“Let me throw a mathematical dilemma at you – there’s 500 left, well how come the odds of you winning are a million to one?”
Interspersed with the groups of attractive women, the opera-signing grannies and the adorable teenagers are those talent contest singers whose solitary act is utter humiliation on national television. They don’t set out with this goal of course but their blinkered eyes and selective hearing mean they don’t quite hear and witness what is so bleeding obvious to the rest of us. It is not ego but disillusion which drives these people into that audition room. Because somehow, someone, somewhere has told them they have an angelic voice and a face sculpted inside heaven itself. In reality, they are the ones to blame for this country’s high precipitation rate and their boat races could only be cherished by their own mothers.
The dream is soon dashed, often quite abruptly by the ruthless judges. Outside they scream conspiracy and vow vengeance. Rather than limping away with the tail between their legs, the embarrassment is compounded as the disillusion is heightened.
Sport is of course filled with those lucky few who’ve made it to their appropriate level as a result of their talent. The pretenders and con artists have (Ali Dia aside) been wheedled out long ago.
But it seems Sam Allardyce is quickly sacrificing any dignity he may have had in order to achieve the public humiliation suffered by these talentless talent contestants.
Allardyce believes he is not just capable of managing Inter Milan and Real Madrid, he believes he would win the league and double EVERY time. Now if Sam was a rip roaring success we could say that he was egotistical in the same way that Jose Mourinho is and Brian Clough was. But Allardyce is more like those blissfully unaware X-Factor flops than Kanye West. Without success egotism is simply disillusion.
But there is an ulterior motive to Sam’s outlandish beliefs. For the English F.A. are searching for someone to save fair England from their current demise. Word has travelled through the land that the only man capable of removing the sword from the stone is English. Fair Fabio, the Italian knight wasn’t able to get England out of the rut so the pretender has to be English, apparently. Being one of the few who isn’t excluded by such a distinction, Sam has taken it upon himself to embark on a rather public two-year interview.
The biggest hindrance to Sam’s quest is that the ‘X-Factor’ in this case might be managing a big club or it might be managing teams in European competition. Whichever it is, Sam falls woefully short on both counts. It isn’t like Allardyce is the last kid to get picked; he’s just nowhere near the first. You’d pick Allardyce because he can kick the ball further than anyone else and possibly because he could beat the living daylights out of anyone who happened to be quick or skilful. At performing barbaric acts, he is effective. But for managerial pedigree, you’d look elsewhere.
Yet like those klutzes auditioning for Simon Cowell, Allardyce cries conspiracy. Overlooked for the top jobs, he shrieks. No money where I am, he laments.
He is oblivious to the fact that his style of football is akin to those window-shattering vocalists. Somehow, someone, somewhere, must have told Allardyce he’s a great manager.
“To be mature means to face, and not evade, every fresh crisis that comes”
Ten months ago it seemed Nani’s days at Manchester United were numbered. His performances were sporadic and his great potential remained largely untapped. Publically criticising Sir Alex Ferguson should have been the straw that broke the camel’s back.
It appeared that Nani was harbouring for a move in January but Ferguson had other ideas. Presumably Ferguson traded the hairdryer in and elected to place a shoulder around Nani’s slumped shoulders because his form soon picked up.
In fact, he excelled in the latter stages of the last campaign. From totally destroying Gaël Clichy at the Emirates, he then notched a brace against Bayern Munich before scoring with a sumptuous chip against Spurs. In 2010, the proverbial penny appeared to have dropped for Nani; few could have seen the turnaround coming.
12 months ago, United fans hoped the blow of Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure would be softened by his fellow Portuguese winger. Nani is rightly keen to establish his own identity but it seems his career is destined to be tenuously linked to Ronaldo’s. By treading a similar path, throwing in multiple stepovers and using copious amounts of hair gel, Nani is emulating Ronaldo in many ways. But whilst Ronaldo evolved the predatory instincts of a striker, Nani has been finely honing his skills as a more creative winger.
In attempting to break free from the “poor-man’s Ronaldo” tag he was lumbered with, Nani needed to grow as both a player and a person. If anyone had any doubt of Nani’s maturation, they were soon silenced in the past few weeks.
It was Nani who shouldered much of the blame for the dropped points at Craven Cottage. After his missed penalty late in the game (which was ironically reminiscent of Ronaldo in its execution), Fulham grabbed an unlikely point from the jaws of defeat. The Nani of old, the one who made those ill-thought-out comments back in November, may have caved in and let it drain his confidence. Ferguson himself may have even been reluctant to pick him. But since then he turned in a man of the match performance against West Ham in the next game and followed that with a two-assist showing at Everton.
There may have been a time in the embryonic stages of his career at Old Trafford when traits such as selfishness and petulance would have defined him. But there has been an acceptance of the collective importance of a team now. Consider his celebration against West Ham as an example. Rather than resort to his trademark flip, he embraced his teammates pointing to Wayne Rooney to show his appreciation. Whilst the acrobatics display Nani’s athleticism, his reluctance to take to the air showcased a realisation. By sacrificing personal posturing for the communal embrace, Nani is discovering that it is the team which must take precedence.
