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FR: 2009 Season Preview

We’ve used Football Relativity for many things this summer, from comparing quarterbacks to comparing rumors to comparing free-agent moves to comparing nicknames. But now it is time to use this Football Relativity pool for what it was originally created – comparing teams to each other.

This is our preseason Football Relativity poll. 10 is the level of the best team or teams; 1 is the level of the worst team or teams. Teams that are on the same level are listed alphabetically, so the order on each level is not a ranking per se. We have no limit on the number of teams on any level, and in the future we may even leave a level empty to show a gap between teams. And this comparison does not attempt to predict record; schedules and other issues could leave teams with worse records on levels above teams with better records. We’ll make division predictions once this post has settled in our minds a bit.

Without further ado, here is the preseason version of Football Relativity. It’s long, but all that means is that your team is covered closely, no matter who your team is. Enjoy.

10 – New England Patriots – The Patriots aren’t a perfect team, but they have enough ability across the board to compare favorably with anybody in the league. The return of QB Tom Brady is obviously a key, and as a welcome-back present the franchise gave its franchise quarterback some grizzled but productive vets – RB Fred Taylor, WR Joey Galloway, and TE Chris Baker. Those pieces should keep the offense potent, and the offensive line remains solid if unspectacular. The questions for New England are on defense, where Bill Belichick’s schemes are normally extremely dangerous. But New England’s core defensively has gotten kind of old, and the reinforcements have been spottier than you would expect. The premium players are NT Vince Wilfork and DE Ty Warren, who are perfect 3-4 guys, and ’08 rookie Jerod Mayo, who brings a playmaking ability at inside ‘backer that the Patriots hadn’t had in recent years. In the secondary, the Pats need vets Leigh Bodden and Shawn Springs to step up at corner, or else a rookie like Darius Butler needs to step up. But with youngsters like Butler, Patrick Chung, and Brandon Meriweather in the secondary, the Pats have the physical ability, and you have to believe Belichick and his staff can coach them up. As long as Brady stays healthy, this is going to be an elite team.

10 (con’t) – Pittsburgh Steelers – The defending Super Bowl champs look like they’re loaded for bear again in ’09. Ben Roethlisberger isn’t the smoothest quarterback around, but he always shows up in the end. He has vets Hines Ward and Heath Miller as well as emerging youngsters Santonio Holmes (the Super Bowl hero) and Limas Sweed to throw to, which makes for a potent passing game. The running game should be better this year with Rashard Mendenhall back from injury to help Willie Parker carry the run game load. Melwede Moore gives some injury assurance there. Pittsburgh’s offensive line was pretty maligned last year, but it’s serviceable, and the Steelers drafted a couple of guys who could raise the level of athleticism in that unit. Defensively, the Steelers are loaded. They know how to draft guys who can play their system, and it shows. They’re 6 deep on the defensive line and at linebacker, with playmakers like James Harrison, Lamarr Woodley, and the emerging Lawrence Timmons there to wreak havoc. Plus, safeties Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark can do the same. The cornerback position isn’t beautiful, but with enough pressure they can hold steady. Don’t forget that Pittsburgh played the ultimate murderer’s row on its schedule last year – the Steelers catch more of a break this year and may be able to coast a little more late in the season. Regardless, this is a team under Mike Tomlin that can contend again if it keeps its fire.

9 – New York Giants – The Giants are loaded on defense and in the running game, and that’s going to be enough to keep them at the top of the pack in the NFC this season. Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw, running behind an often unsung but rarely outplayed offensive line, will keep the offense moving down the field. QB Eli Manning makes enough throws to keep the team moving, and while he doesn’t have a No. 1 receiver, he has a variety of talented options that should allow him to spread the ball around the field. This team, like the early Patriots Super Bowl teams, may not have a 90-catch receiver but should have three or four or even five with 40 catches or more. That’s difficult for defenses to stop in its own right. On defense, the Giants have reloaded their defensive line by adding Chris Canty and Rocky Bernard and getting Osi Umenyiora back from injury. Those guys, plus Justin Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka, give the Giants the best D-line in the league. Those linemen create havoc and make enough plays on their own to keep the rest of the defense humming along, but the Giants also have underrated back-seven guys like LB Antonio Pierce and emerging CB Aaron Ross and S Kenny Phillips. This is a deep team at the key DL and RB spots, and that should help the Giants stay at the top of the pack even when injuries come. They’re the class of the NFC as the season opens.

9 (con’t) – Tennessee Titans – The Titans aren’t a flashy team, but they’re always tough, and that toughness will serve them well again this season. The toughness is reflected in the run game, which stars Chris Johnson and a slimmer LenDale White, but depends on a terrific offensive line led by Michael Roos, who one informal poll (via movethesticks) recently listed as one of the top three linemen in the entire league. The passing game isn’t wonderful, but QB Kerry Collins doesn’t make a lot of mistakes at this point in his career, and the addition of Nate Washington should add a little more pop to the air attack. Defensively, the Titans lose stud DT Albert Haynesworth but still have a four-deep rotation with guys who can make plays. LB Keith Bulluck and CB Cortland Finnegan remain among the league’s elite at their positions as well. The reason the Titans are so good is that they have found and then developed gems like Finnegan (a seventh-round pick) and OT David Stewart (a fourth-round pick). That depth will be tested as the Titans try to replace Haynesworth, but the sense here is that they’ll be able to get enough production at DT to remain a terrific team.

8 – Atlanta Falcons – The team that is making the leap into the upper echelons in the NFL this year is the Falcons, who will build on last year’s surprise to continue moving forward. QB Matt Ryan showed last year that he has the ability and the moxie to be an effective and sometimes even elite-looking quarterback despite his young age. Now, he has all-time great TE Tony Gonzalez as a target, joining top-tier WR Roddy White. Plus, the run game features Michael Turner, a terrific running back, and change-of-pace threat Jerious Norwood. The offensive line played OK last year, and if it can match that level of performance, the offense will once again be dangerous. Defensively, the Falcons rely heavily on DE John Abraham, a pass-rushing demon who had to be spotted last year to keep him healthy. Still, though, he played every game and was a threat throughout. He’s a game-changer who must stay healthy for Atlanta to threaten. Rookie Peria Jerry should help bring a second threat to the front four. The back seven doesn’t have a lot of playmakers, although LB Curtis Lofton could continue to emerge. But this is still a solid defense. The Falcons should follow up last year’s playoff performance with a division title this year, which is an accomplishment in a tough grouping like the NFC South. And a Super Bowl berth, while a bit of a stretch, is within the realm of possibility.

8 (con’t) – Philadelphia Eagles – The Eagles would have been a level 9 team had they not had two major injuries as camp opened. While MLB Stewart Bradley and TE Cornelius Ingram weren’t cornerstones, they were potential contributors whose losses sting. Still, the Eagles are a dangerous team. QB Donovan McNabb has more weapons than he’s ever had, from star ’08 rookie DeSean Jackson to veteran Brian Westbrook to rookies LeSean McCoy and Jeremy Maclin. If Michael Vick finds a role, all the better for Philly. The biggest question on offense is how the offensive line will fare with two new tackles now that Jon Runyan and Tra Thomas are gone. Still, though, a solid offensive line has traditionally been Andy Reid’s speciality. On defense, the Eagles should maintain their attacking style even after the death of long-time coordinator Jim Johnson. DE Trent Cole and DT Mike Patterson are not well known, but they make some plays. The stars are CBs Asante Samuel, Ellis Hobbs, and Sheldon Brown, who provide the ability for the Eagles to blitz. The Eagles aren’t quite of the same caliber as the Giants, but they’re a good team that should make the playoffs. And once they get to the postseason, they have the potential to make a run.

8 (con’t) – San Diego Chargers – The Chargers once again have one of the most talented rosters in the league – the question is how often they will play to that talent. Last year, the Chargers only reached an elite level at the end of the season and in the playoff opener, a win over the Colts. But the talent is undoubtedly there. QB Philip Rivers is emerging as a big-time quarterback, and the leadership qualities he has show over the last season and a half are the kind that a championship-level team needs. He has stalwart TE Antonio Gates and burgeoning star WR Vincent Jackson among many targets. Of course, he also has a solid running game with LaDanian Tomlinson, who appears to be healthy once again, and Darren Sproles, a quick-twitch mighty mite who is able to set off the pyrotechnics at any time. Tomlinson isn’t what he was three or four years ago, but spelling him with Sproles will keep the Chargers moving on the ground. The offensive line isn’t great, but it’s good enough to keep Rivers upright and to open holes for the runners. On defense, the Chargers blossomed once Ron Rivera became defensive coordinator and let the dogs out on the blitz. The return of Shawne Merriman from injury and the addition of Larry English in the first round of the draft gives the Chargers much more pass-rushing pop than they had last season, and that pressure should help CB Antonio Cromartie rebound and continue his development into an elite corner. NT Jamal Williams remains the key to the run defense, and he’s as strong at the point of attack as anyone in the league. The Chargers have the tools; the question is consistency. But if they find that consistency, they’re a big-time Super Bowl threat.

7 – Arizona Cardinals – The Super Bowl loser hangover has been well documented over the years, and often these runners-up finish well out of the playoffs. That could happen to the Cardinals, but on paper this team is good enough to win the NFC West again to get into the postseason. The biggest questions are attitude and coaching, because both coordinators, Todd Haley and Clancy Pendergast, are gone.  The offense remains dangerous with QB Kurt Warner and stud WRs Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald. The addition of rookie RB Beanie Wells will help bring a little more balance to the offense as well, and with Russ Grimm as the run-game coordinator, the ground game could become a bit more featured. The offensive line is good enough to keep the offense running smoothly. While the Cardinals’ offensive power gets a lot of attention, the defense is full of playmakers too. DT Darnell Dockett is a disruptive force, and Arizona hopes and believes that DE Calais Campbell will be the same kind of force this season. At linebacker, Karlos Dansby is a terrific player, and in the secondary S Adrian Wilson is among the best in the league. Even more, CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie can join the ranks of top-flight playmakers this year after a strong rookie campaign. This is a talented team, especially on defense. The question is whether Arizona can play up to its potential as it finally did in the NFC playoffs last year. The hunch here is that Ken Whisenhunt is a strong enough coach to keep the Cardinals playing reasonably well.

