a great contributor to the league,'' commissioner Roger Goodell said. ``We believe he deserves the opportunity to continue, so we're working toward a resolution on that basis.''
Keeping Rooney in the league grows only more important in the wake of Upshaw's death.
For more than 30 years, Rooney has been the peacemaker in labor disputes, dispassionate enough in heated negotiations to step in late and help resolve them. One reason is the respect he gets from both sides, the players and 31 other owners - who often have 31 different opinions.
Last May, the owners opted out of the labor contract extended in March 2006 because they thought that the 60 percent of revenue going to the players is too much in hard economic times. If the contract is not redone by March 2010, the following season would go on without a salary cap - and the possibility of a work stoppage the following year.
While Upshaw had been taking a hard line, Goodell and owners like Rooney accepted that as standard rhetoric and were reasonably optimistic the problem could be resolved. Upshaw's death has made the picture murkier.
The union's chief counsel, Richard Berthelsen, was appointed his interim successor and is likely to stay on through the labor talks - he's been involved in those issues for 37 years and was Upshaw's right-hand man. But the dynamic has changed - Upshaw had a close working relationship with Goodell while Berthelsen was in the background.
Favre's decision to retire, unretire and then seek a new team after 16 seasons in Green Bay was a running soap opera the last few months. After unsuccessfully trying to negotiate his release, which would have allowed him to sign with the Packers' NFC North rival in Minnesota, he was traded to the Jets and has been taking a crash course in a new offense with new terminology.
His arrival in New York seemed to energize the Jets, who spent a lot of money in the offseason in an attempt to become relevant again - both in the New York area, where the spotlight was on the Super Bowl champion Giants, and in the AFC East, where New England has been the dominant team since 2001.
The Patriots enter this season seeking redemption for the loss in that Super Bowl when they were trying to become the first 19-0 team in NFL history. Instead, the Giants upset them despite being double-digit underdogs, capping a run of three playoff upsets on the road with the biggest of them all.
New England also is trying to put ``Spygate'' behind it - the turmoil in which coach Bill Belichick and the Patriots were fined a total of $750,000 and forfeited a first-round draft pick after a team employee was caught taping the Jets' defensive signals during the opening game of the season.
As usual, they say they are thinking only in the ``now.''
And, as usual, they are saying as little as possible about injuries, notably the one to Brady's foot. It's similar to their silence about his ankle injury before the Super Bowl that was revealed only when he was caught by a video camera with a walking boot. It may have hampered him in the loss to the Giants, when he was sacked five times and hit 17 times.
Manning's surgery to remove a small inflammation ``an illness, not an injury.'' He has started all 160 games since entering the league in 1998 and it's still a question whether it will become 161 in the season opener against Chicago, when the Colts will play in their new stadium.
``This has been a new process for me, and it's not been the most enjoyable process,'' Manning said. ``I can throw. I have been able to keep my arm in shape. I can certainly lift weights with my upper body, and my lower body, so I feel I've been able to stay with my strength level. As far as when, and how much time I need, we'll just have to kind of wait and see.''
Actually, Manning and the Colts have been lucky. They've been out of the media spotlight during training camp because of the Favre circus. So have the Patriots, and Dallas, the NFC favorites with its crew of attention-getting stars (owner Jerry Jones, Tony Romo and Terrell Owens) and former miscreants (Adam ``Pacman'' Jones and Tank Johnson).
And the defending champions?
Well, the Giants have been ignored and written off despite their title. And, they love it because it's the perfect incentive. In fact, despite the retirement of defensive end Michael Strahan after 15 seasons and the trade of discontented Jeremy Shockey to New Orleans, they look better this year than last.
Eli Manning appears ready to continue his sudden emergence and the Giants could unveil some surprise young stars, as they did last season with six rookies making major contributions late in the year and in the playoffs.
But this is the NFL. With a new season comes new winners, part of the legislated parity of the NFL. At this time last year, few figured the Giants to be better than a .500 team.
Maybe Jacksonville, hidden in a small market but a playoff team in two of the last three seasons, can break the Colts' string of five straight titles in the AFC South. Minnesota looks ready to leap over Green Bay in the NFC North because the Packers figure to slip with Aaron Rodgers at quarterback in Favre's stead.
And Cleveland, which jumped from 4-12 to 10-6 last season, has high hopes in the AFC North, although the Browns have a killer schedule.
Change can also help. Bill Parcells is now in overall charge of Miami, which was 1-15 last season. Tony Sparano, one of his assistants in Dallas, is the new head coach. Chad Pennington, dumped by the Jets when Favre arrived, is the most accomplished quarterback the Dolphins have had since Dan Marino retired a decade ago.
The Dolphins even have Ricky Williams, who in 1999 was the New Orleans Saints' entire draft, back at running back after being banished multiple times for marijuana use. He's been the star of training camp, mixing his personal redemption with team redemption.
``When the dust settles, hopefully people will be pleasantly surprised,'' he said.
That's what 32 teams like to think every September.

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