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The problem with the NFL on CBS

The NFL Today's Boomer Esiason during the Supe...

Boomer Esiason, part of CBS' 1980s brigade. Image via Wikipedia

One of our most popular posts this offseason has been our update on new and moved NFL announcers. And if you go through that post, you’ll notice that CBS has only one entry – Marv Albert replacing Gus Johnson as a play-by-play voice. CBS shuffled its pairings a bit, but the faces and voices are the same.

And that’s the problem with the NFL on CBS. The Eye network has remained so faithful to its announcers that its announcers are becoming irrelevant. As a result, CBS’s coverage sounds aged, spouting cliches and strategies of years gone by instead of the trends of the current day. And that’s because CBS’s analysts haven’t been in the league for years. None of the 12 analysts (studio and game) that CBS announced for 2011 has been in the NFL in the last four seasons. Only one – Bill Cowher – has been in the NFL within seven seasons. And CBS only has three analysts – Rich Gannon, Steve Beuerlein, and Shannon Sharpe – who played in the 2000s. (See below for more details.)

This isn’t the approach other networks take. Fox, for example, has added players like John Lynch, Chad Pennington, and Michael Strahan, as well as coaches like Brian Billick and Jim Mora to its NFL Sunday crew in recents years. The two dominant franchises of the 2000s – the Colts and Patriots – are represented by Tony Dungy and Rodney Harrison on NBC’s Football Night in America. And ESPN and the NFL Network regularly add recently retired players who bring fresh insight and relevant anecdotes.

CBS, meanwhile, trots out the same old, same old from Dan Dierdorf – and features it on its No. 2 team. It relies on quarterbacks from the 1980s – Dan Marino, Boomer Esiason, and Phil Simms – as its stars. The age shows, as CBS game viewers settle for traditional, surface analysis far too often.

Will CBS ever have a changing of the guard among its analysts? Or do the veterans on the squad have lifetime contracts? Like the NFL itself, NFL announcers should have to fight off a new crop of rookies year after year. But at CBS, they don’t.

And until CBS gets its eye off the past when it comes to NFL announcers, its coverage won’t be anywhere close to what it needs to be.

The last year game analysts were in the NFL (as players or coaches)

CBS: Dan Marino 1999, Boomer Esiason 1997, Bill Cowher 2006, Shannon Sharpe 2003, Phil Simms 1993, Dan Dierdorf 1983, Dan Fouts 1987, Rich Gannon 2004, Solomon Wilcots 1992, Steve Tasker 1997, Steve Beuerlein 2003, Randy Cross 1988

FOX: Howie Long 1993, Terry Bradshaw 1983, Jimmy Johnson 1999, Michael Strahan 2007, Troy Aikman 2000, Daryl Johnston 1999, Tony Siragusa 2001, Brian Billick 2007, John Lynch 2007, Tim Ryan 1993, Jim Mora 2009, Chad Pennington 2010, Charles Davis DNP

NBC: Cris Collinsworth 1988, Tony Dungy 2008, Rodney Harrison 2008

NFL Network: Mike Mayock 1983, Marshall Faulk 2005, Steve Mariucci 2005, Warren Sapp 2007, Michael Irvin 1999, Kurt Warner 2009

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Chad Pennington moves to the booth

Miami Dolphins' Quarterback Chad Pennington si...

Chad Pennington. Image via Wikipedia

For the last two weeks, the day job had me at Wayfarer Camp, so I wasn’t able to keep up with NFL news. One of the items I missed was the fact that Chad Pennington is leaving the field – at least for a year – to move to the announcing booth with Fox. Below are some thoughts on the move; you can see how Pennington’s addition compares to other announcing moves in this updated post.

Pennington, an 11-year veteran quarterback, never had great physical gifts, but he combined adequate arm strength with exceptional intelligence, instincts, and guile to become a first-round draft pick and a multi-year starter with the Jets. But injuries have sapped what little arm strength Pennington had, and so instead of fighting for a job in Miami or elsewhere, he’s going to take at least a year off to move to the NFL on Fox team. Pennington will be paired with Sam Rosen on what was Fox’s No. 5 team last year. It’s actually a pretty plum gig for Pennington – he leaps over recent retirees Trent Green, John Lynch, and Kurt Warner on Fox’s depth chart, falling below only Brian Billick and Jim Mora among recent additions. Pennington’s New York experience and savvy are two promising signs; now he must live up to his broadcast potential. If he does, he adds more depth and recent experience to a Fox lineup that is light years younger and therefore significantly better than CBS’s slate. It’s unclear at this point whether Tim Ryan, Rosen’s former partner, will return to Fox. With Charles Davis moving to college games, Ryan could join the three-man booth with analyst Jim Mora. But Fox would be wise to keep Ryan, who isn’t a high profile name but who has consistently provided great analysis in his nine years with the network.

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NFL announcing move: Gus Johnson moves to Fox

gus-johnson

Over the weekend, we posted the opening paragraphs of our comparison of new and moved announcers for the NFL 2011 season. This week, another couple of announcers moved, as Gus Johnson left CBS for Fox, where he will be teamed with Charles Davis on Fox’s growing college football coverage. Below are some thoughts on the move; the comparison will connect it to other announcing moves.