7 (con’t) – Baltimore Ravens – The Ravens aren’t the flashiest team, but they are a tough, physical team that is a pain to play and a tough out. In that way, they fit the personality of coach John Harbaugh. It all starts on defense, where the Ravens have several truly blue-chip players. DE Haloti Ngata is among the league’s best front-line players; Terrell Suggs is one of the best pass rushers; Ray Lewis is still a huge presence at middle linebacker; and Ed Reed is the class of the league at safety. It’s remarkable that they have such premiere players at each level of the defense, and that starpower shows game after game. Offensively, the Ravens have a smashmouth offensive line, although the tradeout of Matt Birk for Jason Brown at center is a bit of a downgrade. The running game is dangerous with Le’Ron McClain, Ray Rice, and vet Willis McGahee. The question is the passing game with second-year QB Joe Flacco. Flacco’s targets feature veterans Derrick Mason and Todd Heap, both of whom have been so banged up that they’ve lost their explosiveness, and youngsters like Mark Clayton and Demetrius Williams who have talent and show flashes but aren’t consistent. Unless Flacco takes a sizable leap forward this year, the passing game will end up being what holds the Ravens back from being a division winner and major Super Bowl contender. Still, this is a team no one wants to play.

7 (con’t) – Green Bay Packers – Last year, the Packers had a great offense and an abysmal defense. That’s why they’re moving from a 4-3 scheme to a 3-4 plan. That kind of transition normally takes a couple of years to make fully because the personnel a team needs in the front 7 to make the switch takes a while to accumulate. But the Packers have done a better job than most teams of piling up that talent to make the switch more quickly. Rookie DE B.J. Raji and OLB Clay Matthews fit the scheme well, as well as holdovers NT Ryan Pickett and LB Nick Barnett. The questions are DE turned OLB Aaron Kampman, who must prove he can generate pass rush from a two-point stance, and LB A.J. Hawk, who hasn’t really lived up to his top-5 draft position yet. But the front seven is in good shape with the potential to be in great shape, which measn the team can take a big step forward. The secondary features veteran CBs Charles Woodson and Al Harris, who played OK last year but must pick it up for the defense to truly shine. On offense, the Packers do shine, thanks to the rapid development of Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers has the luxury of throwing to a deep WR corps led by Greg Jennings and veteran Donald Driver, and RB Ryan Grant is good enough to keep defenses from pinning their ears back on the rush. The offensive line is not outstanding, but it did well enough for Rodgers last year. All in all, this is a talented team that could usurp the Vikings in the NFC Central after last year’s 6-10 debacle.

7 (con’t) – Minnesota Vikings – All the news in the offseason for the Vikings has been about Brett Favre, which is understandable but ironic because Favre is probably the weak link for the Vikings team. The question is whether the weak link will break and kill the entire chain. Favre fell apart at the end of last year, and his penchant for turnovers won’t overcome the biggest problem that Tarvaris Jackson had last year. Favre is just as likely to throw the killer pick as Jackson, and he’s more likely to break down because he can’t escape like Jackson can. Jackson is a promising prospect who is now lost to the Vikings emotionally, and that’s a killer. So Favre must play well, or else the Vikings have set themselves back 3-5 years. Brad Childress is all in with Favre, and that’s not a position I would like to be in. The move is a shame, because the Vikes are loaded everywhere else on the field. On offense, RB Adrian Peterson is probably the league’s best, and Chester Taylor is a wonderful complement. WR Bernard Berrian had a fine year as a deep threat in his first year in Minny, and Sidney Rice and Visanthe Shiancoe are decent targets as well. Even better, the offensive line is full of road-graders like Steve Hutchinson, still the best guard in the league, Bryant McKinnie, and rookie Phil Loadholt. Defensively, the Vikes star DE Jared Allen, who can play the run well and generate pass rush, and space-filling DTs Pat Williams and Kevin Williams. Kevin is the more likely Williams to get penetration and blow up plays. LBs E.J. Henderson and Chad Greenway are improving as players, and Minnesota has one of the better unsung corners in Antoine Winfield. This is a deep, talented team that would reach the 8 level with Jackson as the starting QB and could be a 9 with a top-8 quarterback. But Favre will cost the Vikings a game or two, and that will be enough to let the Packers or perhaps the Bears sneak past them in the standings. That means their all-in move will end up going bust.

6 – Carolina Panthers – For most of the regular season last year, the Panthers were a level-9 team and one of the best four squads in the league. But they melted down in a home playoff game vs. Arizona, in large part because Jake Delhomme turned the ball over five times. But the Panthers didn’t make many upgrades in the offseason because their salary cap was strapped by Julius Peppers’ franchise tag. The Panthers kept Peppers, at least for one more year, which means they’re all-in with him kind of like the Vikings are with Brett Favre. The gamble has a better chance of paying off in Carolina, because Peppers is still a Pro Bowl-level player. He bounced back from an absentee ’07 season with 14.5 sacks last year, and his pass-rush ability is what gives a solid defense claws. The Panthers lost space-eating DT Maake Kemeoatu to a training-camp injury, which could inhibit Damione Lewis’ underrated ability to get in the backfield. That could also make it harder for MLB Jon Beason to roam and make plays. Still, the Panthers have front-7 playmakers, and the secondary is strong with CBs Chris Gamble (coming off a sterling season) and Richard Marshall. The Panthers’ offense is a running-game clinic. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart are the beneficiaries, but the real credit goes to a monstrous offensive line starring OTs Jordan Gross and Jeff Otah, OG Travelle Wharton, and C Ryan Kalil. There aren’t a lot of weak links in that group. The passing game runs hot and cold because Delhomme does, but it can also fling it to Steve Smith and hope for the best because Smith makes so many plays. This is a star-studded team that could be held back by Delhomme, but if he plays OK they’ll be a playoff contender. Atlanta is the NFC South favorite, but the Panthers remain a threat.

6 (con’t) – Dallas Cowboys– It’s unusual that the Cowboys have been overshadowed this offseason, although they created that shadow with Jerry Jones’ massive video board. Regardless, this is a team that hasn’t gotten much attention, but it still has much of the talent that Bill Parcells accumulated while he was there. That shows most on defense, where OLB DeMarcus Ware, perhaps the best pass-rusher in the league, and emerging NT Jay Ratliff lead a quality front seven. It would help if OLB Anthony Spencer, like Ware a former first-round pick, steps up to take some pressure off of Ware, who had 20 sacks last year. The secondary has had problems, although CB Terence Newman is a good player. The questions for the Cowboys are on offense. Now that Terrell Owens is gone, Dallas needs Roy Williams to emerge as a big-time receiver. The trade Dallas made for Williams paid for him at that level, and if he doesn’t deliver, the passing game will be a struggle for QB Tony Romo. But if Williams does step up, he and TE Jason Witten can be a dynamic receiving duo. The running game has capable legs in Marion Barber and second-year men Felix Jones and Tashard Choice. But the offensive line, which is huge and aging, needs to return to its form of a couple of years ago. This means you, Flozell Adams and Leonard Davis. The Cowboys have talent and can be a playoff team once again, but there are a lot of ifs that have to come through for that to happen, especially in the loaded NFC East.

6 (con’t) – Indianapolis Colts – No team has been more consistent this decade than the Indianapolis Colts. They’ve won 12 games in each of the last six seasons, earning one Lombardi trophy in the process. But it’s a pipe dream to think that this team will continue its impressive 12-win streak in 2009. In fact, we’re making the outlandish prediction that the Colts won’t even win 10 games this year. Among the reasons why: The loss of head coach Tony Dungy will hurt, in part because Jim Caldwell isn’t good enough to keep the Colts’ stampede going. He’s a failed college coach, and we’ve researched and determined that this kind of hire very rarely works for NFL teams. Marvin Harrison is gone, and while he was declining, his absence, combined with the offseason turmoil surrounding coordinator Tom Moore and OL coach Howard Mudd, means that the offense won’t be quite the machine that it has traditionally been. QB Peyton Manning was good enough to overcome that last year, when he willed the Colts to 12 wins after a rough start, but it’s hard to see him overcoming even more obstacles with a similar level of success this year. The bigger problems are on defense, where S Bob Sanders is hurt (again) and where the new head coach canned coordinator Ron Meeks in an effort to get a more aggressive defense. That approach doesn’t fit the personnel well, which means that that Colts could be even more vulnerable on defense than they have been in recent years. Indy is still a winning team, but they’re not as good as the Titans in their division, and they’ll face challenges from the Texans and Jaguars as well. This season will mark the end of an era for the Colts.