In interviews too, a more mature tone has been added to his boyish vocals. He is preaching from experience when he speaks of the advice he has give Bebé:
“Sometimes you try to show everything at first and things don’t go quite right. It is important to try and keep things simple, get your confidence up, and then show your quality.”
With the furore surrounding Bebé it is uplifting to see Nani take his fellow countrymen under his wing. Nani himself knows the transition to English football is difficult and his willingness to tutor Bebé can only help the newcomer.
Meanwhile on the pitch, Nani’s bright start to the season will need to continue if United are to challenge for honours this season. With Antonio Valencia now unfortunately side-lined for a lengthy spell, Nani has the chance to shine in his favoured right-wing position. One year ago, when he was asked to step up in the absence of another he appeared to buckle under the pressure, but this is a new, more focused Nani. Now he is more likely to seize the initiative, to revel in the increased role.
The team is currently over-reliant on its elder statesmen and the future so ominously hinges on the development of its raw talent. But Nani is one of the few bridging the gap. At 23, he has plenty of time to establish himself as one of the game’s most potent attacking players. At 23, he can also aid the development of the younger players still finding their feet in England. The maturation of Nani has begun.
“I think all of the guys in the huddle knew it. We are on the verge of becoming I think a very good offense.”
Pre-season optimism is still rife in Chicago and there will be more than a sceptical eyebrow raised when quarterback Jay Cutler insists this Bears offense is on the verge of becoming very good. Racking up 463 offensive yards to the Detroit Lions’ 168, the Bears should have been out of sight even before the controversial Calvin Johnson ‘touchdown’ was annulled. But red-zone woes and turnovers plagued the Bears as they scraped past the Lions 19-14.
The arrival of offensive coordinator Mike Martz will either make or break Chicago this year and this game suggested the Bears still need to improve if they hope to secure a play-off berth. Martz is famed for instigating the ‘Greatest Show on Turf’ in St Louis as his exciting offense won the Super Bowl in the 1999 season. Since then Martz has performed indifferently at Detroit and San Francisco before he shored up in Chicago. It his time in St Louis which is fondly remembered though and the Bears are hoping his arrival will kick-start Cutler’s Bears career.
Cutler’s first year in Chicago was turbulent. He led the league in interceptions and with Matt Forte struggling at running back; he was under even more pressure to produce. In his first game leading Martz’s offense, Cutler went 23/35, 372 yards with two touchdowns and a solitary interception. He led the league in interceptions last year and he threw one early on with a suicidal ball into triple coverage. There were so many Lions in close vicinity that they could afford to deflect the ball twice before intercepting. Aside from this though, Cutler had a reasonable day at the office.
But Cutler isn’t the most problematic piece of the Bears’ puzzle. Questions surrounding the offensive line, running game and receivers are still crucially unanswered after this performance against the lowly Lions. A narrow 19-14 victory would have seemed like a travesty in the past two years and this defeat marked Detroit’s 21st consecutive defeat on the road. But the Lions are markedly improved, particularly on defense and had their quarterback Matthew Stafford completed the game the Lions may have produced something of an upset.
The offensive line did little to quell the doubters. Martz has come under fire in the past for exposing his quarterbacks to defensive fronts all too often. Yesterday was no different as Cutler was sacked on four occasions and flushed out of the pocket on countless others. The sight of the Bears quarterback picking himself up from the turf was all too familiar. The Lions front four is much improved but the Bears will face even more fearsome pass rushes this season. Jared Allen and the Vikings will have been buoyed by what they saw and after watching how disruptive Clay Matthews was against the Eagles, Cutler may have slept uneasy. Thoughts of facing DeMarcus Ware next week won’t ease these fears either.
To Cutler’s credit he countered the additional pressure by scrambling and making plays with his feet. He amassed over 20 yards rushing and had another 10 yard rush called back for holding. Cutler will need to utilise his athleticism on countless occasions this year if he is to keep plays alive.
The offensive line did little to aid the running game either. Twice the Bears were within touching distance of the end zone only to be held up. After a Lance Briggs fumble recovery, the Bears were inches from the line and couldn’t punch the ball in with four chances. An indictment of the offensive line and Forte, the Lions somehow held them up on three occasions with a risky play-action call on third down not materialising.
Forte’s biggest contributions came in the passing game and he was Chicago’s star man in the receiving game. He produced an 89 yard touchdown on a screen pass, taking it to the house after some good blocking. He also caught the game winning touchdown as the astute Cutler recognised a mismatch before firing to Forte in the corner of the end zone. Martz does like to utilise his backs in the passing game and Forte’s big afternoon bodes well for the team. Chester Taylor also saw plenty of time and he is another back useful on little dump down passes. These two could yet be Cutler’s biggest weapons especially with the wide receivers having a quiet afternoon.
