For National Football Authority, we break down the Buccaneers’ big 26-20 win over the Saints. We discuss the turnovers by Saints QB Drew Brees, the play of fill-in RB Earnest Graham and the returning S Tanard Jackson for the Buccaneers, Sean Payton’s injury, and more. Click here to read all about it.
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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.
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)
The reason FootballRelativity.com exists is to do away with the antiquated and inadequate power rankings and replace them with a tool that’s more useful in comparing teams. So each week during the season, we’ll compare where all 32 teams are relative to each other using the Football Relativity 10-point scale. We start now with our season preview, assessing where each team is in comparison to the others. If you disagree, let us know by leaving a comment or on Twitter.
10 – Indianapolis Colts – The Colts are coming off a Super Bowl berth in Jim Caldwell’s first season, but we remain skeptical about whether Caldwell can maintain Tony Dungy’s level of excellence over the long term. For now, though, the Colts seem to be even stronger than they were last year. On offense, Peyton Manning remains the standard-bearer for NFL quarterbacks. He has elite targets in WR Reggie Wayne and TE Dallas Clark, but Manning’s ability to bring others up to his level showed in how well he utilized young WRs Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie last year. At running back, Joseph Addai had another good year, and Donald Brown figures to improve in his second year. The questions on offense are with the offensive line, which struggled in the Super Bowl. The Colts sought to get bigger on the line, but the line still isn’t full of big-time talents. C Jeff Saturday remains the heartbeat of that group. On defense, the Colts have big-time pass-rushers in DEs Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, and rookie Jerry Hughes could join them to create even more havoc. MLB Gary Brackett is a fireplug who makes plays to stabilize the middle of the defense, and the Colts have some good young corners in Jerraud Powers, Jacob Lacey, and Kelvin Hayden. SS Bob Sanders returns after missing all but two games last year, and if he can stay healthy he and Antoine Bethea will be an elite safety combo. The Colts remain the league’s standard, and Manning always squeezes two or three more wins out of the team than expected. That’s a recipe for another Super Bowl run.
10 (con’t) – New Orleans Saints – The Saints celebrate their Super Bowl win by returning with a team that continues to be strong and scary. QB Drew Brees leads a prolific offense that’s efficient and explosive with a depth of targets unmatched in the NFL. Brees will spread the ball around to WRs Marques Colston, Robert Meachem, Devery Henderson; RBs Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas; and TE Jeremy Shockey, plus others that get a star turn on occasion. But the guys who don’t get the star treatment they should are on the offensive line. ORG Jahri Evans may be the league’s best guard, and OLT Jermon Bushrod was so good as a fill-in last year that the Saints traded Pro Bowler Jammal Brown. That front five does a great job giving Brees time to thrive. On defense, the Saints give up some yards but make their share of big plays as well. MLB Jonathan Vilma is the heartbeat of the team, and he does a good job in coverage, and he’ll have to be more of a leader with Scott Fujita gone and Jonathan Casillas hurt at linebacker. Up front, the Saints have penetrating tackles in Sedrick Ellis and Anthony Hargrove and solid if unspectacular ends in Will Smith and Alex Brown, who replaces Charles Grant. The Saints lost FS Darren Sharper for the first six weeks, but ’09 first-rounder Malcolm Jenkins should be a quality fill-in alongside Pro Bowler Roman Harper. CB Jabari Greer played quite well last year, and he leads a deep group that includes Super Bowl hero Tracy Porter and first-round pick Patrick Robinson. The Saints have a lot of pieces and great coaches in Sean Payton and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, and they’ll stay aggressive as they seek to defend their title. They won’t give up the crown easily.
9 – Baltimore Ravens – The Ravens are a chic Super Bowl pick, and with good reason. But there is one glaring issue – the secondary – that could hold them back. The Ravens lost CBs Domonique Foxworth and Walt Harris in the offseason, and Fabian Washington and Lardarius Webb are coming off ACL injuries. Training-camp trade acquisition Josh Wilson should help at that position, but the Ravens need Washington and Webb to play well too. Plus, Ed Reed is out for the first six weeks of the year, putting a lot of pressure on Dawan Landry and Tom Zbikowski at safety. Thankfully for Ravens fans, the front seven should provide enough pressure to keep the Ravens from having to cover for long periods of time. OLB Terrell Suggs is the pressure key, and fellow OLB Jarret Johnson is an emerging player. ILB Ray Lewis remains a playmaker and emotional keystone for the entire team, not just the defense. And up front, DE Haloti Ngata and NT Kelly Gregg are both plus players at their positions. If the secondary can hold up, the Ravens will remain one of the league’s most intimidating defenses. On offense, the Ravens can run effectively with Ray Rice, Willis McGahee, and LeRon McClain. That’s thanks in large part to a strong offensive line that includes emerging youngsters in OTs Michael Oher and Jared Gaither and OLG Ben Grubbs. So the Ravens put most of their effort in the offseason into the passing game, acquiring WRs Anquan Boldin and T.J. Houshmandzadeh to complement Derrick Mason in what is now an experienced group. Those players should allow Joe Flacco to emerge into a top-flight passer. Baltimore has a lot going for it, and Super Bowl aspirations make sense. But they’re going to have to cover opposing receivers to get there.
9 (con’t) – Dallas Cowboys – The Cowboys get a lot of attention with their flashy offense, but it’s their defense that paces the team. OLB DeMarcus Ware is a frighteningly effective pass rusher, and fellow OLB Anthony Spencer finally emerged this year as a big-time threat on the other side. Those two, with ILBs Keith Brooking and Bradie James, make up a terrific linebacker corps. That corps is more effective because of a defensive line that features a preeminent nose tackle in Jay Ratliff and solid DEs in Igor Olshansky and Marcus Spears. In the secondary, CBs Terrance Newman and Mike Jenkins aren’t shutdown corners, but they’re solid. On offense, the Cowboys have a high-powered offense featuring both QB Tony Romo and the passing game and a three-headed running game featuring Marion Barber, Felix Jones, and Tashard Choice. Romo has a bevy of targets including supersolid TE Jason Witten, ’09 breakout star WR Miles Austin, and rookie WR Dez Bryant. The offensive line has a fine center in Andre Gurode, but it needs ORT Marc Columbo to hold up and young OLT Doug Free to step up to keep the offense moving. The Cowboys have the pieces in place to contend for a home game in the Super Bowl, but they must prove they can win key games at the end of the season and in the postseason to do so. Dallas made a step forward in that department last year, but they must go further to contend with top NFC teams like the Saints, Packers, and Vikings.
