This time of year in the NFL, all you can do is predict and speculate. However, this season has a little bit of a different feel to it, just in case you have been in a cave for the last week.
Now that the lockout has ended, certain teams do not stand a chance to make a playoff run. There are two key factors that make these teams stand out: a new head coach and/or a new quarterback.
Now, there are exceptions to these two factors. A coach that has been promoted from within has fewer hurdles to clear in order to install his new system. A new quarterback has its exceptions as well. A Kevin Kolb that landed with the Arizona Cardinals should have an easier transition than a Cam Newton for the Carolina Panthers.
Having said all this, the following list is subject to change with several veteran free agents still on the market that could change the make up of a teams roster. A couple pick ups from the free agency market could make a serious impact.
Let's look at the six teams that will be watching the playoffs on television come January if they don't make changes to several key positions.
The Carolina Panthers not only have a new head coach, but they also have a new starting quarterback who is a rookie—double whammy for the Panthers.
Ron Rivera took over the reigns for the struggling Panthers this past offseason and his first order of business was figuring who his first draft pick would be.
The Carolina Panthers ended up taking Cam Newton as the first overall pick—no surprise there—and have decided to gamble their future on the success of the Auburn University product. The big problem with this is that the Panthers felt the backlash of a lockout that lasted almost four months.
In the NFL, rookie quarterbacks do not fare well to begin with, but when you take away OTAs and team workouts you are even further behind the eight ball. Cam Newton needed every bit of the practice days he missed to try and master the new offensive system the Panthers will be running in 2011.
Cam Newton has to not only learn a new system in basically six weeks, but he has to navigate his way through the treacherous NFC South. The Panthers will end their season with a murderers row of opponents.
If they could win even three of those seven games it would be impressive, but don't count on it. Sorry Panthers fans, you will not be enjoying playoff football this season.
The San Francisco 49ers found their newest head coach in Jim Harbaugh from Stanford University. The move made sense. The Harbaugh brothers have been in and out of the NFL for several years and Jim Harbaugh has ran a pro-style offense at Stanford with great success.
Jim Harbaugh could make the easy transition to the 49ers from Stanford, not having to uproot his family and move halfway across the country. He took over a storied franchise that has fallen on hard times over the years. Not to mention he gets to coach in the easiest division in football.
All that being said, he has not had the chance to implement his coaching philosophy until last week. Time is invaluable in this league. Coaches who can get the most out of the time they have with their team will succeed.
The new head coach inherited several outstanding talents with the likes of Frank Gore, Patrick Willis and Vernon Davis. Except he also inherited Alex Smith, the first round bust from the Utah Utes.
Oh, did I mention he is also dealing with a high profile hold out with star running back Frank Gore? Welcome to the NFL, Jim.
Harbaugh had a chance to trade or acquire an upgrade at the quarterback position, but instead chose to stick with Alex Smith. More than likely, that will be his first major NFL head coaching blunder. And all the Andrew Luck conspiracy rumors that say Jim Harbaugh plans on tanking his first year on the job are beyond ludicrous.
The 49ers play in the easiest division in football, the NFC West, which will allow them to be competitive, but they arguably are the only team that did not immensely strengthen their squad. The St. Louis Rams, Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals all made several moves to improve weaknesses in their rosters.
San Francisco may be distracted by a World Series run come this October, but they certainly will not be witnessing a playoff run in January.
Honestly, what are the Miami Dolphins doing? They brought in Bill Parcells a few years ago to clean house and put the organization back on track. They go from being 1-15 to 11-5 the next year and they somehow let the "Big Tuna" leave?
I realize this may be a bit of old news but it just shows you what kind of mindset this team has. How can you take a team seriously when it is owned by Gloria Estefan, Marc Anthony and both Williams sisters?
Let me answer that for you—you can't.
The Miami Dolphins have left me scratching my head and laughing at their follies for years, but this past week and a half only added to the punch line that is the Miami Dolphins joke. Ask any Miami Dolphins fan (and I know quite a few, having grown up in south Florida) what the number one position of need was and they will all tell you without hesitation, quarterback.
This franchise has suffered for over a decade with the carousel of quarterbacks that have come through the doors down in south Florida. They have longed for a decent replacement for the great Dan Marino. From the likes of Damon Huard to Brian Griese to A.J. Feely to Daunte Culpepper to Cleo Lemon to Chad Pennington to Tyler Thigpen.
