“Don’t wait for the Last Judgment. It takes place every day.”
Don’t worry. Over the course of this, the second season of Unabated to the Quarterback, I do plan on expanding our epigraphical purview beyond simple Albert Camus. Eventually.
But why, indeed, shall we wait for the Last Judgment of the NFL postseason and the Super Bowl to level our own indictments and criticisms and praises of the 32 franchises that constitute America’s favorite sport? Why not just start now?
There are so many ways to format a season-opening NFL post. Just last season, I pulled out all the stops in our NFL Preview Bonanza. I’m afraid I shot my wad a bit on that, and there seems to be no real point of me rehashing the same favorite players and the same classic games for all 32 franchises. I thought of following the Bill Simmons route of summing up plotlines with quotes from a film; alas, those are only fun if you’ve seen and admire the film in question.* I could assign correspondences between each team and a character from The Wire, as well, although this would lead to massive stretches, spoilers, and alienation for those who haven’t seen the show.
*We get it, Bill. You REALLY like Rounders.
So how are we doing this? We’re doing this simply. Each conference, from 16 to 1. Now the NFC, later today with the AFC. Because, as our resident philosopher says, “What we call basic truths are simply the ones we discover after all the others.”
16. St. Louis Rams (4-12)
It is remarkable just how bad the Rams have been over the last three seasons. They are 6-42. Conceptualize that.
They have drafted abysmally; they have somehow done greater damage to their franchise on an annual weekend in April than they do by losing 87.5% of their games in the autumn. They have a worse track record in the Draft than the Raiders. THAN THE RAIDERS.*
*Who, it should be pointed out, won one fewer game last season than the Rams have THE LAST THREE.
Sam Bradford is now under center as the new quarterback, and Stan Kroenke is in the front office as the new owner. St. Louis will be better this season, largely because simple math mandates that a professional team cannot be this bad this long. But the question of just how much better seems to be limited in scope: Even in a best-case scenario in the worst division in the most flexuous sport in America, can you find me seven games this team can–not will, can–win?
And so the Rams will take their four, accurately call it an improvement, and work toward 2011. Because remember, this is the Team of the Decade.
15. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-11)
I think the Buccaneers’ status as an NFC also-ran can be summarized in the fact that the Mike Williams they somewhat despairingly hope emerges as a go-to receiver isn’t even the Mike Williams that an NFC team somewhat despairingly hopes emerges as a go-to receiver that people are talking about.
Who was the earliest Buccaneer taken in your fantasy draft, if a Buccaneer was taken in your fantasy draft?
14. Seattle Seahawks (5-11)
It seems embarrassing and borderline insane that it was just last season that I predicted these Seahawks to win the NFC West and earn a first-round playoff bye.* Seattle was coming off an injury-riddled 2008, and the Seahawks had been to the playoffs the five previous seasons–easily the longest streak in the NFC.
*I have often picked surprise teams to not only win the NFC West but also earn a first-round bye because of the ease of schedule. It has not worked out yet. There’s a reason I’m not ENITRELY on the San Fran bandwagon.
But Seattle stumbled again, suffering more injuries in 2009, and then having arguably the worst off-season of any NFC team. They fired Jim Mora, Jr. and hired Pete Carroll–a move that strikes me as, at best, expensively lateral. They traded a draft pick for LenDale White, whom they promptly cut. They traded a third-round pick and the right to swap second-round picks to San Diego for third-string quarterback Charlie Whitehurst (yeah, from Clemson) and then signed him to a two-year, $10 million contract. As if they needed to lock that down! They cut T.J. Houshmandzadeh late in preseason despite a large amount of guaranteed money still being owed him and are now relying on Mike Williams to become a No. 1 receiver.
And oh yeah, they didn’t add any good football players to their roster. I ain’t fallin’ for it this time, Seattle.
13. Washington Redskins (5-11)
I don’t really know what to think of the Redskins in 2010. As a Giants fan, the infusion of Mike Shanahan and Donovan McNabb scares me, but only mildly. Shanahan is an improvement in so much as anyone would have been over Jim Zorn–a man that proved on a weekly basis that he was simply unprepared to be an NFL head coach. Other than that, though, Mike has had exactly one good season in the last decade (2005). McNabb, meanwhile, is better than Jason Campbell, but he is also leaving an offense and receivers he knows for a worse offense with ones he doesn’t. Missing time in the preseason only weakens his relationships with them, and Ryan Torain doesn’t exactly induce fear in opposing defenses–yet.