9 (con’t) – Green Bay Packers – No team has looked better offensively in the preseason than the Packers, as QB Aaron Rodgers has built on his terrific ’09 performance to show he has developed into an elite quarterback. He has a terrific group of receivers to throw to in Donald Driver, Greg Jennings, James Jones, and dynamic TE JerMichael Finley. The running game is solid with Ryan Grant. Offensive line was a problem last year, but once OTs Mark Tauscher and Chad Clifton returned, things got a lot better. Both Tauscher and Clifton return this year, and if one declines because of injury or age, first-rounder Bryan Bulaga can step in. The Packers weren’t just great on offense last year; their defense became scary in Dom Capers’ new 3-4. OLB Clay Matthews had a terrific rookie season and developed into a pass-rushing threat, and Brad Jones was a revelation at the other outside spot. Green Bay is also solid at inside ‘backer with A.J. Hawk and Nick Barnett. Up front, the Packers lost Johnny Jolly for the season, which means second-year man B.J. Raji needs to step up at nose tackle so that Ryan Pickett can move outside. Pickett and Cullen Jenkins give the Pack a burly front three. The question marks for Green Bay are in the secondary, where starters CB Al Harris and S Atari Bigby are both out for at least six weeks. FS Nick Collins is a solid player, but veteran CB Charles Woodson is the best player Green Bay has in the back four. He had one of his best seasons last year and must repeat that performance if Green Bay is to hold up defensively. Green Bay will be fun to watch, but a repeat performance for the defense, not the offense, is what will determine how far the Pack can go in 2010.
8 – Minnesota Vikings – For most of last season, everything went swimmingly for the Vikings. Brett Favre came in and had perhaps his best NFL season at age 40, and Sidney Rice emerged into a franchise-level receiver. Adrian Peterson continued to thrive, and the defense was dominant. But toward the end of the season, some chinks started showing up in the armor. Minnesota’s offensive line fell apart as OLT Bryant McKinnie fatigued and ORT Phil Loadholt hit the rookie wall. Peterson’s fumbling problems persisted. The secondary struggled in the absence of S Cedric Griffin and the injury-limited status of CB Antonie Winfield. The Vikings fought through those problems into the NFC title game, and if not for several mistakes, they would have beaten the Saints and gone to the Super Bowl. But a year later, their issues – especially the age-related ones – are more pronounced. Favre is battling an ankle injury, and he’s never had as efficient a season as he did last year. Can he possible repeat a 33-touchdown, seven-interception performance? Rice is out for at least half the season with a hip injury. Percy Harvin, a dynamic playmaker, has migraine issues that can pop up at any time. McKinnie is a year older, as is stalwart OLG Steve Hutchinson. Peterson still drops the ball, and the Vikes don’t have Chester Taylor as an insurance policy any longer. The pieces are in place for a dynamic offense, but the questions persist. On defense, the Vikings need older players DT Pat Williams and Winfield to hold up. They do have in-their-prime guys in DEs Jared Allen and Ray Edwards and DT Kevin Williams who will be big difference makers, and MLB E.J. Henderson is making a remarkable recovery from a broken leg last season. But the secondary is probably the weakest area on an otherwise talented roster. Minnesota could contend again, but things could also go south on them. The fact that the rest of their division is ascending is another concern. The Vikes remain a playoff team, but that’s now speculation instead of a shoo-in.
8 (con’t) – New England Patriots – The Patriots are loaded on offense and young on defense, which makes them a dangerous team. And if everything comes together, they could be dominant. Tom Brady returned to form last season following his ’08 injury, and now the Pats hope that WR Wes Welker can do the same. Welker is the short-range threat, while Randy Moss remains a devastating outside threat. Now the Pats add two rookie tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, to give Brady even more options. The running game isn’t special, but with Fred Taylor, Laurence Maroney, and role players extraordinaire Kevin Faulk and Sammy Morris, the Pats should be fine. There are questions up front, where Pro Bowl OLG Logan Mankins continues to hold out, but the fact that ORT Sebastian Vollmer emerged as a plus player last year helps. Defensively, the Patriots need youngsters to emerge as Vollmer did last year. Up front, losing Ty Warren was a blow, especially after last year’s Richard Seymour trade, but NT Vince Wilfork is still a preeminent run-stuffer. At linebacker, OLB Tully Banta-Cain, one of the few veterans, comes off a double-digit sack season. ILB Jerod Mayo needs to be more of a playmaker this year. In the secondary, the Pats have a lot of former high draft picks in Brandon Meriweather, Devin McCourty, Darius Butler, and Pat Chung, but aside from Meriweather none has really made an impact yet. The Pats are talented on defense, but that talent must turn into production for New England to return to its former status as a Super Bowl contender.
8 (con’t) – Philadelphia Eagles – The Eagles didn’t just make changes in the offseason; they went for a intense youth movement that may cost them a win or two this year. But the overall talent level of the roster is terrific, and if they get solid play from first-time starting QB Kevin Kolb and other youngsters, they’re going to be a threat. Kolb has just two career starts, and it’s only fair to expect some inconsistency from him as he replaces Donovan McNabb. But much like how the Packers replaced Brett Favre with Aaron Rodgers a year too early, the Eagles decided to make the switch sooner rather than later. Kolb has a deep and talented corps of receivers led by diminutive but speedy DeSean Jackson. Jackson’s a true difference maker who can take over a game on his own. He’s joined by Jeremy Maclin and Jason Avant at wideout and Brent Celek at tight end to give Kolb above-average targets all the way across the field. At running back, youngster LeSean McCoy takes over for Brian Westbrook, and if McCoy can produce a solid running threat, Kolb’s job will be easier. Burly Mike Bell and fullback Leonard Weaver will also contribute in the running game. The Eagles changed some pieces on the offensive line, but if OLT Jason Peters plays up to his potential and C Nick Cole proves he’s healthy, they should be in good shape up there. On defense, the Eagles get MLB Stewart Bradley back from a knee injury, which should help against the run. They also brought in small but speedy OLB Ernie Sims and DEs Daryl Tapp and Brandon Graham (their first-round pick) to add some punch to the defense. Those players, plus holdovers Trent Cole and DTs Mike Patterson and Brodrick Bunkley, give the Eagles a top-flight front seven. In the secondary, the Eagles rely on CB Asante Samuel to play at a high level, and they hope rookie FS Nate Allen provides a deep threat. Maybe it will take another year for the Eagles to get all their young guys playing up to potential, but if it clicks this year, the Eagles could end up rebuilding on the fly at an efficiency level rarely seen in the NFL.
8 (con’t) – San Diego Chargers – The Chargers’ offseason has been contentious, marked by the holdouts of WR Vincent Jackson and Marcus McNeill and the departure of franchise-changing RB LaDainian Tomlinson. But the Chargers still have loads of talent, which should be enough to put them over the top of a ragamuffin AFC West division. QB Philip Rivers is a top-10 quarterback who loves to lead and is a great triggerman, and even without Jackson he should be able to spread the ball around to wideouts Malcom Floyd and Legedu Naanee. Of course, TE Antonio Gates remains not just a reliable receiver but a play-making one, which is why the Chargers willingly gave him a contract extension. At running back, rookie Ryan Mathews takes over for Tomlinson as the bellcow, with Darren Sproles fitting in as the pint-sized dynamo whose speed is a nightmare to defend. Without McNeill, the Chargers have questions up front on offense, but C Nick Hardwick is a quality pivot who can keep that line together. Defensively, the Chargers have lost a little of their fear factor with OLB Shawne Merriman declining, but Merriman, Shaun Phillips, and second-year man Larry English are a solid group of outside linebackers who can still create havoc. Up front, the Chargers finally bid farewell to NT Jamal Williams, who played well for many years but fought injuries in recent seasons. The secondary is a question mark, as the Bolts need former first-rounder Antoine Cason to develop similar consistency to Quentin Jammer at cornerback. While the Chargers may not have their best team in recent vintage, they still should have enough talent to get through the AFC West with a division title. But the lack of elite talent makes them less of a playoff threat than they have been in past years.
