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FR: 2012 Coaching Changes

Each year, we review and compare new head coaches in the NFL. This year’s entries:
*Kansas City (Romeo Crennel, who was the interim, replacing Todd Haley)
*Jacksonsville (Mike Mularkey, replacing interim Mel Tucker, who replaced Jack Del Rio)
*St. Louis (Jeff Fisher, replacing Steve Spagnuolo)
*Miami (Joe Philbin, replacing interim Todd Bowles, who replaced Tony Sparano)
*Oakland (Dennis Allen, replacing Hue Jackson)
*Indianapolis (Chuck Pagano, replacing Jim Caldwell)
*Tampa Bay (Greg Schiano, replacing Raheem Morris)

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 – Jeff Fisher, Rams – In an offseason where many big names circulated around the coaching carousel, Fisher is the one who actually landed. The former Titans coach provided stability for an organization that didn’t really have it otherwise in Tennessee, and the results were 142 wins, six playoff appearances, and one AFC championship over 17 years. Fisher never had elite talent, but he always had a physical team that played good defense and ran the ball well. And when he got a quarterback with toughness – as with the late Steve McNair – he won. Now he goes to St. Louis, where he becomes the seventh coach (including interims) since 2005. The Rams desperately need stability, and Fisher brings that. He should help a defense with nice, young front seven pieces play better, and he will set about fixing an offensive line that has struggled despite massive investment in the draft and in free agency. Most of all, his job is to develop a system that allows promising young QB Sam Bradford to prosper. (We covered what Fisher’s arrival means to RB Steven Jackson previously in this post.) Fisher may not be a Hall of Fame level coach, but he is a good one, and he should help in St. Louis.

9 – none

8 – none

7 – Chuck Pagano, Colts – I don’t know why I have such a good feeling about the fit of Pagano and the Colts. Pagano’s NFL resume isn’t that long – he has spent most of his coaching career in college – and he served as a coordinator for just one year at the NFL level. But his Ravens defense was solid this season, and he certainly had plenty of big personalities to contend with in Baltimore. Now this coaching lifer – who has also been a secondary coach in Cleveland and Oakland – leaps to the big job. When he has been in the media, he has showed personality, and all reports say he was hyper-prepared for his Colts interview. The one potential glitch in this mix is how Pagano will develop a young quarterback – either Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III – coming in as a rookie. Undoubtedly, the Colts asked that question in the interview, and they must have liked Pagano’s answer. And stepping into a situation with a franchise quarterback coming in off the bat is good fortune for Pagano. Plus, the recent history of Ravens defensive coordinators to become head coaches (Marvin Lewis, Rex Ryan for example) is pretty good. His staff will be key, but the early returns on Pagano and the Colts seem very promising.

6 – Mike Mularkey, Jaguars – We discussed the reasons behind hiring Mularkey and what his biggest job in Jacksonville is in this post. We like the move even more now that he has kept Mel Tucker around as defensive coordinator. Ultimately, we like this move more than most second-time coaches. Mularkey is still a good prospect and a worthwhile hire.

English: Tennessee Titans head coach on the si...

New Rams head coach Jeff Fisher. Image via Wikipedia

5 – Dennis Allen, Raiders – The Raiders, who were widely assumed to be importing a Packers assistant now that Reggie McKenzie is the GM, instead hired Broncos defensive coordinator Allen. Allen doesn’t have a long resume, but he did a nice job with the Denver defense this year after a few years as the Saints secondary coach. The fact that Allen was hired off John Fox’s staff could be a good precedent; a similar thing happened when Jacksonville plucked defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio off Fox’s staff after his first year in Carolina. Allen is just 39, but he’s obviously a sharp coach, and former players have credited his people skills as well. But the Raiders’ culture isn’t necessarily one bred for success at this point. There is a commitment to excellence, but there isn’t a commitment to the things excellence requires – like discipline, shrewd salary-cap management, and more. McKenzie will start trying to fix those things, but the question is whether being the first coach in the rebuilding process is ideal. Still, Allen inherits a talented roster, and he knows the AFC West. He needs to find a strong offensive voice, but that could still happen. So he has a real shot in his first head-coaching job – which isn’t a bad situation at age 39.

4 – Greg Schiano, Buccaneers – The Buccaneers, apparently entranced by Jim Harbaugh’s first-season success, first chased Oregon’s Chip Kelly before landing Schiano from Rutgers. Schiano did a remarkable job of taking Rutgers from being the dregs of college football to being respectable, although he couldn’t take the final step to a BCS bowl out of the Big East. Still, he has a solid resume that includes NFL experience as a defensive backs coach with the Bears. He is well respected, and Bill Belichick’s public respect undoubtedly helped Schiano land the job in Tampa Bay. Now he must show that he can coach, not just recruit. The Bucs have a young roster, and the fact that Tampa Bay has taken a lot of gambles on talented players with questionable character certainly contributed to the 10-game losing streak that cost Raheem Morris his job. Schiano must make the team tougher as he develops the skills of guys like QB Josh Freeman, DE Adrian Clayborn, and MLB Mason Foster. That means Schiano’s staff will be of paramount importance. We never love the idea of college coaches going to the pros, and a coach who made his bones as a recruiter the way Schiano did is even more of a question mark. But if Schiano can add toughness, the talent is present for Tampa Bay to tick up quickly.

