2011 NFL Offseason: 32 Burning Questions to Determine Success of Each Team
Like almost no other sports league in the world, the NFL is excellent at perpetually creating uncertainty. Even on the most dominant teams, uncertainty and upheaval regrows as surely as Kurt Warner's facial hair.
And every offseason, teams are forced to make critical decisions. It's the nature of the game — and before the lockout when the NFL wasn't crazy, there was a salary cap that further equalized things.
There isn't a single team in the league that doesn't have some lingering issue for either the remainder of the offseason or into the regular season itself.
Understand that almost every team has more than one lingering question, so I'll just highlight each team's biggest issue.
Question: Who will emerge as the starting quarterback?
Coach Ken Whisenhunt certainly has his work cut out for him, having addressed almost every Cardinals issue in the draft except their ongoing quarterback quandary.
John Skelton and Derek Anderson certainly don't seem to be the answer. Will they be in the Carson Palmer sweepstakes or will their interest in Donovan McNabb heat up?
The implications of not having a quarterback don't need to be explained.
And while some quarterback controversies are acceptable (when the team has multiple options who can produce), the current array of quarterbacks in Arizona range from bad to worse.
Question: Can they improve their pass-rush before the season begins?
Like few other divisions in professional football, the NFC South demands a pass-rush.
Competing against quarterbacks like Drew Brees, Josh Freeman and (prospectively) Cam Newton, there's an imperative on getting to the passer.
Atlanta had one man who was very good at this last season: John Abraham.
With 13 sacks in 2010, Abraham was a one man band-aid that papered over a serious flaw on the Falcons. No other player had more than four sacks, and they ranked 20th in the league as a team in total sacks.
Trading up to get Julio Jones might have made Matt Ryan happy, but the defense was left with that major issue...
Question: Joe Flacco is good, but is he good enough to win a championship?
Don't hate me for asking this, Ravens fans (the classic "don't shoot the messenger").
Yet this is going to be the issue whether Flacco and the Ravens will admit it or not. That's just the price of being a quarterback drafted in the first round.
As a Giants fan, I remember this vividly with Eli Manning (and it was particularly vitriolic in Eli's case being Peyton's younger brother).
Flacco also has the added pressure of being on a veteran team, with many of the Raven's most recognizable players (i.e. Ray Lewis) coming to the end of their careers.
The question is not whether he can win games (he's proven he can) but more accurately whether or not he can win playoff games.
Question: After such a long drought of success, are the Bills headed in the right direction?
This is obviously a question that can't and won't be answered in the offseason. The Bills won't know what they have until they line up against their tough divisional opponents in Miami, New England and New York (technically New Jersey).
Improving their defense will be the key. And they've been acting accordingly to their credit, using seven of their nine draft picks on defensive players.
Whether or not the Bills are set on Ryan Fitzpatrick remains to be seen as well. He had a solid season last year considering the circumstances, but then again not everything from Harvard works out.
Question: With everyone talking about their quarterback situation, what about the rest of the team?
Obviously the talk about the Panthers has revolved around their selection of Cam Newton first overall in the draft.
But the real question is what the team around Cam will look like and, most importantly, are they any good?
The answer is that they do have significant talent in my opinion. Last season was more than an aberration of course (they do have issues) but they aren't as bad as the 2010 record indicates.
The running game remains competent and their defense, while not amazing, is certainly capable in a variety of aspects (pending Jon Beason's legal status).
Question: Will Jay Cutler finally become a leader and not just a talented quarterback?
The Bears made a good show in the playoffs last season after a roller-coaster season. Starting out the year looking good before being exposed in mid-season, Lovie Smith and the Bears made a late run.
This culminated in the NFC Championship, where Jay Cutler's injury and the veritable buzz-saw of the eventual Super Bowl champion Packers closed down the season.
More than simply losing to their rival, a thorny issue bubbled to the surface when Cutler's toughness was questioned by many.