Cutler’s favourite target was Devin Aromashodu who he frequently looked for. Tight end Greg Olsen will not be as productive under Martz and so it proved here. Meanwhile Devin Hester continues to struggle in his quest to become an established receiver. Johnny Knox grew as the game went on but both he and Aromashodu risked incurring Martz’s wrath after failing to run the correct routes.
Ultimately this system will hinge on the productivity of the receivers. Its dependence on timing and the receiver’s adjustments are just as pivotal as the quarterback’s cerebral capabilities.
“We’re talking about the Jets like we’re talking about the Saints”
The balance of power may be shifting to the NFC but the AFC still contains plenty of talent. The perennially strong Indianapolis, San Diego, Pittsburgh and New England will expect to be in Dallas come February and new pretenders like the Jets and Texans have serious aspirations too. The NFC possessed the first four draft picks last time around so competition runs deep in this conference.
Baltimore Ravens (12-4) – A lot of people are excited about the Ravens this year. Many feel quarterback Joe Flacco is ready to explode especially after the arrivals of wide receivers Anquan Boldin, Donte Stallworth and T.J. Houshmandzadeh. The Ravens have long sort a recognised wide receiver, they now have a plethora. Couple this with a strong running game, led by Ray Rice, and the Ravens offense looks frightening.
The Subplot: Can the offense carry the defense?
Ever since the franchise’s inception it is the defense which has spearheaded the Ravens’ success. Even today Ed Reed, Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata are some of the league’s best on the defensive side of the football. However Ed Reed, who contemplated retirement, is injured and he is joined on the treatment table with a host of other cornerbacks. The offense looks ready to go but it may have to perform above expectations if the Ravens are to realise their title aspirations.
Pittsburgh Steelers (9-7) – Historically a well-run, respectable organisation, their name has been dragged through the mud by the antics of Santonio Holmes and Ben Roethlisberger. Holmes has had to find a new abode in New York whilst Roethlisberger will miss the initial four games. The Super-Bowl champs of two years ago suffered terribly when Troy Polamulu and Aaron Smith went down last year, with these two back their defense will be fearsome once again.
The Subplot: Can the Steelers cope without Big Ben?
Dennis Dixon was thrust into action last year and he will see even more snaps as Big Ben serves his suspension. Roethlisberger may have used up all his lives in Pittsburgh and there is little doubt that he must start to repay the Rooneys’ faith on the field. The question is, in a highly competitive division, will the Steelers leave him too much to do when he returns?
Cincinnati Bengals (8-8)
– Last year they swept the division and bounded into the play-offs. They were abruptly stopped by the Jets with Carson Palmer performing less than admirably in their final two games against Rex Ryan’s team. The defense was exceptional last year and Cedric Benson found a new leash of life.
The Subplot: Is there enough room for T.O. and Ochocinco?
Typically comedy double acts tend to delight us all but the egos of T.O. and Ochocinco may be on a collision course. T.O. has never been afraid to vent his anger when the ball doesn’t go his way and with the run-heavy offense in Cincinnati there were few balls being aired out. Palmer may be happy with the quandary which is developing but he must find a way to keep everyone happy. That will be much easier if they are winning.
Cleveland Browns (2-14) – The perennially bad Browns have decided that neither Derek Anderson nor local boy Brady Quinn were the answer at quarterback. Both have been binned and in their place come Jake Delhomme, Seneca Wallace and rookie Colt McCoy. Delhomme has been handed the task of mastering the West Coast offense but he was diabolical last term. Jerome Harrison ended the season on a high as the Browns pounded him into the ground, he will hope to pick up where he left off.
The Subplot: Will Mangini last the year?
Eric Mangini survived the off-season by the skin of his teeth. But the overlord watching over his every move is Mike Holmgren. With pressure intensified, Mangini must find a way to lift a flat franchise. Otherwise Mangini could well be the first to fall this year.
New York Jets (12-4) – Confidence is high at the new Meadowlands and with good reason. A strong supporting cast has joined the team which was only a whisker away from the Super Bowl last time out. Expect them to be there or thereabouts again this time. Much will depend on second year quarterback Mark Sanchez who has struggled in pre-season. Last year the Jets kept Sanchez away from danger with a bruising rushing attack, they will apply the same mantra this time but Sanchez must cut out his mistakes and develop into a game manager.
The Subplot: Is LT Done?
So many questions surround this team but one of the more intriguing issues is LaDanian Tomlinson’s arrival. A sure-fire Hall of Fame candidate, Tomlinson has struggled of late. Was it the offensive line in San Diego or has the great back started a decline? The first few weeks will tell us more.
New England Patriots (11-5) – Bill Belichick’s men ended last season with a feeble performance against the Ravens. Many suggested that this play-off defeat signalled the end of New England’s dominance. The last decade belonged to them but they face a tough task replacing the defensive stalwarts that inspired them. They are in a tough division but the prowess of Brady, Moss and a returning Wes Welker prove they will continue to be a major threat on the offensive side of the ball.