3 – Joe Philbin, Dolphins – Philbin, who spent his entire NFL coaching career with the Packers after joining the team in 2003, was an under-the-radar selection who gained serious momentum with the Packers’ offensive explosion this season. Everyone who has worked with Philbin speaks highly of him, both as a strategist and in terms of working with people. If that’s the case, then he could end up being a fine selection. But he represents a departure from the offensive system the Dolphins were using, and a transition to the West Coast offense could lead the team downward before it surges. Plus, owner Stephen Ross really wanted a high-profile hire – he chased Jim Harbaugh and Jeff Fisher the last two offseasons – so it’s hard to imagine how much rope Philbin will get in Miami. Philbin’s a good head-coaching candidate, but this is a strange place for him to land.

2 – none

1 – Romeo Crennel, Chiefs – We discussed why the Crennel hire is a bad idea in this post.

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RP: Coaching Trees Update

In the two-plus years that Football Relativity has existed, the most popular post we’ve ever done is our Coaching Trees research project. It has shown up in more searches and led to as much discussion as anything we’ve ever done. In this project, we broke down the influences of all the NFL head coaches to determine what the most prominent coaching trees were.

But there have been two head-coach hiring cycles since we put together the project. So we thought we’d update our coaching trees graphic and add the head coaches hired in the last two years. We’ve assigned 10 head coaches (nine permanent, one interim) to trees. Here’s why we added them where we did:

2010 hires
Pete Carroll – Carroll has bounced around enough that he’s hard to categorize. In many ways, a lot of his success is due to Monte Kiffin and Earle Bruce, whom he coached under in college. He coached under Bud Grant and then Jerry Burns with the Vikings and then worked as Bruce Coslet’s  defensive coordinator with the Jets before succeeding Coslet as head coach. After the Jets jettisoned him, Carroll went to work for George Seifert in San Francisco and then became coach of the Patriots. Of course, Carroll rebuilt his career with a great run at USC before moving to the Seahawks. We’ve included Carroll in the coaching tree of Grant and Burns, since they were the first ones to give him an NFL shot.

Chan Gailey – The career of Gailey, now head coach of the Bills, is a strange one, with key stops at then-Division II Troy State and also in the old World League of American Football. His last stop before getting his first head-coaching chance in Dallas was as the offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh under Bill Cowher, but we’ve included Gailey under his first NFL boss, Dan Reeves, whom Gailey worked for in Denver. We made that determination since Gailey is far more known for his offensive play-calling prowess than for his Cowher-esque defensive approach.

Perry Fewell – Fewell was only an interim head coach in Buffalo, but his repeated presence as a head-coach interviewee makes him worth including in this exercise. Fewell started his coaching career in college and got his first pro shot in Jacksonville, but it was Lovie Smith who gave him his best opportunity in St. Louis and Chicago. Since then, Fewell has been a coordinator in Buffalo and with the Giants, in addition to his interim chance with the Bills. He is the first branch off Lovie Smith, which makes him part of the massive Tony Dungy tree.

2011 hires
Leslie Frazier – We were tempted to include Frazier (and a couple of fellow 2011 hires) under Mike Ditka’s tree, since he (and Ron Rivera and Jim Harbaugh) all played for Da Coach. But instead, we’ve included Frazier under the Andy Reid tree. Frazier’s career started as head coach of Division III Trinity College, and then he coached at the University of Illinois. Then Reid brought Frazier in as the Eagles’ defensive backs coach. After four years in Philadelphia, Frazier got his first coordinator’s job with the Bengals under Marvin Lewis. Frazier also worked for Tony Dungy as the Colts’ DB coach before moving to Minnesota as Brad Childress’ defensive coordinator. Since Childress comes from Reid’s tree as well, we believe that this is the most appropriate place to include Frazier on our coaching tree chart.

Ron Rivera – Rivera, like Frazier, played for the 1985 Bears, and his first shot at coaching was as a quality control coach for the Bears. But like Frazier, his first chance as an NFL position coach came in 1999 with the Eagles, when Andy Reid was hired. Both Frazier and Rivera learned from the late Jim Johnson at that time. After five years with the Eagles, Rivera moved back to Chicago to be Lovie Smith’s defensive coordinator, but Rivera and Smith never meshed in terms of defensive style. That led Rivera to San Diego, where he worked as linebackers coach and then was promoted to spend three years as defensive coordinator under Norv Turner. We’re including Rivera, like Frazier, under the Andy Reid tree, and with both additions Johnson gets a nod for being a defensive influence.

