by Ryan "The Guru"
With the NFL season now officially at a close, let’s take a look back on the best moves teams made to get them where they were this season. Please note: Why I say top 10, these are not ranked in any specific order.
Giants re-sign Justin Tuck and Derrick Ward to contract extensions
After the shine wore off the Super Bowl Champions, they had to turn their attention to re-signing some of their bigger names. Wait a minute, DE Justin Tuck and RB Derrick Ward didn’t have the most amazing 2007, but they did enough to warrant their immediate extensions, and did it pay off!
Tuck, who was on the radar as being the understudy to step into the spotlight once Michael Strahan retired, paid off even bigger dividends in 2008 when Osi Umenyiora went down with his season ending injury, and recorded career highs in tackles (67) sacks (12), and even had an interception for a touchdown.
The Giants saw quickly that his re-signing was a factor, and with Umenyiora’s return in 2009, offenses will have trouble being able to contain both monsters.
On the offensive side of the ball, Brandon Jacobs was deemed the heir apparent in 2007, and the combo of him and Rueben Droughns was effective.
But the G-Men knew they needed some more speed, so enter in Derrick Ward, who had a modest 2007 as the third option (602 yards, three touchdowns), but the Giants saw something special, and his one-year contract led to his first career 1,000-yard season, with two rushing touchdowns.
These two were both huge factors in the Giants 2008 NFC East title, and, should the Giants re-sign Ward, both should pay off big dividends in 2009.
Colts sign Dallas Clark to an extension
The Colts know QB Peyton Manning needs key guys to throw too, and one of his biggest targets is TE Dallas Clark. Team President Bill Polian knew Clark’s worth, and upon the first day of free agency, immediately placed the franchise tag on Clark, and then quickly came to terms with one of the NFLs highest-paid TEs.
Clark proceeded to again be a top target, especially with the decline of Marvin Harrison post-injury, and posted career highs in catches (77) and yards (848) with six touchdowns in 2008.
At the pace Clark is going, he has the potential to be a 1,000-yard receiving tight end in the next year or so, even with WRs Reggie Wayne, Harrison, and Anthony Gonzalez around, because, let’s face it, Peyton Manning is his quarterback.
New York Jets sign Alan Faneca and Damien Woody
The 2008 offseason was a time for the Jets to open up the wallets, and they did so, and while some of their moves were, ill-advised, to say the least, two moves they did make paid off big. Alan Faneca was tired of playing for little money in Steel City, and made the move to the Green, cashing in on a five year, $40 million deal.
Damien Woody, formerly of the Lions, jumped ship to reunite with former head coach Eric Mangini from their time together in New England. The improvements? Well, even though the two did give up the most sacks on the team (Faneca 7, Woody 6.5), they did assist the team in giving up only 21.5 sacks in 2008, which was 29.5 less than their second worst in the NFL performance in 2007.
They also allowed RB Thomas Jones to have his fourth straight 1,000 yard season (1312 yards), and a career best 13 touchdowns, as well as RB Leon Washington to record 803 yards per scrimmage and eight touchdowns.
Despite not making the playoffs, having a secure offensive line gives them opportunity down the road.
Dolphins Sign Chad Pennington and trade for Anthony Fasano
The Miami Dolphins were the laughing stock of the NFL in 2007, with a 1-15 record thanks to an overtime victory against Baltimore. Needless to say, changes needed to be made. Enter in Bill Parcells, one of the greatest masterminds in football.
Heck, just signing him was enough of a transaction, but it’s the players that win the game. Needless to say, like Parcells does as an executive, he brings in “Parcells guys”, such as Chad Pennington and Anthony Fasano.
Under the tutelage of rookie head coach Tony Sparano (also a Parcells guy), Pennington proved he still had it, despite the entire state of New York doubting him, and turned in a career high in yards (3,653) and 19 touchdowns, to lead the Dolphins to the greatest turnaround in NFL history, from 1-15 to 10-6 and the AFC East crown.
However, Pennington couldn’t do it himself and needed guys to throw to.
Enter Anthony Fasano.
Fasano is another Parcells guy who played for him in Dallas, and Parcells knew once he took over Miami he had to get Fasano. For a mere draft pick, Fasano become a Dolphin, and recorded career highs in catches (34), yards (454), and touchdowns (7), while being one of the top targets for Pennington. Without these two on board, it is highly unlikely the Dolphins head into 2009 as a team to watch.
Atlanta signs Michael Turner and drafts Matt Ryan
Another team that needed a lot of help after trying to recover from their own personal fiasco, Atlanta made enough changes that you next expected them to change their name, colors, and location. Heralded QB Michael Vick was sent to prison for his role in a dog-fighting event.
New coach Bobby Petrino upped and left the team 13 games into the season, and the Falcons fell from playoff contender to next season pretender. So what did they do?
They brought in rookie head coach Mike Smith and new General Manager Thomas Dimitrioff, and they embarked on a journey to bring respectability back to Atlanta, and surprisingly, turned in a seven game turnaround to finish 11-5 and earn an NFC wild card slot. How did they do it?
There first move came in free agency, signing former Chargers backup Michael Turner, who despite four years in the NFL, still had the legs of a rookie thanks to playing behind LaDanian Tomlinson.
Turner became the workhorse for a team that was going to need the running game to shine, recording 1699 yards and 17 touchdowns, and even had two games of over 200 yards rushing.
What’s interesting though, is that you need a quarterback for defenses to respect in order to be able to pound the ball. Atlanta had one, in the name of rookie Matt Ryan. The third pick in the draft for the Falcons, some expected him to sit out, take his bumps, and come in 2009 and lead the team to a 9-7 or 8-8 record.
That’s not Ryan’s style, and instead he took the starting job from day one, and turned in 3,440 yards and 16 touchdowns while taking home Rookie of the Year in 2008.
That’s all for part one. Look for part two in the coming days.