The word for this year’s NFL season is parity. Yes…..I realize that’s not an original thought. You hear it dozens of times from all the talking heads on ESPN, CBS, Fox, and NBC…..your friendly neighborhood purveyors of NFL action. But honest to God I really believe it to be the case this year. There are a few teams (Cleveland, Kansas City, Detroit) that continue to wallow in the land of dreadful despite all the usual machinations such as new coaches and noteworthy free agent signings or trades. And there are a few elite teams (Pittsburgh and the New York Giants for example) that continue to ride the tasty wave of success with no signs of decline. But the vast majority of the league seems to be atop a high wire, where a key injury or bad move by the coach will dictate the fickle difference between 7-9 and 11-5 but no amount of tinkering will make them neither elite nor awful. It’s one of the reasons we love the NFL…..it’s unpredictable and somewhat random. That being said, here’s my take on how we might see the season unfold. As always…please, no wagering. I don’t claim to actually be good at this.
We’ve already dissected the AFC…now it’s the NFC’s turn:
New York Giants 13-3
The Plaxico Burress debacle dominated the Giants off season. As unfortunate as that situation was, I believe that the loss of Burress and the other starting WR Amani Toomer will actually benefit the team, as the replacements…some combination of Domenick Hixon, Steve Smith, rookie Hakeem Nicks, Mario Manningham, and Sinorice Moss…have the potential to be a significant upgrade (and far less of a headache than Plax). Some may say the running game suffers a bit by the departure of Derrick Ward to Tampa, but personally I think it provides clarity. I’ve seen the NFL evolve from running back tandems in my childhood to the era of one feature back and back around to tandems the past few years, but I’ve never thought a three back system is a good thing. It’s just too muddled and confusing. There’s no way to get three running backs involved successfully and keep them all happy, especially if all three really are talented enough to be the primary runner. In New York it is now clear that Brandon Jacobs is the #1 option and Ahmad Bradshaw is his backup, albeit one who’ll see his fair share of action. That will be helpful to the offense. On the defensive side of the ball the return of defensive end Osi Umenyiora can only make an already strong defense even more imposing.
Philadelphia Eagles 10-6
I’m not a big Donovan McNabb fan. He may be one of the most overrated football players in the past half century. That being said, this is always a top level team and one that’s a legitimate threat to win every single game. The defense had a rough offseason, losing safety Brian Dawkins and CB Lito Shepperd and also enduring the sad death of defensive coordinator Jim Johnson. Offensively Jeremy Maclin was drafted to be a bookend WR with last year’s pleasant surprise DeSean Jackson, and some additions were made to bolster the offensive line. The Eagles made headlines of their own by signing QB Michael Vick, who is looking for a fresh start after spending the past couple of years…..away. I’m not too concerned about the defense…..Philly just seems to be one of those teams, like Pittsburgh and Baltimore, that is perennially strong on the defensive side of the ball, with age and free agency and other factors never seeming to have a significant negative impact. And the offense will be better as more weapons have been added. But for some strange reason this is a team that has a hard time reaching the pinnacle, getting to the Super Bowl only twice in the past 30 years despite making the playoffs in over half of those seasons. I see no reason why 2009 will be much different…..they will have a successful season, make the playoffs, and then fall short of the goal.
Dallas Cowboys 10-6
One word springs to mind…..overrated. The Cowboys are the professional equal of Notre Dame, living off an overblown reputation largely earned decades ago and having a bloated sense of self worth. I’m not saying this isn’t a good team, it’s just not a great team. Jerry Jones hasn’t become the complete joke that Al Davis has, but give it a few more years and I’m sure it will happen. The Cowboys have a shiny new billion dollar stadium that has puffed up the egos of Cowboy Nation even further, but that ain’t gonna win ball games. Much like the Eagles, the Cowboys will have a solid season and then fall apart at some point in the playoffs. The offseason departures of Terrell Owens, Pacman Jones, and Jessica Simpson will be addition by subtraction, but it still won’t be enough.
