As we’re approaching the so-called “dead zone” of the NFL, June through Early August, it seems a good time to look at those people in the AFC East who need to have a solid impact on their teams in the 2009 season. These are people who will be called upon in a multitude of ways to help push their teams in ways that they didn’t or couldn’t in 2008, whether because of injury, being with a different team, etc.
I’m listing them in two ways – Impact Person, and The Other Guy(s). Regardless, they’ll all need to do well in order for their team to continue last year’s success, or to improve upon last year’s disappointments.
Teams are listed in reverse order from how they finished the 2008 season.
Some people view the signing of Owens to be a coup for Buffalo, a huge step in a positive direction. Those who approve say bringing Owens on board is a demonstration of management’s renewed commitment to put a winner on the field. They point to Owens’ stats, shake their heads at the stats of Bills’ receivers, and believe that Buffalo might well contend for the division title for the first time since 1995; at the very least, make the playoffs for the first time this decade.
Those who disagree with the signing say it is merely putting a whiner on the field, not a winner, and point to Owens’ behavior for each of his past three teams. They say he is divisive, and tends to throw his quarterback, coaches, and other teammates under the bus when things don’t go his way.
Regardless of which side is correct, Owens must play well in order for the Bills to contend. It isn’t necessarily the number of receptions or yards or touchdowns he is able to attain. It is more important that he is on the same page with his coaches and teammates, and plays team ball. If he creates more opportunities for other receivers such as Lee Evans and Roscoe Parrish, all the better for the Bills. The good news for the Bills is that TO tends to play well in his first year.
The Other Guys in Buffalo are Trent Edwards and Dick Jauron. Edwards put himself out there early in this, putting his full support behind the TO signing. Shortly after hearing that Dallas had released Owens, he sent a text to Bills GM Russ Brandon, suggesting that the team consider bringing the mercurial receiver on board. Now that he’ll be playing the role of “that’s MY quarterback” for TO, he must keep strong, or Terrell will push him aside.
Likewise, Jauron must now prove he can coach well in order to keep his job. He must manage the egos, the expectations, and keep the defense solid. If Jauron can’t manage the team and/or TO, both the player and the coach could be looking for a new team come January.
Rex Ryan was signed, and some in New York were cheering as though they’d won the Superbowl. What followed was an influx of new players into the team as Rex Ryan put his stamp on Gang Green. Credit must be given, he quickly acted to make this team his own, and left no question as to who was in charge.
He brought in Bart Scott and Jim Leonard, players with whom he was familiar. He traded for disgruntled Eagles corner back Lito Sheppard. He cut Chris Baker and others to create necessary cap room. Then he went after it all in the draft and picked up Mark Sanchez. “His” quarterback.
For Ryan, though, the real challenges still lay ahead. Fortunately, this is an excellent coach who can see the big picture. But will he and Defensive Coordinator Mike Pettine be able to pull together these new players, and the rest into a cohesive unit? Can he build with the players acquired last year, such as Kris Jenkins (acquired by trade) and Calvin Pace (FA)? Finally, can he help to mold 2008’s first round pick Vernon Gholston into a significant and a player with impact?
There are those who believe he can and will get it done, and those who don’t think it will happen in 2009. Then there are those who hold a wait and see attitude. Put me in that last group.
Mark Sanchez, the aforementioned franchise quarterback, is easily the “other guy”. He’s The second quarterback drafted and #5 overall, Sanchez is only a short step from Ricky Williams’ lofty status of being a team’s entire draft. Ryan put his vote and his support behind this guy, and now it’s up to the former USC quarterback to prove not only that he can be a great NFL player, but the face of a franchise in a city where every time he sneezes it gets onto sports radio within minutes. Ordering a pizza becomes a TMZ highlight.
Can he take the pressure when things don’t go well, as often happens to rookie signal callers in a division with the Dolphins, the Bills, and Belichick’s Patriots D? Can he take the fairly pedestrian receivers and backs on the roster and work with them to make the offense better than it appears to be on paper?
A lot is riding on him. He might not start from week one, but make no mistake that a lot of Rex Ryan’s coaching future in New York rests upon his shoulders; or rather, his throwing arm.
New England Patriots
Impact Person: Tom Brady (QB). The Other Guys: Defense.
Tom Brady is the only logical choice for the Patriots. His absence last year was the injury with arguably the most impact the NFL has experienced in years. The Patriots went from title contenders to also-rans by the end of week one despite winning. Yet despite all that Brady brings to the table, the coaching staff adapted quickly, putting Matt Cassel in a position to succeed, and the Patriots became the most successful NFL team to miss the playoffs in a long time.