6 (con’t) – Miami Dolphins – The Dolphins catapulted from 1-15 to 11-5 last year, and now the test is to see if they can stay at that level of performance. Given the talent on the roster, that seems unlikely. Miami is full of good but not great players, and they must play at or over the heads again next year if Miami is to make the playoffs again. Chad Pennington is the perfect quarterback for Miami’s style of play, because he makes the right decision and then executes well. He doesn’t have name targets, although Greg Camarillo and Davone Bess have shown talent. It would really help if the Dolphins got some big plays out of former first-round pick Ted Ginn Jr., who has great speed but inconsistent production. The running game features Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams, and we may eventually see Pat White running out of the Wildcat offense Miami sprung on the league last year. Miami sought to get bigger and better on the offensive line, signing Jake Grove to play center to join huge tackles Jake Long and Vernon Carey. On defense, the Dolphins created a pass rush thanks to Joey Porter’s renaissance year at outside ‘backer. It’s hard to see vets like Porter and NT Jason Ferguson as top NFL players for much longer, but they were standouts last year. Instead, the Dolphins will need youngsters like DE Philip Merling, safeties Yeremiah Bell and Gibril Wilson, and rookie CB Vontae Davis to infuse the defense with impact in order to stay at the same level. It’s only reasonable to expect a step back from the Dolphins last year, but this team is well-coached enough by Tony Sparano and his staff and well-managed enough by Parcells to make that half step and still stay in playoff contention.

6 (con’t) – New Orleans Saints – It is the best of times, it is the worst of times in New Orleans. (Sorry that’s a Dickens reference and not a New Orleans reference; I’ll try to do better.) Sean Payton’s offense is outstanding, led by QB Drew Brees, who is making his case to join Tom Brady and Peyton Manning in the group of the best signal-callers in the league right now. Brees nearly broke Dan Marino’s record for passing yards last year, and he should be lethal again this year. He has a deep stable of targets led by Marques Colston outside and Reggie Bush and Lance Moore inside, and there are enough other options that Brees always has an open guy to throw to. The running game lost stalwart Deuce McAllister but still has Pierre Thomas, who is a rising star, as the main back with Bush as a change-of-pace threat. The line is solid, although OLT Jammal Brown needs to bounce back from his training-camp injury to keep things moving at full effectiveness. While the offense is a galaxy of stars, the defense too often looks like a Confederacy of Dunces. (There’s your Nola literary reference!) The defense was gashed over and over again last year, and that’s what forced the Saints into last place in the competitive NFC South. New coordinator Gregg Williams is known for his attacking style (he’s from the Jeff Fisher/Buddy Ryan school of defense), but does he have the pieces? The defensive line has talent in Will Smith and Charles Grant, but they don’t produce nearly often enough. The return of second-year DT Sedrick Ellis from injury should help. At linebacker, Jonathan Vilma must prove that he’s more than just a tackler, and in the secondary the Saints hope the additions of CBs Jabari Greer (free agency) and Malcolm Jenkins (first round) help stabilize what has been a subpar unit. The offense is good enough that even a slight swing up in defensive performance could make the Saints the sixth worst-to-first team in the NFC South in the last nine years, but counting on this collection to deliver is risky. So for now, we’ll count the Saints among the fringe playoff contenders who have a reasonable hope to go 9-7.

5 – Chicago Bears – In Chicago, it’s all Jay Cutler, all the time, because the Bears are so psyched about having a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback for the first time since the Super Bowl Shuffle. Cutler has a great arm and a prickly personality, but he definitely is an upgrade for the Bears. The question is who he’s going to throw the ball to, and the answer should be tight end Greg Olsen. Olsen, who had  54 catches and five touchdowns last year, is the most potent of the Bears’ solid cadre of supplemental receivers. RB Matt Forte, who’s great carrying the ball, is also a big threat as a receiver, and TE Desmond Clark is solid both blocking and receiving. But Cutler doesn’t have great outside receivers. Devin Hester is dangerous when he gets his hands on the ball, but he’s not a natural receiver. Earl Bennett, Cutler’s college teammate at Vanderbilt, didn’t have a single catch in his rookie season. So Cutler will have to spread the ball around instead of relying on studs like Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal as he did in Denver. The Bears’ offensive line is OK blocking for Forte and the run game, but changes at tackle mean an aging Orlando Pace and an unproven Chris Williams (like Cutler a first-rounder from Vandy) will have to deliver time for Cutler to throw. On defense, the Bears have a great reputation based on great history, but there are questions. DT Tommie Harris, the disruptive engine that makes everything go, is battling knee injuries and probably won’t be 100 percent at all this year. The question becomes whether he can make plays in his current state. DE Alex Brown is a good pass rusher, but other options like Adewale Ogunleye and Mark Anderson can help him. At linebacker, Brian Urlacher’s performance is slipping from its peak, but not so rapidly that he can’t be an asset. Lance Briggs is probably the bigger playmaker in that unit. The real questions the Bears face on defense are in the secondary, where CB Nathan Vasher has really slipped and CB Charles Tillman is hurt. If the Bears don’t find stability there, Cutler will have to be a shootout machine even more than he was in Denver last year. The Bears went 9-7 last year, which was probably an overachievement, but even with Cutler they’ll need to answer a lot of questions to have a winning record again. A .500 mark seems more likely.

5 (con’t) – Cincinnati Bengals – It’s the same old story for the Bengals this year. Yes, they have talent. But they also have character problems. Usually, the character problems win. But there were signs of life for Cincy at the end of last year, as the Bungles started 0-8 but finished 4-3-1. The biggest sign of life now is the return of QB Carson Palmer, who is still an upper-echelon guy in the NFL. When he went out last year with a shoulder injury, the Bengals fell apart because backup Ryan Fitzpatrick just wasn’t good enough. Now Palmer is healthy, and he’s aiming for holdovers Chad Ochocinco and Chris Henry and newcomers Laveranues Coles and TE Chase Coffman. That’s a strong group despite the loss of T.J. Houshmandzadeh, especially if Henry (usually a troublemaker) is as focused and determined as he appeared to be in the preseason. The Bengals’ running game should be better with a full season from Cedric Benson, who found a good fit in Cincy after busting out in Chicago. The offensive line is a pretty tough unit, but there are questions, especially since rookie ORT Andre Smith held out so long. Defensively, the Bengals made progress last year. Domata Peko is an underrated defensive tackle, and the linebacker corps is getting younger and better with second-year man Keith Rivers and rookie Rey Maualuga. The Bengals also have promising corners in Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall, and they brought in S Roy Williams from Dallas, who can still be a big hitter as long as they don’t ask him to do much in pass coverage. There’s talent here,  and head coach Marvin Lewis had won at least seven games every year until last season. That decline can be largely attributed to Palmer’s absence, and that makes a return to respectability possible. The playoffs are still a long shot, because it’s hard to imagine Cincy passing Baltimore and Pittsburgh in the AFC North, but a .500 record is a goal that can be reached.

5 (con’t) – Houston Texans – The Texans, in some quarters, are a trendy pick to make the jump. It’s easy to see why that pick is trendy. The offense is loaded with playmakers, starting with WR Andre Johnson, who can make an argument for being the best receiver in the league. He’s not alone, though, because WR Kevin Walter, TE Owen Daniels, and RB Steve Slaton are all dangerous when they get the ball in their hands, and they all get the ball in their hands often. The triggerman is Matt Schaub, who is an above-average quarterback when he stays healthy. That just hasn’t happened often enough, as Schaub has missed five games in each of the past two seasons. His backup, likely Rex Grossman, is a Jekyll-and-Hyde performer who won’t match Schaub’s productivity often enough. It would help if the Texans’ offensive line continued to develop, because that unit is still a question mark. On defense, Houston has spent a ton of high picks with mixed results. Former No. 1 overall pick Mario Williams has turned into an elite defensive end, and he could surpass his 12-sack total from last year if free-agent signee Antonio Smith can draw some coverage. But DT Amobi Okoye followed up a good rookie season with a so-so sophomore one, and fellow former first-rounder Travis Johnson was so disappointing he was dealt to San Diego. Still, there’s some havoc-wreaking potential up front. At linebacker, rookie Brian Cushing could provide playmaking ability to supplement what tackle-machine MLB DeMeco Ryans can do. In the secondary, Houston has an unsung corner in Fred Bennett and a hyped corner in Dunta Robinson, whose feast or famine tendencies could be even more pronounced after he held out the entire preseason. There’s a lot of flashy talent on this team, but they haven’t been able to put it together to get past 8-8 in their franchise history. The guess here is that something – a Schaub injury or something else – will come up to keep them from jumping that hurdle again in ’09.

5 (con’t) – Jacksonville Jaguars – Usually a contender, the Jaguars fell apart last year, in large part because of widespread offensive line issues. So it makes sense that Jacksonville made offensive line priority No. 1 in the offseason by signing longtime Eagles OT Tra Thomas and then drafting Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton in the first two rounds. There’s now a lot more depth on that unit, which should translate to more offensive production. David Garrard is a solid quarterback, though he’s yet to show that he can stand out from the rest of the NFL pack at that position. And RB Maurice Jones-Drew is a pinball-shaped dynamo who has produced both as a runner and a receiver. It will be interesting to see if Jones-Drew can maintain his big-play potential now that he’s more of a featured back instead of a complement to the departed Fred Taylor. Along with remaking the offensive line, the Jags also redid their entire WR corps, with Torry Holt coming over to provide veteran wile and production and youngsters like Mike Sims-Walker, Jarrett Dillard, and Mike Thomas to fill out the unit. It would help if TE Marcedes Lewis continues to develop and if Troy Williamson finally lives up to the potential he showed as a first-round pick back in Minnesota. On defense, the Jags lost some of their identity by letting Marcus Stroud go to Buffalo in ’08. Stroud’s former running mate, John Henderson, has shown inconsistent production and a spotty work ethic that keeps him from being an impact player. Young DEs Derrick Harvey and Quentin Groves didn’t make a splash as rookies, and the Jaguars need them to take two or three steps up this year to make the front seven scary. At least Jacksonville has a top-flight corner in Rashean Mathis, who is probably the best corner you’ve never heard of. S Reggie Nelson is a playmaker too. While the Jags can’t possibly have the injury issues they had last year, there are still too many questions in too many places to consider them a real threat to contend with Tennessee or even Indy and Houston in the south. Given the strength of their division, Jack Del Rio’s crew is in a battle just to avoid being in last place again. They may win a few rounds of that fight, but they’re not getting past the .500 mark.