Jim Harbaugh – Harbaugh played in the NFL for years, entering the league with the Bears under Mike Ditka before playing key roles in San Diego and Indianapolis. But his NFL coaching experience is limited to two years as the quarterback coach in Oakland under Bill Callahan after Jon Gruden left. Harbaugh then became a college coach before joining the 49ers this offseason. In truth, Harbaugh should be under his father Jack’s tree, but since we didn’t include his brother John there, we’ve added Callahan and then Harbaugh under Jon Gruden in the Mike Holmgren branch of the Bill Walsh tree.

Jason Garrett – As a coach, Garrett has worked for Nick Saban with the Dolphins and Wade Phillips with the Cowboys. But in many ways, he already had his offensive identity before working for either coach. So we’ve included Garrett in the tree of Jimmy Johnson, for whom he played for seven years in Dallas. Garrett was the prototypical third quarterback – a player-coach who seemed to know the offensive inside and out, which gave him the ability to keep things straight despite inferior physical talent for an NFL quarterback. At first glance, that’s what helped Garrett develop his coaching style, and so we put inside Johnson’s tree.

Pat Shurmur – Shurmur comes from a coaching family (his uncle Fritz was a long-time NFL defensive coordinator), but his coaching legacy falls under Andy Reid. After eight years as a college assistant under Nick Saban at Michigan State (and one more year at Stanford), Shurmur spent 10 years as quarterbacks coach under Reid. He got a promotion to move to St. Louis as offensive coordinator, which is where he got the Cleveland Browns job. Since Shurmur was hired for his West Coast offense credentials, he naturally fits as an offshoot of Reid more than Saban.

Hue Jackson – Jackson spent 14 years as a college coach before Marty Schottenheimer gave him his first pro shot as the running backs coach with the Redskins in 2001. Schottenheimer lasted just one year in Washington, but Jackson stayed under Steve Spurrier and got the offensive coordinator in Spurrier’s second year. Jackson then moved to Cincinnati as the wide receivers coach and then to Atlanta as the offensive coordinator in Bobby Petrino’s single season there. From there, he went to Baltimore as the quarterbacks coach and then to Oakland as the offensive coordinator, before the Raiders promoted him to head coach. Given Jackson’s nomadic career, we’ll include him in the Schottenheimer tree since Marty gave him his first pro opportunity.

Mike Munchak – Munchak, the new Titans coach, has spent his entire career with the Oilers/Titans franchise, first as a Hall of Fame player, and then as an assistant coach. And the Oilers/Titans had just one coach during that time – Jeff Fisher. So Munchak joins Jim Schwartz as a branch off of the Fisher tree, which falls under the Buddy Ryan tree.

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Who’s rebuilding, who’s reloading? AFC edition

As the NFL draft wound down, and I tried to get Mel Kiper’s voice out of my head, I had an idea – let’s evaluate which NFL teams are rebuilding and which are reloading, and whether each team is taking the right approach. Here’s the AFC edition; the NFC edition is available here.

AFC East

Buffalo is reloading – This isn’t the wisest approach, because the Bills didn’t have enough premium talent and haven’t been contenders. But instead of churning the roster in search of better players in the first year of Chan Gailey’s tenure as head coach, the Bills have largely stuck to the status quo this offseason. Trent Edwards, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Brian Brohm are still the quarterback options, and the Bills haven’t rebuilt an offensive line that struggled last year. The main additions – DE Dwan Edwards and ILB Andra Davis – were designed to help the Bills move from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4. And the first round of the draft yielded a specialty player in C.J. Spiller whose best role is as a featured gamebreaker, not an every-down back. The Bills seem to be in denial about how lacking in talent they truly are, especially on offense. Verdict: Wrong approach

Miami is reloading – The Dolphins are closer to the surface than the Bills are, and so their decision to reload makes more sense. Trading for WR Brandon Marshall and signing OLB Karlos Dansby are the kinds of big strikes that teams close to the playoffs make to try to get over the top. The Marshall acquisition makes sense, since Chad Henne shows a ton of promise at quarterback and the offensive line is good enough to provide time for Henne-to-Marshall to become an elite combo. Dansby doesn’t make up for the loss of veteran pass rushers Jason Taylor and Joey Porter, but he is a playmaker who perfectly fits the Bill Parcells prototype. It’s hard to say whether these moves will put the Dolphins over the top, but we are comfortable asserting that the arrow is pointed in the right direction. Verdict: Right approach