7 – Atlanta Falcons – Under head coach Mike Smith, the Falcons have put together back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in franchise history, although last year’s winning season didn’t land them in the playoffs. It seems as though QB Matt Ryan’s minor midseason injury might have been the difference between making or missing the playoffs. Ryan is a solid player who steps up in key situations and has the team behind him, and he’s the guy the Falcons are building around. He has elite targets in WR Roddy White and TE Tony Gonzalez, who is still as good as ever. RB Michael Turner also missed some time last year, but when healthy he’s a top-flight runner. Jason Snelling emerged as a good backup to Turner last year. The Falcons also have a solid offensive line with nasty run blockers on the right side in Tyson Clabo and Harvey Dahl and a decent blind-side pass protector in Sam Baker. The Falcons have tried to upgrade their defense by adding big-money CB Dunta Robinson and first-round OLB Sean Witherspoon, and they have emerging young players in DE Kroy Biermann, S Thomas DeCoud, DT Jordan Babineaux, and MLB Curtis Lofton. This defense could be quite good, especially if DE John Abraham returns to his 2008 form as a pass-rusher and ’09 first-rounder Peria Jerry finally gets on the field at defensive tackle. The Falcons have a lot of good players, and if the defense comes together as it could they might challenge the Saints in the NFC South.
7 (con’t) – Cincinnati Bengals – The Bengals broke into the playoffs last year thanks to a terrific defense and a solid running game. The question is whether Marvin Lewis and company can repeat playoff performances for the first time in franchise history. The defense is still a talented group, and it gets LBs Rey Maualuga and Keith Rivers and DE Antwan Odom back from in-season injuries. Odom was setting the world on fire as a pass-rusher when he got hurt, and Maualuga and Rivers are the aggressive playmakers outside. Their pop is enabled by solid play from guys like MLB Dhani Jones and DTs Domata Peko and Tank Johnson. The Bengals also have two terrific corners in Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall, both of whom can cover effectively. That’s a stout defense if it can stay healthier than it did last year. On offense, the Bengals rode RB Cedric Benson’s renaissance season. Benson isn’t a breakaway runner, but he’s physical and dependable, which fits the Bengals’ new style. His offensive line isn’t full of big names, but guys like OLT Andrew Whitworth and ORG Bobbie Williams do their jobs well. Cincinnati focused its offseason on upgrading the passing game, and despite the Antonio Bryant misfire they did so. WR Chad Ochocinco returns after his best season in a few years, and Terrell Owens has something to prove. Both receivers are aging, but youngsters Andre Caldwell and Jordan Shipley are solid too. Plus, the Bengals drafted a receiving threat in the first round by picking TE Jermaine Gresham. QB Carson Palmer wasn’t at his best last year, and the question is whether that best is still in him or if he’s past his prime. The Bengals rarely seem to put all the pieces together, but the pieces are there for another playoff run or maybe even more. The question is whether you believe a usually dysfunctional franchise can actually function on all cylinders.
7 (con’t) – Houston Texans – The Texans finally crossed the .500 barrier last year, but their 9-7 record wasn’t enough to get them into the playoffs. Now Houston must try to build on its success and finally get over the hump. One of the reasons the team finished with a winning record last year was QB Matt Schaub, who not only played at a high level but also stayed healthy for all 16 games for the first time in his Texans career. Schaub’s a talented passer who can produce as much as the elite quarterbacks in the league. He has a top-flight group of targets led by WR Andre Johnson, one of the league’s two best receivers. Johnson has had health problems in the past as well, but he stayed healthy in 2009. TE Owen Daniels was setting the world on fire until he tore his ACL at midseason last year, and his return this year may be slow at first. WRs Jacoby Jones and Kevin Walter give the Texans a deep group of receivers. At running back, the Texans have trouble picking a back, but it looks like Arian Foster is ready to emerge over Steve Slaton. Two signings in early September added depth, as Houston grabbed backup RB Derrick Ward and backup QB Matt Leinart. The Texans’ offensive line isn’t great, but it’s not terrible either. On defense, the Texans hit a home run with ’09 first-rounder Brian Cushing, who landed in the Pro Bowl. But the outside linebacker is suspended for the first four games of the year, which is a big blow for Houston. Now the Texans must find playmakers elsewhere. DE Mario Williams is a talented pass-rusher who will make his share, but ’09 free-agent signee Antonio Smith and former first-round DT Amobi Okoye need to step up. At linebacker, MLB DeMeco Ryans is a great tackler but not a huge impact player. And in the secondary, the Texans lost CB Dunta Robinson and need rookie Kareem Jackson to be ready from Day One. Houston has talent, but defense is a big question, especially in Cushing’s absence. But expectations of a playoff berth weigh heavily on head coach Gary Kubiak, who needs a big season to return in 2011.
7 (con’t) – Miami Dolphins – Two years ago, the Dolphins were a surprise team that went from one win to the AFC East title. Last year, the Dolphins slipped back a bit, finishing 7-9 and falling behind the Patriots and Jets in the division. But this year, the Dolphins will be in the AFC East mix a bit, and picking them to win the division could end up being prescient. The Dolphins get Ronnie Brown back to join Ricky Williams in a running game that’s among the league’s best. Both backs are talented, and they get to run behind a terrific offensive line led by elite OLT Jake Long and terrific ORT Vernon Carey. The line is physical and mean, fitting the Bill Parcells/Tony Sparano philosophy perfectly. And now the Dolphins have a big-time passing threat after they traded for Brandon Marshall in the offseason. Marshall’s presence will allow other receivers like Davone Bess (who had a terrific 2009 season) and second-year man Brian Hartline to fit into roles they’re better suited for, giving the Dolphins depth. That’s important for second-time starter Chad Henne, who struggled at times last year but came on at the end of the year. Henne has good potential, and if he can limit interceptions he adds a dimension that the Dolphins have not yet had in Sparano’s tenure. On defense, the Dolphins lost famous OLBs Jason Taylor and Joey Porter, but rookie Koa Misi and ex-CFL import Cameron Wake have a ton of talent and younger legs at the position. Rookie DE Jared Odrick joins young NT Randy Starks to upgrade the defensive line in the 3-4, and Karlos Dansby becomes the man at middle linebacker who will help to stuff the run and in pass coverage. If Dansby plays at his Arizona level, he’ll be a big-time upgrade. The secondary has given the Dolphins trouble recently, but second-year CBs Sean Smith and Vontae Davis have talent and now some experience. The Dolphins have a solid roster full of Parcells guys, and Sparano has proven to be an effective implementer of the Parcells philosophy. The fruits will show this year as the Dolphins leap back over the Jets and back into the postseason.