The Subplot: Can the defense step up?
Leigh Bodden has already gone down and the shoes of Teddy Bruschi, Rodney Harrison and Richard Seymour still need to be filled. Jerod Mayo and Brandon Meriweather have shown promise and Darius Butler, Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty were all drafted high.. Last year Belichick showed what he thought of his defense by making a risky fourth down call which didn’t come off; his defense must show him that he can trust them.
Miami Dolphins (9-7) – With all the talk of the Jets rising and the Patriots falling, the Dolphins may feel left out. But write off this franchise at your peril. The busy Brandon Marshall has landed in the Sunshine State which will delight quarterback Chad Henne immensely. But it is the arrival of Karlos Dansby which may be even more pivotal to the Dolphins’ chances. Installing Mike Nolan as defensive coordinator is an inspired move.
The Subplot: Will Chad Henne get this team to the play-offs?
Like Mark Sanchez, Henne is effectively in his second year. He showed promise last year but with more tape to view he will have to be wary. Picking up Marshall is a massive coup for Henne and the Dolphins. It should also increase production of others like Davone Bess and Anthony Fasano with attention diverted towards Marshall.
Buffalo Bills (2-14) – As the rest of the AFC East looks to make it to the play-offs, aspirations in Buffalo have been significantly curbed. They did acquire CJ Spiller who can provide some explosive plays but there are so many holes elsewhere it’s going to be a long old haul in Buffalo. They could well be heading for the fabled number one pick next year and expect them to take a quarterback.
The Subplot: Can they get anything going on offense?
The T.O. experiment didn’t work last year and neither Trent Edwards nor Ryan Fitzpatrick set the world on fire as quarterback. Both are back but it is unclear who will finish the year and the Bills could well be selecting the top quarterback in next year’s draft. The o-line was banged up last year so they should get more production this year especially with Spiller’s dynamic ability.
Indianapolis Colts (14-2) – One of the league’s most consistent franchises fell just short last year but don’t be surprised if they win it all this year. Peyton Manning has a wealth of riches on the offensive side of the ball which meant there was no tail off when Tony Dungy handed Jim Caldwell the rains.
The Subplot: Can they fend off Houston once more?
There are few questions which surround Indy but their hold on the league will be tested once more by Houston. They have won the last six meetings between the two and have only lost once to the Texans since they joined the league. Last year, Manning showed he can turn around large deficits but his opposite number Matt Schaub really came out of his shell. The apparent hoodoo they hold over the Texans will be tested in week one.
Houston Texans (10-6) – Last year the Texans delighted many as Matt Schaub led the league in passing yardage. The high-powered offense will hope Arian Foster can grind out some yards on the ground to help take pressure off Matt Schaub and the defensive must cope without Brian Cushing initially.
The Subplot: Can Matt Schaub stay fit?
Last year he proved he could and the Texans must hope he stays fit again but in the past he has proved to be flimsy. Drew Brees led the league in passing yards right before he led a team all the way to a Super Bowl last year, is Schaub about to do the same?
(9-7) – The topsy-turvy nature of last year’s season ended on a high with the explosive Chris Johnson breaking NFL records. They will hope to ride him to glory again and with that offensive line he should be productive once more. Without Jim Schwartz and Albert Haynesworth the defense crumbled at times and they must pressure the quarterback better.
The Subplot: Will CJ2K repeat?
A potentially sticky hold-out situation was avoided when the Titans sorted out Johnson’s contract early this off-season. Johnson’s 2009 was remarkable but his critics will point to the shortened career running backs tend to experience, particularly those of Johnson’s build. Johnson predicts he can eclipse last year’s remarkable numbers; it should be fascinating to watch.
Jacksonville Jaguars (3-13) – Like the Bills they suffer from an extremely competitive division. Unlike the Bills they have a recognised star in Maurice Jones-Drew. Aaron Kampman will help the pass rush significantly and Mercedes Lewis may be due a big year if David Gerrard can stay healthy.
The Subplot: Can the team finally drum up some support?
Pitiful attendances last year led many to believe that the Jaguars would draft local hero Tebow simply to put bums on seats. The team were against the idea but they seriously need to find some way to generate excitement if they are to remain in Jacksonville.
San Diego Chargers (12-4) – It’s been a strange off-season in San Diego. The heroic LT, who is polite, mild-mannered and a likeable guy suddenly started taking pot-shots at his o-line. Then breakout star Vincent Jackson got into a spot of bother, then held out, then held out some more, whether he returns or is traded remains open to debate. Meanwhile coach Norv Turner secured a new deal.
The Subplot: Can they still challenge without LT, Marcus McNeill and Vincent Jackson?