5 (con’t) – San Francisco 49ers – Last year, the 49ers started 2-7, changed head coaches by installing Mike Singletary, and then surged to a 5-2 finish. Singletary knows what kind of team he wants – a smashmouth, run-first unit on offense and an attacking crew on defense. The question for this team isn’t style but personnel. Shaun Hill is effective at quarterback, but he’s not a standout. The receivers, led by vet Isaac Bruce and holdover Josh Morgan, are nothing special. TE Vernon Davis, though he showed signs of getting it at the end of last season, still hasn’t come close to living up to his top-10 draft status. And Frank Gore, a solid runner, is sometimes too injury prone to last. Still, given the talent on offense, a run game featuring Gore and perhaps rookie Glen Coffee is the best approach, and Singletary wants to play that style, so at least that’s a fit. The offensive line has no monster talents, but it will be tough and physical, which is a start. On defense, the Niners really have only one standout – MLB Patrick Willis, who can make plays sideline to sideline and will make virtually every tackle in between. It remains to be seen, though, if this defense can move from being tough to being dangerous on the pass rush. Former first-round pick Manny Lawson is the most likely candidate to lead such a transition, but that’s far from a sure thing. The Niners suffered a big loss when CB Walt Harris suffered a season-ending injury in minicamps, but Nate Clements is still an above-average corner, and vet Dre Bly could help. The 49ers have attitude and hope, but the talent level isn’t there for a major run. If the NFC West is won at 9-7 again, the 49ers could be in the picture, but if Arizona steps forward, San Fran doesn’t have long enough legs to keep up. A .500 record is a far more likely outcome.

4 – Buffalo Bills – The Bills, perhaps sensing that they were irrelevant, signed Terrell Owens in the offseason to a one-year deal. As a one-year gamble, it makes sense, but if you believe that T.O. is enough to put the Bills over the top, you’re fooling yourself. While the Bills have some good players, there are far too many holes for this team to contend against a powerhouse like New England or even a solid squad like Miami. Owens and Lee Evans make a dynamic receiver duo, and Josh Reed and Roscoe Parrish provide great depth at the position. But Trent Edwards has yet to show that he’s a big-time quarterback who can get the ball to all those targets, and even if he’s capable the offensive line is just too young (starting rookie OGs Eric Wood and Andy Levitre) to provide consistent protection. The run game with Marshawn Lynch is OK, or maybe even a little above average, but Lynch must sit out the first three games of the season. The fact that the Bills canned coordinator Turk Schonert just before the season shows that they still haven’t settled on what they want their offensive identity to be. On defense, the Bills need DEs Aaron Schobel and Chris Kelsay to live up to the pass-rush potential they’ve shown at times but not consistently. Rookie Aaron Maybin can be part of the solution there, but he’s not big enough to be play a heavy load of snaps. LB Paul Pozluszny is a quality player, but he’s not going to provide juice at that position. One thing the Bills do have is good corners in Terrence McGee and Leodis McKelvin. If the D can get pass rush pressure, those corners can take advantage, and they’re extremely dangerous on returns. The Bills are a weird team in that they have good pieces on some levels and very few pieces on others, and that’s going to lead to inconsistency that will ultimately doom their playoff hopes – or even their dreams of a .500 record.

4 (con’t) – New York Jets – New head coach Rex Ryan isn’t afraid of the spotlight. He’s challenging opposing players, making bold proclamations, and basically just making himself known. Unlike most new head coaches, he also takes over a team that at 9-7 was competitive last year. But it remains to be seen whether the Jets can match even that moderate level of success with a rookie quarterback, Mark Sanchez. The Jets’ offense will have to rely on the running game, led by the dependable Thomas Jones and the explosive Leon Washington, to carry them. The fact that the offensive line, led by C Nick Mangold and veteran OG Alan Faneca, is of high quality will help. But the Jets really don’t have a lot of receiving threats to help Sanchez – only TE Dustin Keller is a true big-play threat, and only WR Jerricho Cotchery is of starting caliber on the outside. The offense will need the defense to keep them in games. Ryan brought ILB Bart Scott over from Baltimore with him to make sure his scheme and, as importantly, his personality translated to his new setting. He and fellow ILB David Harris make a terrific twosome inside. But the Jets don’t have the pass-rushing studs that Ryan enjoyed with the Ravens. Calvin Pace, who had a solid season last year, will miss the first four games because of suspension, and ’08 first-rounder Vernon Gholston was a ghost as a rookie. NT Kris Jenkins is a massive mound of man in the middle, but he wore down and lost effectiveness as the season wore on. The Jets need to do a better job of giving him breaks, but they don’t really have the depth to be able to do so. In the secondary, the Jets have a playmaker in S Kerry Rhodes and a shutdown corner in Darrelle Revis. There are a lot of good pieces on this team, especially on defense, but the lack of an outside pass rush or an outside passing game will ultimately prove fatal. Ryan should be able to get 6 wins or so easily, but the next three needed for playoff consideration will be beyond the Jets’ reach.

4 (con’t) – Seattle Seahawks – At one point, I had the Seahawks slated to bounce back from last year’s 4-12 debacle and win the NFC West. But the signs in training camp haven’t been good, and the offensive line has been hit by injuries significant enough to make a rebound far more improbable. New head coach Jim Mora gets QB Matt Hasselbeck back to begin the season which is good; without Hasselbeck, the Seahawks aren’t going anywhere. But with him, their version of the West Coast offense can be potent enough. Last year, the Seahawks went through so many wide receivers that the offense never had a chance to develop rhythm or thrive. By adding reliable WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh, the Seahawks got a No. 1 receiver who can take the pressure off their complementary players. The best of those complements is TE John Carlson, who was a pleasant surprise as a rookie. Seattle’s running game won’t scare anyone with vets Julius Jones and Edgerrin James, but at least both players can catch the ball out of the backfield. Up front, both OLT Walter Jones and C Chris Spencer suffered training-camp injury setbacks that will sideline them to begin the season. That’s a huge problem that could really inhibit the offense early. Defensively, the Seahawks have a solid pass-rusher in Patrick Kearney, but he doesn’t have much help up front. Free-agent Colin Cole was a nice addition, but he can’t make up for the departure of Rocky Bernard. The Seahawks have invested heavily at linebacker with first-rounder Aaron Curry, Leroy Hill, and Lofa Tatupu, and while that group is good vs. the pass and the run, they’re going to have to force some turnovers and get some sacks for this defense to work. Losing CB Marcus Trufant for at least the first six games of the season is another injury issue for the Seahawks to overcome. At his best, he’s a premium cover corner, but injuries kept him from being at his best last year as well as this one. In a best-case scenario, you could see Seattle making a playoff run, but injuries have already taken that scenario off the table. Instead, the likely scenario is a third-place finish in the NFC West.

4 (con’t) – Washington Redskins – In a tough division, the Redskins are falling behind. Offensively, QB Jason Campbell just hasn’t progressed enough to be the franchise’s standard-bearer. He will finally get to play a second season under the same offensive coordinator this year, but the Redskins have so little faith in him that his leash is incredibly short. He doesn’t exactly have wonderful targets to help him. Santana Moss is a good but not great receiver, and Chris Cooley is just a hair below Pro Bowl level at tight end. Young receivers like Malcolm Kelly or Devin Thomas would help, but they’re not emerging at this point. The run game is strong with Clinton Portis, but he’s one of those backs with so many carries in his back pocket that you wonder how much longer it will be until he begins to slip. The offensive line is already slipping, with players like OLT Chris Samuels beginning to show their age. Defensively, the Redskins need pass rush. Rookie Brian Orakpo is the most likely person to provide that rush outside, and high-dollar DT Albert Haynesworth can do the same inside. If they both become playmakers, then the Redskins D will have sharper teeth than in years past. MLB London Fletcher is still an effective clean-up ‘backer, and safeties LaRon Landry and Chris Horton are a young duo that is an asset as well. Plus, CB DeAngelo Hall played well after his complete failure of a tenure in Oakland, and Carlos Rogers has come around too. There are a lot of nice pieces in place in Washington, but many of the ones on offense are getting old just as the pieces on defense are coming on. If the planets align, it’ll work, even in a tough division. But the odds of the planets aligning are just too slim to count on much – in large part because Planet Campbell is so far in outer orbit that he won’t come around quickly enough.

3 – Cleveland Browns – The Dawg Pound had better hope new coach Eric Mangini knows what he’s doing, because his “reclamation” project looks more like razing the foundation. Kellen Winslow is gone, WR Braylon Edwards and DE Corey Williams are rumored to be next, and Mangini seems to believe that keeping his starting quarterback a secret is a good idea. Whether it’s Derek Anderson or Brady Quinn starts,  he’s going to wish he had better targets. Edwards is talented but inconsistent catching the ball, and aside from Josh Cribbs there’s little big-play ability. Jamal Lewis is a workhorse running back who is becoming more of a plowhorse by the carry, but at least rookie James Davis shows promise. The Browns do have a building block in OLT Joe Thomas, and they dealt out of a top-5 draft position to take C Alex Mack, who could develop into a solid guy too. Of course, Mangini will have to start Mack for that to happen, but the Mangenius is too smart for that. On defense, Shaun Rogers is one of the top 3-4 nose tackles in the league, but Williams struggled to move from a 4-3 tackle to a 3-4 end. Former first-round pick Kamerion Wimbley has shown pass-rush potential from the OLB spot in the past, but last year he disappointed. One player who didn’t disappoint was ILB D’Qwell Jackson, who established himself as a tackling machine. In the secondary, Mangini is counting on Abram Elam, who came over in the draft-day dealing but who never could establish himself as a full-time starter with the Jets. The Browns have a few premium players, but not enough, and Mangini’s insistence on having things his way will lead to a step back before it leads to any steps forward.