Washington Redskins 7-9
There seems to be an undeniable correlation between ownership and success, or lack thereof, on the field. Jerry Jones and Al Davis are wack jobs and their teams are either God awful or heading in the wrong direction. The Rooney Family are held up as model citizens and owners, and the Steelers have won two Super Bowls in the past few years. Coincidence?? Of course not. That brings us to Daniel Snyder, a self made billionaire who epitomizes the fact that just because you have the ability to make money doesn’t mean you know diddly squat about football. He’s another one of these owners that, instead of hiring knowledgeable football gurus to run his team, thinks it’s his right and privilege to make all the decisions himself. I suppose it is technically his right and privilege, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. He has continuously tried to buy success by signing aging free agents to big money contracts, only to have those moves not pay much of a dividend on the field. 2009 does have the potential to be different, as most would agree that DE Albert Haynesworth was a quality signing. But the jury is still out on QB Jason Campbell, head coach Jim Zorn, and a receiving corps that is unimpressive to say the least. The division is super tough, and I just don’t see this team being able to get over the hump quite yet.
New Orleans Saints 9-7
I’m not sure if the NFC South is mediocre or just the quintessential embodiment of the aforementioned parity. Picking this division really is like pinning the tail on the donkey. There is no right or wrong answer. I really like Drew Brees though, so the Saints get the nod in a virtual coin flip.
Carolina Panthers 9-7
I don’t like QB Jake Delhomme nearly as much as I like Drew Brees. That’s it, that’s the x factor, the tie breaker. The defense is always strong, and most pundits seem to not believe this team will be much different than the one who won 12 games last season. But I see that they have tough out-of-conference games against Miami, New England, and the Jets, plus they start the season against Philly, Dallas, and Atlanta. That may be 6 losses right there.
Atlanta Falcons 8-8
One step forward, two steps back. Everyone fell in love with rookie QB Matt Ryan last season, with good reason. He was impressive. No significant changes were made in the offseason with the exception of adding future Hall of Fame TE Tony Gonzalez, and that’s what bothers me. This feels like a team to me that believes they’ve arrived, that believes last season erases a track record of mediocrity, that no further changes need to be made. But history proves otherwise. In 1998 the Falcons went 14-2 en route to the Super Bowl before falling to the Broncos…..the next season they went 5-11. In 2002 they were a playoff team…..the following season: 5-11. In 2004 the Falcons won 11 games and made it to the NFC title game where they lost to the Eagles…..the next year they were a .500 team. Achieving success isn’t foreign to the Atlanta Falcons, but sustaining success seems to be an issue.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 8-8
There’s a new sheriff in town for the Bucs. There’s also a new QB. Pretty much everything is new. It’s rebuilding time in Tampa. The division is a tossup so maybe this team will surprise some folks, but on paper it doesn’t look promising.
Minnesota Vikings 12-4
The Vikings acquired a new QB recently, some guy whose name escapes me right now. But whoever he is, a lot of people expect him to be the final piece of the puzzle for a team who has had an above average defense for awhile now and last year added Adrian Peterson who quickly established himself as one of the top running backs in the league. I concur.
Green Bay Packers 10-6
Last season was a tumultuous one for the folks in Titletown. This offseason has been rather uneventful in comparison. Aaron Rodgers is firmly ensconced as the QB, and in 2008 he acquitted himself quite nicely. There’s no reason to believe that he won’t be even better this year. The biggest question I have is RB Ryan Grant. Is he a one year wonder?? If he proves to be legit then The Pack will be a formidable force. 3 of their first 5 opponents are Detroit, Cincinnati, and St. Louis, so there is potential for a hot start. There are tough non-divisional games against Baltimore, Dallas, Pittsburgh, Seattle, and Arizona. If Green Bay can manage to win 3 of those then it’s on, it’s on like Donkey Kong baby. And then of course there is the division…..6 games against Minnesota, Chicago, and Detroit. We can safely assume 2 wins against the hapless Lions, so if they can split the other 4 games that’d possibly get them to 10 wins which may be good enough for a wild card playoff appearance.
Chicago Bears 8-8
Move on, there’s nothing to see here. Everyone is making a big deal out of the fact that the Bears significantly upgraded the QB position. Okay, I will submit to that fact. They swindled the Broncos in acquiring Pro Bowl QB Jay Cutler for the ill fated Kyle Orton, and I missed exactly how this happened but somehow Rex Grossman ended up in Houston doing exactly what he was destined to do, ride the pine. But quite honestly I’m not buying the Cutler hype. He acted like a complete jackass in whining his way out of Denver, which I know has nothing much to do with his on the field ability but it still makes me question his leadership skills and mental & emotional makeup, something that is vital for the quarterback position. Bret Favre has been around long enough and achieved at a level that somewhat justifies his diva attitude. Jay Cutler hasn’t proven himself worthy of carrying Favre’s luggage, atleast not yet. And even if people a bit less neurotic than me can put all that aside, there’s still that issue that Cutler has no one to throw to in Chicago. When the Bears add a couple of meaningful pieces to the receiving corps then maybe I’ll become a believer. Until then they have an awesome defense, an above average running back in Matt Forte, an overrated QB with an attitude problem, and no one to catch the ball. I believe in the axiom that defense wins championships…..Baltimore and Pittsburgh have proven that. But Minnesota’s defense is just as good if not better than Chicago’s, and offensively there’s just no comparison. Non division games against the Steelers, the Cardinals, and the Ravens will be super tough.
