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FR: 2012 Pre-draft trades

In this post, we compare the significance of the trades made in the NFL between the opening of the 2012 offseason and the NFL draft. We’ll follow up this post, as usual, with posts on player-based trades during the draft and then in the offseason leading into training camp. As is usual with our Football Relativity posts, the 10 level is for the most significant trades, and the 1 level is for the least significant.

New Jets QB Tim Tebow, via si.com

10 – Miami Dolphins trade WR Brandon Marshall to Chicago Bears for 2012 and 2013 third-round picks – Marshall fell off the national radar a bit in Miami, but he is still a true No. 1 receiver who is a catch machine. Plus, in Chicago he is reunited with Jay Cutler, with whom he had so much success in Denver. The cost isn’t bad, especially when you consider that the Bears had an extra third-rounder this year from the Greg Olsen trade. But Marshall’s off-field troubles – which included a police-involved incident just before the trade – obviously wore on the Dolphins. Still, if Marshall can stay out of trouble, he’s a huge addition for the Bears, who have not had a receiver of his talents in eons. His presence will allow Chicago’s other receivers to fall into more appropriate complimentary roles, which should make the Bears offense more potent. It’ll be interesting to see if Marshall can do what it takes to make that happens.

9 – none

8 – Denver Broncos trade QB Tim Tebow and 2012 seventh-round pick to New York Jets for 2012 fourth- and sixth-round picks – While the Tebow trade was the highest profile deal of the offseason, it won’t be the most significant. That’s because Tebow ultimately doesn’t have the on-field capacity of taking away Mark Sanchez’s job and keeping it. Tebow will steal some snaps and quite possibly some starts away from Sanchez, but if he becomes the No. 1 QB he won’t perform well enough to keep it. The best-case scenario for Tebow is to get a year on the bench in the system to develop and hone his skills and make a run at the starting job in 2013. But New York’s fan base and media isn’t patient enough for that to happen, and so ultimately the Tebow experiment will fail. The Broncos saw this coming in Denver, so they sold low on Tebow, getting minimal value back for a former first-round pick. It’s another in the long line of disastrous consequences of the Josh McDaniels hire.

7 – none

6 – Philadelphia Eagles trade CB Asante Samuel to Atlanta Falcons for 2012 seventh-round draft pick – We discussed this deal in depth in this piece.

5 – Houston Texans trade LB DeMeco Ryans to Philadelphia Eagles for 2012 fourth-round draft pick and swap of 2012 third-round picks (Texans gain 12 spots) – Ryans was incredibly productive in Houston, but he was lost in the shuffle a bit when the Texans switched to a 3-4 defense last year. He turned into a run-down-only linebacker who wasn’t on the field on passing downs. So the Texans, who were in major cost-cutting mode this offseason, dealt him to Philadelphia. With the Eagles, Ryans can fit more naturally into a 4-3 defense as the middle linebacker, which was a major trouble spot last year. His presence and leadership should help Philly’s other young linebackers perform a little better, which will be a nice side benefit. It’s a shame that Ryans fell out of favor in Houston, because he can play when healthy, but credit to the Texans for recognizing that he was no longer a fit and getting something in return.

4 – Cincinnati Bengals trade OLB Keith Rivers to New York Giants for 2012 fifth-round pick – Rivers, a former top-10 pick, battled injuries throughout his Bengals career, and as a result showed only flashes of brilliance. The Bengals had to move on with Thomas Howard and Manny Lawson, which made Rivers expendable. He’s a bit of a lottery ticket for the Giants, but if he’s healthy he adds a play-making aspect to a linebacking corps that is solid but unspectacular. It’s the kind of gamble that a defending champion can take, because the team is deep enough that a fifth-round pick would struggle to make the roster.

3 – Carolina Panthers trade RB Mike Goodson to Oakland Raiders for OT Bruce Campbell – This is a classic deal in which teams trade players who have fallen out of favor and hope a change of scenery changes things. There’s a better chance of that happening in Goodson’s case, since he has delivered on the NFL level in the past. He showed in 2009 and 2010 that he is a quality runner, receiver, and returner who can back up Darren McFadden in Oakland. But Goodson developed fumbling problems last year and fell into Panthers head coach Ron Rivera’s doghouse. Campbell, a former fourth-round pick, has massive physical ability but has never lived up to his potential. But the Raiders tried him at guard, when he’s more naturally a tackle. The Panthers hope he can develop into a right tackle option who can back up or even replace Jeff Otah. Neither player figured in his old team’s plans, so taking a shot on someone else makes sense. But the Raiders are a little more likely to cash in on this deal.