7 (con’t) – New York Giants – The Giants fell apart last year after a promising start, and their often vaunted defense ended up being a liability instead of a strength. Injuries to MLB Antonio Pierce and S Kenny Phillips were partly to blame, but other defenders played far below their normal level. Pierce is now retired, but the Giants brought in ex-Titan Keith Bulluck to fill that spot. Bulluck is coming back from knee surgery, but if he’s healthy he’s a rangy player who is an asset in pass coverage. At safety, Phillips is back and joined by Antrel Rolle, the ex-Cardinal who has incredible size and speed. Rolle will help stabilize the back of the Giants’ D. Now the question is whether Big Blue’s vaunted front four can rebound. That means DE Osi Umenyiora must rebound after a poor season last year, as must DT Chris Canty, a free-agent signee last year. Umenyiora joins fellow DEs Justin Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka in what should be a powerful pass-rushing group. On offense, the Giants became a passing team last year, in part because of the emergence of WR Steve Smith. Smith is a dependable mid-range target who could join with second-year man Hakeem Nicks, a deep threat, to give the Giants a top-flight group of receivers for QB Eli Manning. The Giants’ run game is in flux, as Brandon Jacobs fell apart last year and must prove he’s not done, while Ahmad Bradshaw moved into the No. 1 role. Up front, the Giants’ offensive line that has played together for so long looks like it might need some freshening up, perhaps from young OT William Beatty. The Giants have talent, but their lines must perform well for that talent to result in wins. The good news for Giants fans is that such performance has happened before and could happen again.
7 (con’t) – New York Jets – The Jets have big dreams last year, but those dreams are more influenced by their three-game playoff run than their 16-game regular season, in which they were just barely above average. The Jets have upgraded their talent, especially on offense, where WR Santonio Holmes should be a No. 1 receiver for QB Mark Sanchez after his four-game suspension. Holmes should overtake Braylon Edwards outside, and TE Dustin Keller inside can stretch the field up the middle. The Jets also expect RB LaDainian Tomlinson to help Sanchez, although our belief is that Tomlinson is done and that rookie Joe McKnight is more likely to make an impact. Thomas Jones is gone, so the Jets will rely on Shonn Greene to carry the load in the running game. Greene showed he has the talent to do so in the playoffs last year; now he must show he can last a full 16-game season. The skill-position players are blessed to have a talented offensive line in front of them led by C Nick Mangold and OLT D’Brickashaw Ferguson. Gang Green must fill in for veteran OLG Alan Faneca, probably with rookie Vladimir Ducasse. On defense, the Jets will be dangerous once again with head coach Rex Ryan’s attacking scheme. OLB Calvin Pace will miss a few early games with injury, but Jason Taylor will help fill in at that spot. But the Jets’ pass-rush also uses ILBs Bart Scott and David Harris, who are both terrific, versatile players. Harris was the unsung hero of the defense last year. Up front, NT Kris Jenkins returns, which means the Jets will hold up even better against the run. DE Shaun Ellis helps against the run and the pass. The Jets also have an elite cornerback in Darrelle Revis, who held out throughout the preseason but wil be on the field for Week One. He’s a game-changing cover guy who will allow the Jets to help imported cornerbacks Antonio Cromartie and Kyle Wilson (their first-round pick) when necessary. SS Jim Leonhard is a smart player who knows what Ryan wants to do and does it well. The Jets have tons of talent, and Ryan imbues them with tons of swagger, but thoughts of Super Bowl contention seem premature, especially because of Sanchez’ rookie struggles last year. Sanchez needs to make not just one leap but two for the Jets to be elite this year, and that’s hard to project. Instead, another fight for a playoff berth seems likely.
7 (con’t) – San Francisco 49ers – Things are looking up in San Francisco, where the talent level is back up and so are expectations. Unlike the Bill Walsh era, this group of 49ers is built on defense and physical play, in the mold of head coach Mike Singletary. San Francisco’s 3-4 is physical and solid, led by ILB Patrick Willis, who is one of the league’s best players of any position. But Willis isn’t alone in the front seven. NT Aubrayo Franklin helps keep blockers off of Willis, and DEs Isaac Sopaoga and Justin Smith do a good job against the run. The Niners’ pass rush isn’t devastating, although OLB Manny Lawson has his moments. In the secondary, underrated FS DaShon Goldson is a playmaker. The cornerback position has some questions. On offense, the Niners sought to upgrade their physical nature with first-round picks ORT Anthony Davis and OLG Mike Iupati. Iupati especially looks ready to break out as a rookie. Frank Gore remains a play-making running back, and TE Vernon Davis emerged as an elite player last year. If WR Michael Crabtree can emerge, the Niners will have their best set of skill-position players in years. The question is whether QB Alex Smith, who played OK last year, remains a league-average quarterback or improves to be more than that. Even if Smith is just average, the Niners have enough talent to contend with and probably pass the Cardinals in their division. It’s time for San Francisco to break through for a playoff berth, and the roster is primed for that next step.
6 – Arizona Cardinals – The Cardinals are coming off back-to-back playoff appearances, but their hopes for a third straight January appointment are dimming because of a severe talent drain. QB Kurt Warner retired, while S Antrel Rolle, WR Anquan Boldin, and LB Karlos Dansby left for other teams. The tale of the Cardinals’ season will be told by how they replace these players. It’s not going well at quarterback, where former first-rounder Matt Leinart has lost the starting job to Derek Anderson, an inconsistent passer who will make some big plays and some terrible ones as well. The ratio of dynamic to dumb plays will determine Anderson’s effectiveness, and he’s only gotten that ratio right in one year in his career. Anderson will have a fine stable of receivers, even with Boldin gone. Larry Fitzgerald is one of the two or three best receivers in the league, and Steve Breaston is ready to emerge as a starter. Early Doucet will step up to give Arizona a dangerous three-wide set once again. The run game is in good hands with Beanie Wells and Tim Hightower, and head coach Ken Whisenhunt may use Warner’s retirement as the impetus to move toward a more run-heavy attack. New OLG Alan Faneca, who played with Whisenhunt in Pittsburgh, has the veteran wiles to help with that if he can last another full season. The Cardinals’ offensive line isn’t great, but it’s good enough to block for the run and to keep quarterbacks largely upright. On defense, the Cardinals have an elite defensive end in Darnell Dockett and an emerging one in Calais Campbell. Those guys give Arizona more up-front pass rush than most 3-4 teams. At linebacker, the Cards will miss Dansby’s athleticism, but they hope free-agent addition Joey Porter and rookie Daryl Washington help to create pressure. FS Adrian Wilson is a ballhawk in the back end, and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has emerged as a quality corner. The Cards still have some top-level talent in Dockett, Wilson, and Fitzgerald, but the question is whether the QB questions will scuttle the season. Arizona won’t need much from Anderson to contend in the punchless NFC West, but if Anderson starts turning the ball over, things could turn ugly and reverse the foundation Whisenhunt has built.