Antonio Gates signed a large contract this off-season but Vincent Jackson and Marcus McNeill are disgruntled with their current deals. As we saw last year, this is Phillip Rivers’ team and he will want the pieces back in the jigsaw. But without his left tackle and his number one wide-out, Rivers’ job is more difficult. Ryan Matthews looks set to shine though and the easy nature of their division helps again.
Denver Broncos (5-11) – Everyone wrote Denver off last year and then they flew out of the blocks after a remarkable play involving Brandon Stokley. Josh McDaniels, ridiculed for the way he handled Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall, was suddenly a genius especially after they beat the Patriots. The joy didn’t last and the Broncos ran out of steam. Is McDaniels a misunderstood genius or a naïve nutter? Only time will tell…
The Subplot: Where does Tebow fit in?
How does Tim Tebow fit in in the NFL was the draft’s biggest story. Few predicted him going in the first round, even fewer thought he would end up in Denver. The buzz surrounding Tebow has not departed this pre-season as all and sundry have taken an interest in his development. For now it appears as though he will learn the ropes behind the trusty hand of Kyle Orton. Tebow will see some game time this year though and McDaniels certainly took a risk by acquiring him. The experiment may not be evaluated fully this year, but Tebow will learn life in the NFL is rather different to the college circuit he so forcefully commanded.
Oakland Raiders (5-11) – After having one of their better off-seasons in recent history, Oakland look more prepared to challenge San Diego this time around. The big change comes at quarterback, out is the moody, expensive bust JaMarcus Russell and in is the quiet, capable Jason Campbell. However previous draft picks will need to step up most notably Darren McFadden and Darrius Heyward-Bey.
The Subplot: Will their new found sensibility pay dividends?
In a league full of egomaniacs, everyone should be hoping Jason Campbell finally finds some stability and form in Oakland. One of the game’s nicer guys, his progress has been shunted with multiple offensive coordinators and coaches telling him to go left then right, up then down. This time it’s a whole new team Campbell must familiarise himself with, how he copes will go some way to explaining how Oakland get on this year.
Kansas City Chiefs (5-11) – If the Patriot’s dynasty appears to be over it might be because half of their staff is now over in Kansas. GM Scott Pioli, offensive coordinator Charlie Weis and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel are all here. Turning Kansas into New England may be tricky but San Diego aside, this division looks fairly open.
The Subplot: Is Jamaal Charles about to join the elite?
Jamaal Charles averaged more than any other regular back per attempt last year, particularly remarkable given Chris Johnson’s record breaking year. After a staggering 658 yards in the final four games, Charles looked set to join the game’s elite this year. But the arrival of seasoned pro Thomas Jones will reduce his workload. Whether Jones or Charles will take the bulk of the load is unsure but it is a nice conundrum for the Chiefs to have. Either way, look out for Charles this year.
“I would have to say right now there’s more anticipation and joy in thinking what we had ahead of us this year than at any other time since I’ve joined the Cowboys”
In the last decade, the AFC reigned supreme. They provided seven of the eventual Super Bowl champions. But spurred on by New Orleans’ triumphant campaign last year the NFC looks set to start the decade as the most talented conference. Green Bay, Minnesota, Dallas and New Orleans will all hope to rock up in Dallas for next year’s Super Bowl but there are plenty of others on the periphery hoping to be there too.
Green Bay Packers (13-3) – Three summers on from Brett Favre’s retirement and Aaron Rodgers is finding Favre’s large shoes very snug indeed. Many people are excited about Green Bay and much of this is testament to Rodgers. But there has to be concerns about a defense which conceded over 30 points on six occasions last year. They were completely obliterated by the wily veterans Favre and Kurt Warner and will need to tighten up. If they don’t, they had best hope their offense simply scores more points.
The Subplot: Can Rodgers stay upright?
Rodgers had a terrific season last year but a combination of his desire to keep hold of the ball for too long and a creaky o-line meant he was hit all too often. Ironically it was a hit on Rodgers which led to the Packers’ play-off departure. Drafting Bryan Bulaga will help but Rodgers needs to learn to release the ball quicker.
Minnesota Vikings (12-4) –Now that Favre has ultimately decided to return, the Vikings can be considered a legitimate contender once again. The Vikings have an experienced quarterback, arguably the league’s finest running back and some of the league’s most devastating defensive lineman. Wide receiver Sidney Rice has incurred an injury which may upset the offense especially with the injury worries which plague Percy Harvin.
The Subplot: Can Favre reproduce last year’s form?
Favre’s season last year dumfounded plenty of sceptics who believed the old man was finished. Another off-season of uncertainty culminated in his return but he is another year older which has poignancy when you’re 40 years of age. Favre will also start the season without his accomplice Rice. The opening fixture against New Orleans has all the drama that Favre craves; expect him to hog the limelight once again.
Chicago Bears (7-9)
– Coach Love Smith is entering the last chance saloon with a Bears team which has talent but question marks too. They made a huge move in getting Jay Cutler last summer and for the most part, Cutler struggled. This year they have paid Julius Peppers big bucks and are hoping that Cutler can rekindle the form which made them trade for him.