3 (con’t) – Kansas City Chiefs – There are teams that are bad, and there are teams that are bad with a plan. The Chiefs are bad, but they have a plan that should pay off – just not this year. New GM Scott Pioli and new coach Todd Haley brought in QB Matt Cassel to run the offense going forward, and if Cassel can approach the ability he showed in New England last year, that will be a good move. Cassel has one stud receiver in Dwayne Bowe, and Mark Bradley showed his potential more frequently last year than he had in the past. Vet Bobby Engram provides stability to help the offense keep moving in the short term. The run game still revolves around Larry Johnson, who actually had decent stats when he played last year. He’s still an above-average NFL back. Haley knows what he wants his offense to look like, so much so that he canned coordinator Chan Gailey just before the system to make sure that the offense is structured his way. The Chiefs are still looking for OL help and depth, but they do have a cornerstone in OLT Branden Albert. On defense, the Chiefs are moving to a 3-4, and we can expect them to go through the normal growing pains. First-rounder Tyson Jackson must settle in as a keystone defensive end, like Richard Seymour used to be, in order to make the front line work. Glenn Dorsey, a top-5 pick two years ago, doesn’t really fit this system, and so he might end up being moved for cents on the dollar. The Chiefs brought in Mike Vrabel from New England to help make the transition and hopefully to help OLB Tamba Hali, the team’s best pass rusher, adjust to the new system. Hali and Jackson are the key pieces up front; their fates will largely determine the fate of the defense. The Chiefs don’t have enough premium players to compete — only Bowe, Albert, Hali, and maybe Jackson and Cassel fit that bill – but they should be better this year. And if Pioli and Haley can upgrade the talent level going into next year, this team could start to take a leap.

3 (con’t) – St. Louis Rams – When I first started the preview process, I pegged the Rams as the worst team in the league. But the more I thought and prepared, the more I realized that there is hope in St. Louis. That hope is mostly because Steve Spagnuolo comes to a team that has some defensive building blocks in place. DE Chris Long had just four sacks in his rookie season, but he should become a solid run-stopping defensive end with pass rush potential. (Think of Justin Smith or Philip Daniels at their best.) Rookie linebacker James Laurinaitis steps into the middle to provide stability and solid tackling, and that should free OLB Will Witherspoon to roam and make more plays like he used to in Carolina. And the secondary has unknown but quality players in CB Ron Bartell and S O.J. Atogwe. This is a defense on the rise. The problem is offensively, where neither QB Marc Bulger nor RB Steven Jackson has been able to stay healthy enough to produce. While Jackson is a good bet to bounce back, it’s likely Bulger’s best days are over. What won’t help Bulger is the fact that his best receivers are an over-the-hill TE Randy McMichael and under-the-hill WRs Donnie Avery and Laurent Robinson. Avery needs to emerge as a true No. 1 guy for the Rams offense to click, and while he has the potential to do so, it may still be a year early for that. What will help Bulger, who has been battered as much as any NFL quarterback in recent years, is the addition of rookie OT Jason Smith. The Rams are starting Smith on the right side but need to move him to the left tackle spot ASAP instead of trying to salvage former first-rounder Alex Barron who has proven he can’t do that job. The Rams will be better than last year’s 2-win team, but ultimately Bulger will cost them the chance to leap ahead into playoff contention. Still, five or six wins would show Rams fans that the hope they want really is there.

2 – Denver Broncos – Josh McDaniels is a good offensive mind, but so far he’s shown he doesn’t have the skills to be a head coach. He doesn’t deal with his players well, and he doesn’t seem to have the willingness and/or the ability to adjust his precious “system” to the realities of his roster. So Jay Cutler is gone and Brandon Marshall is very unhappy, leaving the Broncos without their two most impactful players from ’08. Without that impact, there’s little hope in Denver this year. Cutler’s replacement, Kyle Orton, is a competent NFL quarterback, but he has yet to show that he’s better than that. He has one terrific slot-type receiver in Eddie Royal (think Wes Welker from the scheme McDaniels coordinated in New England), and if Marshall is willing to play, he’ll be a great asset outside. The depth at receiver is spotty, although TE Tony Scheffler (who was in McDaniels’ doghouse early) is a really good weapon in the passing game. Denver’s running game will revolve mainly around rookie Knowshon Moreno, who has loads of potential. Denver does have a strong offensive line, with OLT Ryan Clady back after a sterline rookie season. ORG Chris Kuper and ORT Ryan Harris are quite good as well. So there is hope on offense, even with the passing game changes. The problems are on defense, where the Broncos are trying to install a 3-4 scheme that they don’t yet have the personnel for. Rookie Robert Ayers fits into the OLB role on one side, and free-agent Ronald Fields fits as a nose tackle. But the other main contributors from last year – Elvis Dumervil and D.J. Williams – have to prove they can fit this scheme. And unless they can, the defense will be average at best. Denver also reworked the secondary around Champ Bailey, signing veteran safeties Brian Dawkins and Renaldo Hill and CB Andre Goodman. There’s just been too much upheaval in Denver this year for me to feel good about what the Broncos are doing, and this team could easily bottom out this year. McDaniels’ people skills, not his football skills, will be tested severely, and we’ll have to see how he responds to a test it appears he didn’t expect when he took the job.

2 (con’t) – Detroit Lions – After an 0-16 debacle, the Lions are trying to remake everything. I believe they’ve gotten the right guy at the helm to do it. Jim Schwartz is a tough yet progressive coach who assimilates as much info as he can to make a decision. That’s a crucial quality as the Lions turn over a huge percentage of their roster. QB Matthew Stafford will start out of the gate as a rookie, and while he will struggle, he has a big arm and a bigger security blanket in all-league receiver Calvin Johnson. The Lions have worked on acquiring receiver depth this offseason to help Stafford, and they drafted rookie TE Brandon Pettigrew as well to help the cause. The running game features Kevin Smith, who had an OK season as a rookie and who still has the potential to flourish in better surroundings. Detroit’s offensive line still needs work; the good players are old, and the young players aren’t good yet. That’s not a good combo. Defensively, the Lions added vets like LBs Julian Peterson and Larry Foote and CBs Anthony Henry and Philip Buchanon to help stabilize a unit that was awful last year. None of those guys (except for maybe Peterson) can still be a good playmaker, but they won’t blow assignments like the Lions did so often last year. Rookies FS Louis Delmas and DT Sammie Hill will start and try to start a youth movement. Detroit still has a long way to go, but they’ll be better this year and a little more competitive. Even a three- or four-win season would be a step in the right direction, and more wins than that could be cause for celebration. Don’t count on celebration, but this ship is finally pointed in the right direction.

1 – Oakland Raiders – The Raiders’ dysfunction has been evident all offseason. To wit: the last-second trade for DE Richard Seymour; signing guys like Jeff Garcia and Terdell Sands and then cutting them before the season; and of course the reputed game of Tom Cable’s Punchout in a coaches meeting. (We’re not saying Cable punched a guy; we’re saying some people said he did.)  Hey, at least they didn’t fire their offensive coordinator during training camp. (Oh wait; they don’t really have one.) You can say a lot about the way the Raiders are run off the field, but let’s look at what Oakland has on the field. They do have a great stable of running backs with Darren McFadden, Justin Fargas, and Michael Bush. They do have a young quarterback in JaMarcus Russell who still has promise that he could grow into. They do have an underrated young tight end in Zach Miller. They do have the best cornerback in the league in Nnamdi Asomugha. They have a terrific young linebacker in Kirk Morrison. So there are pieces in place. But the Raiders don’t have proven wide receivers, especially with Chaz Schilens sidelined as the season starts. They don’t have a great offensive line, which mitigates the impact of the running game and makes Russell’s development difficult. The Raiders don’t have an impactful front four on defense, unless Seymour and Greg Ellis find a fountain of youth. They don’t have great depth anywhere. This roster has a few nice pieces, but there’s simply not enough quality in enough places for them to compete regularly. That’s poor front-office planning. So while the Raiders may jump up and win a game or two you don’t expect them to during the year, they’re going to be among the most hopeless teams out there on a week-to-week basis.

1 (con’t) – Tampa Bay Buccaneers – It’s a bad year to be a pirate in the NFL, because the Raiders and the Buccaneers begin the season on the lowermost level of our comparison. The Bucs unloaded stalwarts like Derrick Brooks, Kevin Carter, Warrick Dunn, and Ike Hilliard, instituting a new era under new head coach Raheem Morris. The beginning of the era is going to be very bumpy. Byron Leftwich is the starter at quarterback, but his slow delivery is going to get him, a receiver, the offensive line, or all three killed. He’s simply not good enough, but he’s a good guy who can be a place-holder until Josh Freeman is ready midseason. The running game features a returning Cadillac Williams (is he healthy?), import Derrick Ward, and holdover Earnest Graham. Leftwich is throwing to Antonio Bryant, who had a breakout year last year in his return from utter NFL obscurity, and new tight end Kellen Winslow. These are guys who have been good but who aren’t dependable in the least. The offensive line is OK but not great, although OLT Donald Penn is a prospect to watch. The fact that offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodinski was jettisoned just before the season isn’t a good sign that all these pieces are coming together on offense. On defense is where the Bucs’ makeover is going to take time. The only front seven guy who is a building block for sure is MLB Barrett Ruud, although DE Gaines Adams has shown potential. In the secondary, safety Tanard Jackson is suspended for the first four games, but he and Aqib Talib are supposed to be the guys who take over a unit that has been Ronde Barber’s for years. The Bucs simply haven’t replaced the talent they got rid of in the offseason, which means that they’re going to struggle this year. The fact that Leftwich just isn’t good enough will make those struggles more pronounced, to the point that the Bucs could be the worst team in the league. Morris may be the guy for the future, but his beginning right now isn’t going to be pretty.