6 (con’t) – Carolina Panthers – The Panthers’ offseason has been a story of departures. Long-time leaders like Julius Peppers, Jake Delhomme, Muhsin Muhammad, Damione Lewis, and Brad Hoover are gone, leaving a roster littered with young players. But head coach John Fox is still in town, as is an offense that runs the ball better than any other O in the league. RBs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart are both blue-chip backs, and their presence allows the Panthers to run 30-40 times a game without wearing out a back. The offensive line, led by OTs Jordan Gross and Jeff Otah and C Ryan Kalil, is designed to block for the run, and it does that well. While the run game isn’t a question mark, the passing game is. Matt Moore, who is 6-2 in two late-season stints as a starter, takes over for Delhomme, and if Moore plays even at an average level, the Panthers become dangerous. But assuming the average from Moore is dangerous, especially after his preseason performance. Moore will have one top target in Steve Smith, who is still one of the most explosive receivers in the league, but the rest of the targets are either unproven or disappointing. On defense, the Panthers will miss Peppers, but young defensive ends Charles Johnson and Everette Brown (along with veteran Tyler Brayton) have looked good in the offseason. Sixth-round pick Greg Hardy has been impressive as well. At linebacker, the Panthers are without Thomas Davis for at least the first six weeks of the season, which is why Jon Beason moves from middle ‘backer to the outside. That allows Dan Connor to play in the middle, which could be a boon. CB Chris Gamble is a top-level player who doesn’t get a ton of pub, and S Charles Godfrey is emerging. Despite all the departures, the Panthers still have their share of elite players, which makes them dangerous. The question is how Moore will perform and whether he will have enough good people to throw to. If both answers are yes, the Panthers could make a playoff run once again.
6 (con’t) – Pittsburgh Steelers – In Pittsburgh, the big story all offseason has been Big Ben, and Roethlisberger’s season-opening suspension will impact the Steelers’ chances. Fill-in QBs Byron Leftwich and Dennis Dixon are lacking – Leftwich in release speed and Dixon in experience – and that will cost the Steelers at least one September win. Leftwich injured his knee in the preseason finale, so it looks as though Dixon will get the call to open the season, and that’s probably better for the Steelers. But once Roethlisberger returns, the Steelers’ passing game should be dangerous with stalwarts WR Hines Ward and TE Heath Miller and ’09 rookie surprise Mike Wallace stepping in for Santonio Holmes. The Steelers also have a talented back in Rashard Mendenhall. The big question on offense, at least once Roethlisberger is back on the field, is how the offensive line will perform. The loss of ORT Willie Colon for the season really stings, and even with the addition of first-rounder Maurkice Pouncey, the Steelers could struggle up front. On defense, the story isn’t an absence but two returns – S Troy Polamalu and DE Aaron Smith. Polamalu is what makes the Steelers’ defense special, and when he was out last year the team was vulnerable. Smith is a solid five-technique player up front who stabilizes the run defense. OLBs James Harrison and Lamarr Woodley return to lead a zone-blitz pass rush that will cause quarterbacks trouble, but if the pass rush lags the Steelers’ cornerbacks are vulnerable. If Roethlisberger were going to be around the whole season, we would probably promote the Steelers a level or two and predict the playoffs. But his absence, coupled with big offensive line problems, means that the Steelers will miss out on double-digit wins for the second year in a row.
6 (con’t) – Tennessee Titans – In Jeff Fisher we trust. Fisher has been the Titans coach longer than they’ve been the Titans (he dates back to the Houston Oiler days), and he always seems to squeeze the most out of the talent on his team. Fisher always has a strong, tough team, and this year is no different. RB Chris Johnson is the star on offense after his 2,000-yard season, and he has the advantage of running behind a solid offensive line led by terrific tackles David Stewart and Michael Roos. Vince Young has once again seized the quarterback job, and the Titans have a good sense of how to use his talent and mask his deficiencies. When Young does throw the ball, TE Bo Scaife and WR Kenny Britt are solid targets. Defensively, the Titans lost another famous defender in Keith Bulluck this offseason, but they will still be tough. Tony Brown and Jason Jones have emerged as play-making defensive tackles, and DL coach Jim Washburn always seems to develop prospects into players. The defense lacks eye-popping players, although MLB Stephen Tulloch is solid. And in the secondary, Michael Griffin is an underrated safety, and Cortland Finnegan brings a physical aspect to corner. The Titans don’t have a lot of flashy players other than Johnson, and that limits their upside, but as always they’ll be a tough opponent each week, and they’ll be in the playoff race until the season ends.
5 – Oakland Raiders – The Silver and Black proclaims a commitment to excellence, but confusion has overtaken excellence in past years. It seems like the Raiders have righted the ship a bit now, but you have to wonder whether the franchise’s generational sins will bubble up and halt the positive movement. The reasons for optimism start on defense, where the Raiders have built up an impressive group of talent. Most fans know DE Richard Seymour, CB Nnamdi Asomugha, and rookie MLB Rolando McClain, but the Raiders have some more promising players in DE Matt Shaughnessy and OLB Kamerion Wimbley, who has had an awesome preseason after coming over from Cleveland. The Raiders look like they can get to the passer, and if McClain helps to clean up the run defense, this group will be stout. On offense, new QB Jason Campbell at least provides stability, something that JaMarcus Russell never did. Campbell has talented backs in Michael Bush and Darren McFadden and emerging young receivers in TE Zach Miller and WR Louis Murphy. If rookie bust Darrius Heyward-Bey emerges, the Raiders suddenly get scary on offense. The line is a problem, as Oakland lacks top-level blockers, and that could end up scuttling a Campbell-led offensive resurgence. There’s a lot to like in Oakland, but the history makes us skeptical. Still, in a weak AFC West, it’s in the realm of possibility for the Raiders to jump into the playoffs.
5 (con’t) – Washington Redskins – It’s a new day in D.C., as Mike Shanahan comes in and seeks to keep Daniel Snyder from meddling. Thus far, Shanahan appears to have been successful. Shanahan’s big move was bringing in QB Donovan McNabb, who should provide stability at a position that has been a trouble spot for the Redskins. As importantly, the Redskins added rookie OT Trent Williams and ex-Pro Bowl OT Jammal Brown to protect McNabb. Those additions were good, but the Redskins’ gaggle of grizzled graybeards at other positions may not be. RBs Larry Johnson and Willie Parker and WR Joey Galloway join Clinton Portis and Santana Moss in a march of the aged experienced at the skill positions. At least the Redskins have two good tight ends in Chris Cooley and Fred Davis. Those offensive questions at least have a positive answer as a possibility. On defense, the outlook is more dour. Obviously, the Albert Haynesworth controversy has blanketed the offseason, but Haynesworth is still the best playmaker the Skins’ D has. Maybe second-year OLB Brian Orakpo can build off a Pro Bowl rookie season so that Washington isn’t as reliant on Haynesworth, but until he does Albert’s still the BMOC. OLB Andre Carter and ILB London Fletcher are productive but aging, and CBs Carlos Rogers and DeAngelo Hall aren’t coming off their best years. S LaRon Landry, another high draft pick, hasn’t really delivered on his promise either. Shanahan has an odd roster full of some talent but even more aging players, and the way NFL players decline makes this approach questionable. Maybe he catches lightning in the bottle, but our hunch is that the Redskins will be more competitive than last year but not good enough to fight into the playoffs.