Gus Johnson has become the internet’s favorite announcer with his emphatic and enthusiastic style. Despite his popularity, though, Johnson’s 15 years at CBS never featured him moving up the ladder all that much. He was always fighting to be on a top-four team for CBS’s NCAA basketball tournament coverage, and Johnson worked with Steve Tasker on CBS’s No. 5 NFL team. Maybe it was too many Bills or Jaguars or Bengals games for Johnson – even though he called crazy plays like this year’s Jaguars Hail Mary or the crazy Brandon Stokely touchdown in 2009’s Week One. Now Johnson moves to Fox, where he will team with Charles Davis to become the network’s top college football voice. Davis, who called BCS games for Fox as well as working on the network’s No. 3 team for the NFL the past two seasons, isn’t flashy, but he’s a terrific analyst who will be a nice counterbalance to Johnson’s enthusiasm (much like Len Elmore has been during March Madness). Johnson and Davis will spend most of 2011 on FX, the Big Ten Network, and other lesser networks, but starting in 2012 they will be the featured voices for Fox’s Pac-12 coverage. They’ll also draw Big 10 and Pac-12 championship games in football and Pac-12 basketball tournaments. That means Johnson and Davis will see less NFL action, mainly at the end of the year. That leaves Dick Stockton and 2010 rookie Jim Mora without Davis, which should be OK, and could mean that a solid team like Thom Brenneman/Brian Billick or Sam Rosen/Tim Ryan moves up the ranks. Meanwhile, on CBS youngster Spero Dedes could step into the regular rotation as a play-by-play guy. Johnson and Davis spending most of their time on campus is the NFL’s loss, but it’s probably a good career move.

(One extraneous thought that I tweeted: Attention @nbaontnt – Gus Johnson is available for next year’s playoffs. And Dick Stockton even older for next year’s playoffs. Just sayin’)

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FR: New and moved announcers for 2011

Each year, we compare the national TV announcers that enter the NFL business or find new gigs. We will do this using our Football Relativty scale, with 10 being the moves we like best, and 1 being the move that matters least. We’ll add to this comparison as more moves are announced.

NFL Network's Mike Mayock, via blog.49ers.com

10 – Mike Mayock and Brad Nessler, NFL Network’s Thursday Night Football – Once again, the NFL Network revamped its announcing duo, but this time the network got it right. Mayock is NFLN’s franchise player as a draft analyst, and he proved his game analyst chops last year doing Notre Dame games on NBC. Mayock then went on to do one NFL game, the playoff game between the Saints and Seahawks, and his serious approach and insight into game strategy and trends was enlightening. He’ll be a massive improvement over ex-NFLN analysts Joe Theismann, who tends to be a blowhard and falls victim to a disturbing inattention to detail, and Matt Millen, a good analyst who tended to be brought down by Theismann’s act. Mayock works with Brad Nessler, a play-by-play vet who has done mostly college football for ESPN (among other sports) but has had a couple of NFL cameos on the opening-week Monday night doubleheaders. Nessler has a more authoritative voice than former play-by-play man Bob Papa, who merited staying over but won’t get the chance. Still, the Nessler/Mayock pairing feels like a big-time booth, which is something the NFLN has never hit on because of massive weak spots like Theismann or, before him, Bryant Gumbel.

9 – Kurt Warner, NFL Network – Warner, who called a few lower-level games for Fox last season, is moving to NFL Network full time to be a part of GameDay Morning each Sunday, as well as the network’s pre- and post-game for Thursday night games. That job fits Warner better than game analyst, because it will allow him to speak to macro issues and express his thoughtfulness. Plus, Warner adds a new dimension to a pre-game show that doesn’t have a quarterback on it right now. Warner should become a long-time fixture on NFLN, and he gives the network a fourth Hall of Fame caliber player with Marshall Faulk and Michael Irvin (both already in) and Warren Sapp. It looks to be a great fit.

9 (con’t) – Bill Parcells, ESPN – Parcells has bounced between the NFL and broadcasting for nearly two decades now, and he’s proven that he’s an excellent analyst. Now he joins ESPN and jumps onto the Sunday NFL Countdown show. He’ll immediately become a key contributor, because his keen eye for talent and presentation makes him more valuable than fellow ex-coach Mike Ditka. Parcells will also get a draft confidential special and a Super Bowl confidential special, and he’s proven that such shows can be the equivalent of Jon Gruden’s QB camp in terms of insight. Parcells is a TV star, and he’ll be a huge asset to ESPN’s pregame show lineup.

8 – Marv Albert, CBS – Albert is best known for being the voice of the NBA for NBC, TNT, and also the Knicks and Nets, but he has a long legacy of calling NFL games. For nearly two decades, Albert was an NBC play-by-play announcer, spending most of them in the high-profile No. 2 position for the network. But his high-profile personal issues cost him that job in 1997. Albert returned to calling NFL games for Westwood One’s Monday Night Football and playoff radio broadcasts in 2002, and he has called 10 Super Bowls for that network. Now Albert returns to the NFL with CBS, whom he first worked for after the network teamed with TNT to broadcast the NCAA tournament this spring. Albert has a big-time and distinctive voice, and his long history calling games will immediately add depth to the CBS bench. The question is whether Albert will slip into the CBS lineup in Gus Johnson’s former No. 5 spot, or whether he’ll jump a younger voice like Kevin Harlan or Ian Eagle. Given how old CBS’s game-calling crews are as a whole, moving Albert up too high would be a mistake. CBS needs to develop and feature younger voices like Eagle and Spero Dedes more prominently. But if Albert  stays in a mid-tier role, he’s certainly as good as a replacement for Johnson as was available.