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The parachute team of 2009

We’ve posted our latest blog over on Most Valuable Network’s Football Wire. We’re identifying the parachute team of 2009, which is the team on the way down. Check it out via archive from our MVN blog below and look for our full Football Relativity season preview next week.

As we prepare for the NFL season, the Football Relativity team is going to give you our take on two of the major movers in the NFL standings this year. In this post, we’ll look at the parachute team of 2009 – the team that’s going to fall the furthest. Then next week, we’ll give you a look at the jet pack team of 2009 – the team that’s going to rise the most. Of course, you can get a full season preview in the preseason poll coming to www.footballrelativity.com next week.

No team has been more consistent this decade than the Indianapolis Colts. They’ve won 12 games in each of the last six seasons, earning one Lombardi trophy in the process. But it’s a pipe dream to think that this team will continue its impressive 12-win streak in 2009. In fact, we’re making the outlandish prediction that the Colts won’t even win 10 games this year. Among the reasons why: The loss of head coach Tony Dungy will hurt, in part because Jim Caldwell isn’t good enough to keep the Colts’ stampede going. He’s a failed college coach, and we’ve  researched and determined that this kind of hire very rarely works for NFL teams. Marvin Harrison is gone, and while he was declining, his absence, combined with the offseason turmoil surrounding coordinator Tom Moore and OL coach Howard Mudd, means that the offense won’t be quite the machine that it has traditionally been. QB Peyton Manning was good enough to overcome that last year, when he willed the Colts to 12 wins after a rough start, but it’s hard to see him overcoming even more obstacles with a similar level of success this year. The bigger problems are on defense, where S Bob Sanders is hurt (again) and where the new head coach canned coordinator Ron Meeks in an effort to get a more aggressive defense. That approach doesn’t fit the personnel well, which means that that Colts could be even more vulnerable on defense than they have been in recent years. Indy is still a winning team, but they’re not as good as the Titans in their division, and they’ll face challenges from the Texans and Jaguars as well. This season will mark the end of an era for the Colts.

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OP: End of the Lucky Horseshoe

Time for an outlandish prediction, or if you’d rather, a little preja vu…

The future arc of the Indianapolis Colts has been brewing in my mind for a while now, ever since Tony Dungy decided to retire after the 2009 season. And as the offseason has gone on, I’ve become more and more convinced that the horseshoe that has been pointed up for so long in Indy is going to turn downward. I’ve said as much in private email conversations for a while now, and now I’m goin’ public.

To leave the land of the metaphor and say it plainly, here’s the prediction:

The Colts won’t win 10 games this year.

That’s a big deal, because the Colts won at least 10 games in each of the 7 years of Dungy’s tenure (2002-08). In fact, Indy won at least 12 regular season games in each of the last six years.

But that run will come to an end this offseason. And here’s why:

*Jim Caldwell isn’t up to it – We’ve gone into this at great detail here on the site. (You can read here how I compare the Caldwell hiring to others this offseason and read here what I don’t like about Caldwell’s career path.) I lived through the Caldwell experience at Wake Forest when I was a student there, and while he is a very nice man he’s not a good coach. He came to Wake Forest with a Joe Paterno pedigree, and he gets this Colts job with a Tony Dungy pedigree. But a pedigree is not a guarantee. I simply can’t believe in Caldwell as an NFL coach.

*Staff turnover – The Colts apparently hired Caldwell as Dungy’s successor in waiting to preserve staff continuity. But that didn’t work, because the Colts will have new coordinators on offense, defense, and special teams. The offensive coordinator, Tom Moore, retired (along with OL coach Howard Mudd) in fears of losing pension money. Moore and Mudd will remain as consultants, and their replacements – Clyde Christensen as offensive coordinator and Pete Metzelaars as line coach – have been in Indy for 7 and 5 years, respectively. But losing Moore and Mudd cuts the staff’s overall experience, and something will get lost in transition. Even Peyton Manning has questions about how it’s going to work.

On defense, the Colts wanted a more aggressive scheme than Dungy’s patented Tampa 2, and so they encouraged coordinator Ron Meeks to resign. (He landed in Carolina.) That smacks of a new coach’s arrogance in trying to implement his system and his way. The Colts’ defense wasn’t great, but it was OK, and the personnel fit it. But Meeks was replaced by Larry Coyer, who has a reputation of being blitz happy from his previous stops. There’s no way the current personnel – which haven’t been upgraded on defense – can take a huge step forward with the new scheme with the current personnel. Instead, I expect a step back, if not two. And the fact that Coyer and Caldwell used to work together makes me wonder if cronyism, not strategy, prompted the move.

Caldwell also cut special-teams coach Russ Purnell loose. That’s not a big deal, except it’s another sign that Caldwell is trying extremely hard – too hard, in our opinion – to put his own stamp on the team. The team was winning 12 games a year, and a failed college coach wants to put his stamp on it?  That’s just not a good idea.

*The divisions are labor – The Colts have made hay in an AFC South that is traditionally a so-so division. Jacksonville and Tennessee have each been good at times, but rarely at the same time. But Tennessee should be tough this year, and Jacksonville (who always gives the Colts problems) should bounce back. Plus, Houston continues to get incrementally better. It will be hard for the Colts to get to 4 wins in the division. The Colts play the NFC West out of conference, which will help the win ledger, but drawing the entire AFC East plus a road game at Baltimore is no bargain. (Thanks to Andy for starting my thought process on the schedule.)

*Roster rut – If you look at the transactions ledger, the Colts have only added one free agent from another team – backup linebacker Adam Seward. They have lost some key players, including P Hunter Smith, DT Darrell Reid, CB Keiwan Ratliff, and most notably WR Marvin Harrison. The problem is that marginal draft picks will have to replace most of these guys. While that long-term strategy works, in the short term that could lead to some growing pains. And this is a team with too much in flux to afford many growing pains.

All in all, I see the Colts slipping noticably this year – even with Peyton Manning, Bob Sanders, Dwight Freeney, Reggie Wayne, and the other stars there. The personnel depth has always been so-so because the Colts had so many stars, and that will show up negatively especially as the defense attempts to change schemes.

And remember how fortunate the Colts were to get to 12 wins last year. Over the first half of the season, the Colts were 3-4 including two white-knuckles wins over Minnesota and Houston that could have easily gone the other way. The Colts will not be good enough this year to turn those white-knucklers into wins, and the difference will show in the win/loss record. The horseshoe isn’t lucky enough to save the Colts in 2009.

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Filed under outlandish prediction, preja vu

FR: Offseason rumor mill

Per Chase’s request (yet again), and with the help of many (from SC to CO to CA to everyone on this post) we’re going to do a football relativity comparison with the major rumors that have circulated through the NFL this offseason. 10 is the rumor with the most importance AND most substance, while 1 is the rumor with the least importance OR substance. We haven’t addressed every rumor out there this offseason, or every rumor suggested, but we’ve tried to hit the major ones, with a focus on some of the gossip that is still percolating.

10 – Broncos will trade QB Jay Cutler – This rumor ran rampant leading up to the draft, and it ended up being true. The Broncos’ pursuit of Matt Cassel put the team’s new regime at odds with their supposed franchise quarterback, and as both sides dug in, things deteriorated quickly. (Click the link to find out who we blamed for the whole mess.) Before long, owner Pat Bowlen pledged to deal Cutler, and that’s what happened, with Cutler going to Chicago for a King Street ransom. This rumor tops the list because it actually proved to be valid.

9 – Regular season will expand to 17 or 18 games – Commissioner Roger Goodel has expressed his desire to lengthen the season. It makes sense, at least financially. Owners can get full sellouts for an extra home game that will replace a preseason game, and the TV contracts would go up as well. For players, though, money isn’t the only consideration. The cost of two extra games and all those extra snaps could shorten careers, heighten injury risks, and make life more difficult. So this will be an issue in collective bargaining. Extra games could also make international games easier, not only in London and Toronto but also in other locales like Mexico City, China or Japan, Germany, and others. This will be a marquee issue in the upcoming round of CBA negotiations, along with the question of a rookie salary cap and others. We will hear a lot about this over the coming year.

8 – Cardinals will trade WR Anquan Boldin – This is a TBD situation, in part because the Cards really don’t want to trade Boldin and are therefore asking for the moon and a star or two. Boldin wants to be paid like teammate Larry Fitzgerald, who’s pulling down $10 million a year, but Boldin just isn’t quite on that dominant level. Still, Boldin would be a clear-cut No. 1 option for a contender like Tennessee, the Giants, or Philly. A deal seems unlikely now that the draft is over, but Boldin is still holding out hope.

8 (con’t) – Panthers will trade DE Julius Peppers – This is another TBD situation. Peppers, a free agent, was franchised at huge cost by the Panthers, but he’s made it clear that he wants out so that he can play in a 3-4 defense somewhere. The most prominent rumor connected Peppers to New England, but nothing happened before the draft. The Panthers say they are determined to keep Peppers, and so a trade still appears unlikely. But if Peppers declines to report to training camp, the chatter will hit high gear once again.

7 – QB Brett Favre will come out of retirement to play for Vikings – Favre has pulled this retirement-oops-changed-my-mind routine before, and if he comes back with the Vikings this year, he’ll probably do it again next year. The difference this offseason is the Vikings’ admitted interest in Favre, who is free after the Jets removed him from the reserve/retired list. Count on this dragging out at least past some of the team minicamps, because Favre’s desire to stay home in Mississippi during the spring and summer is a tick stronger than his desire to play football. (That doesn’t start winning until the spotlight goes on in September.) This rumor is down on the comparison list because it feels stale after being on the mill for two or three years in a row.