The Subplot: Will the receivers flourish under Martz?
When the Bears hired Mike Martz as offensive coordinator to appease Jay Cutler, the receivers in the Windy City knew they would be in for a busy year. As yet though, nobody in Chicago has established themselves as a recognised number one receiver. Cutler has the arm but does he have the supporting cast?
Detroit Lions (4–12) – The Lions continue to improve but they have had to come back from rock bottom. There is plenty of promise with the pick ups of rookies Ndamukong Suh and Jahvid Best who excited plenty of people in college. They are in a difficult division and although they are moving in the right direction, they are still some way of challenging for divisional honours.
The Subplot: Will Matthew Stafford suffer a sophomore slump?
Providing one of the most courageous moments of last year, Matthew Stafford showed he possesses heart, poise and determination in hours of need. Playing for an extremely bad team, he did have moments of brilliance. History tells us that rookies tend to suffer a sophomore slump and Stafford will be hoping to buck the trend.
Dallas Cowboys (13-3) – There is much to like about this Dallas team. The offense is loaded with ability, the three-headed running monster of Felix Jones, Marion Barber and Tashard Choice is the perfect compliment to the array of aerial talent that quarterback Tony Romo has at his disposal. On defense, DeMarcus Ware is unstoppable; meanwhile Keith Brooking, Jay Ratliff and Mike Jenkins are all reliable elements. Now this current regime has experienced its first play-off win, the sky is the limit.
The Subplot: Can they become the first team to win a Super Bowl on home turf?
It seems the only thing that can stop Dallas is fate itself as they aim to become the first team to win the Super Bowl on home turf. Any other team might not welcome the distinction but this is big D where pressure is part of the job. All eyes will be focused on Dallas, particularly as the season wears on, can they handle it?
Philadelphia Eagles (9-7) – Philly have been getting younger in almost every department. As the Patriots found out last year, it is the winning pedigree and the championship experience which is not easily replaceable. Last year Philly struggled to find anyone to fill the void left by Brian Dawkins, now they must find replacements for Brian Westbrook and McNabb. Some have called it a rebuilding year but the Eagles roster is still stacked with talent.
The Subplot: Is Kevin Kolb the real deal?
The Eagles clearly think so and are hoping Kolb will tread a similar path to Rodgers. The Donovan McNabb era is over and expectation is high for Kolb. Of all the younger components in this team, Kolb must be the first to provide leadership and experience. Like Rodgers last year, the master will face off against the apprentice when Kolb plays against the Redskins. Will the parallels stop there?
New York Giants (9-7) – The Big Apple’s premier team have been relegated to the shadow of their noisy neighbours. It is not the Giants but the Jets who are shouting from the rooftops of the New Meadowlands. The Giants are a good football team but their NFC East rivals seem to carry more threats than they do.
The Subplot: Will the secondary improve?
The obvious answer to this one is yes. A new defensive coordinator, the return of Kenny Phillips and the arrival of Antrel Rolle show clear signs of improvement. But the bigger question will be, was the secondary the element that held the Giants back last year? They were middle of the road in almost every category and it is unclear how a new secondary will improve other dimensions.
Washington Redskins (4-12) – Whilst the Eagles opted for youth, the Redskins adopted the other end of the spectrum. Mike Shanahan and Donovan McNabb are too experienced not to improve the Redskins’ on field fortunes but a tough schedule will not provide them with much relief. McNabb will be itching to prove to the Eagles he has what it takes and that fixture has a real edge to it.
The Subplot: Can McNabb function with considerably less talented receivers?
Although the City of Brotherly Love wasn’t always hospitable to McNabb, his talent is unquestionable. The Redskins clearly recognised his value when they traded for him. Sadly they couldn’t bring DeSean Jackson, Brent Celek and Brian Westbrook with McNabb so he will have to make do with what he already has. McNabb should improve what is there but somebody needs to have a breakout year if he is to be truly successful.
New Orleans Saints (12-4) – Everyone wil fear the Super Bowl champs as they attempt to repeat last year’s Cinderella story. Propelled by a high powered offense, few could live with the Saints last time out. Most of the cast have returned for the next series but repeating 2009′s heroics will be a different task entirely.
The Subplot: Can they repeat?
Arguably the finest offense in the league, it was the Saints’ defense which eventually proved the difference maker last year. Consistently making key plays and turning turnovers into points were their specialities. They were afforded a great deal of luck but Gregg Williams deserves credit for getting the defensive unit to be so productive. As Super Bowl champs everyone will want to beat them and they must raise their game once again.
Atlanta Falcons (10-6)
– Last term the Falcons posted first back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in franchise history. However they failed to make the play-offs, mainly due to the Saints’ outstanding year. Quarterback Matt Ryan went down and Michael Turner toiled with injuries but there are plenty of encouraging signs.
The Subplot: Will the defense step up?