New England is rebuilding – There’s a stigma to the word rebuilding, because often teams use it as a synonym for giving up. But it’s possible to rebuild without giving up, and that’s the Pats’ approach right now. While they’ve added veterans like Torry Holt, Gerard Warren, and Damione Lewis to fill bit roles, the larger picture shows that New England is trying to infuse youth into its defense with guys like Devin McCourty, Jermaine Cunningham, and Brandon Spikes, and into its offense with guys like Rob Gronkowski and Taylor Price. These are the players that will determine whether Bill Belichick’s second decade in New England gets off to a good start. But given the age of New England’s offensive and defensive fronts, rebuilding on the fly in the past two offseasons has been the right call. Verdict: Right approach

New York Jets are reloading – There’s not a team in the NFL headed in a win-now direction more than the Jets are right now. Their offseason additions are littered with veterans like Santonio Holmes, Antonio Cromartie, LaDainian Tomlinson, and Jason Taylor, all of whom are proven vets who should step in a lot quicker than draft picks would have. While draft picks Kyle Wilson, Vladimir Ducasse, and Joe McKnight should find roles quickly, it’s the veterans that will determine whether the Jets can get one step further and into the Super Bowl this season. Verdict: Right approach

AFC North

Baltimore is reloading – The Ravens always do a good job in the draft, and that steady talent infusion over the years has put the franchise in position to keep things pointed in the right direction. But this year, the Ravens put the reloading into overdrive by trading for WR Anquan Boldin, who provides the No. 1 receiver the team has been missing since its move to Baltimore. While rookies Sergio Kindle, Terrence Cody, and Arthur Jones add depth on defense, the Boldin move is the one that sets the tone that this franchise is going for glory now. We can’t blame the Ravens for taking that tack. Verdict: Right approach

Cincinnati is reloading – Coming off the second division title of Marvin Lewis’ tenure, the Bengals are looking to fill in holes and keep positive momentum. Antonio Bryant is supposed to be the complement to Chad Ochocinco that Cincy was missing without T.J. Houshmandzadeh, and if he can’t perhaps Matt Jones or rookie Jordan Shipley or even first-round TE Jermaine Gresham can. In the draft, the Bengals continued to take talented guys with question marks in Carlos Dunlap and Brandon Ghee, and both are good enough to fill roles right away. And taking a shot on the talented but troubled Pacman Jones is the ultimate win-now move. The Bengals know they have something going, and so they’re going for it. Verdict: Right approach

Cleveland is rebuilding – The Browns know they’re in need of serious changes, as the hiring of Mike Holmgren in the offseason proved. So the team has made wholesale changes, not just at quarterback where Jake Delhomme, Seneca Wallace, and Colt McCoy arrive, but across the roster. Veterans CB Sheldon Brown, LBs Scott Fujita and Chris Gocong, and OT Tony Pashos will help stabilize problem areas, but the team knows they’re not long-term solutions. Instead, the Browns are looking to build around youngsters like Joe Thomas and first-rounder Joe Haden as they try to start a new era in Cleveland. Verdict: Right approach

Pittsburgh is reloading – The Steelers have had a tumultous offseason, but the roster moves they’ve made are a sign that they still consider themselves contenders. Bringing back WR Antwaan Randle El, ILB Larry Foote, CB Bryant McFadden, and QB Byron Leftwich shows that they don’t want much of a learning curve at work in training camp, and drafting C Maurkice Pouncey shows that they wanted immediate help in the first round. The approach is risky, but given how recently the Steelers won the Super Bowl, you can’t blame them for getting the band back together for one last hurrah. They can only hope that the Ben Roethlisberger issues don’t break up the band. Verdict: Right approach

AFC South

Houston is reloading – The Texans are coming off their first winning season, and their offseason approach demonstrates that they think more is in the offing. Unhappy CB Dunta Robinson left via free agency, but first-rounder Kareem Jackson can step in and start. He used the same terminology in college that he will in Houston, and that will ease his transition. The Texans kept WR Kevin Walter and added rookie Ben Tate to a RB group that was problematic at times last year. These moves preserve the status quo and give the Texans a chance to build on their modest ’09 success. Now it’s up to the players and coaches to make the status quo scenario work. Verdict: Right approach

Indianapolis is reloading – The Colts made a few more changes than normal, letting DE Raheem Brock, CBs Marlin Jackson and Tim Jennings, and OG Ryan Lilja go, but in terms of additions they continued to do what they usually do and build through the draft. Sometimes Indy’s rookies contribute immediately, but more often it’s the second- and third-year players who start to flourish the longer they’re in the system. When a team gets that approach going, the smartest thing to do is to keep the train rolling. And since Peyton Manning and Bill Polian are such good conductors, the train continues to roll along. Verdict: Right approach

Jacksonville is reloading – The Jaguars have a long cut list this offseason, but aside from DT John Henderson none of them were core players. Meanwhile, the Jaguars signed veteran DE Aaron Kampman and traded for MLB Kirk Morrison to add veteran experience to the front seven. On offense, it’s status quo, as the Jags rely on David Garrard, Maurice Jones-Drew, and a young corps of receivers and linemen. This team was barely on the cusp of contention last year, so reloading seems like a strange course, and the success depends on whether Garrard can be a top-10 NFL quarterback or just a league average starter. We’re skeptical, and so we disagree. Verdict: Wrong approach