2 – Philadelphia Eagles trade OT Winston Justice and a 2012 sixth-round pick to Indianapolis Colts for a 2012 sixth-round pick – Justice had fallen out of favor in Philadelphia and lost a starting job, but he’s still a replacement-level right tackle. That’s the role the Colts have in mind as they seek to stabilize a problematic offensive line in advance of Andrew Luck’s arrival. The bargain-basement price – moving down half a round in the sixth – was well worth it, even if Justice doesn’t hold a starting job all season.

1 – New York Jets trade QB Drew Stanton and a 2012 seventh-round pick to Indianapolis Colts for 2012 sixth-round pick – The Jets signed Stanton to be Mark Sanchez’s backup, but after trading for Tebow, they did right by Stanton and found him another place to be a No. 2. The change-of-direction cost the Jets $500,000, but at least they got a little bit of draft value in return. For the Colts, who had no backup quarterback, adding Stanton is a solid move that didn’t even cost them a draft pick. Instead, they dealt the sixth-rounder they got in the Winston Justice trade and moved down to the seventh. Getting Justice, Stanton, and a seventh-rounder for their sixth-round pick is really good value for a Colts team badly in need of depth.

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Panthers search for defensive solutions

In my weekly Carolina Panthers report for National Football Authority, we look at how the team is dabbling with the 3-4 defense (and what that means), Cam Newton’s worst game so far (and what it means), and update head coach Ron Rivera’s doghouse. Click here to read all about it.

RB Michael Turner and the Falcons ran all over the Panthers, via panthers.com

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Rivera, Olsen relish Panthers’ trip to Chicago

Our midweek Carolina Panthers report for National Football Authority discusses the return to Chicago of head coach Ron Rivera and TE Greg Olsen, along with an injury update on CB Chris Gamble and S Charles Godfrey and more. Click here to read all about it.

Panthers TE Greg Olsen, via beargoggleson.com

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Panthers add sprinkles to vanilla defense

For National Football Authority, we update the state of the Carolina Panthers by discussing Ron Rivera’s new wrinkles on defense, the injury status of OT Jeff Otah, and Chris Gamble’s role as a shut-down corner. Read all about it here.

Thomas Davis (58) and Chris Gamble (20) have more wrinkles to work with, via heraldonline.com

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RP: Coaching Trees Update

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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FR: 2011 Coaching Changes

First-year Stanford Coach Jim Harbaugh led Sta...

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Each year, we review and compare new head coaches in the NFL. This year’s entries:
*Minnesota (Leslie Frazier, who was the interim, replacing Brad Childress)
*Dallas (Jason Garrett, who was the interim, replacing Wade Phillips)
*San Francisco (Jim Harbaugh, replacing interim Jim Tomsula, who replaced Mike Singletary)
*Carolina (Ron Rivera, replacing John Fox)
*Cleveland (Pat Shurmur, replacing Eric Mangini)
*Denver (John Fox, replacing interim Eric Studesville, who replaced Josh McDaniels)
*Oakland (Hue Jackson, replacing Tom Cable)
*Tennessee (Mike Munchak, replacing Jeff Fisher)

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. While the hires are pretty tightly bunched right now, we’ll still break them down on our scale.

10 – Leslie Frazier, Vikings – Frazier earned the Vikings’ permanent coaching job after going 3-3 as the interim head coach. Given the crazy circumstances Minnesota faced over the end of the year – a collapsed stadium, two postponed games, one rescheduled game, Brett Favre’s drama, and a third-string quarterback starting, 3-3 was a good result. Frazier has long been a respected defensive coordinator, and he had seven head-coaching interviews before finally landing a job. He’s an excellent defensive backs coach who has had success as a coordinator with the Bengals and Vikings. Frazier has what you want in a head coach – a steady hand, a great relationship with players, and good motivational skills. But he’s stepping into a difficult situation. The Vikings are getting old at a lot of key positions, and they don’t have a quarterback of the present or the future on the roster, unless Joe Webb’s development hits overdrive. Plus, the stadium situation in Minnesota opens the door to a lot of uncertainty and perhaps even a move by the team. So Frazier isn’t getting a plum job. But despite the negative history of interim head coaches over the last two decades, we believe in Frazier, and believe he’s positioned to succeed as a head coach.

