The NFL has clearly become a league of haves and have-nots. There are the perennial royals who come out every September to clean house on 31 teams in search of the ultimate glory, which in football’s case is embodied by the Vince Lombardi Trophy and winning the Super Bowl.
Teams like the Patriots, Steelers, Chargers, Colts and Ravens are consistent locks for the playoffs in the AFC, as teams like the Giants, Eagles and Packers have held respectably steady spots in the playoffs within the last 4-5 years in the NFC.
Then there are the teams who have made little-to-no noise in the last 5+ years:
The Cleveland Browns, who haven’t been to the playoffs since the 2002-03 season and haven’t won a post-season game since 1994.
The owners of 2009’s worst regular season record; the St. Louis Rams at 1-15.
Last (and probably the LEAST), holders of the NFL’s record for the worst single-season record; the Detroit Lions, who finished at 0-16 in 2008.
These teams aren’t necessarily horrid, yet, they lack a few key pieces which have kept them from relevance in the last few years.
With the right changes, decisions and corrected courses of action, these franchises can turn around from consistent NFL doormats, to some of the most elite teams in the league.
Calvin Johnson, Gosder Cherilus, Matthew Stafford, Brandon Pettigrew, Ndamukong Suh, Jahvid Best. What do these six names have in common? All of them were star college football players who were drafted by the Detroit Lions in the last four years in the first round.
They also traded for up-and-coming cornerback Alphonso Smith (who was a 2009 second-rounder from Denver) and picked up Pro-Bowl defensive end Kyle Van Bosch in 2010’s uncapped free agency period.
They are taking forwards steps towards big moves in this franchise, but what is going wrong? Sure, we’ve seen the bad breaks of games like Week 1’s “no-catch” on Calvin Johnson for the game-winning touchdown versus the Bears, but it goes deeper than that.
For the most part, they are young, and show IMMENSE potential to become one of the better teams in the league, but to do so they will need to cover up some gaping holes that are keeping them from heading towards the next level.
Matthew Stafford has been hurt for a greater part of 2010, due mainly to lackluster play on account of left tackle Jeff Backus. The first of Stafford’s injuries in 2010 came from Julius Peppers completely blowing off Backus at the start of a play, dropping the quarterback hard onto his shoulder.
Later in the year, outside linebacker Bryan Thomas of the New York Jets dropped Stafford as he blew passed Backus, knocking him onto the same shoulder and placing him back on IR.
The same thing happened in 2009 as defensive end Adewale Ogunleye of the Chicago Bears sacked Stafford after rushing around the blind side, causing Matthew to twist his knee as his kneecap shifted from its normal position, and another nasty hit he took as he scrambled out of the pocket to avoid a sack and was thrashed by defensive lineman C.J. Mosley against the Cleveland Browns.
Jahvid Best is also not getting much love running up the middle, as he powers threw the line, yet gets rocked hard when the interior guys fail to provide a proper running lane after a yard or two, if that.
His turf toe injury could become a problem, but as of yet, he’s playing solidly, and is resulting to be a great pick-up after the Lions moved up in the 2010 draft to get him.
If the Lions can’t manage to protect Stafford, these injuries will begin to weigh on him, and he could lose mobility and arm strength if it continues at this rate.
The defense is faring nice, as Ndamukong Suh is emerging as the top candidate for Defense Rookie of the Year, Alphonso Smith has been having a breakout season, and Kyle Vanden Bosch contributes greatly (when he’s healthy).
Tight end Brandon Pettigrew has also developed in big ways, and he could turn out to be one of the best players at his position by next year.
They need help in the offensive line. They can’t keep letting Stafford run for his life in situations where a slower/weaker left tackle is pinned up against a Julius Peppers, Jared Allen or Clay Matthews two times a year EACH!
They’ve already got a great quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight end, a veteran defensive end, defensive tackle and cornerback. For the most part, they’re young enough to be good for the next couple of years!
With the exception of the linebacker, safety and offensive line positions, they are just a few players away from becoming a very good team.
If they can manage to keep Stafford healthy, and let him lead this team like everyone knows he can, the Lions could become a major player in the league by 2011’s end.
One of the most unfortunate falls I’ve ever seen in the NFL was the Rams’ 1-15 season in 2009, which didn’t come as a product of lack of play, but due to something that couldn’t be controlled overall: injury.
Despite what the numbers might show, the Rams are fairly decent, regardless of their division. Their NFC West rivals in Arizona, San Francisco and Seattle don’t necessarily have anything to boast about, and when all things are said and done, aside from the 49ers’ quarterback woes, they might have the best young team to compete in the division for the next few years.
Their 2010 first overall draft pick came with Sam Bradford, who is arguably one of the two best quarterbacks (along with Matt Ryan) to have been drafted in the last five years and is displaying what a team can do when acquiring a franchise QB.
The Heisman Trophy winner has thrown 17 touchdowns and 14 interceptions in the year and is one of only three quarterbacks in NFL history to surpass the 3,000 passing yard mark in his rookie season, the other two being Peyton Manning and “Matty Ice” himself.
Considering these may not be the greatest stats ever, they are highly exceptional for a rookie, moreover when one considers the fact that two of the Rams’ most reliable receivers, Donnie Avery and starter Mark Clayton, with a couple others, have been plagued with injuries all year long.
Rookie left tackle Rodger Saffold has also been in and out, while right tackle Jason Smith has held down his end of the line, respectfully.