Tennessee is rebuilding – The Titans embarked on a rebuilding project by saying goodbye to stalwarts like Keith Bulluck and Kyle Vanden Bosch. They also seem to be willing to let Kevin Mawae go. That means youngsters like Derrick Morgan and Rennie Curran will need to take on bigger roles. With Vince Young at the helm and Chris Johnson on the run, the Titans now have a young offensive corps, and they’re trying to move the same way on defense. That makes sense, even though holes in the secondary make it appear like the rebuilding project isn’t yet done. Verdict: Right approach

AFC West

Denver is rebuilding – The Broncos continue to chase away the vestiges of Mike Shanahan’s era and move to Josh McDaniels’ desired future. So at wide receiver, Brandon Marshall is out and Demaryius Thomas is in. At quarterback, Jay Cutler is long gone, and Tim Tebow is on the horizon. On the offensive line, Ben Hamilton is gone and Zane Beadles and J.D. Walton are in. Meanwhile, the defensive overhaul continues as the Broncos tried to supplement the new 3-4 defense that fell apart in the second half of last year with NT Jamal Williams, DE Jarvis Green, and ILB Akin Ayodele. At some point, Denver will have to spend its highest draft picks on defense to make the rebuilding project stick. But at this point, McDaniels has changed so much that there’s nothing the Broncos can do but go all out on their rebuild. Verdict: Right approach

Kansas City is rebuilding – The Chiefs still have a long way to go in the rebuilding project that began last offseason and that now continues this offseason. S Eric Berry is the prize of this year’s crew, with fellow SEC products Dexter McCluster and Javier Arenas also slated to become key contributors. Most of the veteran additions, notably Ryan Lilja and Thomas Jones, are designed to keep the Chiefs from being abysmal as the talent infusion takes effect. There’s still a long way to go in Chiefs land, but at least they’re on the right path. Verdict: Right approach

Oakland is reloading – The Raiders never admit that they’re in the doldrums, but it actually makes some sense this offseason. The defense has a lot of good pieces, and adding Rolando McClain and Lamarr Houston in the draft and Kamerion Wimbley and Quentin Groves via trades should help the front seven’s performance go up a level. But the biggest change is on offense, where Jason Campbell gives the Silver and Black a qualified pro quarterback who will prepare and take advantage of the talent outside. Campbell’s not great, but he’s better than average, and that should allow Oakland to make the most of its other talents. A run at the playoffs isn’t out of the question, and that makes just win, baby, the right approach – finally – for the Raiders. Verdict: Right approach

San Diego is reloading – The Chargers know that they have talent, and so they once again used the offseason to get pieces that will push them over the top. Paying a ransom for first-round RB Ryan Mathews demonstrates this approach, and the Chargers also added cornerback depth with Nathan Vasher, who knows coordinator Ron Rivera’s system. Is it enough for a team that’s been on the cusp a painfully long time? Reloading as the Chargers are is the only way they’re going to find out. Verdict: Right approach

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FR: 2009 Awards

Most Valuable Player: QB Peyton Manning, Colts – This feels like such an unoriginal pick, but I’m convinced that if the Colts had just a good quarterback (even someone as good as Tony Romo) they would have been 9-7 instead of 14-2. Manning took an inexperienced receiving corps and made enough big plays for the Colts to go 8-0 in games decided by one score. That’s ridiculous. He’s a five-win player (at least), and no one else in the league provides that much of a bump to his team. If that ain’t valuable, I don’t know what is.

Offensive Player of the Year: RB Chris Johnson, Titans – I’ve always thought it was weasely not to make your MVP your offensive player of the year, but since this is a different award, we’ll pick a different winner. And Johnson, who ran for 2,006 yards, was the most dynamic and dominant offensive player in the league this year. Two thousand yards is a magic number, and Johnson got there at a rate that made it seem a foregone conclusion. That’s a ridiculous level of dominance.

Defensive Player of the Year: CB Darrelle Revis, Jets – The Jets were the league’s best defensive statistically both in terms of yards allowed and points allowed, and that was in large part because Revis flat shut down opponents’ No. 1 receivers. Revis’ six interceptions and 31 passes defensed don’t even begin to show how dominant he was. No other player was as reliably dominant on defense than Revis, and that gives him the nod.

Special Teams Player of the Year: Josh Cribbs, Browns – Cribbs is the best kick returner in the game right now, as he showed with two kick return touchdowns against the Chiefs in Week 15 and four total returns (kick and punt) on the season. Plus, Cribbs is a terrific cover guy. There’s no one who makes more impact on special teams than Cribbs.

