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FR: Week One

Here is our Football Relativity comparison after Week One. We’ve noted where we’ve moved teams up a level or down a level from the season-opening comparison.

10 –  New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers – Both teams won tight games, with the Steelers beating a really good team (the Titans) and the Patriots beating a who-knows-how-good-they-are team (the Bills). The fact that both teams found a way to win says a lot. Both teams have questions on defense, with the Steelers losing Troy Polamalu for at least 3-6 weeks and the Patriots looking undisciplined and slow. I expect the Patriots to get better on defense if ILB Jerod Mayo stays on the field. But if he’s out, the Patriots will have to prove they have a way to replace their best player. For now, though, we’ll leave both teams atop our rankings.

9 – New York Giants, Tennessee Titans – The Giants jumped out to a big lead over the Redskins and then played more conservatively to finish off the win. They’ll get a better test at Dallas this week, but that was a good opener. Tennessee looked pretty good at Pittsburgh despite the loss. The Titans showed more explosiveness offensively in the passing game, and they should get the run game going more against a less stringent front 7. We’ll see how Tennessee bounces back, but I still believe.

8 – Atlanta Falcons, Green Bay Packers (UP A LEVEL), Philadelphia Eagles, San Diego Chargers – The Falcons put together a solid performance against Miami. New TE Tony Gonzalez added a dimension to the offense as expected, and the defense created more pressure and more turnovers than it did much of last year. Green Bay had a come-from-behind win, overcoming the close-loss tendency that plagued it last year. The defense’s switch to a 3-4 looked good in the opening effort, which is a really good sign. The Eagles’ defense is still a pressure machine under Sean McDermott — Trent Cole is a great underrated factor on that unit — but the injury to Donovan McNabb keeps us from moving the Eagles up right now. The Chargers had to come back to beat the Raiders, but they got the win on the road, which is always a good thing.

7 – Baltimore Ravens, Minnesota Vikings – The Ravens looked explosive offensively against Kansas City, with Joe Flacco throwing for 300 yards and three TDs. That’s a good sign, but the defense’s inability to completely shut down the Chiefs is a bit of a warning flag. We’ll leave the Ravens in place right now until we see a more dominant defensive performance. The Vikings won according to their best-case formula – run the ball with Adrian Peterson and stop the run. That’s the way Minnesota needs to play to be at its best.

6 – Arizona Cardinals (DOWN A LEVEL), Dallas Cowboys, Indianapolis Colts, Miami Dolphins, New Orleans Saints, San Francisco 49ers (UP A LEVEL) – The Cardinals lost to the 49ers, with the offense sputtering more than expected. If the Cards’ offense isn’t dominant, their playoff chances aren’t great. The 49ers, meanwhile, played hyper-solid football, and that’s going to be their recipe for success all year. We think that Mike Singletary can keep that recipe going all year. Dallas featured a big-play passing game in its win over Tampa Bay, but it didn’t create a lot of pass-rush pressure on defense. We’ll see how good the Cowboys really are against the Giants this week. The Saints had a huge offensive day from Drew Brees, but the defense didn’t seem to have solved the problems it had last year. The Dolphins lost a tough road game, and they’ll have to do a much better job of holding onto the football if they’re going to be contenders again this year. The Colts eked out a win over the Jaguars, but their passing game was Reggie Wayne and not much else. The defense was better than I expected, and if the Colts can maintain that trend they’ll move up this comparison.

5 – Carolina Panthers (DOWN A LEVEL), Chicago Bears, Cincinnati Bengals, Jacksonville Jaguars, New York Jets (UP A LEVEL), Seattle Seahawks (UP A LEVEL) – The Panthers looked awful against the Eagles and must address their QB crisis quickly or else they’ll lose this season. The Bears had an inconsistent performance from QB Jay Cutler, but they were in position to win on the road in Green Bay, which is a good sign. The Bengals had their game vs. the Broncos won until the ultimate fluke play, but the solid defensive performance is a good sign going forward. They’re still a dangerous team. The Jaguars lost a close game to the Colts, showing that they’re at least in the running so far. The Jets got a solid performance from Mark Sanchez and a great performance by the defense (especially CB Darrelle Revis vs. Andre Johnson) to beat the Texans on the road. That combination will work all year if the Jets can keep it going. The Seahawks overcame offensive line troubles to shellack St. Louis. That’s a good start for a team hoping to bounce back this year.