The offense contains an assured quarterback, a powerful running back and an elite tight-end and wide receiver, but the defense failed to make the grade last year. They didn’t hurry the quarterback and they ranked near the bottom of the league in pass defense too. If the Falcons are to eclipse Drew Brees and the Saints they need to improve on the defensive side of the ball.
Carolina Panthers (4-12) – Jake Delhomme was cast aside at the end of last year and Matt Moore proved a more than compotent quarterback. Whether he is the long term answer remains to be seen. The defense is working through a transition but they have to be taken seriously with the best running back duo in the league.
The Subplot: How will the defense cope without Julius Peppers?
If pre-season is anything to go by they’ll be just fine. Last year their passing defense was impressive and they ranked near the top in both total defense and interceptions. However their main problem was that they struggled to get to the quarterback. Their most potent pass rusher has now departed and others like Everette Brown must raise their games.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-14) – Two years ago it seemed as though this division was anyone’s for the taking, since then one team has really developed and the other two remain contenders. Tampa Bay however have plummeted backwards. Rather than contending for the play-offs they look set to be fighting it out for the number one pick next year.
The Subplot: Will Josh Freeman be able to carry this team?
With little in the way of acquisitions, much will hinge on how Josh Freeman performs. Overshadowed by Matthew Stafford and Mark Sanchez, Freeman still had some promising moments last year. But the team’s reluctance to go after anyone on the trade block or in free agency has left the squad looking thin. Freeman has few targets and his rookie wide-outs may need to grow up fast.
San Francisco 49ers (9-7) – The 49ers are hotly tipped to take the West and much of this is to do with the division’s relative weakness. The Cardinals are not the force they once were and the other two teams remain in rebuilding mode. Despite this there is plenty of talent for the 49ers on both sides of the ball.
The Subplot: Can Alex Smith finally justify his draft selection?
This may be the last chance for Smith. A previous number one pick overall his time in San Francisco hasn’t been entirely successful. Memories of Joe Montana and Steve Young are still fresh in Niners’ fans memories and Smith has a lot to live up to. He has the weapons and the team spent both of their first round selections on the offensive line.
Arizona Cardinals (9-7) – It’s been a crazy off-season in the desert. Kurt Warner retired and apparent heir to the throne Matt Leinart has been cast aside. Derek Anderson was hit and miss in Cleveland but he didn’t have Larry Fitzgerald to throw the ball to. They may have enjoyed a relatively easy time in this division in the past but those days appear to be over.
The Subplot: With four established veterans gone, can they still challenge?
Losing Kurt Warner was bad enough but Karlos Dansby, Anquan Boldin and Antrel Rolle have sort pastures new too. Joey Porter will provide pedigree but he is a fading force. The Cardinals may be rebuilding and Beanie Wells’ bruising running style will become more familiar to Cards fans. Ultimately they have had one of the league’s worst off-seasons and bouncing back could prove difficult.
Seattle Seahawks (5-11): A strange trade for Charlie Whitehurst and the retirement of Walter Jones were the biggest personnel stories for Seattle this off-season. TJ Houshmandzadeh is out after a poor season spearheading the wide receiver core. After being out of football for two years, Mike Williams will now be thrust into the spotlight. Pete Carroll’s job will not be easy, sharing a division with the St. Louis Rams will be a small crumb of comfort.
The Subplot: How will Pete Carroll get on?
Carroll will need all of his experience to inspire the Seahawks because the fact remains that he may have had more talent around him at USC. His previous forays into the NFL haven’t been too successful but he comes back much older and wiser this time around.
St. Louis Rams (2-14) – The league’s worst team are trusting that a rookie quarterback can turn matters around. The loss of number one wide out Donnie Avery won’t have helped matters. They benefit from being in one of the weakest divisions and it may be possible that they don’t finish as the worst side next time out. Don’t expect too much more.
The Subplot: How will Sam Bradford fare?
Last year we were treated to three rookie quarterbacks starting, the season before there were two. This year’s group has only produced one and Sam Bradford will be flying the flag for last year’s worst team. Losing Avery will hinder the rookie’s development and unlike Sanchez, Flacco and Ryan before him, Bradford’s supporting cast doesn’t have the same strength. Steven Jackson can be expected to be run into the ground once again but Bradford will probably find life difficult this year regardless.
“There is no private life which has not been determined by a wider public life”
Earlier this year, around the time of the John Terry-Wayne Bridge scandal, Wayne Rooney was cast as the voice of reason when he spoke of the benefit family life had brought him:
“It changes with age, I made that decision myself. I got into a few things that I shouldn’t have and I tried to change that.”
The country was impressed. We had accepted his previous misdemeanours as par for the course. Like Rooney, we put it down to immaturity. The frivolous antics of a child star; boys will be boys after all.
Six months on and the notion that Rooney has grown up may have been shattered. Whether the latest allegations prove to be true or not, we’re all too familiar with how footballers behave away from the field.
