The Biggest Worry for Every NFL Team Heading into the 2012 Season
What is keeping your favorite NFL coach up at night?
Of course, NFL coaches get very little sleep anyway—especially during the season. With game-planning and tape watching to do, most coaches live in their offices and rarely see their families or the backs of their eyelids.
So, when coaches do get precious time to rest their weary heads, what is making each coach toss and turn?
Sometimes it's injuries at key positions. Other times, it's lack of depth in critical areas. Some coaches have that one opponent that perennially has their number, and other coaches have divisional opponents that are looking more and more fearsome each season.
So, what is your team's biggest worry heading into 2012? Click ahead.
How Do We Get Larry Fitzgerald the Ball?
If Fitzgerald is an offensive coordinator's dream, Kevin Kolb and John Skelton are his own personal Freddy Kruegers. Kolb has been disastrous this preseason, following an utterly horrible 2011. All this and the Cardinals need to keep plugging away because they invested so much in him.
Skelton is more physically gifted—especially in terms of size and arm strength—but has the critical decision-making skills of a home-schooled teenager on Spring Break.
Neither one of these guys looks like the quarterback of the future for the Cardinals, and they definitely aren't the quarterbacks of right now.
Without a capable arm throwing Fitzgerald the rock, the Cardinals are going to sink like a stone in 2012.
Can Matt Ryan Keep the Pedal to the Metal?
The Atlanta Falcons offense is like an expensive European car. Even with high-octane power under the engine, it's only going to be as good as the person driving it. Throw in lack of protection for the driver, and any mistakes could leave the Falcons' 2012 season as a flaming wreck.
For years, Ryan was used to driving an old dependable Toyota Camry of an offense. Hand the ball off to Michael Turner, and throw the ball to Roddy White on play action. If things go sour, dump it off to Tony Gonzalez.
It wasn't flashy, but it was dependable, and it got the Falcons where they needed to go.
The offensive talent (line notwithstanding) around Ryan has never been better. Will he take command and put up career numbers and playoff wins? If he does, any other holes on the Falcons will be covered up by the Ryan-led aerial assault.
How Are We Getting to the Opponent's QB?
"Ball So Hard University" alumnus Terrell Suggs is one of the best defenders in the NFL and was the recipient of this author's Defensive Player of the Year vote for the 2011 Pro Football Weekly awards. This year, he might not be playing very much football, if he plays at all.
Without Suggs, how much of the age on that Ravens defense is going to show?
If opposing QBs aren't being harassed, does Ed Reed make as many opportunistic plays? Does Ray Lewis get to create as much havoc in the middle? The defense still has a ton of talent, but Suggs is a huge part of making the whole thing run.
Without Suggs, this defense could look awfully old in a hurry, and the Baltimore offense isn't good enough to win games on its own.
Was Ryan Fitzpatrick a Good Investment?
It's a little too early to start predicting buyer's remorse for the Bills and Fitzpatrick, but the braniac QB needs to start playing like he's paid, or he could find himself on the street awfully quick. All this, and Fitzpatrick still doesn't have a ton of elite talent around him and has to deal with Brad Smith stealing his snaps.
Fitzpatrick is a good NFL quarterback, but this is a league that demands greatness under center. The Bills improved many facets of the team in 2012, but Fitzpatrick needs to be better than he's ever been if the Bills are going to make noise in the AFC East.
Will the Defense Step Up in a Big Way?
Ron Rivera is a defensive mastermind, but it was Cam Newton and the offense that made all the headlines in 2011. Will 2012 bring a more balanced team to Carolina, or will Rivera need to go back to the drawing board next offseason?
The talent is on its way.
Luke Kuechly is a phenomenal prospect, but he needs to learn the finer points of linebacking before he can be counted on to be a game-changer. Charles Johnson was signed to a huge contract, but the line around him hasn't allowed him to maximize his strengths. Chris Gamble is a stud, but teams can avoid him and target other defenseless defenders.
Rivera needs to put all the pieces together, or the Panthers are still another year away from serious contention.
Can We Keep Jay Cutler Upright?
For years, the Bears didn't have a quarterback. Then, after they traded the farm for Cutler, they were forced to admit they didn't have any receivers or an offensive line either. With Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, that first part is more than taken care of.
But even with the addition of a healthy Gabe Carimi and a full offseason under offensive line guru Mike Tice, the Bears offensive line looks shaky.
Cutler needs to stay off of his back if the Bears are going to have the kind of success they're looking for. If he goes down, this team could easily be third or even fourth in the NFC North.
Can We Beat the Best?
The Bengals were a surprise team last year. Andy Dalton showed a lot of critics that he should've been a first-round pick, and A.J. Green looked like an absolute monster alongside a competent passer. That defense, too, started to garner some respect, even if it isn't mentioned in the same hushed, reverent tones as Baltimore and Pittsburgh.
