I spent more time watching exhibition football this weekend then should be legally allowed. As I said last week, I just love this time of year. I can’t get enough of having the sights and sounds of NFL football back on my TV, even if the games themselves are totally and utterly meaningless.
And I mean that, you can’t take any of the results that you see in these glorified scrimmages seriously. If you ever find yourself getting excited about how your team did, or bummed out by how they did, just remind yourself that the team with the worst record in NFL history, the 0-16 2008 Detroit Lions, were a perfect 4-0 in the preseason that year. Football is a unique sport because it’s all schematically based, there is virtually no free-flow aspect to it.
In a sport like, say, basketball, you can play pickup games at varying levels of intensity and still formulate intelligent opinions based on the results. Not so in football. In football the coaches aren’t game planning and play-calling these exhibition games with the intention of winning. They’re managing the game to get their players reps and put them in situations to evaluate how they react.
So enjoy the football, it’s great to have it back, but as we get back to our division previews we should remind ourselves that we can’t let the football we see in the next few weeks cloud our judgments of the teams themselves. The games are great fun, especially to see how the young players look on the field, but the statistics and results should be thrown directly out the window.
With that in mind we tackle the NFC South today, a division where every team has made significant moves in the offseason. The Carolina Panthers took Cam Newton with the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, the Atlanta Falcons paid a king’s ransom to move up and get themselves wide receiver Julio Jones, the Saints sent Reggie Bush packing and replaced him with Darren Sproles and Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are the youngest team in the league with a lot of potential.
The division will once again be competitive, compelling, and feature some of the biggest “if factors” around. With all the teams counting on unproven young talent, this will be a great division to watch in 2011.
Without any further stalling, let’s dig into the NFC South.
2010: 13-3, NFC South Champions
Better or Worse in 2011: Worse. Only because 13 wins is a lot in the NFL, hard to believe they can do it again.
Atlanta was one of the best teams in the NFL last year, but at closer look there was a little more luck and good fortune involved in that impressive 13-3 record that you’d like to see.
Of those 13 wins, seven of them were of the one possession variety (eight points or less). The other five wins? Arizona, Cleveland, Seattle and Carolina twice. You don’t exactly need to light the world on fire to win those games.
What does this all mean? That Atlanta got that many wins by beating the teams they were supposed to beat and pulled out close games against everyone else. What does it mean for this season? That you can’t always count on a team winning nail biters week in and week out over a long period of time. It doesn’t really matter how good the team is, eventually NFL competition is too tough to assume you can always win the fourth quarter.
Good teams try to do just that, great teams put their opponents away in the second and third quarters.
This team is headed in the right direction, but it’s just too hard for me to believe that they’re going to be able to win so many close contests in 2011.
Important Acquisitions: Julio Jones (R)
Toughest Player Losses: Jerious Norwood, Michael Jenkins, Harvey Dahl
Key Player: Michael Turner
The “If” Factor: Very low, this offense is like vanilla ice cream, always gets the job done but leaves you wondering if you should have gone for something riskier
2010 Offensive Ranking: 15th Passing, 12th Rushing
I was shocked when I looked up the 2010 offensive rankings for this team. Off the top of my head I remember a team last year that ran the ball well, made big plays in the passing game and was led by one of the best young quarterbacks in the NFL. They won 13 games in the NFL, which as we proved last week is league where you win with a high scoring offense, so how could they be so decidedly mediocre on this side of the ball?
A closer look shows that they won so many games because their quarterback saved his best performances for the fourth quarter. Everyone loves a “clutch performer”, but really, if a quarterback is truly great, shouldn’t they just light up the other team before then so they don’t need to have all those game winning drives?
The good news for the state of Georgia and its football fans is that Thomas Demitroff is one of the best young team builders in the game and he attempted to address his team’s biggest offensive deficiency in this years draft.