4 – Buffalo Bills, Houston Texans (DOWN A LEVEL), Washington Redskins – The Bills’ young offensive line held up against the Patriots, and the defense was able to get pressure on Tom Brady. Those are good signs, but choking a game they should have had away was not. We’ll see how the Bills bounce back, but they showed more than I expected. The Texans showed less than I expected in losing handily to the Jets. They need to show more both offensively and defensively. The Redskins’ remade defensive line wreaked a little havoc, but the offense started slow and never really got going. Washington’s going to need more from that unit to compete in the tough NFC East.

3 – Cleveland Browns, Denver Broncos (UP A LEVEL), Kansas City Chiefs – The Browns put up a fight but ultimately lost to a better team in the Vikings. Aside from Joshua Cribbs, the Browns just don’t have enough playmakers on either side of the ball. The Broncos got a miracle win in Cincinnati, but they move up a level in this comparison because the defense played better than expected. It’ll be interesting to see if they can repeat that performance. The Chiefs played OK against the Ravens even without Matt Cassel, so they stay in place as well.

2 – Detroit Lions, Oakland Raiders (UP A LEVEL) – The Lions showed a pulse offensively against the Saints, but the defense melted under the high-octane pressure of New Orleans’ passing game. The Raiders competed hard against the Chargers, and their offense showed some good signs. Richard Seymour made a difference as well. But they must cash in on opportunities to move up the comparison more significantly.

1 – St. Louis Rams (DOWN TWO LEVELS), Tampa Bay Buccaneers – I expected St. Louis’ defense to be better, but they were awful against Seattle. The fact that the offense got shut out at the same time does not bode well for the Rams going forward. The Bucs got a good game out of Cadillac Williams, but the secondary was terrible, and I still don’t believe Byron Leftwich can move the team when faced by pressure.

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Rise/Sink/Float Week One

Each Monday, we’ll look at 3 teams that are rising, sinking, and floating in our Football Relativity comparison. We’ll update the full comparison tomorrow.

Rise – San Francisco 49ers – At the last minute, I put the 49ers in the playoffs in my season predictions. That was a statement about their competitiveness and also their division. But now I’m wondering if I should have put them above the Cardinals in the NFC West. The Niners are a tough team with a solid quarterback in Shaun Hill, and they’re going to be a tough out each and every week. Mike Singletary’s club is on the way to a solid season.

Sink – Carolina Panthers – The Panthers were the club I removed from the playoffs to put the Niners in. I thought the Panthers would remain competitive as long as Jake Delhomme didn’t melt down like he did in the playoffs last year. But Delhomme repeated his collapse with four picks and a fumble, and that squashed the Panthers’ hopes. Now I believe that either the Panthers are done or Delhomme is. It needs to be the latter.

Float – New Orleans Saints – Everyone was going crazy over Drew Brees’ 6-TD performance, and with good reason. But giving up 27 points to Detroit did nothing to alleviate my concerns about their defense. They won’t shoot up the comparison until we see better things from that unit.

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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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Fantasy Football: Regime change survivors

One of the biggest factors of a player’s fantasy football success is the offensive system he plays in. So as a service, we thought we’d go through the teams that are changing regimes this season and analyze how these changes should affect the relevant fantasy performers on each team. Where we’ve discussed players in more detail, we’ll include a link to our previous discussion. These offensive regime changes include teams with new head coaches as well as some teams with new offensive coordinators.

As always, you can read all sorts of other fantasy football analysis in our fantasy football category tag. And we have to give thanks to this site for a current list of offensive coordinators.