9 – none

8 – none

7 – Jim Harbaugh, 49ers – Harbaugh was the hottest coaching prospect in America this year, with at least four NFL options – San Francisco, Denver, Miami, and Carolina – before him, as well as the high-profile job at his alma mater Michigan. After a series of interviews, Harbaugh decided that his gold mine was with the 49ers. It’s easy to see why Harbaugh was so highly regarded by NFL teams. After entering the NFL as a first-round pick, Harbaugh played for 15 years, starting 140 games for the Bears, Colts, Ravens, and Chargers. He’s also the son of the coach, and he acted as an assistant coach for his father at Western Kentucky during his playing career. After retiring, Harbaugh was a quarterback coach for the Raiders (including their 2002 Super Bowl season, in which QB Rich Gannon was league MVP) and then became a college head coach. At San Diego, a non-scholarship school, Harbaugh developed Josh Johnson into an NFL player, and then at Stanford he turned Andrew Luck into one of the best QB prospects ever. But despite his proficiency developing quarterbacks, Harbaugh has shown an old-school offensive approach featuring two running backs and a tight end. That pro style will move to the NFL far easier than a spread offense would. Plus, Harbaugh hired Vic Fangio, a long-time NFL assistant, as his defensive coordinator, and if Fangio moves with Harbaugh, he can take advantage of San Francisco’s talented front seven by continuing to use a 3-4 system and tuning up the aggressiveness. And Harbaugh’s charismatic personality will sell some tickets, even if it doesn’t play as well with pro players as it did with collegians. The question of whether Harbaugh can make the leap from college to the NFL is still a big one – history does not look kindly on coaches making the move – although Harbaugh’s 17 years of NFL experience as a player and assistant at least give hope. San Francisco is gambling big on Harbaugh, and while it’s easy to see why he’s flavor of the month, for some reason our hopes for Harbaugh aren’t as high as the hype suggests.

6 – Jason Garrett, Cowboys – Garrett took over the Cowboys as an interim head coach at midseason, going 5-3 over the second half of the season after the Cowboys had just one win in the first half. Garrett’s greatest skill is offensive design, but he showed good motivational skills and rapport with players over the second half of the season. Dallas’ offense thrived under Garrett in the second half, but the defense needed a ton of help after Wade Phillips’ departure. Garrett needs to find a defensive coordinator for 2011, and those kinds of hires can make or break coaches. The good news is that Garrett has a ton of talent on both sides of the ball, especially premium talent like DeMarcus Ware, Anthony Spencer, Jay Ratliff, Miles Austin, Dez Bryant, and Jason Witten. The problems are the mid-level talent, as Dallas needs dependable guys, especially on the offensive line and in the secondary. To succeed, Garrett must avoid the tendency some offensive-minded coaches have to obsess over play-calling and run the whole team, much like Sean Payton does in New Orleans. But the offensive-defensive split we saw in Dallas over the second half of the season shows that such an attitude isn’t natural for Garrett yet. That’s a reason to be skeptical of his long-term success.

5 – Hue Jackson, Raiders – The Raiders made a strange decision by letting Tom Cable’s contract option expire after the head coach led them to an undefeated AFC West record and an eight-win season, the organization’s first year with more than five wins since their 2002 Super Bowl season. Since then, it’s become apparent that Cable and Raiders maven Al Davis were butting heads, as Davis so often does with his coaches. So Jackson is stepping into the least stable head-coaching post in the league, and one in which his contract will likely be disputed whenever his tenure is over. Still, it’s a first head-coaching job for a coaching lifer. He was an offensive coordinator in the Pac-10 at USC and Cal before moving to the NFL in 2001, and since moving to the pros he’s been a coordinator in Washington, Atlanta, and Oakland. Jackson has also been a running backs, wide receivers, and quarterbacks coach in the pros, and he’s respected at all three positions. Now Jackson must prove he can make the leap from calling plays and teaching technique to running an entire team. That’s the biggest leap for any new head coach, but at age 56 it’s now or never for Jackson to prove he can do it. We’re optimistic, despite the circus-like atmosphere around the Raiders, that Jackson can continue the progress for a Raiders team full of talent but usually inconsistent when it comes to performance.