All this is to say that I expect the Redskins to be better in 2010 than they were in 2009, but not by much and not, as I realize now, by any tangible mark in the standings. This, of course, is the same way I felt about the Cincinnati Reds, and we saw how that turned out. Que será.
12. Carolina Panthers (5-11)
I have attempted to talk myself into the Panthers, mainly because of their outstanding running back tandem of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, their strong finish to last season, and their above-average coach in John Fox. Unfortunately for Carolina, I keep coming back to a few problems: 1. Their late-season run was aided and perhaps even led defensively by a rejuvenated (read: contract month) Julius Peppers; 2. All it takes is one injury and their outstanding running back tandem becomes an above-average running back; 3. Their offense reminds me of that of the 2009 New York Jets, and their defense (sans Peppers) does not in any way remind me of that of the 2009 New York Jets.
They are the team I have at 5-11 that is most likely to make the playoffs.
11. Detroit Lions (5-11)
I was surprised to be reminded that the Lions won only two games last season. Didn’t that seem like a much better season for Detroit? I mean, I know they won zero the year before, but I would have thought they had won at least three or four.
That mentality speaks to the confidence I have in Jim Schwartz and Matthew Stafford. Schwartz is the first head coach since–hell, Wayne Fontes? I can’t go back further than that–who seems willing and able to accept the challenge of coaching this franchise, and Stafford had, to me, a surprisingly capable rookie season (remember that win over the Browns?). Furthermore, in drafting Ndamukong Suh and teaming him up with free agent Kyle Vanden Bosch, Detroit now has a legitimate strength along the front four on defense. Throw in the already impressive Jahvid Best, and the Lions are clearly on the road to reinstating the relevance of the early Thanksgiving Day game.
10. Arizona Cardinals (7-9)
If I were making a list of “NFC Teams in order of the Chances They Would Make the Playoffs,” the Cardinals would rank much higher. I, for instance, find it likelier that Arizona makes it to the Final Six than Philadelphia or Chicago, two teams coming up (and shortly). This is not only because they play in the ragtag NFC West–a division with two of the conference’s three worst teams, each of whom seems completely incapable of making a postseason appearance this season–but also because I am, in the face of mounting evidence, a believer in Derek Anderson.
Derek Anderson has done some incredible things in his NFL career, from leading the Cleveland Browns to 10 wins, making the Pro Bowl, and tossing 16 touchdown passes to the unsure-handed Braylon Edwards in 2007 to getting benched in favor of a guy who is going to lose his backup job to Tim Tebow this year, winning a game despite going 2-for-17, and getting traded in favor of Jake Delhomme in 2009-10. Now that he has “beaten out” Matt Leinart as the starter for Arizona, I legitimately think that there’s a chance–not a probability, but a chance–that 2009 was the aberration for Anderson, and that matched up with an even better star receiver in Larry Fitzgerald and a solid running game with Beanie Wells and the underrated Tim Hightower, Anderson can rekindle a little of the ’07 magic.
But that’s only a chance, and as good as Anderson might be, I still don’t think he can be as good as Kurt Warner was for Arizona. And thus, a third straight division title is, well, not in the Cards.
9. Philadelphia Eagles (7-9)
The Eagles’ drafting Kevin Kolb was one of my favorite Draft moments ever. You see, I was firm in my belief that Dwayne Jarrett was going to be a star wide receiver in the NFL,* and, as Jarrett fell in the second round, I was slowly convincing myself that Jarrett was going to end up as that star receiver for the Eagles. And then, not only did Philadelphia not take Jarrett, but they took Kolb, a direct indictment of Donovan McNabb.
*I would say my success rate in determining which receivers will be stars in the NFL is 1-for-The Aughts. And like, we ALL knew Larry Fitzgerald was gonna be good.
Further, I was pretty certain that Kolb wasn’t going to be a very good NFL quarterback. He went to Houston, after all–alma mater of NFL “success” stories such as David Klingler and Andre Ware. The off-season trade of McNabb breaks up the Eagles’ offense after one of its most explosive seasons, but it also ushers in the Kolb Era, one that I’m growing increasingly scared of. Kolb seems like the right fit for that quick offense, with LeSean McCoy and DeSean Jackson.