7 – none

6 – Chad Pennington, Fox – Pennington, an 11-year veteran quarterback, never had great physical gifts, but he combined adequate arm strength with exceptional intelligence, instincts, and guile to become a first-round draft pick and a multi-year starter with the Jets. But injuries have sapped what little arm strength Pennington had, and so instead of fighting for a job in Miami or elsewhere, he’s going to take at least a year off to move to the NFL on Fox team. Pennington will be paired with Sam Rosen on Fox’s seventh team. Pennington’s New York experience and savvy are two promising signs; now he must live up to his broadcast potential. If he does, he adds more depth and recent experience to a Fox lineup that is light years younger and therefore significantly better than CBS’s slate. Rosen’s old teammate, Tim Ryan, is now with Chris Myers on the No. 5 team as Fox shuffles its lineup.

6 (con’t) – Gus Johnson and Charles Davis, Fox – Gus Johnson has become the internet’s favorite announcer with his emphatic and enthusiastic style. Despite his popularity, though, Johnson’s 15 years at CBS never featured him moving up the ladder all that much. He was always fighting to be on a top-four team for CBS’s NCAA basketball tournament coverage, and Johnson worked with Steve Tasker on CBS’s No. 5 NFL team. Maybe it was too many Bills or Jaguars or Bengals games for Johnson – even though he called crazy plays like this year’s Jaguars Hail Mary or the crazy Brandon Stokely touchdown in 2009’s Week One. Now Johnson moves to Fox, where he will team with Charles Davis to become the network’s top college football voice. Davis, who called BCS games for Fox as well as working on the network’s No. 3 team for the NFL the past two seasons, isn’t flashy, but he’s a terrific analyst who will be a nice counterbalance to Johnson’s enthusiasm (much like Len Elmore has been during March Madness). Johnson and Davis will spend most of 2011 on FX, the Big Ten Network, and other lesser networks, but starting in 2012 they will be the featured voices for Fox’s Pac-12 coverage. They’ll also draw Big 10 and Pac-12 championship games in football and Pac-12 basketball tournaments. That means Johnson and Davis will see less NFL action, filling in on eight-game weeks for Fox. On CBS youngster Spero Dedes could step into the regular rotation as a play-by-play guy. Johnson and Davis spending most of their time on campus is the NFL’s loss, but it’s probably a good career move.

5 – Jerry Rice, ESPN – ESPn hired Rice, perhaps the greatest player ever, to serve as an analyst for NFL Live, SportsCenter, and the Thursday night Audibles show. It’s an interesting move. Rice is one of the best players ever, but can he translate his expertise into succinct analysis? Many have tried and failed. Still, it’s worth the gamble for ESPN to add someone with Rice’s pedigree. If he works out, it’s a coup; if he doesn’t, he’s still Jerry Rice, which counts for something for the viewer. And since ESPN is easing him in, Rice will have the best opportunity to succeed.

4 – Hugh Douglas, ESPN – Since his retirement in 2004, the former pass-rush specialist has been an engaging and sometimes controversial commentator in the Philadelphia market. Now he moves to the national scene, joining ESPN as a studio analyst who’ll be used on SportsCenter, NFL Live, First Take, ESPN News, and other platforms. It’s not ESPN’s glamour job, but Douglas should get plenty of air time in the role. He’ll definitely make an impression, and his willingness to call out players and coaches will make him memorable. Don’t be surprised if Douglas earns a promotion at ESPN before too long.

4 – Josina Anderson, ESPN – Anderson made a splash as a reporter for the Fox affiliate in Denver, consistently breaking national stories from a local beat. That’s not easy to do, and it led her to a correspondent role on Showtime’s Inside the NFL. Now she moves to ESPN, where she’ll be an NFL reporter with chops. This is a deserved call-up to the national scene.

3 – Eric Mangini, ESPN – Mangini also joins the World Wide Leader as a studio analyst. He worked for ESPN during last year’s playoff run, bringing insight to the Jets/Patriots matchup since he is a Bill Belichick disciple and a former Jets head coach. We’re always all for hiring recently fired coaches, because they see the league in ways few others can. The question is whether Mangini can take that knowledge and communicate it in a way that fans understand and enjoy. Mangini won’t have the big personality of other former coaches turned broadcasters like Herman Edwards or Brian Billick, but like a Jim Mora, he should be able to make some keen insights. It’s a nice addition for ESPN.

3 (con’t) – Damien Woody, ESPN – Woody, who retired this offseason, also latches on with ESPN as an NFL studio analyst. The fact that Woody played all across the offensive line will add to his credibility, and being in the league up through last year helps as well. But Woody must establish his personality pretty quickly so that he’s not lost in the forest of ESPN’s uber-deep analyst roster (which did trim Derrick Brooks and Warrick Dunn).

3 (con’t) – Heath Evans, NFL Network – Evans retired during training camp and landed with NFL Network. He has experience playing for both the Saints and Patriots, which means he should bring good insight to two of this year’s contenders. He also has an outspoken personality that should help him make a mark. While he wasn’t a big name as a player, Evans has a nice future in television.

2 – Rodney Harrison, NFL Network – Harrison isn’t leaving his high-profile studio job at NBC; he’s merely adding midweek responsibilities with NFL Network. From our perspective, that’s a great thing – we always want to see more of Harrison.

1 – Michelle Tafoya, NBC’s Sunday Night Football – Tafoya has long been a fixture as a sideline reporter, most recently with ESPN’s Monday Night Football. Now she moves to Sunday nights to work with the crew that she did MNF with back in 2004-05. Tafoya is a professional, and she adds good information on the sidelines without devolving into the prepackaged stories that so many other sideliners do. As MNF lessened the duties of its sideline reporters, it makes sense for Tafoya to find a more prominent role. It’s unclear at this point whether Tafoya is joining or replacing current SNF sideliner Andrea Kramer.