It is unbelievable how one team could strike out so many times at quarterback over a time period that spans longer than a decade. In case you were wondering, the Miami Dolphins have had 15, yes that is correct, different quarterbacks since the retirement of Dan Marino.
You would think they would go after a starting-caliber quarterback in this unprecedented free agency period, but no. There were talks that the Dolphins wanted to trade for Denver Broncos starting quarterback Kyle Orton. That deal is now all but dead because they could not agree to terms with the Broncos front office.
There is a ray of hope here though.
The Miami Dolphins did sign a quarterback this off season. They signed the same guy who lost his starting job to Jimmy Clausen, who forced them to draft Cam Newton, in former Carolina Panther Matt Moore.
Reggie Bush has given Dolphins fans false hope as well. Trying to make him an every down back is easier said than done.
The Cleveland Browns have been quietly improving over the last couple years. Hiring Mike Holmgren as the President could prove to be the decision that changed the path for the struggling franchise.
Mike Holmgren hired his new head coach this past January in former St. Louis Rams offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur. Pat Shurmur, in my opinion, will prove to be a great hire for the Cleveland Browns.
However, just as with Ron Rivera and Jim Harbaugh, he is a new coach that has not been able to implement his system during the spring. A seasoned head coach would be able to accelerate the learning curve in this unusual post-lockout offseason, but Shurmur is in the first year of his debut head coaching position.
Colt McCoy seems to be the quarterback of the future for the Browns. He had some decent performances his rookie season starting eight games and throwing for over 1,500 yards. His touchdowns and interceptions stats are not all impressive, but that can be attributed to other things. The key stat that pops out was his 60.8 completion percentage, which provides something to build upon for his budding career.
The Cleveland Browns play in a division with stout defenses in the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers. Shurmur, who was a quarterbacks coach for the Philadelphia Eagles in the early 2000s, will be able to groom McCoy throughout the 2011 season.
The Browns have a good nucleus of talent to build upon in the next couple of years with Peyton Hillis, Colt McCoy, Josh Cribbs and Joe Haden.
However, they are still too far away from being a playoff team. This team will be competitive and win a couple games they shouldn't have, but nonetheless they still have a very young quarterback and an unproven first year head coach.
Sorry Cleveland, your championship drought will not end with the Cleveland Browns this season.
Where do I start with the Cincinnati Bengals? How about we start at the top.
The Cincinnati Bengals have the cheapest, out-of-touch owner in the NFL in Mike Brown. They are the only franchise in the NFL that does not have an indoor practice facility. An essential part of being able to conduct practice in the winter is avoiding the weather, unless you play for the Bengals.
They practice under what might as well be a giant circus tent. It's pitiful, to be honest.
Mike Brown also let his pride get in the way of trading Carson Palmer.
Listen, I get it. As an owner you must have established guidelines of how you conduct business and part of these guidelines consist of how you deal with unsatisfied employees. Carson Palmer threatened to retire if he was not traded, so they called his bluff.
Now they are without their starting quarterback and dealt their best wide receiver, Chad Ochocinco, in a trade with the New England Patriots. Clearly they are trying to hit the reset button. My big problem with this is, why you would not reap some kind of value for Carson Palmer in a trade?
If he is going to leave either way, why not get something in return? Unforeseen logic here, I know.
Now the Cincinnati Bengals, who by the way swept their division and were AFC North division champions in 2009, have regressed back to square one in less than two years.
They decided to draft Andy Dalton with the 14th pick of the draft, signaling their intent to restart. Adding to the pick-up of All-Pro Georgia wide receiver A.J. Green drafted with the fourth pick.
Cincinnati made two savvy picks in the first round of the 2011 NFL draft, but that will not help them this season. Do not be surprised if Mike Brown decides Marvin Lewis is the next one to go after the 2011 season.
This franchise has floored it into reverse, they certainly will not be playing football in late January.
The Denver Broncos have created quite a mess for themselves.
Kyle Orton is available for trade. No, we changed our mind. Okay, you can have him, but we want this, this, and this. Alright, Kyle Orton is staying in Denver, our backup stinks.
Confused yet? Imagine how the players for the Denver Broncos feel. Tim Tebow hysteria has poisoned the minds of the Denver Broncos front office. The former Florida Gator, Heisman winning standout has created quite the stir amongst the Broncos fan base. He had the highest selling jersey in team history proving that Denver Broncos fans believe he is the savior for their once proud franchise.