Yet, the Bengals didn't beat a single playoff team last year. They beat up on bad teams and lost a lot of close games to better teams. The Bengals look like an improving team, but lots of teams fail to take that next step.
Marvin Lewis has had plenty of teams on this same cusp of greatness before. Can he get this team to sustained success, or will the Bengals continue to be that "other" good team in the AFC North?
Will Trent Richardson Hold Up?
The Browns have lots of excitement brewing because the team is so heavily invested in rookie talent this season. Fans expect Trent Richardson, quarterback Brandon Weeden, wide receiver Josh Gordon and offensive tackle Mitchell Schwartz to be studs both this season and beyond.
Even if those other players don't pay immediate dividends, having so many rookies in key spots means that this coaching staff has a bit of a long leash. However, that could change in a hurry if Richardson continues to have health issues.
Taking a running back high in the draft is always risky, especially when that back has a history of injury problems. The goodwill this team has will go south in a hurry if Richardson can't get on the field and stay there for extended stretches.
Will Dez Bryant Keep His Head on Straight?
Look, as much as the media talks about Tony Romo, the coaching staff doesn't care one way or the other. It knows Romo is a stud and that he'll do just fine if this team gives him the help he needs. Bryant, on the other hand, has become a complete nightmare.
When Bryant is on, he can be one of the best. When he is off, he can deep-six this entire team as well as his quarterback. That isn't even considering off-the-field issues, where Bryant has already caused plenty of angst.
With Laurent Robinson gone and Miles Austin injured until at least Week 1, Bryant needs to step up and continue to play well into the regular season.
How Big Is Our Window of Opportunity?
Essentially, this is the same question Indianapolis had to ask itself for years.
Of course, any team with a healthy Peyton Manning at the helm is going to be good. But for how long can the Broncos depend on Manning to stay healthy and play at a high level?
Everyone gets old, and Manning is already there.
If Manning goes down, this team is toast. The urgency is there to win and win now.
Can We Find, and Keep, Our Composure?
The Lions aren't worried about their running back situation, and they really aren't worried about their defense. Those problems were problems last year, and the Lions still got to the playoffs. And the team addressed both issues in the offseason.
While outside observers harp, the team is confident that guys like Kevin Smith, Bill Bentley, Alphonso Smith, Jacob Lacey and others will step up.
Instead, the Lions have to worry that this team will not play to its talent level and kill itself with constant mistakes and penalties. If guys like Ndamukong Suh and Gosder Cherlius play their best, this could be a phenomenal season. If not, the Bears are breathing down Detroit's neck, and the Lions could find themselves third in the NFC North in a hurry.
Green Bay Packers
Can We Give Aaron Rodgers the Time to Be Dominant?
The Packers were 15-1 last year, but they fell to the eventual Super Bowl champion Giants in their first playoff game. In that game, Rodgers was harassed, getting sacked four times and looking uncomfortable most of the day.
With such a dominant offense, the Packers just need to keep Rodgers clean to put up serious points. The defense will be better in 2012, and, frankly, it doesn't need to be. With Rodgers upright, the Packers can outscore anyone.
Will We Get 16 Games Out of Andre Johnson?
The Texans have serious depth problems at wide receiver, but that isn't really a problem as long as Johnson is healthy. At 100 percent, Johnson has the talent to exploit any coverage thrown at him and dominate even the best of corners.
If Johnson goes down, however, who is going to step up and be the guy to draw defenders out of the box? Without Johnson, the offense becomes pretty one-dimensional and the passing game becomes stagnant.
The Texans are good enough to win some games without Johnson, but they have higher aspirations and need their No. 1 healthy.
Have We Given Andrew Luck the Help He Needs?
2011 was disastrous for the Colts, and it turned 2012 into a pure rebuilding year. With a new GM and coach, the Colts were forced to start from square one, and Luck is a darn good cornerstone to build around.
The rest of the building blocks, however, are pretty suspect.
Reggie Wayne is the only receiver who can truly be counted upon. While the Colts did well in drafting Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen, it's too much to expect them to be great in year one. The offensive line is an absolute mess, and Donald Brown has yet to show anything in the regular season.
2012 might be a rebuilding year, but the Colts still need to take steps forward. Even as a rookie, Luck looks ready to hold up his end of the bargain. Is everyone else?
Will Blaine Gabbert's Success Continue into the Regular Season?
The entire Jaguars team is built around Gabbert.
When Jack Del Rio was fired, the team went out and hired a head coach to mentor Gabbert. The Jags then overspent for Laurent Robinson and drafted Justin Blackmon to give Gabbert weapons.
They've given him every vote of confidence he will need, and he probably has the longest leash of any non-elite QB in the league.
Will it prove fruitful?
If Gabbert isn't at his best, Gene Smith's job will be in danger in a hurry, as will Mike Mularkey's.