The question of whether Jay Cutler is tough or not might not even be applicable for the Bears (who seem to think highly of him), but perception is reality in this day and age.
Jay has to prove he's tough, even if it's only show. That would do a lot to affirm Cutler as a leader — an important benchmark to establish before the Bears "go to the mattresses" in the playoffs and need to pull together as a team.
Question: Where will Carson Palmer end up?
It's very simple for the Bengals in this sense. They have a one-time franchise quarterback who wants out. How do they extricate themselves from this?
They will want a lot if they trade him but other teams might be hesitant.
Yet there certainly is demand for quarterbacks right now, so it's all to be determined.
Question: What can Browns fans reasonably expect from their team this year?
Are the Browns on the brink of a playoff run? Are they miles away from even considering that?
Like most things, the answer to this lies somewhere in between. The Browns seem to be set on having Colt McCoy as their starting quarterback. And the switch to a 4-3 defense will undoubtedly cause short term consequences.
I think they're still a year away, but for the sake of Cleveland fans, I hope they make a run!
Question: Can a new regime install some confidence and discipline into a team that fell so far so fast last year?
After entering the 2010 season with aspirations of playing a home game for the Super Bowl, the Cowboys experienced a nose-dive.
One year later, they've cooled on their egotism slightly and appear to be a little more workman-like. New coach Jason Garrett holds the advantage of having part of last year to get settled and should enter the 2011 season (again, if there is one) with a running start.
Confidence and discipline are closely linked with the Cowboys, since so many games were lost last year due to a lack of discipline (which killed their confidence). Setting the tone by being smart and not shooting themselves in the foot could be the deciding factor above everything else.
Question: Is Tim Tebow the guy?
Tim Tebow is one of the greatest mysteries seemingly since the enigma machine. He's a phenomenal athlete (everyone knows that), but is he an NFL quarterback?
This is a question that won't be fully answered for a while though. The real test won't be how he does in the first few games of next season, but how he manages after the defenses adjust to him.
If he can evolve and master the complicated schemes of the NFL, then he'll be good. If he just tries to rely on being an athlete though, he will fail.
Question: Can they get over the hump this year and put together a winning season?
It seems almost unbelievable that the Lions, a team who not that long ago set the record for futility by going 0-16, has buzz going into this year.
But they do. After adding Nick Fairley to their already amazing interior defensive line, they now have legitimate stars on both sides of the ball.
Still, can they put it together for a genuine winning season? And, as part of that, can Matthew Stafford stay on the field?
Personally, I think they're poised for a breakout season (which would be about time for Detroit!)
Green Bay Packers
Question: Will they be gripped by the "disease of more"?
It's the classic Pat Reilly quote about the struggles of staying on top. Each player wants "more" the more successful they are. And as anyone knows, their needs to be balance if a team wants to win and keep winning.
With the Packers I don't worry about it too much though. They seem to have a level-headed coach, quarterback and veteran leadership who won't get too carried away by the championship.
Still, the Packers supposed asset — having so much depth this year after all of their injured players healed — could be a source of tension as key members of their Super Bowl run see playing time squeezed.
Honestly though, that's a pretty good problem to have as far as NFL problems go.
Question: Can their defense improve to a point where they can make the playoffs?
The Texans have been a team on the brink of success for the last few seasons. They've been held back for one reason or another.
Currently, the fault can be found with the Houston defense, which was one of the league's worst last year.
After adding numerous draft picks, coupled with a new scheme, this could make them more dangerous. I think they start to find their feet and turn it around.
Question: Will the Colts running game come back from the dead?
The simple fact is that Peyton Manning willed the Colts to the playoffs last year. Peyton and the passing game bailed out a surprisingly horrible running attack.
Yet part of Peyton's effectiveness is based on deception. And the Colts are much less deceptive if linebackers simply ignore the play-action fakes.
Fixing the running game is critical to their postseason success, without a doubt.