If the Falcons are going to get the most out of their best player, Matt Ryan, they’re going to need to open up the offense and start passing more out of the spread formation. The problem with this is they will need to get better and deeper at wide receiver. They took a big step forward in this direction when they mortgaged their 2011 draft to get University of Alabama product Julio Jones.
Jones is big, fast, and strong. All good things to be if you’re a wide receiver, but the one thing he isn’t great at is actually catching the ball, which is also something that you want to be good at if you’re a wide receiver. They say you can’t teach hands, and for the most part that’s true, but I’m going to wait to see what Jones looks like on an NFL field before I judge him too harshly.
Most important for this unit is that they return with a superior offensive line and one of the last workhorse running backs left in the league, Michael Turner. Turner had another 300 plus carry campaign in 2010, but also put up his lowest per carry average as a Falcon with 4.1 yards every time he took a handoff. At 29 Turner isn’t getting any younger, and the shelf life for running backs is short, especially for those that take the kind of beating Turner has over the past three years.
If Turner has another All Pro year left in his legs, Matt Ryan will do just enough for them to win some games. Not another 13, but enough to be in the playoff picture.
Important Acquisitions: Ray Edwards
Toughest Player Losses: Jamaal Anderson
Key Player: Curtis Lofto.
The “If” Factor: 2 Ifs
2010 Defensive Ranking: 22nd Passing, 10th Rushing
What can I say about this defense? Much like the offensive squad for Atlanta, the defense is solid, average, mediocre, reliably uninspiring. They’re not a liability, but they’re not going to win any games on their own either.
They play a base 3-4, the old school way, with mainly cover two principles. This defensive philosophy is good against a power running team, but struggles when the better offenses spread them out and make their linebackers and safeties play in space. (See: last years playoff loss to the Packers). The only way that they can stop a good passing team is if they can put pressure on opposing quarterbacks with their front four only, leaving the other seven players to cover as much of the field as they can. (See: The NY Giants defeat of the 2007 Patriots in Super Bowl XLII).
The Falcons added a new weapon to that all important pass rush with the signing of free agent defensive end Ray Edwards from the Minnesota Vikings. Edwards showed a knack for the sack in Minnesota, bring the quarterback to the ground 16.5 times the last two years. Edwards qualifies for the “if” factor because you never know how a player is going to perform on a new team, and with a new lucrative contract.
The other unknown on this defense is whether or not middle linebacker Curtis Lofton has hit his ceiling, or if he has another level he has yet to reach. Lofton, a second round draft pick in 2008, has been a tackling machine with the Falcons. He’s already cemented himself as a quality starter, but if he can continue to raise his game to the next level this defense will improve with him. The middle linebacker in a 4-3 can be a dominant force, and if Lofton can be that force this defense will move into the ranks of the league’s best.
2010: 2-14, Last place of, well, everything
Better or Worse in 2011: Better by default
Bottoming out in the NFL can sometimes be a blessing in disguise. The 2010 Panthers weren’t as bad as their 2-14 record would make you think. They have a solid offensive line, good running backs, and more than a few pieces in place on the defensive side of the ball.
Their problem was that they’re deficient at the one position that you just can’t afford to be, the quarterback. They attempted to remedy the situation by using their first round pick on the national championship and Heisman Trophy winning Auburn player Cam Newton.
The move to take a quarterback first overall was the right one, the chance to have your pick of the new crop of signal-callers is one that doesn’t come along very often. The better news for Carolina is that they get to sign Newton under the new CBA rookie salary rules, which means if he isn’t the future Hall of Famer they hope he is, it won’t set the franchise back a decade or so.
If one of the quarterbacks in camp, either Newton or second year project Jimmy Clausen, can at least do a decent impression of a capable NFL quarterback, the Panthers will improve on their dismal 2010 campaign.
Important Acquisitions: Cam Newton (R), Greg Olsen, Jeremy Shockey
Toughest Player Losses: Dante Rosario, Matt Moore
Key Player: Cam Newton. And no, when your quarterback is your biggest X factor, you’re not in good shape.