Offensive Rookie of the Year: OT Michael Oher, Ravens – He didn’t play the blind side for the Ravens, at least most of the year, but he stepped right in as a starter for a playoff team and played without many hitches. Oher has great size that helps in the running game and also the feet to be a solid pass protector. He had a great rookie season and looks forward to an even better career. Oher is a narrow choice over Minnesota WR Percy Harvin for this award.

Defensive Rookie of the Year: Brian Cushing, Texans – We’ve already named Cushing the best No. 56 in the league, and now we’re giving him the nod as the best defensive rookie in the league this year, over S Jarius Byrd of Buffalo. Cushing was exactly what the Texans needed – a play-making outside linebacker to pair with tackling maching DeMeco Ryans in the middle. Cushing and Ryans will be the core of the Texans defense for the next few years, and that’s a big reason that Texans playoff talk is legit. Houston has never had linebackers of that impact before.

Most Improved Player: Miles Austin, Cowboys – Back at Pro Football Weekly, I wondered why the NFL didn’t have a Most Improved Player award, a la the NBA. That’s when PFW started offering that award. And were I to get a vote there, it would be for Austin, who exploded onto the scene with 81 catches, 1,230 yards and 11 touchdown catches. Austin is the prototypical guy who developed into a star – a former small-school player unearthed by Bill Parcells and signed as an undrafted free agent. Could Austin turn into the Rod Smith of this decade? So far, so good.

Comeback Player of the Year: Cadillac Williams, Buccaneers – With all due respect to Ricky Williams, who had a career type of year after several years either out of the league or as a reserve, the Caddy had the most profound return this year. After tearing the patellar tendon in one knee in ’07 and the other knee in ’08, Williams got healthy in the offseason and started from Game One this year. He finished with 821 rushing yards and 219 receiving yards and seven total touchdowns in a system designed for him to split carries. It’s a great story, and Cadillac deserves props for bouncing back.

Head Coach of the Year: Marvin Lewis, Bengals – Lewis took a team that was 0-8 in the first half of the 2008 season and led it to a division sweep and an AFC North title. Over the past two years, he’s also remade the team as a run-first offense and lockdown defense. The Bengals were more physical than traditional bullies Pittsburgh and Baltimore, and it showed in the results. For changing a mindset, Lewis earns this award.

Executive of the Year: Bill Polian, Colts – In a year of change, Polian came up big for the Colts. Rookies Austin Collie, Jerraud Powers, and Jacob Lacey all stepped right into the lineup and produced, and the head-coach succession from Tony Dungy to Jim Caldwell went seamlessly despite issues on the coaching staff throughout the offseason. All that can be attributed to Polian, who sets the tone for the franchise.

Offensive Coordinator of the Year: Darrell Bevell, Vikings – Bevell doesn’t call the plays in Minnesota – Brad Childress does – but Bevell served as an important buffer between Childress and Brett Favre. And regardless of what you think of the coziness of that arrangement, the fact that Minnesota was second in the league in points scored means that it worked during the regular season.

Defensive Coordinator of the Year: Wade Phillips, Cowboys – Dallas allowed the second-fewest points in the league without big additions on defense. Instead, Phillips had his team continuing to develop – especially OLB Anthony Spencer. Phillips has long been one of the best defensive coaches in the league, and since he served as coordinator along with his head-coaching duties this year, we’ll give him the nod.

Play of the Year: Brandon Stokely carom TD catch against Cincinnati, Week 1 – The play that we’ll all remember from this season is the bizarre way the Broncos won in Week 1 in Cincinnati. Ironically, while the play sparked the Broncos to a 6-0 start, Denver missed the playoffs, while Cincinnati rebounded to win the AFC North. But regardless of that, this is the play that highlight makers will feature from 2009.

Game of the Year: Colts 35, Patriots 34 – No game caused more discussion – just mention 4th-and-2 and you’ll still get an argument – and no game went further to determine the hierarchy in the AFC. This Sunday-nighter gets the nod.

Offensive Performance of the Year: Ben Roethlisberger throwing for 503 yards and last-second TD pass to win against Green Bay in Week 15 – Pittsburgh desperately needed a win, and Roethlisberger delivered against a defense that entered ranked No. 1 against the pass. The performance included a perfect throw to Mike Wallace on the game’s final play to give Pittsburgh the win. It wasn’t enough to get the Steelers into the playoffs, but it was enough to give Roethlisberger the nod here over Brandon Marshall’s 21 catches against the Colts, Miles Austin’s 250-yard receiving game against the Chiefs, Jamaal Charles’ 256-yard rushing game against the Broncos, and Jerome Harrison’s 286 rushing yards against the Chiefs.