6 – Coaching carousel – There has been an unbelievable spate of Super Bowl winning coaches either pushed out (Mike Shanahan and Jon Gruden) or stepping away (Tony Dungy, Mike Holmgren) this offseason. They join fellow Super Bowl winners-turned-announcers Bill Cowher and Brian Billick off the sidelines. And already, we’re hearing multiple rumors about where people will end up. Shanahan was linked to Kansas City this offseason, and he’s already been attached to Chicago and Dallas for 2010. Holmgren, who is ostensibly retired, could land in San Francisco or elsewhere as a GM or team president. Cowher continues to be linked to Carolina becuase of his roots there, even though John Fox’s job appears stable at this point. Gruden, perhaps noting the coaching market is flooded, is joining Monday Night Football, which will keep him in the public eye until he’s ready to get the job he wants. Regardless, with quality resumes like these out there, the coaching carousel in 2010 will be high-powered and high-octane, as it revolves more rapidly than usual.

5 – QB Michael Vick will return to the NFL – This rumor is gaining steam with Vick’s imminent release from prison. Once he is released, there are two huge shoes that still have to fall. One seems pretty natural — the Falcons will release Vick rather than having him clog up their salary cap over the long term. But Atlanta first must get Vick to repay the signing bonus he has promised (either $6.5 million or $7.5 million, depending on a court ruling). Now that they’ve agreed to the amount, that seems to be a natural, but Vick is so cash poor that this step could take a while. More importantly, Vick must avoid NFL suspension. Commissioner Roger Goodell could let Vick slide, citing the high price (in prison time and money) he has already paid for his mistake. He could sit Vick for an entire season. Or it could be something in between. But this should be a huge NFL story through the otherwise quiet days of June and July.

4 – London wants to host a Super Bowl – This was an interesting business rumor that cropped up during the offseason. London, host of the 2012 Summer Olympics as well as NFL regular-season games the last two years, has expressed interest in bringing the Super Bowl over. The NFL has not shot this idea down, most likely for business reasons. As long as London thinks a Super Bowl is still a possibility, don’t you think ticket sales and sponsorships for NFL projects in the here and now will be brisker? I don’t think it will ever happen, but the NFL has a vested interest (that means $$$$) in making London believe it could.

3 – Browns will trade WR Braylon Edwards – Edwards isn’t as accomplished as Boldin, and his performance in 2008 was well below his standout ’07 campaign. But Edwards’ height, speed, and talent still makes him a potential No. 1 receiver for a contender, and so the fact that the Browns were willing to deal him before the draft (and maybe after) is still important. Edwards’ name was most often connected with the Giants, but the Eagles and perhaps the Titans made sense as well. Of course, all three of those teams picked receivers in the first round, and so chances of a trade now seem slim. The Browns would actually be better served to keep Edwards, especially after dealing Kellen Winslow, because that team has precious few impact guys right now. For all his faults and foibles, Edwards is still a checkmark in the impact category.

2- Bengals will trade WR Chad Ocho Cinco – This was a red-hot rumor in the ’08 offseason, with the Redskins reportedly offering two first-rounders for Chad Johnson. (Can we call him a player to be named later because he soon thereafter changed his name?) There were rumblings again this offseason, in part because so many contenders needed No. 1 receivers. But the Bengals were not inclined to deal 85, especially after his former running mate T.J. Houshmandzadeh left for Seattle via free agency. That meant the rumor never really got traction, and Ocho Cinco will be locked into Cincinnati once again this offseason.

2 (con’t) – A team will move to L.A. – This is a back-burner issue right now, but there are a few teams that still seem to be candidates to move. One is the Chargers, who hold outs and want an upgraded stadium. They face similar challenges building in the San Diego area that the league has tried unsuccessfuly to hurdle in L.A. for years. The other may be the Jaguars, who face declining attendance in a market that has never really caught fire. The Jaguars’ owner denies such a move, but the lack of an ideal situation in Jacksonville means the rumor will persist. A long shot is the Vikings, who are working toward a new stadium in Minnesota but who have an out after the 2011 season.

1- Franchises opting out of league pension plan – This is admittedly very wonkish, but the approval of potential changes to the NFL pension plan led to widespread rumors of veteran assistant coaches either retiring or moving to the college ranks to protect their retirement savings. The rule was credited, at least in part, for the retirements of Colts aides Tom Moore and Howard Mudd. It’s yet to be seen whether this ends up being sound and fury signifying nothing or something that’s actually substantive.

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Filed under Football Relativity, NFL Free Agency, NFL trades, Super Bowl

FR: 2009 retirements

This offseason, like the last two, has been filled with a Brett Favre will-he-or-won’t-he retirement dance.  But Favre’s retirement (even if it’s temporary) isn’t the only notable one of the offseason. So we thought we’d play relativity with the various NFL retirements of the offseason. We’re comparing them on a 10-point scale, with 10 being the most important retirement and 1 being the least notable. We’ll update this post until the beginning of the ’09 season.

10 – Head coach Tony Dungy, Colts – After an unbelievable run of success in Tampa Bay and Indianapolis, Dungy decided to leave the coaching ranks. He will be missed, both for his stately presence and for his coaching prowess. Dungy revitalized a Buccaneers franchise that was completely moribund, getting them to the playoffs for the first time in 15 years and guiding them to the NFC championship game. He was fired, but the foundation he built eventually won a Super Bowl. Dungy then went to Indianapolis, where he won 10 games his first year and at least 12 games for the next six years,  a remarkable run of success that crescendoed with a Super Bowl title in the 2006 season. Beyond his success, he (along with longtime defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin) is the progenitor of the Tampa-2 defense that spread throughout the league, as well as the root of a significant coaching tree. His departure will hurt the Colts – pretty significantly, we think – but the NFL needs him to stay in the public eye enough to be the conscience of football as well. If this is the end of a coaching career, Dungy did enough to merit Hall of Fame induction.

9 – John Madden – The most iconic NFL analyst of the last two generations finally hung up his headset this offseason. Madden had become a bit of a caricature, but his performance this year (especially in the Super Bowl) was still top notch. He revealed what’s inside the game better than any analyst before had, and his off-kilter (and often off-subject) musings always added humor to the proceedings. His successful second career — remember, he was a Super Bowl winning coach with the Raiders — now comes to a close. But he still has a third career as a video game impressario, and his Madden NFL franchise isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. All in all, Madden is in the Hall of Fame with good reason, and the sum of his career is unlike any we’ve ever seen.

8 – QB Brett Favre, Jets – Favre’s repeated retirement dine-and-dash routine has worn thin, which is why we can’t rate his retirement as the most significant of the offseason. (That, plus the fact that might unretire once more.) Yes, Favre has had a wonderful career, but his 2008 campaign ended ignominiously. His legacy will always be his numbers and his chance-taking, but it won’t be spit-shined and gleaming because he has so little regard for it. Favre is still a Hall of Famer one day, but he’d be better off to go ahead and let the five-year waiting period for Canton start (and stay) ticking. (UPDATE: No surprise: Favre didn’t stay retired.)

7 – Head coach Mike Holmgren, Seahawks – Holmgren spent 17 years as a head coach in Green Bay and Seattle, and his teams were usually among the league’s best. He won a Super Bowl in Green Bay and went to another, then made a third trip to the title game with the Seahawks. More impressively, he won eight division titles (three in Green Bay, five in Seattle) and 12 playoff appearances. That’s a really good batting average. Holmgren was a disciple of Bill Walsh whose first staff in Green Bay included a litany of coaches including Jon Gruden, Steve Mariucci, Andy Reid, Dick Jauron, and Ray Rhodes, all of whom would become NFL head coaches. That’s another impressive part of his legacy. Holmgren then moved from Green Bay to Seattle for more authority – he served as head coach, general manager, team vice president, and a couple more titles that filled his business card and made me write at PFW that he had gotten every title this side of Miss Seattle. It wasn’t until he lost some of that power that his Seahawks really hit their stride. I don’t know if I can call his coaching career Hall of Fame worthy, but it’s close. Holmgren will likely return to the league in some capacity, perhaps as soon as 2010, but his retirement is worth noting at this point in case it sticks.

7 (con’t) – SS Rodney Harrison, Patriots – Harrison retired after a 15-year career that approached Hall of Fame level despite starting on the practice squad. While most people think of Harrison’s role on New England’s back-to-back championship teams earlier this decade, he actually broke into the NFL as a fifth-round pick out of Western Illinois with the Chargers. On a San Diego team with a horrible offense (do you remember Craig Whelihan at quarterback?), Harrison partnered with Junior Seau to anchor the No. 1 defense in the league in 1998.  (I wrote a feature on Seau and Harrison following that season and learned a lot about Harrison’s story when I interviewed him for that piece.) That was an impressive accomplishment for a player who left college early because his family needed the money (which wasn’t that much) he got as a signing bonus for being a fifth-round pick, only to get cut and have to spend much of his first year on the practice squad. He emerged as a playmaking safety with a nasty, physical edge. He made two Pro Bowls and was first-team All Pro twice in San Diego (’98 and ’01) before moving onto New England in 2003, when he got a higher national profile for bringing his same hard-nosed game to a periennial contender. Harrison ended his career as the only player in league history with at least 30 sacks and 30 interceptions. He notched seven playoff interceptions in his career, a Patriots team record. He also was voted the NFL’s dirtiest player by competitors in 2004 and by league coaches in 2008, and he was fined many times for various hits over his career. Wikipedia even claims that Harrison has the league record for personal-foul penalties, although that is unsubstantiated.  But Harrison’s last four years were injury plagued and also included a suspension for purchasing HGH, and it was probably time for him to hang them up. The fact that he can move straight into the NBC Football Night in America studio made the decision easier. Harrison may not end up as a Hall of Fame player, but his long career as an impact player should at least get him to the finalist level of voting at some point, and that’s a quality resume for a former fifth-round pick.