Tom is returning to an offense that could be equal to what he had in the record-setting 2007 season. The running game should be at the very least equal to and likely superior to the 2007 version. For the receivers, they’ve exchanged receivers Donte’ Stallworth and Jabar Gaffney for Joey Galloway and Greg Lewis. Yet the core remains as it was in 2008: Tom Brady, Wes Welker, Randy Moss, Kevin Faulk, Sammy Morris, and the offensive line. They’ve also added Fred Taylor to bolster the backs, and Tight Ends Alex Smith and Chris Baker to compete for playing time.
If Brady has a good season, the Patriots return to the playoffs. If he returns to his 2007 form, they’ll go deep into the playoffs. If he does poorly, it’s trouble across the board. No pressure.
The Other Guys, simply put, is Bill Belichick and the Patriots Defense. Much has been made about the age of the defense, but that’s no longer the serious issue it was at the end of the 2007 season. Junior Seau played well in my opinion when his number was called, but he’s gone, probably not to return to the NFL. Rodney Harrison is a free agent, and not likely to return. (They’ve both still got my respect beyond words.) Tedy Bruschi is still a starter, but he was in on only half the plays last year, a number which will be reduced further this season. Mike Vrabel, long a stalwart of this defense, was traded to Kansas City. Rosevelt Colvin, signed during the season, is back on the free agent list. These players are being replaced by younger players such as Gary Guyton, Shawn Crable, Eric Alexander and Vince Redd.
Much was made about the secondary last season as well, and rightfully so. However, that situation has also been addressed. Gone is Deltha O’Neal, the corner who seriously underperformed expectations. Ellis Hobbs is also gone, a player I’ve always felt was under appreciated. Jonathan Wilhite and Terrance Wheatley are back from the IR list, as is Tank Williams. Shawn Springs and Leigh Bodden were signed as free agents. The Patriots drafted Darius Butler and Patrick Chung.
The youth movement is alive and well in the New England defense. Now that it is well underway, Bill Belichick must ensure that these younger players know their roles, and how to fill them. It remains to be seen how effective it will ultimately be, but initial results are promising.
Impact Person: Chad Pennington (QB). The Other Guy - Dan Henning (OC).
Most of the reports on the 2008 Dolphin offense revolved around the wildcat formation. This is understandable, considering how it was a change on the conventionally accepted norms of NFL offense.
In the midst of all the direct snaps and unconventional plays, Chad Pennington quietly had yet another solid year. If the Dolphins wanted a savior at quarterback, Pennington wasn’t it. Despite the criticisms which led to him being cut by the Jets, he proved his leadership by leading the team to an 11-5 record and the AFC East title, an increase of 10 wins over 2007.
Those who dismiss his success point to the passing game’s heavy reliance on backs and tight ends, who accounted for nearly half the completions and yards, and three-quarters of the touchdown receptions. Critics use this to demonstrate the lack of arm strength, and how that can hamper efforts to go down field. However, in fairness to Pennington, it must be pointed out that while his arm strength has always been called into question, he still completed over two thirds of his passes. This demonstrates his accuracy and good decision making skills. These are skills far more critical to the success of any quarterback than how far it he can throw the ball down field.
The defense Miami puts on the field should continue the success they had in 2008, but how far the Dolphins go could depend on Pennington’s ability to effectively manage the offense while encouraging young receivers such as Ted Ginn to stretch the field and make plays.
The Other Guy in Miami is their Offensive Coordinator, Dan Henning. When Henning arrived in Miami, it was without a great deal of fanfare. Henning had coached in the NFL for over a quarter-century, with his most recent stint being as OC for the Carolina Panthers. He’d rebuilt their offense by focusing heavily on the run, and was fully expected to follow such a conventional approach with the Dolphins.
What followed instead was the entirely unconventional ‘wildcat’ offense, which caused fits for defensive coordinators throughout the league. It debuted against the Patriots in week 3, and proved incredibly effective as the Dolphins beat New England 38-13. They continued to use the formation throughout the season, forcing other teams to spend additional time in game-planning.
The pressure is now on Henning to continue the success of the Dolphins offense, with or without the wildcat formation. The Dolphins picked QB Pat White out of West Virginia in the second round, and it is presumed that he will have a lot of value in the wildcat formation. They also took former USC receiver Patrick Turner in the third round. Turner won’t be a speed threat, but he creates separation with his size and could prove a nice weapon coupled with the tight ends and receivers Ginn and Camarillo.
Henning must continue to develop new concepts and his successful play-calling in 2009. He must take advantage of Pennington’s strengths and develop wrinkles to keep the opposing defenses off-balance. If not, the solid defense that took the field in 2008 could be overwhelmed in 2009.