4 – Chicago Bears – The Bears finished 7-9 last year, but that was a little bit of a mirage because they played most of the league’s cupcakes and won two meaningless games to end the season. Still, the record led to changes for Lovie Smith’s team, most notably the addition of Mike Martz as offensive coordinator. The Bears hope that Martz’s wide-open offense will unleash QB Jay Cutler’s potential, but it’s just as likely that it leaves Cutler battered and leads to even more interceptions than the 26 Cutler gave away last year. Cutler has a young and promising receiving core led by Johnny Knox and Devin Aromashodu, but TE Greg Olsen could get lost in Martz’s offense. More importantly, the offensive line that struggled last year could really collapse under the pressure Martz’s system will put on it. OLT Chris Williams is finally at his natural position, which should help, but the right side of the line is a massive question mark. RB Matt Forte tries to rebound from a sophomore slump, but if he doesn’t, Chester Taylor is ready to turn a timeshare into his job. Defensively, the Bears added Julius Peppers, who should provide more pass rush than the departed Alex Brown. If Peppers can free up DT Tommie Harris, who has lost his Pro Bowl form, or another lineman like Mark Anderson, the Bears could get teeth on defense again. LB Brian Urlacher returns, and he and Lance Briggs will make their share of plays. But safety is a big question mark unless rookie Major Wright emerges, which means that the Bears have coverage problems despite solid CBs Peanut Tillman and Zack Bowman. The Bears have talent, but cornerback and offensive line questions make a jump toward the playoffs improbable. And with Lovie Smith’s lame-duck status, if things start going bad, the bottom could fall out.
4 (con’t) – Denver Broncos – We’ve been very clear over the past year and a half that we don’t agree with Josh McDaniels’ clear-cutting approach to changing the Broncos’ roster to fit his style, and the end of last season shows why. Denver started the season 6-0, but a lack of talent, especially on defense, showed itself as the Broncos collapsed down the stretch. Now Brandon Marshall and Tony Scheffler have left town, turning one of Denver’s 2009 strengths into a 2010 question mark. QB Kyle Orton is fine – a league-average quarterback – but his targets are subpar. Jabar Gaffney, Brandon Lloyd, and Eddie Royal aren’t a dynamic group of receivers, and Denver’s one breakaway threat, RB Knowshon Moreno, is fighting injuries in training camp. At least the offensive line features premium players in OLT Ryan Clady and ORG Chris Kuper. The defense also struggles with the lack of playmakers. Free-agent signings NT Jamal Williams and DE Justin Bannan will fortify the defensive line, but OLB Elvis Dumervil’s injury is a killer. Unless former first-rounders Jarvis Moss and Robert Ayers show a lot more performance than they have thus far, Denver will struggle to generate a pass rush. The secondary has talent, but CBs Champ Bailey and Andre Goodman and safeties Brian Dawkins and Renaldo Hill are all old in NFL terms, which leads to questions about their ability to maintain top-level performance through the second half of the season. Denver’s roster is too much of a mish-mash for us to predict that the Broncos will gallop to the playoffs, even in the weak AFC West.
4 (con’t) – Detroit Lions – The Matt Millen era is long gone in Detroit, and the new regime under Jim Schwartz and Martin Mayhew has revitalized the roster to the point that the Lions should move forward this year. The Lions have added not only premium talents like QB Matthew Stafford, S Louis Delmas, TE Brandon Pettigrew, and rookies DT Ndamukong Suh and RB Jahvid Best; they’ve also added helpful role players like OG Rob Sims, WR Nate Burleson, and TE Tony Scheffler. Detroit still needs help in the middle of its roster, but things are getting better. Stafford will love adding Burleson and Scheffler to Calvin Johnson, one of the few good draft picks from Millen’s reign, and Best adds electricity at running back that the Lions haven’t had in years. The offensive line is still a question mark, though, unless veteran OLT Jeff Backus can hold up. On defense, Suh and veteran additions Kyle Vanden Bosch and Corey Williams transform the front four for the better, but the back seven lacks punch beside Delmas. One more good draft will put the Lions in great shape, but for now Lions fans can expect more wins from a franchise that’s really headed in the right direction.
4 (con’t) – Jacksonville Jaguars – The Jags bounced back and forth between this level and the level above, and we were tempted to give them the benefit of the doubt based on their young offensive line and receivers. But those positives couldn’t outweigh the massive questions the Jags have on defense. Maybe rookie DT Tyson Alualu becomes an interior force, and maybe veteran DE Aaron Kampman comes over and not only provides a pass rush himself but also inspires first-round bust Derrick Harvey to do the same. Maybe addition Kirk Morrison becomes a playmaker at linebacker. Maybe Reggie Nelson reemerges at safety, and maybe Rashean Mathis reestablishes himself as a Pro Bowl-caliber cornerback. But that’s too many maybes for our taste. On offense, the Jaguars hit with rookie OTs Eben Britten and Eugene Monroe last year, and that helps Maurice Jones-Drew and the running game. And the young corps of receivers led by Mike Sims-Walker and Mike Thomas showed flashes of promise last year. But QB David Garrard hasn’t taken the step into being an above-average quarterback, and that limits Jacksonville’s hopes as well. In a division with the superb Colts, potent Texans, and physical Titans, Jacksonville just doesn’t have enough special qualities to compete. And that’s not good news for hot-seat head coach Jack Del Rio.
3 – Cleveland Browns – It was out with the old, in with the new for the Browns this offseason, although new head honcho Mike Holmgren didn’t through Eric Mangini out with the bathwater. So now Mangini heads up a team that showed some fight in December last year. They did that without a lot of premium talent – except for OLT Joe Thomas and maybe C Alex Mack. Those two, plus OLG Eric Steinbach, make the line a plus for the Browns, which may explain the success of RB Jerome Harrison late last season. Harrison will have to fight off youngsters James Davis and Montario Hardesty for carries this year. Two more second-year players, Mohammed Massaquoi and Brian Robiskie, must produce at receiver for the Browns, who have a new quarterback in ex-Panther Jake Delhomme. No one’s better in the locker room than Delhomme, but he must avoid interceptions to help the Browns’ offense turn around. The offensive X-factor is Josh Cribbs, a stud kick returner who needs to get the ball 10 times a game on offense. He’s the best playmaker the Browns have, and it’s not close. On defense, the Browns get ILB D’Qwell Jackson back this season, and OLBs Matt Roth and Marcus Benard were nice finds last year. None of them is a stud pass rusher, but with them and massive NT Shaun Rogers, the Browns have a solid front seven. The secondary adds Sheldon Brown and first-rounder Joe Haden at cornerback, which should help. If the Browns had a few more playmakers and an easier division, we might be a bit more bullish, but this roster is more solid than it was last year, and that means a run at .500 is possible if Delhomme keeps it together.
3 (con’t) – Seattle Seahawks – Pete Carroll has lit up the Pacific Northwest with his optimism, and he has done a number on the Seahawks’ roster as well. It remains to be seen if Carroll can thrive as a program-builder at the NFL level, because so few guys have done that well, but the early signs are positive. Rookies WR Golden Tate, OLT Russell Okung, and S Earl Thomas add a ton of talent to a team that really needed it, but the ‘Hawks roster had fallen so far that 2010 will still be a struggle. QB Matt Hasselbeck needs to stay healthy to provide stability for an offense with a few playmakers, but Charlie Whitehurst is lurking as a starter in 2011 or perhaps before. The quarterback will have quality targets in TE John Carlson and RB Justin Forsett, and maybe WR Mike Williams is rejuvenated. But the line, even with the addition of Okung and solid young ORG Max Unger, is nothing special unless trade acquisition Stacy Andrews returns to his best. There are questions on offense, but there are problems on defense. Thomas and fellow rookie CB Walter Thurmond provide a talent infusion in the secondary, and MLB Lofa Tatupu returns. But the front four looks like one of the worst in the league, and that’s going to cause problems against the passing game. Carroll appears to have the Seahawks flying in the right direction, but the talent problem was far too deep to be fixed in one offseason.