1 (con’t) – Alex Flanagan, NFL Network – Flanagan replaces Tafoya as the sideline reporter on NFL Network’s Thursday night games. Flanagan has proven to be a terrific sideliner doing NBC Notre Dame games, as well an NBC playoff game last year, and she’s also a NFL Network host. That makes her a perfect fit for an enhanced role.

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RP: Interim coaches

Tennessee Titans head coach on the sidelines d...

Image via Wikipedia

This is once again the year of the interim coach. The league is currently home to three interim coaches – Dallas’ Jason Garrett, who is 3-1 thus far; Minnesota’s Leslie Frazier, who is 2-0; and Denver’s Eric Studesville, who took over for Josh McDaniels Monday.

Those interim coaches are all seeking to become the next Jeff Fisher (pictured right) – assistants who get their chance to take over and use it to become Super Bowl coaches with long tenures.

But history says it simply won’t happen. Fisher is an anomaly – the only interim coach since 1990 to coach in a Super Bowl. That’s not just for the team he was an interim with; it’s for any team at all. In fact, history over the last 20 years says that Garrett, Frazier, and Studesville are pretty much doomed to mediocre careers as head coaches – and that mediocrity is the best-case scenario.

Garrett and Frazier have been considered head-coaching candidates for a while, having interviewed multiple times for openings.* (Studesville is a respected RB coach but this is his first mention as a head coaching candidate.) Garrett and Frazier have good chances to become the full-time head coaches of their teams, both because of the financial benefit to their franchises given the impending lockout and because of their standing as hot prospects.

*Both Garrett and Frazier have interviewed for multiple other head-coaching jobs.
Garrett interviewed for Ravens/Falcons 2008, Lions/Broncos/Rams 2009
Frazier interviewed for Dolphins/Falcons 2008, Lions/Rams/Broncos 2009, Bills/Seahawks 2010

Below, we analyze every interim head coach in the NFL over the last 20 seasons, and you’ll see just how bad the news is for Garrett and Frazier in terms of historical precedent.

Home runs
Jeff Fisher, Oilers, 1994. Replaced Jack Pardee and went 1-5 with team that finished 2-14. Lasted 17 seasons and counting. Previous head-coaching experience: No.

Fisher is the only interim coach who coached any team to the Super Bowl.  He has six playoff appearances in 17 years and an overall 146-123 record.

Short-term successes (Winning records translated to full-time jobs)
Bruce Coslet, Bengals, 1996. Replaced David Shula and went 7-2 with team that finished 8-8. Lasted Five seasons. Next job: Not in football. Previous head-coaching experience: Jets.
Mike Singletary, 49ers, 2008. Replaced Mike Nolan and went 5-4 with team that finished 7-9. Lasted: Three seasons and counting.
Ideal examples: Raymond Berry, Patriots; Ray Malavisi, Rams; Don Coryell, Chargers

Coslet’s seven wins in his interim year matched his high over the next four years. Singletary has not made the playoffs with the 49ers either and appears to be in trouble.

Holdovers
Dave McGinnis, Cardinals, 2000. Replaced Vince Tobin and went 1-8 with team that finished 3-13. Lasted: Four seasons. Next job: Titans LB coach.
Dick LeBeau, Bengals, 2000. Replaced Bruce Coslet and went 4-9 with team that finished 4-12. Lasted: Three seasons. Next job: Bills assistant head coach.
Mike Tice, Vikings, 2001. Replaced Dennis Green and went 0-1 with team that finished 5-11. Lasted: Five seasons. Next job: Jaguars assistant head coach.
Tom Cable, Raiders, 2008. Replaced Lane Kiffin and went 4-8 with team that finished 5-11. Lasted: Three seasons and counting. Previous head-coaching experience: University of Idaho.
Ideal example: Marv Levy, Bills

McGinnis and LeBeau were veteran assistants who got their chance as interims but never cut it as head coaches. Cable has the Raiders playing well this year, but it’s too soon to offer him as a success story. Tice is the rare interim coach who led his team to the playoffs. He had two winning records and one playoff appearance in four full seasons.

First shots
Terry Robiskie, Redskins, 2000. Replaced Norv Turner and went 1-2 with team that finished 8-8. Lasted: That season. Next job: Browns WR coach.
Jim Bates, Dolphins, 2004. Replaced Dave Wannstedt and went 3-4 with team that finished 4-12. Lasted: That season. Next job: Packers defensive coordinator. Previous head-coaching experience: San Antonio Gunslingers (USFL).
Joe Vitt, Rams, 2005. Replaced Mike Martz and went 4-7 with team that finished 6-10. Lasted: That season. Next job: Saints assistant head coach.
Emmitt Thomas, Falcons, 2007. Replaced Bobby Petrino and went 1-2 with team that finished 4-12. Lasted: That season. Next job: Chiefs DB coach (2010).
Perry Fewell, Bills, 2009. Replaced Dick Jauron and went 3-4 with team that finished 6-10. Lasted: That season. Next job: Giants defensive coordinator.
Ideal examples: Marty Schottenheimer, Browns

None of these examples got head-coaching jobs anywhere in the future, although Fewell could find his name on prospect lists in the future.