4 – John Fox, Broncos – After a largely successful nine-year tenure in Carolina that ended poorly, Fox gets an immediate chance of redemption in Denver. He’s completely different than offensive-minded coaches Josh McDaniels and Mike Shanahan that have led the Broncos in the recent past. Fox is a nuts-and-bolts coach who plays conservatively on offense, depending on a running game, and aggressively on defense. That defensive emphasis will serve the Broncos well, because their inability to get anything done defensively doomed both McDaniels and Shanahan. With Elvis Dumervil returning in 2011, Fox will have a top-end pass rusher, but Dumervil has been a 3-4 player, and Fox has stuck with the 4-3 most of his career. If the Broncos change their system, it will slow down progress, but the front seven is so bereft of impact players that rebuilding is necessary either way. Fox’s other big decision right off the bat will be what to do at quarterback. Kyle Orton is a Fox type of QB, but the past Broncos’ regime invested so much in Tim Tebow that he needs to get a shot to play. However, Fox’s tendency in Carolina was to eschew young players in favor of more reliable veterans, even if they were less talented. That decision at quarterback will only impede Tebow’s development. And that’s the place where Fox’s tenure could break down. He’s a solid coach, but he must be more about development in Denver to rebuild a mediocre roster. Inexperienced Broncos exec John Elway and GM Brian Xanders will have to encourage and/or strong-arm Fox into playing young guys. If he doesn’t, it’s hard to see Denver climbing from its decline.

3 – Ron Rivera, Panthers – Rivera has long been a coaching bridesmaid – he’s been connected to at least 12 openings since 2006 – before he finally landed a head-coaching perch in Carolina. It’s easy to see why Rivera has drawn interest. He has been a successful defensive coordinator both in a 4-3 system (with Chicago) and a 3-4 (with San Diego). He’s learned from the hyper-aggressive Jim Johnson in Philadelphia and the conservative Lovie Smith in Chicago. So from an Xs and Os standpoint, he’s as versatile as defensive coaches come. He also has a strong personality who gets along with the media – he once was a Bears TV analyst – and should connect with fans. The question is whether he can fix the offensive problems that plague the Panthers. Carolina has decent defensive talent, and Rivera should help to unleash guys like Jon Beason and Everette Brown. But can Rivera fix the Panthers’ offensive problems? Can he hire the right offensive coordinator to either develop Jimmy Clausen or find a true quarterback of the future? These are questions that only time will answer. Rivera’s staff will be key to his success, and until those hires go through, Rivera’s uphill battle against Sean Payton, Mike Smith, and Raheem Morris in the NFC South looks even steeper. This is a solid hire by the Panthers, but the organization must let Rivera hire the offensive staff he needs or else success won’t be flowing Rivera’s way.

2 – Mike Munchak, Titans – Munchak, a Hall of Fame offensive guard, has been a part of the Titans organization since the Houston Oilers days. He was a top-10 pick, and in his 11-year career he made the Pro Bowl nine times. His No. 63 jersey is retired by the club. And since his retirement in 1993, he’s spent 17 years in the organization, the last 14 as the offensive line coach. He’s developed offensive linemen like Michael Roos, and the Titans have had stud offensive lines despite spending no first-rounders at the position. So he’s a good coach, and he’s a legend to owner Bud Adams. But can Munchak fill Jeff Fisher’s shoes? Fisher brought stability and toughness to the Titans, and that identity made them a strong defensive and running team throughout his tenure. Munchak should keep the same identity; the question is whether he can get better quarterback results than Fisher has since Steve McNair’s departure. And the leap from position coach to head coach skips the coordinator role, which is where coaches add and learn to manage many of the administrative duties that choke out many successful coaches. There will be an adjustment period for Munchak. So that begs the question:  how will Adams deal with Munchak’s struggles? The head-coaching role will take the luster off of the greatest legend, and Munchak is risking his status in Adams’ eyes. If Adams is willing to be patient, Munchak has the traits to be a good head coach. But being under the thumb of an aging owner and not having a good quarterback answer don’t seem to be a recipe for success.