All that said, it still takes time. Aaron Rodgers was 5-11 in his first season, and he was taking over a 13-win team. I expect Kolb to put up some monster games but struggle to find consistency in his first season in a tough division. So I’m happy he’s the starter this year; I don’t know how many more years I’ll be able to say that.
8. Chicago Bears (8-8)
It seems as if the Bears are flying under the radar a bit this season, at least compared to the “Jay Cutler makes this team a Super Bowl contender!” nonsense from a year ago. Of course, a big reason Chicago is under the radar in 2010 is the collective comprehension that Jay Cutler does not make a team an NFC North contender, let alone a Super Bowl one.
With Mike Martz calling the plays this year, I doubt Cutler will be as bad as he was during his season of transition. He will continue to throw interceptions, of course; that’s who he is. But he’ll make more big plays, and Matt Forte will be closer in production to his rookie season than his sophomore slump. And so the Bears can be a playoff contender in 2010–right up until their brutal stretch to close the season, when they face the Patriots, Vikings, Jets, and Packers in the last four games.
7. Minnesota Vikings (8-8)
Simple logic. Brett Favre cannot be as good this season as he was last season, especially with Sidney Rice out and, Percy Harvin battling migraines, and Brad Childress calling the plays. Furthermore, the Vikings will miss Chester Taylor more than you realize. It’s far from ideal to thrust a rookie in Toby Gerhart into the third-down back role, since protection is usually the last thing a rookie learns (Adrian Peterson STILL hasn’t) and catching the ball out of the backfield doesn’t appear to be one of Gerhart’s strengths.
On the plus side, Favre’s final pass of this season will not be an interception. It will also occur in Week 15 against the Bears.
6. New York Giants (9-7)
Uggggghhhhhh. The primary emotion I feel heading into this Giants season is trepidation. There are still a lot of things to like about this team: The passing game has grown into one of the NFC’s best, with Eli Manning finding some consistency last season and Steve Smith and Hakeem Nicks looking like a big-time duo (with Mario Manningham a good No. 3). The front four might be the best in football, with Justin Tuck, Mathias Kiwanuka, and a hopefully rejuvenated (and fully healthy) Osi Umenyiora leading the way. Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw were a good enough running back duo to win the Super Bowl some years back.
There are, though, just as many major concerns, starting with a linebacking corps that can best be described as “Yikes.” Michael Boley, Jonathan Goff, and Keith Bulluck inspire no confidence, and that’s before one of them inevitably gets hurt.* The secondary should be better–largely because it’s impossible to be worse than it was last year–but lingering injuries to Aaron Ross and Corey Webster at corner and the long-term questionable health of safety Kenny Phillips negate much confidence in that group. And then there’s the offensive line, which went from being far and away the best quintet in football in 2008 to being subpar in 2009 for no discernible reason other than age. And they didn’t get any younger.
*When was the last time a team started the same three linebackers all 16 games? I can’t imagine it happens more than once a season in the NFL.
The key to the Giants season, to me, is the play along the line of scrimmage. If the defensive line can be as dominant as it was late in 2007 and early in 2008, it can compensate for the question marks behind it. And if the offensive line can return to a semblance of its 2008 self, the offense will be very good. New York, though, should look to nab that ninth win as early as possible, with closing games in Minnesota, vs. the troublesome Eagles (who swept the Giants last season), in Green Bay, and in Washington.
5. San Francisco 49ers (9-7)
There appears to have been a bit of a San Francisco backlash of late, since the 49ers are such a popular pick to win the NFC West. But they’re a popular pick for a reason–that reason being, “Have you seen the rest of the NFC West?” It shouldn’t take much for a mediocre team–and the Niners are nothing if not mediocre–to reach nine wins with six games against Arizona, Seattle, and St. Louis and four more against the AFC’s worst division, the West. In fact, it’s very conceivable San Fran goes 8-2 in those 10 games (with losses in Zona and San Diego) and needs only ONE other win to reach nine (I’m looking at you, home game with Tampa Bay).
