One reason the NFL is increasingly popular is due to its mercurial nature in regards to which teams will rise and fall in the standings each year. Sure teams such as the Pittsburgh Steelers, New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles have enjoyed steady success over the last decade, but as sure as a Detroit Lions player is arrested in the summer, surprise teams jump up in the standings each and every year while surprises of a different kind tumble into the basements of their divisions.
While we wait to see who exactly jumps out of the cake for us during the NFL season, I wanted to address a perception about two teams in general that I've found when speaking with NFL fans and media alike this summer. There are two teams that nearly everyone is writing off before the season even begins, this despite both having extremely talented rosters and top-shelf quarterbacks—the San Diego Chargers and the Dallas Cowboys.
I can see you rolling your eyes already. Every year we hear the same thing—this is the year these teams put it together and stop torturing their fanbases. And every year the Chargers and Cowboys end up crashing and burning and leaving bad tastes in their fans' mouths as they watch other teams go on playoff runs.
Well, I'm not ready to say this is the year—but I'm close.
The Chargers in particular look to be ready to bounce back in a big way. Two things happened last year that essentially doomed this team—Philip Rivers had an odd, below-his-standards season, and the defense was the absolute worst in the league at getting off the field on third down.
That's not hyperbole, by the way—they ranked 32nd in that department last year, allowing their opponents to convert close to half of their third-down attempts. As my friends over at Football Outsiders will tell you, many third-down statistics like this one have a tendency to regress toward the mean, meaning there's a very good chance the Chargers don't find themselves in the same position in 2012.
Now, that's not going to happen just because stats say it will. Norv Turner brought in his third defensive coordinator in as many years in John Pagano, and it will take some time for the defense to gel—but there is more than enough talent there to stop the bleeding on third downs.
As for Rivers' performance, I am looking at a big bounce-back-type year for him. He tended to force things on third downs, especially late in the year, knowing there was little hope that the defense would be holding up its end of the bargain. It will be on Turner to keep Rivers and the offense on schedule. The emergence of Ryan Matthews will help greatly in this regard, as will the deep stable of talent at the wide-receiver position. (My money is on Vincent Brown having a breakout season.)
The Chargers suffered through a brutal six-game losing streak and were still in contention for the playoffs at the end of 2011. I think 2012 ends on a much higher note for San Diego.
As for the Cowboys, much of the discussion this offseason has centered around Tony Romo (thanks to Amani Toomer), but the biggest story on this team should be the major talent upgrade that occurred when the team brought in Brandon Carr and jettisoned Terence Newman. After that, the Cowboys drafted Morris Claiborne with their first-round pick. Throw in Mike Jenkins, and the secondary, which let this team down repeatedly in 2011, could suddenly become a strength.
Of course Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan needs to get his guys to the quarterback with greater regularity, but the thought here is that he finally has the tools in his tool kit to play the type of coverage he wants to behind his many pressure fronts. When you are constantly having to hide guys in coverage in Cover 3, as Ryan was forced to do way too often last year, you end up getting burned.
On offense this team is as talented as any in the league at the skill positions. The big question resides at the interior of the offensive line. It's no secret that the middle of the line was downright awful last year and any step forward in 2012 will require better play at all three spots. While I wasn't exactly excited by the bargain-basement pickups they made in free agency, I do like that they hired Bill Callahan to be their offensive-line coach. This is one of those moves that gets zero coverage at the national level but that ends up making more than a small amount of difference when the season starts.
Yes, both Jason Garrett and Norv Turner need to do better jobs in the fourth quarters of games, Garrett especially. If last year was his on-the-job training, this year he has to demonstrate that he has learned those lessons and apply them at crunch time.
Both the Chargers and Cowboys have been virtually written off, and they haven't even had so much as a team meeting yet. I think that's just absurd. Now, I'm not ready to pick them to win their divisions—but I'm close.