1 – Pat Shurmur, Browns – Shurmur, who has mentored Donovan McNabb and Sam Bradford, among other players, was Mike Holmgren’s choice to replace Eric Mangini as the head coach of the Cleveland Browns. Shurmur is different than Mangini – he’s an offensive coach, not a defensive coach, and he’s also got an extensive background in the West Coast offense under Andy Reid (another Holmgren protege). (Interestingly, both Shurmur and Mangini have ties to Bill Belichick, because Shurmur spent eight seasons under Belichick apprentice Nick Saban at Michigan State.) It’s clear that Holmgren was looking for a certain type of coach to take over the Browns. Shurmur faces a pretty tall task in Cleveland, because the offense has very few good pieces available. Peyton Hillis a workhorse running back, and the offensive line has terrific keystones in OT Joe Thomas and C Alex Mack. But the quarterback question is still open, as it’s impossible to know at this point whether Colt McCoy is a long-term answer. Holmgren believes Shurmur can find out, given Shurmur’s background developing quarterbacks with the Eagles and Rams. Shurmur was QB coach for the Eagles for seven years, not only helping McNabb perform, but also getting good performances out of lesser lights like an older Jeff Garcia, Koy Detmer, and A.J. Feeley. Then Shurmur became the offensive coordinator with the Rams, and this year he helped rookie Bradford develop very quickly. If Shurmur is to succeed in Cleveland, he must either develop McCoy or make a quick decision that he’s not the guy and move on. It seems like Shurmur is positioned to do that. But Shurmur appears to be Holmgren’s henchman in Cleveland, and the question is whether any head coach could survive with the walrus looming over his shoulder. Can Shurmur be his own coach, or will he be under constant pressure to make the decisions Holmgren would make? Perhaps a coach a with greater resume could, and maybe Holmgren’s family ties to Shurmur (Pat’s uncle Fritz was Holmgren’s long-time defensive coordinator in Green Bay) will aid the relationship. But we don’t feel great that Shurmur can be his own man enough to place his imprint on a Browns team badly in need of a long-term plan.

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Rivera runs through it to Carolina

Ron Rivera

The Carolina Panthers settled their head-coaching search Tuesday, agreeing to hire Ron Rivera as the franchise’s fourth head coach. Below are some thoughts on the hire; we’ll compare it to others thus far this offseason in a post later this week.

Rivera has long been a coaching bridesmaid – he’s been connected to at least 12 openings since 2006 – before he finally landed a head-coaching perch in Carolina. It’s easy to see why Rivera has drawn interest. He has been a successful defensive coordinator both in a 4-3 system (with Chicago) and a 3-4 (with San Diego). He’s learned from the hyper-aggressive Jim Johnson in Philadelphia and the conservative Lovie Smith in Chicago. So from an Xs and Os standpoint, he’s as versatile as defensive coaches come. He also has a strong personality who gets along with the media – he once was a Bears TV analyst – and should connect with fans. The question is whether he can fix the offensive problems that plague the Panthers. Carolina has decent defensive talent, and Rivera should help to unleash guys like Jon Beason and Everette Brown. But can Rivera fix the Panthers’ offensive problems? Can he hire the right offensive coordinator to either develop Jimmy Clausen or find a true quarterback of the future? These are questions that only time will answer. Rivera’s staff will be key to his success, and until those hires go through, Rivera’s uphill battle against Sean Payton, Mike Smith, and Raheem Morris in the NFC South looks even steeper. This is a solid hire by the Panthers, but the organization must let Rivera hire the offensive staff he needs or else success won’t be flowing Rivera’s way.

Jobs Rivera either interviewed for or was linked to:
2006: St. Louis, Green Bay, Buffalo
2007: Arizona, Pittsburgh, Dallas, San Diego, Atlanta, Miami, Houston
2010: Buffalo, Seattle (declined both interviews)

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

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

AFC East

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

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

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

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

AFC North

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

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

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

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

AFC South

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

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

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

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

AFC West

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Football Relativity, NFL draft, NFL Free Agency, NFL front offices, NFL trades

FR: 2009 Season Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The league’s best coordinators

Our latest post for the Most Valuable Network’s Football Wire focuses on the best coordinators in the NFL for the 2009 season. Check out the post via archive from our MVN blog below.

And in case you missed it, you can how teams fare in terms of the combination of offensive and defensive coordinators in our Football Relativity comparison.

Who are the best coordinators in the NFL? Over on www.footballrelativity.com, we spent plenty of time and bandwidth trying to figure out which NFL team has the best combination of offensive and defensive coordinators. You can check that post out over there, but we wanted to take some of what we learned in the research for that post to create a list of some of the best and most important coordinators in the NFL in 2009.