Defensive Performance of the Year: Charles Woodson Week 12 against Detroit – On Thanksgiving Day, Woodson had the ultimate stat-filler’s day – seven tackles, one sack, four passes defensed, one forced fumble, two interceptions, and one interception return for a touchdown. That dominant performance shone a light on the fine season Woodson had overall. So we give him the nod over four-sack days by Elvis Dumervil, Antwan Odom, and Brian Orakpo.

Crazy Kicker of the Year: Hunter Smith, Redskins – Smith had a rushing touchdown, a passing touchdown, and an interception thrown on the ugliest play of the year. No kicker was involved in more crazy plays than Hunter the Punter.

Transaction Bingo player of the year: DT Orien Harris, Bengals – Harris, who played in 2008 with the Bengals, was traded from Cincy to St. Louis in exchange for RB Brian Leonard. He then went from St. Louis to Detroit in exchange for WR Ronald Curry, again before the season. But he was waived after Week 1 by Detroit without seeing action, and then the Bengals signed him in mid-October. He was released after playing one game, and then re-signed once more by Cincinnati so he could play two more games. Harris edges out Marcus McCauley, who spent time on four rosters – Detroit, Tampa Bay, New Orleans, and Washington.

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FR: Coaching hot seats

It’s still really early in the season, but the coaching hot seat is already starting to heat up. So we thought we’d use Football Relativity to identify the hottest seats for head coaches around the league. We’re comparing these on a 10-point scale, with 1 being a backburner that’s barely lit and 10 being a red-hot seat.

We asked our readers over on the Most Valuable Network’s Football Wire to vote for the coach with the hottest seat, and we’ll give more thoughts about the “winner” of this comparison in this post over on MVN.

10 – Eric Mangini, Browns – (0-2 this year in 1st season with Cleveland, 23-28 including playoffs in 4th season overall) – Mangini was the choice of Most Valuable Network readers as the coach most on the hot seat. We spell out why below. (We moved our original MVN post to the bottom of this one…)

9 – Jack Del Rio, Jaguars – (0-2 this year, 51-50 including playoffs in 7th season with Jacksonville) – Del Rio’s my way or the highway approach has often led him into contentious relationships with players (including Mike Peterson), and Del Rio had the pull to clear the locker room of his detractors in the offseason. But after doing that, Del Rio will have to deliver, or else his tenure in Jacksonville becomes debatable. Del Rio has had a couple of really good seasons in Jacksonville, but the arrow appears pointed down at this point as the Jags look listless following up on a 5-11 campaign in 2008. The fact that Del Rio is signed through 2012 could save him for another year, given the Jaguars’ financial troubles related to ticket sales, but Del Rio needs to pile up some wins and provide some hope to make sure he sticks around.

8 – Wade Phillips, Cowboys – (1-1 this year, 23-12 including playoffs in 3rd season in Dallas, 71-54 including playoffs in 9th season overall) – Jerry Jones has always seemed to view Phillips as the coach he settled for and not the coach he wanted. Phillips has done an OK job in Dallas, but he hasn’t gotten the playoff win that has eluded the franchise since the mid-1990s, and until he does that he will always be on the hot seat. Phillips is 0-4 in the playoffs in all of his stops, which compounds the playoffs issue for him. The fact that flashy options like Mike Shanahan and Bill Cowher will be available after the season should make any Jones employee nervous, because we know Jerry loves to make headlines. So Phillips needs a big year to stick around in 2010.

7 – Jim Zorn, Redskins – (1-1 this year, 9-9 in 2nd year with Washington) – Zorn got a win last week against the Rams, but that was a win of the ugliest variety. He is not nearly out of the woods yet, because Redskins owner Daniel Snyder always has high expectations and a spendthrift approach but never has much patience. Zorn went 8-8 in his first year in a tough division, which is an OK result, but thus far Washington has looked less able to compete in the NFC East this year than it was in ’08.

6 – none

5  – John Fox, Panthers – (0-2 this year, 68-54 including playoffs in his 8th season in Carolina) – Fox has done a solid job in Carolina, and he has gotten plenty of rope despite inconsistency year to year. But his contract is up in 2010, and Carolinian Bill Cowher lurks as a potential replacement. So Fox needs to record back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in his career to make his job completely safe. His team’s 0-2 start has only increased the temperature of the burner he’s on. Fox stuck with Jake Delhomme in the offseason, which may end up being his downfall. Delhomme must play better and the Panthers must win, or else we could see Fox’s long tenure in Carolina end.

5 (con’t) – Dick Jauron, Bills – (1-1 this year, 22-28 in 4th season in Buffalo, 58-77 in 10th season overall) – Jauron is off to another solid start in Buffalo, but that’s no guarantee of future success. Remember that the Bills started 4-0 last year before stumbling to a 7-9 start. Jauron has gone 7-9 in each of his three seasons in Buffalo, and owner Ralph Wilson seems to have accelerated the win-now pressure by signing Terrell Owens. The Bills don’t have a good enough roster to win a championship, but if they match their effort of the first two weeks and avoid gagging away a game as they did against New England, they could sneak into a playoff spot. It may take that for Jauron to keep his gig.

