Bank on him…
Stoke have conceded just once in the league in four games this season. The heart of that defence and club captain Ryan Shawcross (£5.1m) has always been a strong fantasy option due to Stoke’s stern back-line. The Potters are usually unbreakable at the Britannia Stadium and have kept clean-sheets against Chelsea and Liverpool this year.
But even with him playing away from fortress Britannia on Saturday, there is more than a strong possibility of them keeping Sunderland at bay. Steve Bruce’s men are yet to win this season and have not recorded a victory in-front of their home fans since April. The exciting Asamoah Gyan departed last week, and Sunderland have managed just two goals this season.
Roll the dice…
Martin Petrov (£5.7m) is the only player who costs less than £6 million to have recorded over 15 points. He was inspirational at times when arriving in the league for Manchester City but the multi-million pound revolution was bound to come at the expense of some, and Petrov was one of the unfortunate ones. City’s loss was Bolton’s gain. The Bulgarian left winger wasn’t always on song during his first season at the Reebok but this season he has been rejuvenated. He already has three assists and with a left foot capable of delivering devastating left foot bombs, he could be a decent option, particularly given Bolton’s opponents this week – Norwich.
One to avoid…
Even given Everton’s less than stellar beginning to this season, a home fixture against Wigan looks particularly appetising. Leighton Baines (£8.0m), a prime piece of real estate, and the undervalued Leon Osman (£6.9m) have predictably started well and could be amongst the points when Baines’ former employers visit Goodison Park. But the forthcoming fixture list is very difficult for Everton. After Wigan they travel to free-scoring Manchester City, then face Liverpool in the derby before visiting the slowly-improving Chelsea and Fulham (who are difficult to beat at Craven Cottage) before Manchester United visit Goodison. Sometimes it pays to look into the near future.
You can follow me on Twitter @liamblackburn
“The Rooney Rule is doing a good job. It’s a nice process, but it does not necessarily mean a commitment to diversity. I think there’s a difference. Right now this is working, but there’s still some pitfalls”
There has been a clamour from various parties this week, including PFA chief executive Gordon Taylor, to install a ‘Rooney Rule’ into football, requiring clubs to interview ethnic minority candidates for vacant managerial positions.
The Rooney Rule was devised in the NFL in 2003 by Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney after pressure from various groups for franchises to address the small number of minority head coaches.
It has been painted this week as a failsafe method. Yes, there are more minority head coaches in the NFL now (Lovie Smith, Mike Tomlin, Jim Caldwell, Ron Rivera, Leslie Frazier, Marvin Lewis, Raheem Morris and Hue Jackson) when there were just two at the time of the rule’s implementation. They have also proved their worth (three of those eight head coaches have reached Super Bowls and five of the last 10 participants in the Super Bowl were coached by minority head coaches). But the truth is that the rule does have its drawbacks.
Take for example the only time a team has ever been fined for flaunting the rule.
In 2003, the Detroit Lions were fined $200,000 by the NFL for not complying with the Rooney Rule after the league accused them of hiring Steve Mariucci without interviewing any minority candidates. The Lions stressed that five potential minority candidates refused to be interviewed, citing that Mariucci’s hiring was a foregone conclusion.
The Lions had settled on their man but were bound by the rule to go through the motions of interviewing a minority candidate. As Brian W Collins (an author who actually concludes that the Rooney Rule is a positive thing) points out in the New York University Law Review:
“In forcing teams that have essentially already selected their new head coaches to conduct these interviews, the NFL seems to support – and perhaps mandate – the demeaning phenomenon of tokenism. Instead of being taken seriously, these token candidates are ‘likely to become future pawns, cast out in front of the media as legitimate possibilities’ when in reality they are merely ‘compliance candidates’.”
Since Collins’ article was published, Leslie Frazier may well have fulfilled the role of ‘pawn’ and ‘compliance candidate’ which he alluded to. Frazier, who was given the Minnesota Vikings head coaching role last year, went to interview for vacant positions at the Rams, Broncos, Lions, Dolphins, Falcons and Seahawks. The latter was accused of simply placating the league as they’d already made their mind up on USC coach Pete Carroll.
Tony Dungy, the first African-American head coach to win a Super Bowl, believed that the Rooney Rule gave Frazier opportunities to interview for positions he would perhaps not have had.
“Even in cases where you don’t get the job, I know Leslie interviewed with the Dolphins and know Bill Parcells came away impressed and told other people how impressed he was, and he is a sharp guy and that helps.”