Placeholders
Rick Venturi, Colts, 1991. Replaced Ron Meyer and went 1-10 with team that finished 1-15. Lasted:  That season. Next job: Colts defensive coordinator. Previous head-coaching experience: Northwestern University.
Rick Venturi, Saints, 1996. Replaced Jim Mora and went 1-7 with team that finished 3-13. Lasted: That season. Next job: Saints assistant head coach. Previous head-coaching experience: Northwestern University, Colts (interim).
June Jones, Chargers, 1998. Replaced Kevin Gilbride and went 3-7 with team that finished 5-11. Lasted: That season. Next job: University of Hawaii head coach. Previous head-coaching experience: Falcons.
Gary Moeller, Lions, 2000. Replaced Bobby Ross and went 4-3 with team that finished 9-7. Lasted: That season. Next job: Jaguars defensive coordinator. Previous head-coaching experience: University of Michigan.
Wade Phillips, Falcons, 2003. Replaced Dan Reeves and went 2-1 with team that finished 5-11. Lasted: That season. Next job: Chargers defensive coordinator. Previous head-coaching experience: Bills, Broncos, Saints (interim).
Terry Robiskie, Browns, 2004. Replaced Butch Davis and went 1-5 with team that finished 4-12. Lasted: That season. Next job: Dolphins WR coach. Previous head-coaching experience: Redskins (interim).
Dick Jauron, Lions, 2005. Replaced Steve Mariucci and went 1-4 with team that finished 5-11. Lasted: That season. Next job: Bills head coach. Previous head-coaching experience: Bears.
Jim Haslett, Rams, 2008. Replaced Scott Linehan and went 2-10 with team that finished 2-14. Lasted: That season. Next job: Florida Tuskers head coach (UFL). Previous head-coaching experience: Saints.

Phillips (Dallas) and Jauron (Buffalo) were the only people in this group to go on to head-coaching jobs elsewhere, and they both already had head-coaching jobs on their resumes. Phillips joins Tice and Fisher as the only interim coach in the last 20 years to go on to a playoff appearance as a head coach.

HT to Real Clear Sports and Business Insider for the history lessons.

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FR: New and moved announcers for 2010

Last year we started a tradition of comparing the new announcers added to the roster of major national outlets for the NFL season. (Here’s last year’s post.) In this comparison, we’ll compare the importance of new hires, major movers, and some guys who added side jobs this season. The 10 level indicates the announcers with the best chance of making a national splash; the 1 level is for announcers who you probably won’t even notice in 2010.

10 – Jim Mora, Fox – The younger of the coaches named Mora, who was the Seahawks’ head coach last year, will move onto Fox’s No. 3 announcing team with Dick Stockton and Charles Davis. That’s a soft landing spot for Mora, because Davis is a pro who will allow Mora to feel comfortable finding things to say instead of forcing out comments after every play. But Mora will face the challenge that all former coaches have – especially those who have dreams of coaching once again. Can he be critical? Can he be honest? Or will he pull punches in an effort to avoid making enemies? Mora has the gumption to be honest, and if he does he could develop a la Brian Billick. But if Mora doesn’t do so, it’ll be incredibly easy for Fox to move him down the roster – or off it entirely. Still, Mora has the privilege of one of the higher profile new announcing gigs.

9 – none

8 – Kurt Warner, Fox – The recently retired Warner, who has done some Arena League games for NFL network this summer, takes the route of many high-profile quarterbacks and lands in announcing. But unlike many of those QBs, instead of starting in a high-profile studio role or top game-announcer, he’s starting at the bottom of the national totem pole. He takes over for Trent Green on Fox’s No. 7 team, which means he’ll only work selected weeks when Fox has a full game slate. That may actually be a blessing for Warner as he seeks to develop as an announcer. This role will give him room to grow and make mistakes without being in the national glare, and if he emerges he certainly has the street cred to move up the charts quickly. But Warner is also close enough to the bottom of Fox’s roster that, if he struggles, he can be cut without much notice. So Warner must show signs of ability quickly, or else he’ll be looking for a new post-retirement career.

7 – none

6 – none

5 – Joe Theismann, NFL Network – Theismann, who for years irritated viewers with his verbose and grandiose declarations of the most obvious things on Sunday Night Football, joins the NFL Network’s booth for Thurdsay-night and Saturday-night games. It’s an annoying addition, not just because Theismann is terrible, but because the Bob Papa/Matt Millen team ended up being pretty good last year. Millen actually has insight about what’s happening on the field, while Theismann doesn’t seem to see inside the game. His performance in an NBC wild-card playoff game last year was awful, yet it somehow got him another gig. If NFL Network wanted a third man in the booth, they had much better options on their roster – Marshall Faulk, Steve Mariucci, Warren Sapp, Tom Waddle, just to name a few. This move makes no sense, and we can only hope it’s short-lived.

4 – Antonio Pierce, ESPN – After a nine-year career with the Redskins and Giants that included a Super Bowl win and a Pro Bowl bid, Pierce hung up his cleats to join ESPN’s roster of analysts. He’ll appear on NFL Live, SportsCenter, and ESPNEWS and also contribute to ESPN’s web and radio platforms in New York. It’ll be hard for Pierce to establish a role nationally on ESPN’s crowded roster, but his years under the New York media spotlight have polished him to the point that he’ll look good on camera. As always, having a player who’s competed against most guys he’s analyzing is also a plus – if the player can be honest. Only time will tell if Pierce clears that hurdle, but if he does he could have a bright future in the business.

3 – Brad Nessler and Trent Dilfer, Monday Night Football – For the fourth straight year, ESPN will open its Monday Night Football schedule with a doubleheader. For the past three years, the late game has been called by Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic, along with either Mike Ditka or Steve Young. But Greenberg isn’t the smoothest play-by-play guy, and the radio duo’s penchant for going topical irritated fans. So this year, ESPN will go to veteran play-by-play man Brad Nessler, who spends most of the fall on college football, for the game. He’ll pair with Trent Dilfer, an NFL Live analyst who has shown a penchant for incisive, insightful, and strong commentary. We’re excited to see Dilfer in the role, because we admire his talents and wish he had an even more high-profile role. This is his chance to show he can be a top-flight game analyst.