So here are our votes for the best coordinators in the NFL, in a few categories:

Best Offensive Coordinator – Mike Mularkey, Falcons. Mularkey, who was once the Bills’ head coach, had a great season for the Falcons last year. He rode the legs of Michael Turner, set rookie QB Matt Ryan up for success, and continued the ascension of Roddy White as a true No. 1 receiver. Now he has a new toy to play with – TE Tony Gonzalez, one of the best red-zone threats ever. Another good season like that, and Mularkey will be interviewing for head-coaching jobs once again.

Honorable mentions: Scott Linehan (Lions) returns to the coordinator ranks after a failed tenure as Rams head coach. He’s had great success in this position before. Cam Cameron (Ravens) had a good season last year, reinforcing his coordinator chops. Jason Garrett (Cowboys) had a rough ’08 season but is still considered a rising star as an offensive tactician.

Best Defensive Coordinator – Dick LeBeau, Steelers – The creator of the zone-blitz scheme is still going strong in his 70s. He is a master technician who has created a scheme that has been in place in Pittsburgh for so long that it’s second nature for the team to find the personnel that fits. That lets the Steelers find guys who might not fit on other teams – James Harrison, Lamarr Woodley, Aaron Smith – and utilize them as big-time playmakers. Plus, players love playing for LeBeau. He’s a great asset to the Steelers and to the NFL as a whole.

Honorable mentions: Dom Capers (Packers) and Mike Nolan (Broncos) are former head coaches who are stepping into new situations to try to implement the 3-4 defense. Both are specialists in that scheme, and both have a track record of success as coordinators. Leslie Frazier (Vikings) does his job quietly but effectively. He has a beast of a unit in Minnesota, and he knows how to use his talent well. His head-coaching chance is coming, and it’s coming soon.

Best legendary offensive coordinator – Dan Henning, Dolphins – Henning’s solid schemes are creative enough to allow for new ideas, and he is open-minded enough to let ideas like the Wildcat into his offense. Henning was successful as a coordinator in Washington in the 1980s, and after a few head coaching stops, he’s had success in Carolina and then in Miami in this decade. That’s a really good run for any coach.

Best legendary defensive coordinator – LeBeau

Best up-and-coming offensive coordinator – Jeff Davidson, Carolina – Davidson isn’t the kind of coordinator who gets a lot of attention for designing a multifaceted passing game that lights up the scoreboard and makes fans ooh and aah. (Think of new head coaches like Josh McDaniels or Todd Haley.) But Davidson is brutally effective in designing a running game that can work. First in Cleveland and for the last two years in Carolina, he’s had teams that can run the ball effectively. His scheme fits the Panthers’ personnel perfectly, and if he continues to have the kind of success calling running plays that he has had, he’ll become a hot name in head-coaching hunts in a few years.

Best up-and-coming defensive coordinator – Ron Rivera, Chargers – Rivera took over for Ted Cottrell in San Diego midway through last season, and the difference was apparent immediately. He has an aggressive, blitzing style that echoes his former coach Buddy Ryan as well as his former mentor Jim Johnson. This is Rivera’s second coordinator job, and if he can maximize the Chargers’ talent this year, Rivera will become a prime head-coaching candidate quickly.

Best rookie offensive coordinator – Pete Carmichael, Saints – Talk about a prime situation – Carmichael takes over the reins of an offense that is loaded with talent. Head coach Sean Payton is the playcaller, but Carmichael will still get the luster of helping to run an offense that looks to be a powerhouse again in ’09. Honorable mention: Mike McCoy (Broncos) is a bright coach who will work with McDaniels, which should allow him to develop a good tactical reputation pretty quickly.

Best rookie defensive coordinator – Chuck Cecil, Titans – It’s a strong class of rookie defensive coordinators this year, and Cecil should be the cream of the crop. He’s been an assistant in Tennessee for eight years, and now he takes over for Jim Schwartz as coordinator. The former big-hitting safety should continue the physical style of defense that has made Tennessee a consistent contender over the last decade.  Honorable mention: Sean McDermott (Eagles) takes over for the late Jim Johnson after assisting him for most of the decade. He’ll continue Johnson’s innovative and incessant blitzing. Mike Pettine (Jets) is Rex Ryan’s hand-picked choice to implement Ryan’s version of the 3-4 defense with the Jets. Ryan raves about Pettine, but the new head coach has been prone to hyperbole. Still, Pettine is a prospect to watch. Bill Sheridan (Giants) takes over for Steve Spagnuolo but should continue the defensive scheme that empowered one of the league’s best front fours to attack, attack, attack.

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