Kansas City Chiefs
Can We Stay Healthy?
Last year, the Chiefs finished fourth in the AFC West, but at 7-9, they were only one game back of a three-way tie for first. When you consider how many injuries they dealt with, it becomes pretty clear that this team has the talent and now it just needs to stay healthy.
Just to recap: starting quarterback Matt Cassel, hurt. Running back Jamaal Charles, injured. Star safety Eric Berry, out for the season. Starting tight end Tony Moeaki, out of commission. All of those players are back in 2012, and the Chiefs have improved, bringing in Peyton Hillis, Kevin Boss, Eric Winston and more.
A healthy Chiefs team can make the playoffs, but if the injury bug strikes again, Romeo Crennel is going to have his work cut out for him.
Who Are We Throwing the Ball to?
Ryan Tannehill has won the quarterback battle, and handing the ball off to Reggie Bush is an easy first option in the offense, but who is he throwing it to?
With Brandon Marshall in Chicago, the Dolphins don't have a No. 1 receiver and might not have a clear No. 2 either. Tannehill will have less help than fellow rookies Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III or even Brandon Weeden. Worse yet, of those four, Tannehill probably needs the most immediate help.
Tannehill has all the tools, but he needs to show that he has what it takes to put all of those tools to work the right way over a 16-game season. With so little help around him, he might not have that chance in 2012.
Can Adrian Peterson Stay Healthy?
With a healthy Peterson, the Vikings are a lot better than critics realize. Remember all those games the Vikings lost last season? They lost those games with a rookie QB who didn't have an offseason of preparation.
The NFC North will do the Vikings no favors, but don't be surprised if the they steal some games in 2012.
They will have to have Peterson to do it, however. He had an injury history when the Vikings drafted him, but he's stayed relatively healthy as a pro until last year's knee injury. If Peterson can hit the ground running in Week 1, the Vikings will be dangerous.
New England Patriots
Can Nate Solder Replace Matt Light?
Tom Brady is a given, and he has enough weapons to form a cartel on a small island nation. However, he's been blitzed relentlessly through the preseason, and the New York Giants have shown everyone that Brady can be beaten when he's blitzed.
Nate Solder has his work cut out for him. Teams are going to be gunning for him, and he needs to replace a stud in Matt Light. He has all the physical tools, but if he doesn't step up right away, the Patriots are going to be in serious trouble.
New Orleans Saints
Can We Win Without Our Leader?
Even if they don't deserve credit for what got them into this mess, the Saints deserve respect for making it through a tumultuous offseason looking even better than last season. With Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne, that linebacking corps is even better without Vilma. With Drew Brees back and a healthy Mark Ingram, the offense looks as dangerous as ever.
All that said, Sean Payton is one of the coaches most-loved by his players in the entire league. The Saints can put together an offense with Pete Carmichael and Drew Brees at the helm, but will there be an emotional drop-off without Payton?
On paper, the Saints look like a playoff team, but they have to prove they can win without Payton.
New York Giants
Can We Get Back to Our Roots?
The Giants won the Super Bowl last season, and they are getting a lot of important players back healthy, but they need to prove that they can improve off of their 9-7 mark in the regular season. The only way they'll do that is if they can keep their defense and running game at the high levels their passing game has reached.
Eli Manning has joined the elite quarterback club in the NFL, but he can't do it alone. Ahmad Bradshaw needs to be better, and David Wilson needs to make an immediate impact. The defense (now healthy) needs to keep pressure on opponents for a full 16 games.
If that happens, the Giants should be right back in the Super Bowl conversation this year.
New York Jets
Is Mark Sanchez Our Guy Moving Forward?
More than anything, the Jets have to worry about being "Tebowed" by early-season struggles from Sanchez. Both of these guys are "playoff quarterbacks," but both have relied heavily on defenses to get them there. The Jets offense has looked horrible in the preseason, and Sanchez needs to deal with a full slate of criticism from the New York media.
Neither of these guys are clear-cut quarterbacks of the future for the Jets. Still, the coaching staff needs Sanchez to step up and be the guy, regardless of the help around him. As the quarterback, he needs to be the leader and make people around him better.
Can Carson Palmer Prove to Be a Wise Investment?
This general manager and coaching staff were dealt a raw hand when Mark Davis and Amy Trask sent multiple picks to Cincinnati for the then-retired Palmer. While Palmer is a former first-round pick and a big name, he didn't show the ability to pay dividends on the Raiders' investment last year.
Fans claim that he was behind the eight ball because of the lockout and because he thought he was done with football. Palmer will have to prove that was the case with solid play in 2012.
Draft picks are building blocks, and this current regime doesn't have a few of the most important ones it needs over its first two years on the job. Palmer has to prove he was worth trading those building blocks by putting this team on his back and winning football games.