3 (con’t) – Tampa Bay Buccaneers – The pirate ship ran aground last year, as rookie head coach Raheem Morris fired both coordinators he had hired before the end of the season, and the talent level bottomed out. The Bucs did show some fight in late-season wins over the Saints and Dolphins, and that is a sign of hope. More importantly, the team has added some players who help – especially on defense. Rookie DTs Gerald McCoy and Bryan Price have the potential to put teeth back in the Tampa 2 defense, and if they do then the playmakers around them – LB Barrett Ruud, CB Ronde Barber, and S Tanard Jackson – will be set free to succeed. The front four was the defense’s weak point last year, so McCoy was the perfect first-round pick. On offense, the Bucs have a longer way to go, but second-year QB Josh Freeman showed more polish than expected last year, which is a great first step. He has a premium target in TE Kellen Winslow, and rookie WRs Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn could develop with Freeman. Williams has looked great in training camp. The run game relies on the resurgent Cadillac Williams, and the offensive line features a solid left tackle in Donald Penn. The Bucs should be feisty throughout the 2010 season, and if youngsters like Freeman, Mike Williams, and McCoy develop, the Bucs could be terrors on the high seas again before long.
2 – Kansas City Chiefs – Some pundits are touting the Chiefs as a surprise team in 2010. We don’t see it. Head coach Todd Haley is an Xs-and-Os guru, but his personality seems to bring more inconsistency and uncertainty to the franchise than organization. And his management style can’t address the roster deficiencies the Chiefs have. QB Matt Cassel is just OK, and he plays behind an offensive line that doesn’t compare to the Chiefs’ great lines of the 1990s. Left tackle Branden Albert, a former first-round pick, like Cassel is fine but unspectacular compared to others at his position. The Chiefs have a dynamic running back in Jamaal Charles, and addition Thomas Jones is dependable, but the combo isn’t good enough to carry a whole offense a la DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart in Carolina. At receiver, the Chiefs have big targets in Chris Chambers, who was revitalized after arriving in K.C. at midseason last year, and Dwayne Bowe, but Bowe’s consistency and mindset leaves the Chiefs hanging too often. On defense, former top-5 overall picks Glenn Dorsey and Tyson Jackson haven’t set the world on fire at defensive end, and the only pass-rush threat the Chiefs have is Tamba Hali. Rookie safety Eric Berry may develop into a playmaker, and CB Brandon Carr is developing into a quality player, but unless Berry is the second coming of Troy Polamalu he can’t turn a defense around himself. The bottom line on the Chiefs is not that they have bad players, but that they don’t have exceptional players. And too many OK players means the arrow still isn’t pointed up at Arrowhead.
2 (con’t) – St. Louis Rams – Last year, the Rams were as bereft of talent as any team in the league. But we can sell at least a little bit of hope in the Gateway city heading into this year. Sam Bradford, of course, is the paragon of most of this hope, and the preseason has hinted that he can deliver on his franchise-quarterback promise. Bradford has a fine running back in Steven Jackson, and the offensive line in front of him should start to show the effects of adding young OTs Rodger Saffold and Jason Smith in the draft as well as C Jason Brown and OG Jacob Bell in free agency. But Donnie Avery’s injury exacerbated the Rams’ lack of depth at receiver. It’s a big hole for the offense, even if Laurent Robinson, Danny Amendola, and rookie Mardy Gilyard do have some promise. The Rams hope September acquisition Mark Clayton can add some veteran dependability at the position. On defense, the Rams have some nice pieces in MLB James Laurinaitis, CB Ron Bartell and S O.J. Atogwe, but they lack impact players on the front line, and without a pass rush, an NFL defense can’t excel. So receiver and defensive line need to be the next items on the rebuilding hit list. But at least Rams fans can take hope in the fact that with head coach Steve Spagnuolo, things are finally moving in the right direction.
1 – Buffalo Bills – First, the good news for Bills fans: Rookie RB C.J. Spiller looks like a phenomenon, and he joins Fred Jackson in a talented backfield. Plus, FS Jarius Byrd made the Pro Bowl as a rookie after compiling nine interceptions. Both players appear to be better than average at their positions. But if you look across the rest of the Bills’ roster, it’s hard to find any standouts. The offensive line is a mess, even with high draft picks spent on Eric Wood and Andy Levitre. The quarterback situation is convoluted, and no matter whether Trent Edwards, Ryan Fitzpatrick, or Brian Brohm starts, none of them will be better than a league-average quarterback. The offense has Lee Evans but no other passing game threats. And the defense lacks playmakers. Second-year man Aaron Maybin needs to emerge as a pass-rushing threat in the team’s new 3-4, and the Bills need free-agent signee DE Dwan Edwards to stabilize the line up front. Chan Gailey’s a create play-caller with head-coaching experience, and the Bills tend to play hard, but there’s just not enough talent in upstate New York to expect more than four or five wins – especially in a tough AFC East. With no upside, we have no choice but to put the Bills at the bottom of our comparison.
With the season opening Thursday, it’s an appropriate time to update our NFL bookshelf with thoughts on Saints head coach Sean Payton’s book Home Team: Coaching the Saints and New Orleans back to Life. The book tells the tale not just of the Saints’ 2009 Super Bowl season but also of Payton’s journey from college player to NFL coach. In fact, that journey may be more enlightening than Payton’s thoughts on building the Saints. Hearing Payton talk about moving his family and about failing in job interviews was a far more personal insight than I expected.
While most reviews concentrated on Payton’s blunt retelling of his celebration methods, we found his motivational tactics more compelling. Hearing the story about why the team resigned Deuce McAllister during last year’s playoffs or why he decided on a game-turning onside kick to open the second half during the Super Bowl. Coaches looking for ideas on inspiring their teams can learn from Payton’s tactics and his overall mindset.
Most coaching books are filled with cliches instead of insight, but Payton avoided that trap more than most. It’s not great literature, but Home Team is an interesting and quick read, and it’s worth having on your bookshelf, especially if you’re a Saints fan.
Here are thoughts on the Saints’ 31-17 victory over the Colts in Super Bowl 44.
*Sean Payton pitched a perfect game for the Saints in the coaching department. A lot of times, we pound on coaches for bad game-management decisions, but Payton was spot on in this game. His decision to go for it on fourth-and-goal in the second quarter didn’t pay off with a touchdown, but the Saints still got a field goal before the half based on field position, and more importantly they kept Peyton Manning from mounting a two-minute drill drive. Then the onside kick to start off the second half obviously was a huge gamble that paid off by giving the Saints their first lead. Payton also correctly challenged on the two-point conversion in the fourth quarter. That’s a strong performance from a coach who wasn’t afraid to lose and instead played to win.