In this post, we’ve made some intentional omissions:
*With the Jets, Brian Schottenheimer survived the coaching change, and so that offense will look quite similar
*The Saints replaced Doug Marrone (now the Syracuse head coach) with Pete Carmichael Jr. but should run the same system
*The Patriots didn’t replace Josh McDaniels as offensive coordinator, but Bill Belichick and his lieutenants will keep the same offensive system in place
*The Seahawks, moving from Mike Holmgren’s regime to Jim Mora’s, will still run a similiar West Coast style of offense under coordinator Greg Knapp.

Arizona (from Todd Haley to Ken Whisenhunt/Russ Grimm/Mike Miller) – Now that Haley has gone to become the head man in Kansas City, Whisenhunt will probably look to become a little more proficient running the ball in Arizona. Grimm, like Whisenhunt an ex-Steelers assistant, will be the run-game coordinator, and Miller is the passing game coordinator. This shouldn’t affect the numbers of QB Kurt Warner or WRs Larry Fitzgerald or Anquan Boldin much – call them floats– but WR Steve Breaston’s numbers will likely sink a little, while rookie RB Chris “Beanie” Wells, who will surpass Tim Hightower as a fantasy option, looks like the main beneficiary of this regime change.
*More on Fitzgerald here
*More on Boldin here
*More on Breaston and Hightower here
*More on Wells here

Cleveland (from Rob Chudinski to Brian Draboll) – This change is hard to quantify, but it probably pushes the Browns just a bit more conservative. It’s hard to know what to think of the Browns anyway, because QBs Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson are fighting for a job. But this should cause WR Braylon Edwards’ numbers to sink a bit, and could help RB Jamal Lewis’ numbers rise if he’s not in too much physical decline.

Denver (from Mike Shanahan to Josh McDaniels/Mike McCoy) – This is a pretty significant change from Shanahan’s more wide open West Coast style offense to a more mixed New England-style offense. McCoy comes from Carolina, where he was QB coach in a run-run-run offense. This (plus the change from Jay Cutler to Kyle Orton at QB) will cause the numbers of WRs Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal to sink just a bit. TE Tony Scheffler will see an even bigger sink in his numbers. The beneficiary is rookie RB Knowshon Moreno and, to a lesser degree, ex-Eagle Correll Buckhalter.
*More on Orton and Buckhalter here
*More on Marshall here
*More on Royal here
*More on Moreno here
*More on Scheffler here

Detroit (from Jim Coletto to Scott Linehan) – The Lions’ offense was pretty much a train wreck last year, as was everything else in an 0-16 season. In comes Linehan, who bombed out as a head coach in St. Louis but who has a good record as a coordinator in Minnesota and Miami. He’s more prone to pass than Coletto was, and that should help the numbers across the offense work well. At quarterback, neither Matthew Stafford or Daunte Culpepper is a great prospect, because neither will likely play all 16 games. But Calvin Johnson remains a stud whose numbers will float, and one of the receiver additions, Dennis Northcutt or Bryant Johnson, could see his numbers rise if he can seize a starting job. Plus, Kevin Smith’s numbers, which weren’t terrible fantasy-wise in ’08, could rise at least a little.
*More on Smith here
*More on Calvin Johnson here
*More on Bryant Johnson and Northcutt here
*More on Stafford here

Indianapolis (from Tom Moore to Clyde Christensen) – The Colts should run the same system – Christensen has been on the staff for years, and Moore did a runaround on the NFL’s new pension system for coaches by becoming a consultant. So the changes here will be minor. You can expect the numbers of QB Peyton Manning, WR Reggie Wayne and TE Dallas Clark to basically float. RB Joseph Addai’s numbers will sink because of the addition of Donald Brown, while WR Anthony Gonzalez’s numbers will rise because of the departure of Marvin Harrison.
*More on Manning here
*More on Wayne here
*More on Clark here
*More on Addai here
*More on Brown and WR Austin Collie here