2 – Spero Dedes, CBS – Dedes has moved into CBS’s play-by-play roster for the NFL this year, working on a No. 6 team. Dedes also worked the NCAA Tournament for CBS, and he’s best known as a Lakers announcer. In recent years, he has hosted NFL Network’s Gameday Morning, but Rich Eisen moves from postgame to take over those pregame duties.

1 – Jay Glazer and Daryl Johnston, NFL Network – Glazer and Johnston, both Fox staples, are adding NFL Total Access duties to their repretoire. Both will be studio analysts for the NFL Network show. We include them here just for the sake of the record.

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FR: 2010 Coaching Changes

To review new head coaching hires in the NFL this season:
*Washington Redskins: Mike Shanahan (replacing Jim Zorn)
*Seattle Seahawks: Pete Carroll (replacing Jim Mora)
*Buffalo Bills: Chan Gailey (replacing interim Perry Fewell, who replaced Dick Jauron mid-season)

We put these hires through the theory of relativity. We’ll do it on a 10-point scale, with 10 being the best possible hire, and 1 being the worst possible hire.

10 – Mike Shanahan, Redskins – Shanahan, one of the big-name coaches on the market, seemed to be the most eager one to take a job this year. Most of all, he wanted a job where he would have final decision-making power like he had in Denver. He got that job with the Redskins, where he (not owner Daniel Snyder) will have final say. Shanahan’s hand-picked GM, Bruce Allen, will work on the day-to-day personnel responsibilities. On the field, Shanahan is a terrific offensive mind who knows the West Coast scheme as well as anyone and can implement it. That’ll be the plan, but it will probably take multiple years for him to accumulate the offensive talent to do it. Jason Campbell is OK, but unless Shanahan is sold the Redskins will start over at quarterback, and the offensive line is old and brittle while the receiving corps is young and unproven. There’s more talent on defense, which should help Shanahan lure a big-name defensive coordinator, although keeping Greg Blache would be acceptable as well. Shanahan had lost steam with the Broncos at the end of his tenure there, and it’ll be interesting to see whether a new spot reinvigorates him. The questions, however, fall more on the personnel side than the coaching side with him. If he can find the offensive talent, he should be able to build a winner in Washington.

9 – none

8 – none

7 – Pete Carroll, Seahawks – Carroll built a powerhouse at USC, putting together big talent on the field, finding up-and-coming coaches, and creating a culture of excellence and competition. But the former Patriots head coach was only so-so in his first NFL head coaching stint (although he was a premium defensive coordinator in several stops). Carroll waited for his spot to return to the NFL, and now he’s getting control of an entire organization in Seattle. You can understand why Carroll wants to leave USC – what more can he accomplish there, and with NCAA sanctions possible, hitting the eject button now may be prudent – and he’s getting the situation he wants. But he’s going to need to do a masterful job to turn the Seahawks around. All of Seattle’s so-called stars are either aging or gone, and there just isn’t a class of premium players behind them. And Carroll won’t be able to simply recruit talent to Seattle – he’ll have to maneuver around the salary cap, the draft, and free agency. That’s not to say that this can’t work – Carroll is bright, and he knows the NFL well enough to be able to be successful. But in his search for control Carroll went to a team that’s on a steep decline. He’s getting a five-year deal, and he’ll probably need all of that time to reinvigorate the talent base and make Seattle competitive again. This isn’t an easy task for Carroll, but rebuilding USC wasn’t either, and Carroll thrived there. We’ll see if he has another miracle in him.

6 – none

5 – none

4 – none

3 – none

2 – none

1 – Chan Gailey, Bills – The Bills shot for the moon by talking to Bill Cowher and Mike Shanahan about their coaching vacancy, but in the end Buffalo settled for Chan Gailey. It’s an uninspired choice, given Gailey’s so-so results as the head coach of the Cowboys in the 1990s (18-14 in two years) and at Georgia Tech. Gailey does have success as a head coach at lesser levels, and his proficiency as an offensive coordinator led Cowher to push Gailey as a candidate to Buffalo’s bureacracy. But the fact that Gailey was fired as the Chiefs’ offensive coordinator before the season makes this look like a desperation hire instead of a real choice. It’s not surprising that big names like Cowher and Shanahan avoided Buffalo, given the team’s market and financial limitations. But the inability to hire a promising new head coach like Russ Grimm or Leslie Frazier or even Perry Fewell, who had been the team’s interim coach, is disappointing. It makes it look as though the Bills are above only the dysfunctional Raiders in the pecking order of desirable NFL jobs. No other team would have considered Gailey this offseason; the fact that the Bills did does not speak well of them.

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Seattle, for Pete’s sake

The Seahawks, who fired head coach Jim Mora after a single 5-11 season, are reportedly turning to USC head coach Pete Carroll to lead their organization. Carroll will be head coach and also have leadership over the organization with a to-be-determined title. The team will hire a general manager to be a counterbalance to Carroll. Below are some thoughts on the move from a coaching perspective; we’ll compare it with other hires in an upcoming post.

Carroll built a powerhouse at USC, putting together big talent on the field, finding up-and-coming coaches, and creating a culture of excellence and competition. But the former Patriots head coach was only so-so in his first NFL head coaching stint (although he was a premium defensive coordinator in several stops). Carroll waited for his spot to return to the NFL, and now he’s getting control of an entire organization in Seattle. You can understand why Carroll wants to leave USC – what more can he accomplish there, and with NCAA sanctions possible, hitting the eject button now may be prudent – and he’s getting the situation he wants. But he’s going to need to do a masterful job to turn the Seahawks around. All of Seattle’s so-called stars are either aging or gone, and there just isn’t a class of premium players behind them. And Carroll won’t be able to simply recruit talent to Seattle – he’ll have to maneuver around the salary cap, the draft, and free agency. That’s not to say that this can’t work – Carroll is bright, and he knows the NFL well enough to be able to be successful. But in his search for control Carroll went to a team that’s on a steep decline. He’s getting a five-year deal, and he’ll probably need all of that time to reinvigorate the talent base and make Seattle competitive again. This isn’t an easy task for Carroll, but rebuilding USC wasn’t either, and Carroll thrived there. We’ll see if he has another miracle in him.