Let that sink in.
Tim Tebow, who has only started three games in a Denver Broncos uniform, has outsold the likes of two time Super Bowl winning quarterback John Elway. The man says everything right, works hard, has a selfless attitude, and competes as if his life were on the line.
Those are all good things, but that does not win football games in this league. A quick release, adept knowledge, accurate throws, and timely plays win football games in the NFL as a starting quarterback.
The Denver Broncos wanted to see if their gamble would work on the field as much as it has worked for them off the field with the attention of national media coverage and jersey sales. After just a couple days into camp taking first team reps, Tim Tebow, the over-hyped, incapable quarterback, has been bumped down to third on the quarterback depth chart.
The problem here is that the charismatic hard-working second year player has began to create a divide within a locker room. One thing you definitely cannot afford is a division within the locker room on who your team leader should be.
John Elway, the new Denver Broncos general manager, experimented with the idea of accelerating Tim Tebow's time line. As his first year in the GM position, he may have created an unwarranted rift within the locker room and the fan base.
On top of all this, the Denver Broncos have a new head coach in John Fox. John Fox has had prior experience in the NFL as a head coach with a stint with the Carolina Panthers. Fox should be able to gain control of his squad and get them up to speed in the short off season.
Even with Fox's experience, the Denver Broncos have a brewing quarterback controversy, warranted or not, which could prove to be a thorn in their side halfway through the season.
There has been a surge of power coming out of the NFC North during the past couple of years. The Minnesota Vikings came off a 2009 season that ended with an NFC Championship run. The Vikings rode out the storm with the elder statesman Brett Favre guiding the team by blowing his Gallehus horn vicariously through his play.
Brett Favre had an incredible 2009 campaign. Favre threw for over 4,200 yards, 33 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions during that year. Practically MVP type numbers that diminished after one interception too many in the playoffs, which abruptly stopped a potential Super Bowl run.
The 2010 season did not turn out as hot for Favre. He threw for over 2,500 yards, 11 touchdowns, and 19 interceptions last season. Opening the door to retirement once more for the Mississippi gungslinger. Favre's bad play let the brewing locker room divide become a full blown story. Brad Childress took a bad gamble on Randy Moss and consequently "lost" the locker room completely.
Fast forward to this spring, the Minnesota Vikings have a new coach and a new quarterback. A dangerous combination in a shortened NFL offseason. Leslie Frazier is the new head coach, Donovan McNabb is the newly traded for starting quarterback, and Florida State product Christian Ponder is the heir apparent after surprisingly being taken with the 12th overall pick in the draft.
The Vikings seem to be in the middle of a rapid revamping plan. Trying to take advantage of the talent they already have on the roster and enhancing the pieces around it. They still have all-pro running back Adrian Peterson and all-pro defensive end Jared Allen, and acquired former six-time pro-bowler in Donovan McNabb. McNabb seems to be the interim starter that will allow them to compete for a couple years while Ponder gets brought up to speed.
Donovan McNabb and Leslie Frazier have been around each other in the past, Frazier being a former position coach in Philadelphia during the early 2000s. Donovan McNabb will help them win two to three games they more than likely lose if they start Christian Ponder or Joe Webb.
Minnesota lost Sidney Rice to the Seattle Seahawks in free agency along with former back up quarterback Travaris Jackson. The former takes a bigger tole than the latter. The health of too frequently sidelined Percy Harvin has to create a cloud of doubt in the mind of Leslie Frazier. Uncontrollable illnesses such as a migraine makes depending on the player, especially when playing home games in an extremely clamorous dome, that much harder.
The Minnesota Vikings brought in Michael Jenkins from the Atlanta Falcons hoping to fill in the hole left in their offense from the departure of Sidney Rice. They also made a smart move resigning OLB Erin Henderson to a new contract, but lost UFA Ray Edwards to the Atlanta Falcons. A tough hole to fill on a destructive defensive line.
The Green Bay Packers remain poised to defend their most recent Super Bowl. The Chicago Bears long to taste some of the same success it willingly gobbled down in 2010. Even the Detroit Lions have made aggressive moves in recent drafts and are signing impact players on defense like Stephen Tulloch from the Tennessee Titans.
The Minnesota Viking will have their hands full staying alive in their own division. Playing for a playoff seed with a new quarterback, former pro-bowler or not, and a brand new head coach who has never been the man will prove to be a task that seems too far out of reach during the upcoming 2011 NFL season.