Kansas City (from Chan Gailey to Todd Haley/Gailey) – Gailey survived the coaching change in K.C., but with Haley now serving as head coach we should see a little different offensive system for the Chiefs. By the end of the year, Gailey was basically running a spread-type system that used the running talents of QB Tyler Thigpen and also let him fling the ball around. If the Chiefs are better this year, you have to think they’ll play it a little more conservatively, which would bode well for RB Larry Johnson. If Johnson plays the full year, his numbers should rise from his 874-yard, 5-touchdown campaign in 2008. WR Dwayne Bowe’s numbers should continue to rise just a bit, if for no other reason than the fact that import Matt Cassel is better than Thigpen. Look for Mark Bradley’s numbers to rise a little bit as well, and we’ve already predicted that free-agent addition Bobby Engram’s stats will float. Engram actually could fill the reliable role that Tony Gonzalez held for so many years in K.C. Cassel’s numbers should float in Haley’s pass-friendly system as well. All in all, the Chiefs should be a fantasy-friendly team this year.
*More on Cassel here
*More on Engram here 
*More on Bowe here

Oakland (from Lane Kiffin/Greg Knapp to Ted Tollner) – Good luck trying to describe the Raiders’ offense last year – best I can tell, it was more or less a West Coast offense approach, given Knapp’s history. And good luck trying to even identify the offensive leader this year – Tollner is passing game coordinator, Paul Hackett is quarterback coach, and there is no run game coordinator. But given the fact that head coach Tom Cable is an offensive line coach, and given Al Davis’ history, we can expect a run-friendly offense with deep passing. That means Darren McFadden is ready for his numbers to rise, especially if he stays healthy. McFadden’s just too good not to get a bunch of carries. If he does, as we expect, then Michael Bush and Justin Fargas will see their numbers sink. Passing wise, don’t expect too much out of JaMarcus Russell, who could lose snaps to Jeff Garcia. That could cause Russell’s modest numbers to sink even a bit more. Meanwhile, TE Zach Miller’s numbers should rise a little bit – he won’t have just one touchdown again – and Darrius Heyward-Bey actually has good fantasy potential for a rookie receiver.
*More on Miller here
*More on Heyward-Bey here

St. Louis (from Scott Linehan to Pat Shurmur) – Linehan is a quality offensive coordinator, but his head-coaching tenure was a disaster. Now the rams are under the system installed by Shurmur, who was the Eagles’ QB coach. His pedigree (his uncle Fritz was a longtime Mike Holmgren aide) indicates a pedigree in the West Coast offense. The Rams have completely reworked their offense, letting stalwarts Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce go. It should center around RB Steven Jackson, whose numbers should at least float. QB Marc Bulger is coming off a horrendous season, and if he can stay healthy his numbers will rise, but not enough to make him a fantasy starter. He’s not even really a feasible backup in most fantasy leagues. The only other Ram who is draftable is WR Donnie Avery, who had a decent first season and could see his numbers rise if he can up his touchdown total from the three he tallied in ’08.
*More on Jackson here

San Francisco (from Mike Martz to Jimmy Raye) – The 49ers had a pass-happy system under Martz last year, at least until Mike Singletary took over. Now Singletary will revert to a more old-school, pro-style offense that will feature lots of running and short passing. That means that RB Frank Gore’s numbers should float and that rookie Glen Coffee is worth a look late in the draft. The quarterback situation is still a battle between Shaun Hill and Alex Smith, so watch to see who wins the war before investing in one of them as a sleeper. At receiver, Michael Crabtree is a draftable prospect (as long as he doesn’t hold out too long) and either Josh Morgan or Brandon Jones could emerge as a quality fantasy backup. And while TE Vernon Davis isn’t draftable at this point, he’s a fantasy sleeper to watch if he finds more of a role in the 49ers’ new system.
*More on Gore here
*More on Crabtree and Coffee here