*Jim Caldwell, meanwhile, made the game’s crucial mistake by attempting a 51-yard field goal in the fourth quarter. When you think of trying a 51-yarder with a 42-year-old kicker, it just sounds like a bad idea, and even though Matt Stover had hit 16 straight postseason kicks, he barely got the kick there. It seemed like there was a 30 percent chance, tops, of that kick making it. An incomplete pass would have saved the Colts seven yards, and a punt could have buried the Saints deep and perhaps taken the aggressiveness out of Payton and Drew Brees. In a game that didn’t have a turnover or a play longer than 27 yards until Tracy Porter’s late interception return, that missed field goal was a huge turnaround.
*Obviously, Drew Brees had an epic performance in the game, completing 18-of-19 passes at one point and finishing 32-of-39 for 288 yards. In a game without big plays, accuracy is what kept drives moving, and Brees was just a little better than Peyton Manning in this game. That’s not to say Manning was bad, because he was at least good. But Brees put together a great performance.
*Again, in a game where there was only one turnover and just 64 penalty yards combined, mistakes that are usually smaller like dropped passes played a much bigger role. Marques Colston’s drop in the first quarter slowed the Saints down, while Pierre Garcon’s drop in the second quarter seemed to stymie the Colts’ momentum for a whole quarter. Garcon has a ton of talent, and he had a productive game with 5 catches for 66 yards and a touchdown. But the young receiver had two key mistakes in that drop and then the fourth-quarter offensive pass interference that really hurt his team. Those mistakes loomed large in this one.
*Before the game, I tweeted that I saw a game with more running and more of a grind-it-out affair. And while my Pierre Thomas as MVP prediction didn’t come through, Thomas was important with 85 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown. For the Saints, the grind-it-out came as they dumped the ball off time after time instead of taking bigger shots deep. For the Colts, they relied on Joseph Addai, who had a big game with 135 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown. Addai was the Colts’ best offensive player in the game.
*Dwight Freeney had the game’s only sack, and while he didn’t make a huge impact it was good to see that injury didn’t keep him from playing or limit him to the point that he’ll regret how he could have played. But the Colts’ best defensive player was Gary Brackett, who had 12 solo tackles and the key fourth-and-goal stop in the second quarter.
*Thomas Morstead was the crazy kicker of the Super Bowl with his terrific surprise onside kick, but Garrett Hartley deserves props for becoming the first kicker in Super Bowl history to make three field goals of 40 yards or more in a Super Bowl. It’s interesting to consider how both of these teams had kicking decisions to make late in the season. The Saints went with the young Hartley over veteran John Carney, and that paid off in both the NFC championship game and the Super Bowl. The Colts went with Stover over Adam Vinatieri, and Stover missed (in a tough spot).
As part of our coverage of Super Bowl 44, we thought we’d spend some time analyzing the most prevalent storylines we’ll hear about during the Super Bowl hype. These storylines are compared not on their validity or even their relevance but simply on how often we’ll hear them, with the 10 level being the most often repeated storylines and the 1 level being storylines we won’t hear (but perhaps should). The blurb about each storyline will analyze what impact (if any) the storyline will have on the actual game.
And a note – for more info on the game and thoughts that creep into our heads, check out our Twitter feed on the right of this page or by following. We’ll try to have fun there.
10 – Recovery of New Orleans – This is the biggest storyline that we’ll hear about when it comes to the Saints this week. We’ll hear about Hurricane Katrina, the ninth ward, the recovery of perhaps the most unique American city, and how Drew Brees’ decision to live there is a spark. This a great story, no doubt, and the fact that the Saints are playing for something a little bigger than themselves does matter on the field, at least a little. But this won’t be the deciding factor on the field come game day.
9 – Dwight Freeney’s health – This story got a lot bigger over the weekend when ESPN reported that Freeney has a torn ligament in his ankle that could sideline him for the Super Bowl. We guess that Freeney will play, but of all the pregame stories this is the one with the potential to have the greatest on-field impact.
8 – none
7 – Who’s Archie cheering for? – The storyline that New Orleans will focus on when it’s not on a sociological kick is the allegiance of the all-time greatest Saint, Archie Manning. Of course, Archie’s son Peyton is going for his second Super Bowl ring. Archie has already decided that he’s with Peyton all the way, but that doesn’t mean that Archie, Peyton, and everyone else won’t have to talk about this throughout the media day festivities. Then we’ll all forget about it and actually watch the game, hoping that CBS doesn’t shove shots of Archie down our throats (like they shoved shots of the President down our throats during Saturday’s Duke/Georgetown hoops game).
6 – Peyton Manning as the GOAT – Now that he’s won a record four MVP awards, Peyton can put himself in the discussion as the Greatest of All Time, or GOAT as so many have called it. With a second Super Bowl ring, Peyton can enter the discussion with John Elway and Joe Montana, whom we would rate as the top two quarterbacks since 1980. But the talking heads who must fill airtime on First Take will Skip perspective (pun intended) and go ahead and declare Peyton the best of all time. Peyton cares about his legacy, and it drives him, but his concern during the game will be a second title, not a made-up acronym.
5 – none
4 – Pierre Garcon and Haiti – Garcon, a Haitian native, has risen to the occasion in the past few weeks to ask for help for his homeland, and we expect him to do the same during some of the early-week media festivities. This isn’t game-related, but we hope that Garcon can call for and inspire more help for a land that still needs it. (And if you want to find something you can do to help, here’s one way.) Will it make Garcon play more inspired football? Perhaps, but even if it doesn’t, Garcon has a chance to do a lot of good here.
3 – Tim Tebow’s ad – Probably the biggest storyline in the NFL that has nothing to do with either the Colts or Saints is the debate over Tim Tebow appearing in a pro-life ad to be aired during the Super Bowl. Obviously, this has nothing to do with the game, but it incites discussion because it hits on such a hot-button issue. So there is sound and fury here, but it obviously signifies nothing about the game.
2 – Darren Sharper’s impact – Sharper will be a Media Day darling, because his Pro Bowl season in his first New Orleans campaign looks to be the biggest difference between the Saints defense from last year to this one. Sharper may get a hair too much credit – he has a high profile from his time in Green Bay and Minnesota, and his constant friendliness to the media gets returned with praise – but he has been a huge addition for the Saints. His veteran wiles have rubbed off on his secondary teammates, and his own play has been quite good. So in the end, we’re good with whatever pub Sharper gets during the week, because his impact on the field on Sunday figurees to be substantial as well.
1- Sean Payton’s 250K gamble – Coming off of last year’s 8-8 season, Payton, the Saints head coach, sought to improve his defense, and to do so he wanted to hire high-profile coordinator Gregg Williams, who was leaving Jacksonville. But he was afraid that someone else would swoop in and lure Williams away, and so Payton volunteered to give up a quarter of a million dollars of his own salary to enhance the package the Saints could offer Williams. This story hasn’t gotten a ton of airplay, but Williams’ attacking defense – and its propensity to cause turnovers – is a huge reason the Saints are in the game. And we believe that if the Saints are to win on Super Sunday, Williams’ D will have to force at least two turnovers. So this storyline is underplayed, because it has a huge effect on the outcome of the game.