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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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RP: Coaching trees

Per Chase’s request, we spent some time this offseason researching the coaching influences of NFL head coaches. We compiled this information into coaching trees. There are four dominant trees in the league right now: the Bill Walsh tree, the Tony Dungy tree, the Bill Parcells tree (thanks in part to Bill Belichick), and the Marty Schottenheimer tree (thanks in large part to Bill Cowher). Two other trees connected to Buddy Ryan and Jimmy Johnson are also worth noting.

Let’s dig into each tree to see how it has grown and what the distinguishing characteristics are. One note: While many coaches have apprenticed in several of these trees, we’ve tried to locate them in the area that most describes their coaching styles and philosophies. So, for example, while Herman Edwards could be listed under Dick Vermeil, we’ve put him under Tony Dungy because his defensive approach is more like Dungy’s.

You can see an illustration of all of these trees at the bottom of this post.

THE BILL WALSH TREE
Inspiration:
Paul Brown
Distinguishing characteristic: Short, timing-centric passing game a.k.a. the West Coast offense
History: Walsh, who learned under Hall of Fame coach/GM Paul Brown, perfected those lessons in a career that earned him three Super Bowls and spawned at least five other Super Bowl winners — George Seifert, Mike Holmgren, Mike Shanahan, Brian Billick, and Jon Gruden. This coaching tree has spread like wildfire since the early 1990s, when Holmgren, Shanahan, and Dennis Green first got their shots as NFL head coaches. Because those guys are all long-time NFL coaches, they too have “fathered” assistants who went on to get head coaching jobs. Holmgren’s early Green Bay staffs included significant head coaches such as Andy Reid, Gruden, Steve Mariucci, and Mike Sherman. Similiarly, recent head coaches like Billick and Gary Kubiak trace their lineage back to this line.
Current status: As we get further away from Walsh’s fine 49ers tenure, this tree is starting to die off. Of current NFL coaches from this tree, only Brad Childress, Kubiak, Jim Mora, and Jim Zorn truly are true West Coast offense believers. Others — including as John Fox, John Harbaugh, Tom Cable, and Raheem Morris — are defensive guys who coached under Walsh disciples but who haven’t demonstrated the same affinity for the West Coast offense. The fact that West Coast offense stalwarts Gruden, Shanahan, and Holmgren left the coaching ranks after the ’08 season (at least for now) limits the current impact of this tree significantly.
Importance: This coaching tree dominated the league through the 1990s and most of this decade, but it’s now nearing the end of its run unless Kubiak, Childress, Mora, and Zorn produce another generation of coaches who embrace Walsh’s favored West Coast offense.

THE TONY DUNGY TREE
Inspiration: Chuck Noll, Monte Kiffin
Distinguishing characteristic: Zone defense with two deep safeties a.k.a. the Tampa-2
History: Dungy’s temperment reminds us of Chuck Noll, his Steelers head coach, while his strategy owes a debt to Monte Kiffin, his defensive coordinator in Tampa Bay. Dungy is probably the youngest coach to have spawned a coaching tree, but you can trace three current head coaches and two former head men to him. Mike Tomlin and Lovie Smith are the current success stories, and Jim Caldwell gets his shot this year. Two others, Herman Edwards and Rod Marinelli, apprenticed under Dungy before getting their shot. Given that Tomlin has already won a Super Bowl and that Smith has been to one (losing in the game to Dungy’s Colts), this tree has already grown roots throughout the NFL.
Current status: With Dungy’s retirement, it’s left mostly to Smith to continue his style of coaching and style of defense. While Tomlin echoes Dungy when it comes to temperment, he kept the Steelers’ zone-blitz scheme when he took over in Pittsburgh. Caldwell also seems to be moving away from the Tampa-2 defense as he replaces Dungy. That leaves Smith as the best example of a second generation of the Dungy tree. Marinelli is unlikely to get a second head-coaching shot given his failure in Detroit, and Edwards has already had two chances with decent but not eye-popping success.
Importance: This tree might have already seen its peak days. The future depends on whether Smith can continue as Chicago’s head coach and how successful Caldwell is in continuing Dungy’s legacy in Indy. But this tree is significant in that it represents the first three African-American head coaches to make it to the Super Bowl. The fact that Dungy had hired the other two as assistants speaks volumes about his ability to surround himself with the right people.