The “If” Factor: Huge, both in the bad and the good direction
2010 Offensive Ranking: 32nd Passing, 13th Rushing
It’s no surprise that the team with the worst passing attack in the league finished with the worst record. The Panthers were a run first offense under the now departed head coach John Fox. Enter Ron Rivera, a defensive coach who cut his teeth in Chicago and San Diego.
Along with a history of success, Rivera brings with him new offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski, previously the offensive coordinator in Cleveland and the tight ends coach in San Diego. He was the man in charge of the offense in Cleveland in 2007, the year that Derek Anderson made the Pro Bowl.
Chudzinski should bring with him a new offensive philosophy that will help open things up in Carolina. If he can make a career backup like Derek Anderson look good, imagine what he can do with a number one overall pick.
Let’s hope the first thing he doesn’t do is take a player like Newton, who has had success at every level of football playing for coaches who didn’t ask him to do things he wasn’t good at, and shoehorn him into being a traditional drop back passer. I just don’t understand why every time a quarterback is successful in college taking snaps out of the shotgun, the first thing that NFL coaches do is make them go under center. What other position does this? If you draft a quick, shifty running back, you don’t expect him to come into camp and learn overnight how to be a strong, bruising short yardage type.
If Rivera and Chudzinski modernize the offense, let Cam Newton do what he does best, this offense will be headed in the right direction. They have a serious lack of talent at receiver, which will limit the ceiling here. The big if for this unit is how good the quarterback play will be, which usually means bad things.
Important Acquisitions: Sean Considine, Ron Edwards
Toughest Player Losses: Richard Marshall
Key Player: Everette Brown
The “If” Factor: Low, in the good way, this is a solid group
2010 Defensive Ranking: 11th Passing, 23rd Rushing
The old John Fox Panthers teams won with defense, and this year won’t be any different. Carolina kept with the defense first model by hiring Ron Rivera to lead the team. Rivera has had success with two of the better defenses in the league over the last decade, first with the Bears in the early to mid 2000’s, and most recently with the Chargers.
He brings with him a tough, disciplined style that should blend in easily with the talent on the roster. The Panthers are built like a modern day defense should be. They have good outside pass rushers at the defensive end position, playmakers at linebacker, the only thing they need to improve on is the overall talent level and depth in the defensive backfield.
The defensive backs are something that can be addressed in the future, for this year though the Panthers should be able to create enough pressure on the quarterback to not let that part of the field become a liability.
If the Panthers are going to win more than a couple games this year, and they have the roster to do it, its going to be on the backs of what is a capable defense.
Better or Worse in 2011: Better
The Saints found out last year how hard it can be to repeat as Super Bowl champs.
You get every team’s best effort, it’s hard to stay focused, the schedule gets stacked against you, and the biggest obstacle is that anything short of another championship is considered a failure of a season.
This is what happened to New Orleans last year. Despite an 11-5 record, even with all those factors going against them, many saw 2010 as a major step backwards when they were upset by the Seahawks in the playoffs.
But when you look at it, that game had more to do with a tired team playing a fired up underdog in one of the only stadiums left in the NFL that has an actual home field advantage then it had to do with the Saints not being good enough to get back to the Super Bowl.
This year they come back rested, hungry and improved. The offense is again going to be among the league’s best, and you know a Greg Williams defense is going to continue to be aggressive and disruptive.
New Orleans will be a serious title contender this year.
Important Acquisitions: Olin Kreutz, Darren Sproles, Mark Ingram (R), Alex Barron
Toughest Player Losses: Reggie Bush, Jonathan Goodwin
Key Player: Pierre Thomas
The “If” Factor: 1 If, that pesky running back position
2010 Offensive Ranking: 3rd Passing, 28th Rushing
Sean Payton is one of the most progressive, inventive and prolific offensive minds we have today in football. He’s built an offensive unit that is the envy of the league, and if I’m a rival GM or head coach I’d be looking long and hard at this roster and trying to emulate it.