Can We Win Games On the Field As Well As We Do on Paper?
Last year, the Eagles put together a dream team; this year they're building a dynasty. No one can disagree that the Eagles are pros at "winning" offseasons. But when the games matter, they look like any other average NFL team.
Michael Vick needs to play better, and the line needs to protect him better. Andy Reid and Juan Castillo need to coach better than they did last year and the added pieces on that defense need to fit in right away.
This is a Super Bowl contender on paper. In reality, we'll have to wait and see.
Can We Throw Our Window Open Even Further?
As a team, the Steelers are getting younger, but several of their Pro Bowlers and key players are getting old. The Steelers and their fans pride themselves on "reloading rather than rebuilding," but that maxim will be tested in 2012 and beyond.
Troy Polamalu, James Harrison and Ike Taylor need to find their own personal fountain of youth, while young players like Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Keenan Lewis need to step up in big ways.
The Steelers have all the talent to be a top team this year, but if the cracks start to show, they could also find themselves third in the AFC North.
St. Louis Rams
Can We Turn This Ship Around with So Many Moving Parts?
The Rams had a fantastic (and underrated) offseason, adding Jeff Fisher and his new staff, as well as phenomenal talent on both sides of the ball. However, improving so quickly also has its (immediate) drawbacks.
While the Rams are set up for success in the future, they need to manage a lot of new faces in new places this year. As one problem is solved, another will creep up.
Expectations for the Rams are low in year one of the new regime, but the house of cards could come crumbling down if Fisher and his staff aren't at their absolute best and the players aren't quick studies.
San Diego Chargers
Was 2011 a Fluke for Philip Rivers?
Last year, Rivers was awful. He took too many chances, and too few of them paid off. With Rivers playing that poorly, the Chargers could not win many football games, even in the AFC West.
The Chargers also let Vincent Jackson head to Tampa Bay. Without his second-favorite weapon (Antonio Gates being the first) can Rivers take the step forward he needs to? Eddie Royal and Robert Meachem will help, but the pressure falls on Rivers to succeed—no excuses.
San Francisco 49ers
How Much Will All Our New Faces Contribute?
Randy Moss and Mario Manningham should be great additions for a 49ers team that doesn't need a ton of help to get back to the playoffs. However, with Super Bowl aspirations, San Francisco will need to put up more points on offense, and the new receivers (along with LaMichael James) need to show they were worth the investment.
Of course, a lot of that pressure falls on Alex Smith. He's never had this many weapons. Can he deliver the ball to so many targets? He's never been that guy, but he's also never had this much opportunity to succeed.
The Niners seemingly go back to the drawing board every other year, but Smith and the new receivers can end that trend right now.
Who Is Our Quarterback?
The Seahawks' three-way quarterback battle has settled into a two-way, as Tarvaris Jackson has faded into trade-bait territory. Meanwhile. Russell Wilson and Matt Flynn have yet to really take frim grasp of the job. Both have looked good at times, but the Seahawks need to see more.
Wilson will get the chance against first-stringers this weekend. If he looks as good as he has against backups, the choice should be clear. But with so much invested in Flynn, will the Seahawks have the guts to go with Wilson?
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Will Greg Schiano's Style Work at the Next Level?
Schiano is a great college coach. He's molded countless boys into young men and helped turn Rutgers into a nationally relevant school. Along the way, he groomed a number of great prospects that have had success in the NFL.
However, how will his authoritarian, micromanaging ways work when the players are making more than he is?
This is a young team, but in a 16-game season, tensions can get high. If some of the veterans tire of his antics, this could be a short experiment for the Buccaneers. They brought in plenty of talent, but Schiano might be the biggest boom/bust of the lot.
Will Chris Johnson Return to Form?
As high-profile as the Titans quarterback battle has been, and as public as Kenny Britt's failings are, the Titans' biggest question mark is their star running back, Chris Johnson.
Without a doubt, the Titans hope Jake Locker steps in and matures as a passer this season and that Britt is able to put his off-the-field issues behind him. But the Titans will have no chance for success if Johnson doesn't return to form.
With CJ2K at his best, everything else can fall apart. But with him at his 2011 levels, this team looks less like a playoff contender and more like a bottom-dweller.
Can Our Defense Keep Up Its End of the Bargain?
The Redskins are an offensive-minded team with the Shanahans at the helm. This offseason, the investment on that side of the ball was clear: With Robert Griffin III and all of those new toys for him to play with, the Redskins offense is on its way.
However, the defense needs to play better to win games in the tough NFC East. Although the talent is there, with names like Ryan Kerrigan and Brian Orakpo, the defense looked to be a couple pieces away from greatness in 2011, and it didn't get those pieces this offseason.
The offense will be much better in 2012 and beyond, but can the defense keep up its end of the bargain?
Michael Schottey is the NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff alongside other great writers at "The Go Route."
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