Question: Will they stay mired in mediocrity or will they finally get over the Colts?
It's the classic complex that Jacksonville has developed during the Peyton Manning era. No matter how good their situation looks, they always seem to hear the Colts footsteps.
It goes beyond just beating Indi, it's a problem of consistency. In a number of games last year, they could look great for stretches and horrible in others.
Finding a string of good performances could put them in the playoffs, because having seen them first-hand, I know they have the talent.
Kansas City Chiefs
Question: Can they sustain last year's upstart success?
The Chiefs rose to a surprise AFC West title last year in beating out an arguably more talented Chargers team that finished first in both offense and defense.
Still, they didn't exactly look dominant. And if the Chargers finally find a way to avoid their perpetually slow start, then K.C. could be in trouble.
I loved their draft which added an array of talent, plus they already have a young and skilled base of players. Avoiding a second-year jinx after winning the division will be Todd Haley's first priority.
Question: Are the Dolphins ready to topple the Jets and Patriots?
Their magical "worst to first" run a few years ago aside, things have been either mediocre or plain bad for Miami for a number of years.
Yet they still remain a tough, gritty unit who can compete with anyone.
Like I mentioned with Jacksonville they need to find consistency, and a few more big plays wouldn't hurt either.
Question: What type of identity do the Vikings take in the post-Farve era?
Are they a running team primarily now that number four is gone?
Were they always supposed to be a running team?
Who even plays quarterback this year for the Vikes?
All of those questions are as critical as the next for Minnesota. They have serious issues not just at quarterback but offensive line. Creating opportunity for Adrian Peterson needs to be the first priority.
Building the offense around him now that Favre is gone is a no-brainer.
New England Patriots
Question: Where will the pass-rush come from?
Amazingly, the Patriots used NONE of their many high draft picks on any of the plethora of talented pass-rushers in this year's draft.
And that was one of their central needs. It was a very strange decision. Bill Belichick seems confident that the players he has now will continue to develop and improve, but I'm not so sure.
Might they make a trade for some help? They may have to...
New Orleans Saints
Question: Can their beleaguered secondary find its feet?
On the heels of losing to the worst division winner in NFL history during the failed defense of their Super Bowl title, the Saints have to know what their biggest problem was: defense.
And, more specifically, coverage. Too many times — not just in the playoffs last year but the whole season — their secondary failed to track receivers.
They alleviated this problem slightly by signing Shaun Rogers and drafting Cameron Jordan to aid the pass-rush, but their actual secondary remains a question mark...
New York Giants
Question: Will the Giants finish a regular season again like they did in 2007?
Obviously, winning a Super Bowl has coated Tom Coughlin's legacy with gold forever in the hearts of Giants fans. But that doesn't totally gloss over the fact that they've come up short at the end of the regular season more often that not.
Including last year, the Giants have made a habit of peaking early and tailing down the stretch. Solidifying their secondary with Prince Amukamara will certainly help in this respect.
And the offense needs to cut down on a league high in giveaways too.
New York Jets
Question: Can the Jets establish a legitimate offense when they need it in crunch time?
Obviously, Rex Ryan and the Jets have made their name in the last two seasons with their defense. It's been the underlying reason for their success, especially against the Patriots.
Yet to win a Super Bowl, the Jets need the complete package, as they learned in Pittsburgh last year in the AFC title game. Being able to pass the ball efficiently is critical, and Mark Sanchez needs to take the next step as a quarterback this year, not just leading by his talk but with his play.
Question: Will the Raiders build on last year's progress back towards respectability?
For decades, the mystique of the Silver and Black was beyond reproach. Lately though, the Raiders have been the NFL's laughingstock.
In 2010, there was a glimmer of hope, as Oakland climbed back to .500 for the first time in seemingly forever.
It won't be good enough to just get back to 8-8 again this year. Building beyond that is a must, otherwise it could be another few years of downturn.