Tampa Bay (from Jon Gruden to Jeff Jagodinski) – Gruden fancied himself an offensive guru who used a high-flying offense, but new coordinator Jeff Jagodinski will likely be a bit more conservative. That means that breakout WR Antonio Bryant’s numbers will likely sink, and newly acquired TE Kellen Winslow’s numbers will rise only because he missed time with injury last year. At running back, both Derrick Ward and Earnest Graham are draftable, but the fact that they’re splitting carries is nettlesome for fantasy owners. We expect Ward’s numbers to sink and Graham’s to sink as well given the new split, which should be almost 50-50. QB Byron Leftwich’s numbers will rise because he should start some games, but don’t rely on him too heavily because rookie Josh Freeman is in the wings and could see time in the second half of the season.
*More on Bryant and Ward here
*More on Leftwich and Mike Nugent here
*More on Graham here
*More on Winslow here

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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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FR: New head coaches

To review new head coaching hires in the NFL this season:
*Mike Singletary, San Francisco (replacing Mike Nolan mid-season, was interim)
*Jim Mora, Seattle (replacing Mike Holmgren, was coach-in-waiting)
*Eric Mangini, Cleveland (replacing Romeo Crennel)
*Josh McDaniels, Denver (replacing Mike Shanahan)
*Jim Caldwell, Indianapolis (replacing Tony Dungy, was coach-in-waiting)
*Jim Schwartz, Detroit (replacing Rod Marinelli) 
*Raheem Morris, Tampa Bay (replacing Jon Gruden) 
*Steve Spagnuolo, St. Louis (replacing interim Jim Haslett, who replaced Scott Linehan) 
*Rex Ryan, N.Y. Jets (replacing Eric Mangini) 
*Tom Cable, Oakland (replacing Lane Kiffin mid-season, was interim)
*Todd Haley, Kansas City (replacing Herman Edwards)

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. And you’ll note that we didn’t hit either extreme this offseason.

10- None yet.

9- Mike Singletary, San Francisco. Everybody noticed Singletary’s first-week craziness. (kicking Vernon Davis off the sidelines, reportedly dropping his pants in a locker-room motivational tactic, and prattling on about how “I want winners” in a press conference) But more impressive was Singletary’s performance coming down the stretch. The Niners finished 5-4, even though offensive coordinator Mike Martz was never going to be Singletary’s guy. While Singletary wasn’t ready when he got the job, his half-season definitely moved him closer to that mark. And when he is ready, Singletary is going to be a terrific head coach. Think Mike Ditka’s emotion, only without the condescension or combustibility. It still may take a year or two, but Singletary will be a winner in the league, and the Niners were right to lock him in now before he got a chance elsewhere. Given the way the season played out, this was absolutely the right move. Only the first-game jitters keep this from the 10 level.

8- Josh McDaniels, Denver. This is the ultimate “hot candidate” hire. McDaniels is this year’s it-guy, the young, up-and-coming assistant who is lighter on track record but bursting with buzz. McDaniels, just 32, has done a great job coordinating New England’s offense the last couple of years, and his Belichick connection is an asset as well. And you can see why Denver owner Pat Bowlen would make this move — he has a young offense in place (Jay Cutler @ QB, Ryan Clady @ OLT, Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal @ WR are all young buidling blocks). Plus, the last time Bowlen hired the young offensive genius, Mike Shanahan won 2 Super Bowls. So Bowlen sticks what’s worst. There’s great upside here, but McDaniels’ relative inexperience means there’s some significant downside too. A three-year-and-out failure will begin to waste Cutler’s prime and force him to start over in a new system at a time when he should be establishing himself as elite. So this hire a chance — but it’s a chance worth taking.