They spread you out, make the most of the mismatches their skill players create, have a deep and talented group of receivers including Marques Colston and the wisely resigned Lance Moore, and most importantly have one of the best quarterbacks in the league orchestrating the whole thing. 2010 saw another great year for Drew Brees and the New Orleans passing attack, the only thing bringing them down was a lack of a complimentary running game.
This year that running game should get back on track. The Saints traded the disgruntled and overpaid Reggie Bush for next to nothing, and replaced him with a better, younger and cheaper model when they used their first round draft pick on former Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram. Along with the addition of Ingram, New Orleans will get back a healthy Pierre Thomas and brought in the quick and agile Darren Sproles, who should fit right into Payton’s spread offense.
The loss of starting center Jonathan Goodwin would hurt most teams big time, the center position is underrated in its importance. You need a good, smart player at center because he is the one in charge of calling the blocking audible at the line of scrimmage. A top tier center can be a huge advantage, and can keep your quarterback upright and making completions.
Most teams would have a hard time not taking a step back when breaking in a new center, but the Saints once again proved to be one step ahead of the competition in the roster management department. Instead of taking that step back, they scooped up veteran Olin Kreutz when the Bears let him go. Kreutz will have a learning curve, Payton’s offense is much different from the Mike Martz system is coming from, but Kreutz has been around long enough to pick it up.
The Saints come into this season with one of the best, and most cohesive offensive squads in the league. They bring back a top five quarterback, a good offensive line, one of the best receiver groups around, and enough talent at running back to get the job done. The guy that will be the key to this offense reaching its true potential will be Pierre Thomas. If he can return to his 2009 form, where he averaged 5.4 yards per carry, this offense will once again dominate opponents and lead this team to double digit wins and a deep playoff run.
Important Acquisitions: Aubrayo Franklin, Will Herring, Fabian Washington, Cameron Jordan (R)
Toughest Player Losses: Jimmy Wilderson, Remi Ayodele
Key Player: Will Smith
The “If” Factor: Barely exhists
2010 Defensive Ranking: 4th Passing, 16th Rushing
This New Orleans defense is the perfect accompaniment for their high scoring, modern offense. They play an aggressive, downhill version of the 4-3. Instead of sitting back in cover two or three zones all day long, they attack the offense and dictate the pace of the game.
Jonathan Vilma is still the best player on the team. His solid play at the middle linebacker position is becoming as reliable as you get in the NFL. After you throw out his last year in New York, which was shortened to only seven games due to a knee injury, Vilma has started in all 16 games each year and posted 100 plus tackles.
Lining up behind Vilma is a quality group of defensive backs, including Roman Harper and Super Bowl hero Tracy Porter. There aren’t any standouts in this group, but that’s the way you win in today’s NFL. It’s not necessarily quantity over quality, but it’s definitely a matter of the quantity of your quality. This group can go eight deep with NFL caliber players, and that’s what you need to stop the multiple receiver sets they’re going to face when the better teams rise to the top in the playoffs this year.
The other way they’re going to stop those high flying attacks is by getting pressure with their defensive ends. Cameron Jordan has the makings of a good player, but I’m not going to count on a rookie to be the guy here, especially one who most thought was more suited to playing in a 3-4 scheme than in a 4-3. No, the guy I’m looking at to have a stellar year, and lead the team with his play, is sack master Will Smith.
Smith had a career year in 2009, no coincidence that was the year they won it all. He took a step back in 2010, much like the rest of his team did, going from 13 sacks in ’09 to only 5.5 in ’10.
If Smith can return to his ’09 form, he’ll once again lead this defense to the level of play they’ll need to have to get back to another Super Bowl.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Better or Worse in 2011: Worse
The Buccaneers are another one of the up and coming teams that many are trying to anoint a contender before they’re ready.