I’d pick the Niners to be even better if I had much confidence in Alex Smith, but I feel as if he’s teased us before. The SF offense has never really clicked on all cylinders with him under center, with Frank Gore suffering whenever Smith and Vernon Davis put together a good game. With an above-average (but let’s not get carried away and say great) defense, the Niners will be in a lot of close games, and I can see them giving a team a scare in the first round. Beyond that, though, mediocre is the word.
4. New Orleans Saints (10-6)
I am basing this minor dropoff for the reigning Super Bowl champions on several factors. First, “wunderkind” head coach Sean Payton has never compiled good seasons back-to-back in any of his career stops (not as an offensive coordinator in New York or Dallas, not as the headman in Nawlins).* Second, the defense cannot perform as well as it did last year, particularly in the “turning turnovers into instant points” category (I’m looking at you, Darren Sharper). Finally, as much as it pains me to say it, I do not think Drew Brees is Peyton Manning. I don’t think he can churn out 12-win seasons with unprecedented consistency, and I think a brilliant defensive mind can halt Brees in a way that no one has been able to stop Manning for years.
*Psychological breakdown that won’t happen but would be funny if it did: Sean Payton begins resorting to “surprise” onside kicks in all sorts of inapt situations, to the point that teams are always prepared for it and it never works and, years from now, Saints’ fans look back at the successful onside kick in Super Bowl XLIV as “the beginning of the end for Sean Payton.”
3. Dallas Cowboys (11-5)
The Cowboys are not a team without question marks. Their offensive line is the biggest one, as it advances in age (and we’ve seen how rattled Tony Romo gets when he isn’t given much time). You have to wonder how replicable Miles Austin’s success from last season is; receivers, like Broncos’ running backs, can be flashes in the pan as well (did someone say Antonio Bryant?). Dez Bryant and Felix Jones are theoretically frightening offensive players; they have yet to do much practically to justify that fear. And the defense was turned every which way in the playoffs by Minnesota, with the secondary looking especially vulnerable.
But the Cowboys still have the fewest question marks of anybody in the NFC East. Sure, Jones may get hurt again, but Tashard Choice and Marion Barber can suffice at running back. The secondary’s issues can be masked by the pass rush of DeMarcus Ware and Co. Dallas, thus, will likely become the East’s first back-to-back champion in six years, but the O-line is what keeps them from the Super Bowl, with a likely second-round exit to the…
2. Atlanta Falcons (11-5)
Two years ago, everything broke right for the Falcons. Matt Ryan was phenomenal as a rookie, Michael Turner turned in an MVP-type season, Mike Smith fit in perfectly as the coach, they had an easy schedule, and they went 11-5. Last season, a lot broke wrong for Atlanta. Ryan, Turner, and valuable receiver Harry Douglas missed time with injuries, and they ended up facing one of the toughest schedules in the league. And yet, they went 9-7.
This year, so long as the threesome of Ryan, Turner, and Roddy White stay on the field, the Falcons could have one of the most potent offenses in football. John Abraham still leads a solid defense, improved by the drafting of Sean Weatherspoon out of Missouri and the addition of Dunta Robinson in the secondary. The Falcons aren’t a great team, but they’re a very good one–good enough to find themselves in the conference championship for the first time in six years.*
*You totally forgot they played in the NFC Championship in 2004, didn’t you?
1. Green Bay Packers (12-4)
The Packers, on the other hand, have the potential to be a great team. Aaron Rodgers will likely win the MVP this season, if simply because they’re tired of giving it to Peyton Manning (we call that a “Malone MVP”). Donald Driver, Greg Jennings, James Jones, and soon-to-be-household name JerMichael Finley constitute arguably the conference’s best quintet of receiving options.* Ryan Grant can do more than keep the defense honest out of the backfield.
*Before you go all “What about the Saints?” on me, New Orleans’ receivers beyond Marques Colston are just pretty good. Robert Meacham, Lance Moore, and Devery Henderson benefit a lot more from that system than vice versa. IMHO, of course.
The big question for Green Bay is on the defensive side of the ball, where we last saw them surrendering 51 points to the Cardinals despite playing what appeared to be a 1-1-9 setup and boasting the league’s Defensive Player of the Year. A second year under DC Dom Capers should provide enough improvement for a unit that, with the leads it should be handed by its offense, doesn’t need to be great to be successful (a lesson taught to us by New Orleans last year).
I picked the Packers as my Super Bowl representative immediately following last season, and nothing has changed my mind. But who will they lose to?