Like it or not (and I don’t), footballers are seen as role models. If you appear in adverts, take companies money and persuade kids what to eat, drink and wear, your private life better be akin to that of the Waltons. Cheating isn’t acceptable regardless of profession but there seems to be particular outrage whenever a footballer is involved.
But with girls eagerly throwing themselves at young men with bucket loads of cash, hours of free time and a familiarity with getting their own way, should we really be that surprised that so many top class footballers are accused of cheating? More importantly, should we even care?
The gossip hungry hoards may disagree, but what footballers get up to in their own time is entirely their own business as long as it doesn’t have an impact on their on-field antics. The trouble is; there increasingly seems to be a direct correlation between the two.
The cheating accusations levelled at Premier League footballers smack of arrogance and a blatant lack of regard for others. These are the same sort of traits we see when Ashley Cole accosts a referee or John Terry conducts a press conference slamming Fabio Capello in South Africa. Believing they are above others and a law unto themselves, players who get away with it away from football circles seem to think they can do the same when representing club or country.
Questions will arise regarding the ethics of tabloid stings but the fact that the News of the World website crashed this morning speaks volumes regarding the public’s desire to consume every nugget of information they can gather on ‘celebrities’. Players of yesteryear were not subjected to the same level of scrutiny but they were also not recipients of huge endorsement deals.
Certain players choose to shun the limelight and avoid all the trimmings that can come with being a world-class player. Others revel in their celebrity status and use the opportunity to take on endorsements. Part of this package is that you become a ‘role model’. It is not for everyone.
Tiger Woods, a media trained robot, was sapped of all personality and eventually craved excitement away from his regimented ways. Players do not need to live up to the ‘role model’ tag, but if they do, they had best make sure their private life is impeccable. Having your cake and eating it is simply not acceptable.
Rooney’s story is particularly worrying because it appeared as though a settled family life and his growing up off the pitch were resulting in maturation on the field. He is now the father, the family man, no longer the moody raging bull that lost his temper all too often. Should the latest allegations prove to be true, it will be interesting to witness just how Rooney responds on a football pitch.
“A perfect method for adding drama to life is to wait until the deadline looms large”
Another year, another deadline passes. In previous seasons the deadline day comings and goings of Ashley Cole, Wiliam Gallas, Robinho and Dimitar Berbatov have kept us all enthralled. But if one player summed up the rather tepid nature of yesterday’s deadline day it was Salif Diao.
On any other day, news of his return to Stoke City would be relegated to the lower depths of Premier League news. However, on deadline day the news was worthy of the eye-catching bright yellow ticker-tape and an exclusive interview.
For even if there is no action, the media contrived façade that is deadline day must try to live up to the hype. One of the bigger moves was Eidur Gudjohnsen’s arrival at Stoke City. The sight of Eidur Gudjohnsen and Tony Pulis together was apparently “absolutely extraordinary”. Gudjohnsen’s signing was a coup but lest we forget he spent time in the Championship with Bolton when he first arrived in this country. Yes he has played for two European giants but like Jenny from the block, he’s not forgotten where he came from. Elsewhere the rather excitable Sky Sports presenter Jim White was seen completely combusting when Franco Di Santo made another inevitable loan move back up north.
The truth is deadline day is failing to encapsulate the drama that it originally conjured up. We were all hooked when Dimitar Berbatov was held hostage by Fergie, when delirium kicked in at Eastlands and when Mark Hughes pretended that he was abreast of developments regarding Robinho. Since then, Benjani’s missed flight and Ryan Babel’s helicopter escapades aside, it’s all become rather dull and dreary despite the media’s best efforts.
There are plenty of reasons why deadline day is failing to live up to its hype. The season is already three weeks old, squads take time to blend and managers want to bed in new faces early. The 25 man squad rule has left managers needing to have a good idea of how their personnel will shape up. Clubs need to be astute rather than simply chopping and changing on deadline day (not including Harry “I’m not a wheeler-dealer” Redknapp). Prolonged pursuits like Berbatov’s can be cut short with a strong dose of petulance, as showed by Javier Mascherano. Then consider how many clubs seem to be less willing to part with money. Only Sunderland resorted to spending big to ensure a deal was made before the deadline. With their hand possibly being forced by the side-lined Frazier Campbell, they acquired Asamoah Gyan for a club record £13 million.
So it appears clubs have wised up when it comes to transfer windows. Leaving it to the last minute drives up prices as desperation kicks in. Deadline day is loaded with uncertainty for players too.
It is usually hard to feel too much pity for footballers. Doing what you love for a living and getting paid to do it creates little sympathy for the most part. But Rohan Ricketts’ tale of the uncertainity of deadline day is the other side of the coin as players face being jettisoned at a moment’s notice.
Meanwhile hype and hysteria will continue to grip White and his colleagues twice a year. But in truth clubs have failed to yield to the drama and excitement, in fact the last few have been rather mundane.