THE BILL PARCELLS TREE:
Inspiration:
Ray Perkins
Distinguishing characteristic: Size over speed and “Parcells guys”
History: Parcells was a college assistant who moved to the NFL under former Giants coach Ray Perkins and ultimately succeeded him. Since then, Parcells has been a success in five stops (New York Giants and Jets, New England, Dallas, and Miami) as head coach, GM, or both. Given his 25-year-plus NFL tenure, he has spawned many head coaches, including current head men Tony Sparano, Tom Coughlin, Todd Haley, Payton, and the most influential, Bill Belichick. Coughlin, a long-time head coach in Jacksonville and the Giants, has seen Dick Jauron and now Steve Spagnuolo branch off from his assistants, while Belichick has mentored Eric Mangini, Josh McDaniels, Nick Saban, Romeo Crennel, and Charlie Weis. Scott Linehan, a former Saban aide, gives this tree its first fourth-generation branch.
Current status: This is the dominant tree in the NFL today because of Belichick’s influence, Coughlin’s success, and the fact that three of Parcells’ recent Dallas assistants — Haley, Sparano, and Payton — have recently gotten head coaching jobs and succeeded. This tree looks like it is ready to continue branching out, although some of Belichick’s lieutenants (Crennel and Mangini) whiffed in their first head-coaching tries.
Importance: This is a dominant tree, with Parcells having two Super Bowl rings, Belichick three, and Coughlin one, and there appear to be chances for more rings to come. Plus, Saban has a national championship in the college ranks, adding to the luster. In a decade, we’ll look at this tree in much the same way that we current look at the Walsh tree.

THE MARTY SCHOTTENHEIMER TREE
Inspiration:
Joe Collier
Distinguishing characteristic: Smashmouth style
History: Schottenheimer, a longtime AFL player, became a head coach in Cleveland back in 1984, and since then has spent more than 20 years as an NFL head coach in Cleveland, Kansas City, Washington, and San Diego. His coaching tree includes Green Bay’s Mike McCarthy and also its most notable member, Bill Cowher. Cowher’s long run as head coach in Pittsburgh is where this coaching tree gets its depth, as at least five head coaches — Ken Whisenhunt, Mike Mularkey, Dom Capers, Jim Haslett, and Marvin Lewis — served as coordinators under Cowher. Surprisingly, it is Lewis and his time in Baltimore that created the next generations of this tree, as Jack Del Rio learned under him, with Mike Smith took the Schottenheimer approach to Atlanta last year.
Current status: Cowher’s influence is still felt in the league, and the spread of the 3-4 defense throughout the league has a lot to do with the influence of Pittsburgh’s style under Cowher and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. Whisenhunt, Del Rio, Smith, and Lewis are current coaches from the Cowher line, while McCarthy is a direct Schottenheimer disciple.
Importance: This tree doesn’t have the breadth of the Walsh or Parcells editions, but the long tenures of Schottenheimer and Cowher have definitely left a mark. If a second coach from this tree can join Cowher as a Super Bowl winner, the tree will be viewed with more historical importance.

THE BUDDY RYAN TREE
Inspiration:
Weeb Ewbank/Walt Michaels
Distinguishing characteristic: High-pressure defense a.k.a. the 46 defense
History: Ryan first burst onto the scene as the defensive line coach with the New York Jets in Super Bowl three. He went on to become the coordinator of Minnesota’s Purple People Eaters in the 1970s before bringing the 46 defense to Chicago, where he famously led the crew that won Super Bowl 20. Ryan went on to become the head coach in Philadelphia. He is the mentor to Jeff Fisher, the long-time Titans coach who played for Ryan in Chicago and coached under him in Philadelphia. Ryan also has twin sons — Rex, the new head coach of the Jets, and Rob, a longtime defensive coordinator now in Cleveland. Jim Schwartz, a former Fisher aide who is now the head coach in Detroit. Mike Singletary, like Fisher, is former Ryan player who is bringing the coach’s aggressive defensive attitude to the sidelines.
Current status: This is a tree that might be growing into prominence thanks in large part to the Ryan twins and to Fisher. The longer Fisher coaches and succeeds in Tennessee, the more of his assistants will become head men in the NFL. And if Schwartz turns the Detroit wasteland into football utopia, or if Singletary returns the 49ers to prominence, then this tree will take off.
Importance: It’s growing, but Rex Ryan, Singletary, and Schwartz will determine its future. My father-in-law says this of trees: “The first year they sleep, the next year they creep, and the third year they leap.” This coaching tree is the creep stage, and it remains to be seen whether it will leap in the coming years.

THE JIMMY JOHNSON TREE
Inspiration:
Frank Broyles
Distinguishing characteristic: Speed over size
History: Johnson was a successful college head coach at Oklahoma State and Miami before his ex-Arkansas teammate Jerry Jones brought him to the NFL to be head coach of the Dallas Cowboys. There, Johnson created a dynasty by drafting speedy athletes all over the field. He preferred to draft a speedy guy and bulk him up instead of drafting a bigger guy. That college recruiting tactic worked, and Johnson won two Super Bowls (and provided the pieces for a third) in Dallas. Three of his major assistants became high-profile head-coaching hires — Dave Wannstedt in Chicago (then Miami and now the University of Pittsburgh), Butch Davis (at the University of Miami, then the Cleveland Browns, and now the University of North Carolina), and Norv Turner (in Washington, Oakland, and now San Diego). One of Turner’s assistants in Washington and San Diego, Cam Cameron, has had head-coaching stops with the Dolphins and also the University of Indiana.
Current status: This tree is all but dormant now because Wannstedt, Davis, and Turner have all struggled as NFL head coaches.  Turner is on his third shot and has had marginal success with the Chargers. Davis and Wannstedt have returned to the college ranks, both with some success.
Importance: This coaching tree never lived up to its potential because Wannstedt, Turner, and Davis weren’t the coaching stars that they appeared to be on Johnson’s staff. While Johnson is an iconic NFL coach, his tree won’t be remembered as all that impactful.

There are three significant recent coaches who don’t fit into these 6 primary coaching trees. Wade Phillips’ primary influence was his father, Bum Phillips. Mike Nolan first established himself under Dan Reeves with the Giants. And Mike Martz wasn’t known until he worked with Dick Vermeil in St. Louis.

As promised, here’s a visual-learner-friendly look at these coaching trees:

coachingtrees6

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