7- Jim Schwartz, Detroit. If you took a break from Christmas dinner last month to create a list of the 3 hot assistants this offseason, the list would have been Steve Spagnuolo, Schwartz, and whoever your personal flavor of the month was. Schwartz epitomizes the assistant who’s ready to take the next step. He’s worked under one of the best coaches in the league in Jeff Fisher and guided a defense that has been at least good and at times outstanding. Plus, Schwartz brings a new edge to football. He’s one of the biggest proponents of new-wave statistics in the league (and has been for a while). So if he can get a Billy Beane type of jump on the rest of the league, he may be able to take a quicker step forward than most coaches.
That said, this hire for Detroit is not quite ideal.  First of all, Detroit’s going to have to draft a quarterback in the first round. They have the No. 1 overall pick plus Dallas’ pick at 20, which means Matthew Stafford and Mark Sanchez have to be considered, even though they would be minor reaches at No. 1 overall. So it might have made more sense for the Lions to hire an offensive. Schwartz will need to hire a QB guru (someone like Scott Linehan, or perhaps Norm Chow, whom he worked with at Tennessee) to make it work. Even more, the Lions probably could have used someone with a veteran hand who could contribute to personnel and organizational decisions. The front office in Detroit is far from experienced, so a Marty Schottenheimer or a Dan Reeves type would have been an even better hire.
Schwartz has the tools to be successful, but he’s stepping into a sorry situation. While there are guys who might have been a little better suited to lift the Lions out of the morass, Schwartz at least has a chance to do so. That means the Lions have hope that they haven’t had in a long time.

6- Jim Mora, Seattle. Mora’s record in Atlanta was better than you think – 26-22, plus 1-1 in the playoffs. He was run out of the Dirty South more for personality (including his stated interest in the U.Washington job) than for performance. You don’t have to worry about the U-Dub connection anymore, because the job was open this offseason, and Mora probably could’ve gotten it had he wanted. Instead, he cashed in the coach-in-waiting card Seattle gave him last year. Mora is a proven coach, and his past experience will help him. Plus, Seattle isn’t as bad as its 4-12 2008 mark, because injuries knocked at least 2-3 wins off the ledger. But there isn’t a lot of energy behind Mora’s hire, since the defense he helped to coach was pretty wretched (30th in yards against, 25th in points against). If not for the coach-in-waiting deal, could Seattle have gotten a hotter candidate? Maybe. But there were definitely worse options out there. With Mora and health (especially Matt Hasselbeck), Seattle is at least a contender to win 8 or 9, and as we see now, that’s contention in the NFC West. All in all, this hire is more good than bad, but barely.

6 (con’t) – Todd Haley, Kansas City – As the playoffs progressed, Haley became another “it” guy this offseason. Haley has football pedigree (his dad was a long-time front-office exec), and he has showed a fiery demeanor on the sidelines on more than one occasion. He also has play-calling chops, showing this offseason his prowess at making adjustments as games go on. (That’s an underrated skill.) But is Haley ready? Is he too combative to be a franchise’s lynchpin? We’ll see. Haley appears to be a hot prospect, but his situation in K.C. is what makes this hire a good one. New Chiefs G.M. Scott Pioli is going to win, and his prior relationship with and existing respect for Haley puts Haley in a good situation. The talent level in K.C. is still below average, but Pioli will fix that in time. Meanwhile, Haley figures to get time to get it done. That means playoff visits are in his future at Arrowhead in 2-4 years.

5- Eric Mangini, Cleveland. This is a Mora-esque hire, only just below. Mangini’s record (23-25) wasn’t bad with the Jets, although he did have the stinker year that Mora avoided. The reason this hire is a notch below is the philosophy question. Mangini’s pedigree is similar to the man he replaced – the main difference being that Romeo Crennel had no previous head coaching experience, along with Mangini’s age. Mangini has proven to be a decent NFL head coach, and he’s young enough that he could still be very good. But that’s far closer to a coin flip than a real guarantee.

5 (con’t) – Raheem Morris, Tampa Bay – Starting last year,  there were rumblings that there was a defensive backs coach in Tampa named Raheem Morris who was going to be an NFL coach one day. But that day came a lot sooner than expected, as Tampa bounced Jon Gruden to promote Morris. Morris, just 32, probably isn’t ready yet. But he is a terrific prospect who can continue the strong defensive tradition the Buccaneers have had over the last decade or so. That’s important, because the defense will soon lose stalwarts Derrick Brooks and Ronde Barber. If Morris had at least one year as an NFL coordinator, this ranking would be much higher. (Remember, that’s the background Mike Tomlin had when the Steelers hired him.) But Morris’ inexperience (one year as a college coordinator, just 4 as an NFL assistant) means that an adjustment period is likely, at least early on. This could be a home run, but that dinger is more likely to come in the fifth inning than in the first.