4 – Gary Kubiak, Texans – (1-1 this year, 23-27 in 4th season in Houston) – The time is now for Kubiak and the Texans, who have enough offensive and defensive talent to finally get the franchise over the 8-8 hump and into the playoffs. Last week’s win at Tennessee made that look like more of a possibility. Road wins have traditionally been scarce for the Texans, so beating a division rival away from home was a good sign. But Kubiak needs more than good signs this year to continue guiding the high-powered Texans attack.

3 – Tom Cable, Raiders (1-1 this season, 5-9 in 2nd season in Oakland) – Cable actually has the Raiders playing well thus far, continuing the solid finish of last year. He deserves some time to see if he can turn this positive momentum into actual progress in Oakland. But Raider-land is so bizarre that you never know when Cable will run afoul of owner Al Davis, and there’s also the lingering issue of Tom Cable’s Punch Out in a coaching meeting. Still, the burner is turned down low on Cable right now because he’s done a decent job.

2 – Marvin Lewis, Bengals – (1-1 this season, 47-51-1 including playoffs in 7th season in Cincinnati) – Bengals coaches traditionally get a lot more slack than other coaches because Cincy’s ownership is so penurious that it doesn’t want to pay a coach who is no longer coaching. But Lewis seems to have the Bengals playing pretty well so far, as they have beaten Green Bay on the road and are an all-time fluke play away from being 2-0. Last year was actually Lewis’ first year with less than seven wins in Cincy, so he’s done a decent job on the whole. If he can get back into the 8- or 9-win range this year, he should be able to stick around.

2 (con’t) – Lovie Smith, Bears (1-1 this year, 48-38 including playoffs in 6th year with Chicago) – Smith got a big win over the Steelers in Week 2 that will help to keep whispers about his job from festering. Smith took over defensive playcalling duties from coordinator Bob Babich this year, which is often a move that’s designed to avoid a firing. The Bears still need to carry on and compete for Smith to be completely safe, especially given the expectations that came with the arrival of Jay Cutler, but Smith’s solid tenure in Chicago should continue with another winning season.

1 – Brad Childress, Vikings – (2-0 this year, 26-25 including playoffs in 4th year with Minnesota) – Childress went all-in by signing Brett Favre, and his Minnesota team has gotten off to a good start with two solid if unspectacular road wins. But we can’t take Childress completely off the hot seat because all he’s done is beat two of the worst teams in the league, the Lions and Browns. If his team is 4-4 at midseason, the temperature on his tuckus will quickly ratchet up.

Archive on Mangini:

Yesterday, we asked Football Wire readers which NFL head coach was on the hottest seat in the NFL. The choice was Cleveland’s Eric Mangini. You can see how Mangini compares to other NFL coaches on the hot seat in our Football Relativity comparison.
Mangini’s first season in Cleveland has been a comedy of errors. In his attempt to be like his estranged mentor Bill Belichick, Mangini has tried to rule with an iron hand in Cleveland even more than he did in his three years with the Jets. But many of these moves have made Mangini look like a petty control freak, and players are noticing. To wit:

*Mangini forced team rookies to take a 10-hour bus trip (one way) to work his youth football camp. Mangini himself took a private plane to the camp on the way there before criticism caused him to ride the bus back (with his head between his legs, likely).

*Mangini forced players to practice at full speed in terrible weather early in training camp. WR Syndric Steptoe suffered a season-ending injury during the practice, and afterwards Steptoe’s agent blamed Mangini for it.

*Mangini fined a Browns player $1,701 for not paying for a $3 bottle of water he took out of a hotel minibar.

*Mangini, pretending he was smarter than everyone else, didn’t identify whether Brady Quinn or Derek Anderson would start at quarterback for the Browns leading up to the opener. Quinn started, and the Browns lost. (Don’t blame Brady; Derek Anderson would have lost too.)

*All this has reportedly caused some agents  to say that they won’t recommend their players sign with Cleveland, even when the Browns offer more money.

Mangini’s arrogance and his players-don’t-matter attitude simply won’t fly in the long run if he doesn’t win. And if his team continues to stink out loud as it is right now, there might well be an out-and-out player revolt in Cleveland before the end of the year.

Mangini isn’t taking the Browns in the right direction, and instead appears to be burying the franchise further in the doldrums. That should put him on the hot seat, if ownership (which was so eager to hire Mangini in the offseason) is willing to admit its mistake after just a season. The temperature on Mangini’s hot seat ultimately will come down to Randy Lerner’s willingness to eat some humble pie.

Browns fans better hope Lerner is hungry enough to win to eat that meal, because Mangini has quickly put together a train wreck of a tenure in the Dawg Pound.

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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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