Question: Can Mike Vick sustain his success?
He's the most athletically gifted man to ever play quarterback (that's my opinion anyway). And he finally displayed a cerebral quality last year that led to him avoiding man of the silly mistakes that plagued his early career.
Reading coverages was a step in the right direction for Vick. He became the quarterback we always dreamed he could be.
But can he do it again, and can he stay healthy for a whole season and into the playoffs? Only time will tell, but I'd venture a guess that he can.
Oh, and having Desean Jackson and Jeremy Maclain helps obviously.
Question: Will Pittsburgh finally string together two consecutive postseason appearances?
I feel like the Steelers play well every other year. Whether or not they can break this streak I don't know.
Yet having Big Ben back for a whole season should help, though the Steelers were pretty good even without him in 2010.
San Diego Chargers
Question: Can San Diego avoid its signature horrible start?
How many years have the Chargers started out badly? I've lost track frankly.
Last year was no different, when San Diego began 2-5. What's remarkable is that they finished the season with the top-rated total offense and defense.
Yet that still only translated into a modest 9-7 record and no postseason berth. To underachieve so much has to be frustrating for the fans. Remedying that begins by not stumbling out of the blocks at the season's start.
San Francisco 49ers
Question: How long will they tie their future to Alex Smith?
I've said it before and I'll say it again: there is no better example of the double standard in how certain draft picks are treated than Alex Smith.
Had he been a second or even late first rounder, Smith would now be several years removed from 49ers employment.
But because he became their guy at first overall, San Francisco keeps giving him chances. He should get one more shot, so I hope it works out for him and, most of all, for 49er fans.
Question: Can Seahawk fans hope to retain their division crown?
Well, perhaps that was phrased poorly. Of course they can hope to retain the NFC West title, but whether or not they should expect it is very much in question.
Seattle still has no defined quarterback, and their draft was a widely perceived miss, though who knows if some of those guys could certainly work out.
Yet they seem to be a strange mixture of talent. Honestly, this is the question that leaves me the most perplexed. The Hawks could go 9-7 and win the division again or finish 6-10. Either one wouldn't shock me.
St. Louis Rams
Question: Can they snatch the NFC West from Seattle and continue to build on last year's progress?
No one should honestly get mad at Sam Bradford and the Rams for not winning the NFC West last season. I'm sorry, but with a rookie quarterback you have to scale back expectations no matter what happens.
This year though, things change. With a year under his belt, there will be fewer free passes for Bradford. The Rams defense also needs to play better, with most them more familiar with the scheme.
With competition not at a peak in their division, the crown appears to be ripe for the taking. But the Rams will have to execute now with more expectations on their shoulders — always a tougher difficult task.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Question: Is Josh Freeman able to reproduce another season like he had in 2010?
Josh Freeman was good last year. Really good.
He destroyed the league last year and was a one-man life-line to his team. But can he do consistently?
Of course, the better question might be can his team give him some help? The defense, who for so long were the premiere unit, ranked a pedestrian 28th in defending the run.
They'll need to tighten that up...
Question: Can Tennessee find a short term fix at quarterback?
Everyone knows Vince Young probably won't be back. And everyone now knows they want Jake Locker to be the guy at some point.
But what about in the meantime? Chris Johnson (as we know from any past running back who relies on his explosiveness) won't last forever.
Can the Titans find someone in the interim?
Question: Will John Beck really be the quarterback when the offseason dust settles?
Not sure what to say. And that pretty well sums up not just every prognosticator, but every Redskin fan too.
He's an empty slate. Having been a star at BYU, can he hack it in the NFC East? The smart money obviously says no.
For some reason though, I don't want to just write him off.
Then again, being that they're the Redskins, the quarterback situation could shift like a shaking etch a sketch in a matter of weeks, so we'll see.
Nonetheless, the quarterback question is the crux of the issues surrounding the Washington Redskins...