4 – Steve Spagnuolo, St. Louis – Spagnuolo trained under Andy Reid and Jim Johnson in Philly before spending 2 years as the Giants defensive coordinator. That run in New York made him a hot head coaching candidate. While Spagnuolo’s pedigree is positive, the question us whether his leadership qualities match his tactical abilities. I can’t shake that question, and so I can’t rate Spagnuolo above Schwartz or even Morris. For some reason, I have a sinking feeling that this hire may end up looking more trendy than successful in the long run. 

4 (con’t) – Rex Ryan, Jets – Ryan is a qualified candidate, with a resume as good as first-time head coach can have. But there’s one troubling thing about him – his team for the last 10 years, the Ravens, passed him over last year. The Ravens’ brass is top notch, so that judgment weighs heavily. If they don’t want him, I’m not sure I do. With that in mind, I just can’t bring myself to say the Jets are better with Ryan than they would be with Mangini. You might believe in change for change’s sake, but I don’t. 

3- Jim Caldwell, Colts – The fall of 1993 brought many people to the Wake Forest University campus for the first time. Me. A then-unknown basketball player from the Virgin Islands named Tim Duncan. And football coach Jim Caldwell, who had left his post as an assistant coach under Joe Paterno at Penn State to become the ACC’s first African-American head coach. Caldwell lasted eight years at Wake Forest, compiling a 26-63 record and one bowl berth. So I’m familiar with Caldwell’s work.
The question is whether things will be better with the Colts. For one thing, Caldwell has much more experience, under a head coach in Dungy with whom he shares a steely demeanor. Caldwell undboutedly has learned something from Dungy, and his similiarities to Dungy are why he now has this opportunity. But can Caldwell keep the Colts at an elite level? Remember, the Colts are getting older. Peyton Manning is still in his prime at 32, but it would appear that  WR Marvin Harrison (36), C Jeff Saturday (33) are closer to the end than the beginning. DE Dwight Freeney (28), WR Reggie Wayne (30), and S Bob Sanders (27) are in their prime, but if Caldwell has any sort of adjustment period, that prime period will soon be slipping away.
Caldwell has the best job available – better even than Denver – but also no margin or time for error. And because of the standard Dungy said and the age of the roster, Caldwell needs to be at least an A-minus coach right away for this succession plan to work. I could see him being a B-minus coach, or even a B, but anything more seems like a stretch. That stretch means the end of elite-dom for the Colts. And that, in turn, makes this Caldwell as coach-in-waiting plan a mistake. My hunch is that former defensive coordinator Ron Meeks, who should become a head coach in the league soon, would have been a better choice to continue Dungy’s legacy in Indy.

2- Tom Cable, Raiders – Cable was awful at Idaho (11-35 record) and had just 2 1/4 years as an NFL assistant before getting his shot as an interim head coach. His 4-8 mark, though unimpressive, was a minor upgrade over what the Raiders had been doing under Lane Kiffin. More pertinently, the Raiders’ performance at the end of the season gave a small glimmer of hope. With that, there’s a bit of a defense for keeping Cable on, but it’s not like the 49ers’ move to hold onto Mike Singletary. I just can’t get over the feeling that the Raiders could have hired a coach who wanted another chance — a Jim Fassel type — who had a much better resume and background. Or there could have been another Kiffin-type hire — a young coach looking to prove himself. The last time the Raiders were relevant, it was because they took a chance on Jon Gruden before he was truly ready to be a head coach. Even for the shipwreck that is the Raiders right now, there had to be better options. The Raiders just didn’t really look for them.

1- None yet.

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