Detroit Lions 4-12
Hey, atleast they’ll not go winless again this year. Rome wasn’t built in a day, so no one expects a quick turnaround in Motown. If QB Matthew Stafford proves to be the real deal and they continue to add pieces to the offense and the defense then maybe we can expect something approaching respectability for the Lions in about 3 or 4 years. I suspect by then there will be yet another new coach and a bunch of new players, but that’s a long way away. In 2009 winning 4 games will be a welcome improvement.
Arizona Cardinals 10-6
A year ago at this time no one was picking the Cardinals to go to the Super Bowl. Not only did they go but they darn near won the thing. Ohio State’s Beanie Wells replaces the departed Edgerrin James at running back, a risky move considering Wells’ injury history. I also don’t believe Kurt Warner is the long term answer at quarterback. Matt Leinart needs to shape up or ship out. But for now, in 2009, there is a belief that Warner can atleast keep things moving in a positive direction. Do I think the Cards will make it back to the Super Bowl?? No, I don’t. But they should be able to maintain dominance in their division and make the playoffs.
Seattle Seahawks 9-7
I’ve always believed that Seattle was better on paper than in reality, but they aren’t as bad as they played last year. The injury bug bit and bit hard in 2008. If they can avoid that this season they instantly become better. Jim Mora Jr. takes over as head coach after Mike Holmgren decided not to return, so that should freshen things up a bit. Receiver TJ Houshmandzadeh finally escaped Cincinnati and will be hungry to prove he is a legitimate #1 WR as well as see what it’s like to actually be part of a winner. It will be interesting to see who emerges as the primary running back, Julius Jones or the newly signed Edgerrin James. Even if they run a tandem it’s not a bad duo. A couple of additions were made on the defensive side of the ball, and how quickly that group gels could decide on which side of .500 the Seahawks finish. I’m optimistic they will rebound from last year’s aberration and once again be in the playoff hunt.
San Francisco 49ers 6-10
Deciding between Alex Smith and Shaun Hill in the starting quarterback competition is like going to a restaurant and having the choice of beef broth or unsalted crackers…..uninspiring, uninteresting, unappetizing, and not fulfilling in any way. After establishing themselves as one of the all time elite franchises during the glory years of Joe Montana, Steve Young, Jerry Rice, Bill Walsh, and George Seifert the 49ers have now slipped into Bengals/Browns/Lions territory, which I find sad. They drafted WR phenom Michael Crabtree with their 1st round pick and he has subsequently held out all summer and may hold out all year and go back into the draft next year. No matter how it shakes out long term, within the framework of this season it’s a wasted choice and eerily reminiscent of something that might happen to Cincinnati and not to great teams like Pittsburgh, New England, or Indianapolis. I like Mike Singletary as a coach just as I fondly recall his fierce talent as a player, but I think the problems in San Francisco start upstairs and until those issues are resolved the coaches and players are just pawns in a perpetually losing situation.
St. Louis Rams 5-11
Wow…what has happened to the Rams?? It wasn’t that long ago that The Greatest Show On Turf was appearing weekly at a stadium near you, but the Dick Vermeil/Kurt Warner/Torry Holt era is over and done. Even offensive tackle Orlando Pace is gone. I’m a big fan of QB Marc Bulger, who is a former West Virginia Mountaineer, and I think Steven Jackson is among the league’s best running backs when he is healthy. But beyond those two the cupboard is pretty bare and the Rams are in full on rebuild mode. Nothing happened in the offseason to give anyone any reason to believe a dramatic turnaround is imminent after last season’s 2-14 epic failure. I suspect more turnover…..perhaps a new QB or even a very quick and sudden end to Steve Spagnolo’s short tenure as coach..…will occur before this team begins to show signs of a full recovery.