Much like we saw with the Falcons earlier in the column, the Buccaneers survived by winning several tight contests. This year they won’t sneak up on anyone, and defensive coordinators have had a whole offseason to study Josh Freeman and devise ways to slow him down.
Tampa Bay certainly deserves to be talked about as one of the best young teams in the league, and the future is bright for this franchise. But to ask them to have a better season then last year is asking too much. Teams on the rise tend to stumble a little on the way, it’s never a strictly linear rise to the top.
2011 will be a step back in the won-loss column for the Bucs, but they will be competitive, fun to watch, and better prepared for the years to come.
Important Acquisitions: None
Toughest Player Losses: The Cadillac Williams, Maurice Stovall
Key Player: LaGarrette Blount
The “If” Factor: Massive
2010 Offensive Ranking: 17th Passing, 8th Rushing
Tampa Bay looks to have hit pay dirt by finally finding their franchise quarterback in Josh Freeman. The problem now is that Freeman is a known commodity in the NFL, and his play will be graded on a much harder curve this year. It’s one thing to have a break out season, it’s quite another to follow that up with an improved campaign the next year.
The good news is that Freeman has plenty of talented players in the huddle with him that can make his job easier. The bad news is that they’re all young like him. And one thing we can be sure of with young players is that they’re going to be inconsistent. The talent is undeniable, we’ve seen enough brilliance last year to know that this group has what it takes to be really, really good.
Mike Williams had one of the better years we’ve seen from a rookie wideout in recent memory. To go along with Williams the Bucs have Arrelious Benn, Michael Spurlock, and Sammie Stroughter to round out a deep, young receiver corps. They’re counting heavily on LeGarrette Blount, most famously known for being suspended for punching an opponent after a game when he was at the University of Oregon, to be a workhouse type of back this year. Blount has talent, he would not have gone under the radar like he has if it hadn’t been for that ugly incident when he was in college, but you just can’t depend on only one running back in this league any more.
Josh Freeman and this Tampa Bay offense have plenty of talent, there’s no question about that, the problem is that talent is still very young. The sky is the limit for them in 2011, but I just can’t see everything going their way like it did last year.
Important Acquisitions: Adrian Clayborn (R), Da’Quan Bowers (R)
Toughest Player Losses: Barrett Ruud
Key Player: Adrian Clayborn/Da’Quan Bowers. I get to combine two players into one here, they’re both rookies and play the same position.
The “If” Factor: 3 Ifs
2010 Defensive Ranking: 7th Passing, 28th Rushing
Much like the offense, Tampa Bay has gone young with their defensive unit. They’ve used picks in the last two drafts to upgrade their talent level on both the defensive line and in the defensive backfield. The defensive line in particular comes into the 2011 season with three players in their rookie or second years, all of whom have unlimited potential. Adrian Clayborn was a first round pick and is universally considered to be a physical talent who will get to the quarterback early and often. Second rounder Da’Quan Bowers has the same upside, but comes with many more question marks.
Bowers would have been a surefire first rounder, if not a top 10, selection if it wasn’t for doubts about his injured right knee. The problem is that sometimes with a knee injury, once the damage is done there’s nothing the doctors can do to bring a player back to the level he was before the injury.
Time will tell if Bowers can fully recover, but if he does the Bucs will have hit on a huge talent with a second round choice. Combine the talents of Bowers and Clayborn with the play of second year defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, last year’s first round pick who had a solid rookie year, and you have the makings of a dominant defensive line.
The other player with serious upside is cornerback Aquib Talib. He showed last year that he has the talent to be a good NFL corner, too bad this offseason he showed he also has the ability to totally sink his career with his off field behavior. Just to be clear, his antics aren’t cheeky and fun like a Chad Ochocinco, they’re downright scary and disturbing like a Pacman Jones. He’s still young, and can turn it around, but he is just another example of how uncertain things are for this team heading into 2011.
The Tampa Bay roster is young, talented and has a great future ahead of it. There are just too many question marks left to be sorted out for them to make a serious run at a playoff spot this year.