6 – C Tom Nalen, Broncos – Nalen was the center on Denver’s Super Bowl teams of the 1990s, and he ended up spending 15 seasons in the NFL, all in Denver. The five-time Pro Bowler was never the top center in the league, but he was often among the top 4 or 5, which is quite an accomplishment. Think about how many different running backs had good seasons in Denver, and you’ll think about part of Nalen’s impressive legacy. He wasn’t massive, but he had the quickness to thrive in long-time OL coach Alex Gibbs’ scheme. He’ll get some Hall of Fame consideration eventually, although enshrinement is a long shot. But he will certainly find his name in the Broncos’ Ring of Fame as one of the team’s all-time greats.

6 (con’t) – OT Willie Anderson, Ravens – Anderson never got a wealth of publicity in his career, in large part because he was stuck in Cincinnati for 12 years. But Anderson excelled as a mauling run blocker on the right side for the vast majority of his career. He made four Pro Bowls and was a first-team All-Pro three times (’04-’06). He spent his final season as a starter in Baltimore. In all, he started more than 180 games, which is impressive longevity on the line. Like Nalen, another ’09 retiree, Anderson will get Hall of Fame consideration, but my guess is that he’ll ultimately fall short. But Anderson leaves a legacy as one of the Bengals’ all-time greats.

6 (con’t) – DT La’Roi Glover, Rams – Glover was a 6-time Pro Bowler who developed into the perfect under-tackler in the 4-3 defense. He had a slashing style that allowed him to rush the passer and make big plays, while a bigger tackle played the gaps and provided the stoutness against the run. The crazy thing is that Glover spent his rookie year with the Raiders as a fifth-round pick but was then cut. He landed with the Saints, and there he developed into a Pro Bowl player in 2000 and ’01. He took a big-money deal in Dallas in 2002 and rewarded the Cowboys with four straight Pro Bowl seasons. He then finished his career in St. Louis. Glover’s career arc falls short of Hall of Fame status – John Randle was a similar and better player than Glover – but with 83.5 sacks, he was undoubtedly one of the preeminent pass-rushing defensive tackles of his day.

6 (con’t) – LB Tedy Bruschi, Patriots – Bruschi, who entered the league as a third-round pick and an undersized linebacker from Arizona, became one of the iconic players in New England’s Super Bowl era. He made just two Pro Bowls in his 13-year career, but he was a determined playmaker on all three of New England’s Super Bowl champs. He was also one of the few links between New England’s ’96 Super Bowl appearance and the glory years of the 2000s. Even more, he overcame a stroke in 2005 and returned to the field to play three more seasons. Bruschi will get some Hall of Fame consideration, but in our eyes he’s just below that level, even considering his significant contributions to the best team of the decade. But he still had a wonderful career all in one place, which is a sterling legacy to leave.

5 – Offensive coordinator Tom Moore and OL coach Howard Mudd, Colts – Mudd had been an NFL assistant for 35 years and Moore for 32 before they both retired this offseason because of a pension-related issue this offseason. (This pension issue is one to watch, and it could force more long-time assistants into retirement or the college ranks.) Mudd, a three-time Pro Bowl lineman himself in the 1960s, spent the last 12 years as a Colts assistant, and his teaming with Moore on Dungy’s staff was hugely successful. Part of Mudd’s legacy will be the strong lines he had with undrafted players (most notably Jeff Saturday) playing major roles. Moore’s recent success was his ability to work with Peyton Manning, but he was also a coordinator in Pittsburgh and Detroit and an assistant head coach in Minnesota. It will be interesting to see if the Colts can continue their offensive success without Moore and Mudd, or with them as consultants and not full-timers. All this continues the upheaval on the Colts’ staff this offseason after years of consistency.

5 (con’t) – QB Trent Green, Rams – Green is the ultimate what-if guy in the last decade of NFL play. What if he hadn’t gotten hurt before the 1999 season? Would the Rams still have become the greatest show on turf? Would Kurt Warner have ever gotten a chance? Or would Green be remembered as one of the better rags-to-riches stories in league history? Entering that ’99 season, Green had started just one year in Washington, and because of Warner’s emergence, Green got a Super Bowl ring but only five more starts before he finally got his chance as a full-time starter in Kansas City in 2001. Green started 5 1/2 years for the Chiefs, leading two playoff runs and putting up big numbers, before a string of concussions forced him out of the starters’ role. He got a handful more starts in Miami and one back in St. Louis, but his inability to stay on the field scuttled his career. Despite his star-crossed journey, Green established himself as an above-average NFL starter who made two Pro Bowls. That’s a pretty good legacy to leave with.

5 (con’t) – OT John Tait, Bears – Tait played 10 years with the Chiefs and Bears and was a starter throughout, but nagging injuries eventually prompted him to retire this offseason. Tait played both left and right tackle during his career, and he was good enough on the left side to make the Pro Bowl as a Chief in ’01 and as a Bear in ’06. Tait was never an elite player, but he was a quality starter throughout his tenure and deserves credit for quite a credible career.

4 – CB Duane Starks, Raiders- Starks was the 10th overall pick in the 1998 draft, and he ended up being a starting corner on the great Ravens defenses for four years. He never quite reached shut-down corner level, as his teammate Chris McAlister did, but he was a solid starter. He had six interceptions during Baltimore’s championship  season and added a pick-6 in Baltimore’s Super Bowl win. Starks left Baltimore for Arizona in 2002, and he bounced to New England and then Oakland after that, with injuries wreaking havoc all along the way. With 25 career interceptions, Starks had a notable career that didn’t reach greatness. But he can be proud of what he accomplished over the last 11 years.

4 (con’t) – LB Dan Morgan, Saints – Morgan was the Panthers’ first-round pick (11th overall) in 2001, and he was part of the core that helped turn the franchise around leading up to the franchise’s lone Super Bowl appearance. Morgan, Kris Jenkins, and Steve Smith were part of a draft class that revitalized the team. But injuries held Morgan back throughout his career, starting in his rookie season when he injured his leg on a Charlotte field so bad that chunks were coming out of it. He made just one Pro Bowl (2004), in large part because injuries and a series of concussions kept him out of action so often. He never played in more than 13 games in a season, and he saw action just four times since 2005. He spent the last two offseasons with the Saints but never saw game action. While his career stats aren’t eyepopping, he does have one unforgettable line on his stat sheet — his Super Bowl performance against the Patriots. He was credited with 18 tackles in the game book, but Panthers coaches tallied 25 stops that Morgan made. He ends up with a good career that could have been truly memorable had injuries and concussions not taken their toll. (More on Morgan’s rookie season in this post.)

4 (con’t) – C Jeremy Newberry, Falcons – Newberry was a long-time 49er who played a total of 10 years in the league. While he never got great acclaim, he earned two Pro Bowl berths and was the centerpiece of the San Francisco O-line for half a decade. He spent a year with the Raiders and Chargers and had signed with the Falcons for ’09 before injuries caused him to call it quits instead. Regardless of what caused him to leave, he goes into his post-football life with a solid on-field legacy.

3 – OT Todd Weiner, Falcons – Weiner played 11 years with the Seahawks and Falcons, remaining a regular starter until getting part-time play this year. The Falcons wanted to keep him, but Weiner decided that 116 starts and more than 150 games was enough for him to call it a satisfying career.

3 (con’t) – CB Fernando Bryant, Steelers – Bryant, a former Jaguars first-round pick, spent five years in Jacksonville and four in Detroit as a starter, but last year he was cut by New England in the preseason and played in just two games with Pittsburgh, none in the postseason. Still, he retires with more than 100 career starts, seven career interceptions, and a Super Bowl ring he won last year. He ended up playing up to his first-round draft status, and that’s something to be proud of.

3 (con’t) – WR Drew Bennett, Ravens – Bennett had one fantastic year in Tennessee back in 2004, and he was productive in the two following years as well. But after signing a mega-deal in St. Louis, Bennett was hamstrung by injuries and ended up with just 34 catches in two years. Had he been healthy, Bennett would have provided the Ravens at least a competent vet who will provide some assurance to an offense that would have otherwise had to rely solely on Mark Clayton and Demetrius Williams. But Bennett was not healthy, and after just a day of workouts, he retired. He leaves the league as a solid NFL starter who had some disappointments but some high points as well. That’s not a bad legacy.

3 (con’t) – DE Kenechi Udeze, Vikings – Udeze, a former first-round pick out of USC, played just three full seasons with Minnesota, all as a starter, and had just 11 career sacks. His career was cut short by leukemia, which caused him to sit out in 2008 and then to retire after a comeback attempt just before training camps started in 2009. It’s sad to see a career cut short by cancer like this, but if a football career is all Udeze loses in this battle, that’s still a win in the broad view.

3 (con’t) OT Marvel Smith, 49ers – Smith, who signed with the 49ers in the offseason to try to recover his career, instead had to retire due to a bad back. The long-time Pittsburgh Steeler, who was a Pro Bowl player at left tackle when the Steelers won Super Bowl 40, started 108 games over his nine years in Pittsburgh, but he had to go to the bench last season after the first five games because of his troublesome back. He leaves the game with two Super Bowl rings and a solid tenure as a Steeler.

2 – OT Todd Wade, Jaguars – Wade hardly played last year, but he started 96 games over his career with the Dolphins, Texans, and Redskins. He was never among the best tackles, but he was a solid starter, which is saying something.

1 – TE Chad Mustard, Broncos – Mustard only had 12 career catches over five seasons, but his unique name and even more unique backstory led to this unbelievably good headline and story by Darin Gantt of the Rock Hill Herald.

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Filed under Football Relativity, NFL coaches, NFL Free Agency, Pro Football Hall of Fame