Despite this, the interior offensive line slacks pretty hard. I hate say it, but if the Rams could manage a better working body of men down the middle, Steven Jackson’s numbers could and would be astonishing.
He, along with the defense, are the only true anchors on the team, as we continue to watch Bradford develop.
This team’s D boasts names like Ron Bartell at cornerback, Chris Long at defensive end, Jason Laurinaitis at middle linebacker and safeties Craig Dahl and O.J. Atogwe. After seeing what these guys produce individually, it’s hard not to see where the problems REALLY are on this team.
They might just be one outside linebacker away from becoming close to elite, but they’re going to need offensive help if they want to continue moving forward.
Sam Bradford, though, I believe will become one of the elite quarterbacks in this league. His mechanics, accuracy, arm strength and leadership will make him one of the most feared passers in the NFL. St. Louis should get him a reliable tight end, and most importantly, interior line protection.
Almost every time Bradford is sacked, it comes from a defender who bursts through a guard or center, or Sam is pressured out after the pocket folds and gets dropped by another pass rusher. If you don’t believe me, you can see it:
and here too.
The rookie quarterback, and potential Offensive Rookie of the Year recipient, has been sacked a jaw-dropping 30 times in 2010, which means the links above only show 14 of those sacks while there are still another 16 videos out there.
St. Louis needs to keep him off the ground if they want this kid to succeed. Although, the most relieving and rewarding thing a person can learn after watching these horrific slams, tackles and drops is Sam’s resiliency and perseverance, witnessing him stand right back up and getting right back into the next play without making a face or complaint.
That is what you call leading by example.
Stan Kroenke and Steve Spagnuolo; please do this young man some justice.
It’s not easy being in a division where every other team has won the division title within the last 10 years at least once, and two of them have gone as far as winning the Super Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens in 2001 and the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2006 and 2009.
The ball is beginning to roll in favor of the Cleveland Browns, though. Eric Mangini along with his newly acquired team president, former Green Bay Packers head coach Mike Holmgren, have brought new life into the franchise together.
Mangini’s solo 2009 campaign started off rocky with a 1-11 beginning, but finished off strong at 5-11, capped with a victory over their division rivals in Pittsburgh, breaking their 12-game losing streak against them.
Since then, the Browns have managed to stack themselves with some of the most impressive young talent in the NFL today.
As far as sophomore-to-older veterans on the team, they’ve got names like All-Pro kick-returner Joshua Cribbs, All-Pro left tackle Joe Thomas, as well as other big time contributors like nose tackle Ahtyba Rubin, outside linebacker Matt Roth, tight end Benjamin Watson and strong safety Abram Elam.
Where the lights really begin to shine is in Cleveland’s 2010 draft selections.
With the seventh overall pick, they chose Joe Haden at cornerback from Florida. He was easily the best pure player at his position this year, and has lived up to his own hype, currently owning 54 tackles in 2010 with 5 interceptions, tying for the second most in the league right now for rookies.
Then in the second round, the Browns chose safety T.J. Ward from Oregon, who currently leads all rookies in the NFL with 114 tackles, adding another forced fumble and two interceptions to his resume.
Ward’s numbers make him the No. 11 tackler in the entire league, which makes him a strong candidate for the Defensive Rookie of the Year award.
Lastly, in the third round, Cleveland selected quarterback Colt McCoy from Texas. He had more wins than any other starting QB in college football history, and led his team to the 2010 BCS National Championship game against the Alabama Crimson Tide.
Sadly, Colt got hurt early in the game, and Texas lost to Bama, and to make matters worse, his injury resulted with a big drop in his draft stock.
Though, after newly acquired quarterbacks Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace went down for the Browns, the rookie stepped up and showed great poise and leadership for Cleveland.
He just recently completed his fourth career start, but faced Super Bowl winning QBs Ben Roethlisberger, Drew Brees and Tom Brady in his first three games, beating the latter two in his first two career starts.
After going down in Week 11 in Jacksonville with a foot injury, McCoy came back as the starter against the Bengals, but despite the loss, threw for a career-high 19 of 25 completions with a 76% completion percentage, a career-high 9.7 yards passing average, and another career-high 2 TD game via a 243 yard passing performance.
The kid has room for improvement, but considering he was slated to be the third-stringer and has outplayed the other two veterans on the team, it is safe to say that drafting Colt McCoy in the third round was nothing short of a STEAL.
Cleveland does have big needs on the team. Despite Cribbs being a receiver, he only mostly shines on special teams as a return man, and last year’s second-round choice, wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi, isn’t developing as quickly as Cleveland would have hoped.
A big-time receiver, whether a speedster or possession player, would really help boost McCoy’s confidence, as the Browns’ leading receiver is their tight end Watson. They also need big-time interior offensive line help, where the Browns have allowed three quarterback injuries in 2010 through the middle.
They must protect their passers if they want to be able to pack a 1-2 offensive punch in the future.
Rob Ryan is also running a tight defensive squad as the team’s D-coordinator. They are very young, but extremely talented.
If they all continue to develop in this manner, Ryan will have created one of the league’s most dominant defenses, mirroring the likes of division rivals Ravens and Steelers. They just might be one defensive end or inside linebacker away from being elite on the defensive side of the ball.
The Cleveland Browns had arguably one of the best draft classes of 2010 right along with the New England Patriots, but if the Holmgren/Mangini duo continues to run this team in the same manner, people should expect to see a huge shift in power in the AFC North.