That in itself cannot be disputed. It is probably unlikely that pre-Rooney Rule Frazier would have had seven interviews for heading coaching jobs.
But why was Frazier turned down for six positions? Was it because he was not good enough or was it because the franchises were made to interview a minority candidate? Only time will tell if Frazier turns out to be an elite head coach but it is worrying he was interviewed six times before getting a big break, and that was with the franchise which knew him well and needed a quick fix (he was defensive co-ordinator in Minnesota and was hired midway through last season, initially on a caretaker style basis).
It may be that the six franchises didn’t think Frazier was good enough to be a head coach. But it may be that they had decided upon whom they were going to hire and that Frazier was merely interviewing so they could fit the criteria with regards to the Rooney Rule. If it is the latter, that is simply not fair on the candidate.
There is no question that the current situation, with only two black league managers from the 92 league clubs (Chris Hughton and Chris Powell), is not representative of today’s game (with more than 25% of players in the league being black).
But to look at the Rooney Rule as though it is the definitive answer is wrong. Does somebody like Paul Ince really want to travel up and down the country to every possible managerial vacancy in the top three tiers of English football just to appease formalities?
“That is not what the Rooney Rule is supposed to be, (that) you make up your mind and then interview a candidate for it anyway just to satisfy the rule,” said Dungy.
But that situation seems unavoidable in certain instances. Take Glasgow Rangers for example where Ally McCoist had long been groomed as the successor to Walter Smith. If the Rooney Rule was implemented then a minority candidate would have had to interview for the position this summer when Smith retired, despite the fact that McCoist would have been virtually assured of the position.
Perhaps such problems are inescapable and they may be necessary evils if it gets more minority candidates managerial positions.
The idea is to change the culture, for boardrooms to entertain the idea of hiring minority candidates, something which sadly they seem to have avoided thus far. There needs to be a spark from somewhere for that to happen and perhaps the Rooney Rule would kick-start it. But the idea is far from perfect and it does have its drawbacks.
You can follow me on Twitter @liamblackburn
Bank on him…
Whether the signings and the returning figures will turn Arsenal into a title winning force remains to be seen, but that coupled with the international break, should at least provide the Gunners with a fresh slate this weekend. Picking an Arsenal player after the 8-2 loss would have seemed foolish but two weeks later, with a deadline day sandwiched in-between, it seems an incredibly long time ago. Winless Swansea arrive at the Emirates as lambs to the slaughter. The ‘new look’ Arsenal should run out easy winners and Robin van Persie (£11.9m) could run amok. It may be some time before Mikel Arteta and Yossi Benayoun bed in properly and with Jack Wilshere out, Arsenal have plenty of concerns. But there’s a sense that, like Blackpool last year, Swansea are just too naïve to withstand the inevitable wave after wave of Arsenal attack at the Emirates.
One to avoid…
Ali Al-Habsi is a popular fantasy choice. He’s relatively cheap (£4.5m) and quietly goes about his business effectively (although he will want to forget his error on the opening day). He also has back-to-back clean-sheets to highlight just how worthwhile he can be. However just like last week, when I warned against Brad Friedel, Al-Habsi needs to be benched given his tough match-up with Manchester City. They have so much attacking intent and so many ways to score goals that he is in serious danger of ending up with minus points.
But, do be weary of selecting specific Manchester City players given that they begin Champions League life with a tricky test versus Napoli on Wednesday. Manager Roberto Mancini will have more than one eye on that game and that could force his hand when selecting his team against Wigan. Given their impressive form of late, the obvious selections would be Edin Džeko, Sergio Agüero and Samir Nasri but Mancini has two large egos in Mario Balotelli and Carlos Tévez to appease. Giving them a run out against lowly Wigan may prove to be a sensible decision.
Roll the dice…
Joey Barton (£5.9m) loves being in the headlines. Whether it is through Twitter rants tinged with philosophical musings, digs at Match of the Day pundits or simply falling down after being slapped by a man with absurd hair, Barton is always in the spotlight. There will be no chance of that subsiding now he’s joined QPR given the baptism of fire he will face against former club Newcastle. There’s a story to be written and you can bet Barton intends on playing a prominent role in the plot. That may well be a red card and it may be a marvellous performance rounded off with the opening goal (14-1 on Paddy Power, by the way). Either way, Barton is unlikely to remain under the radar at Loftus Road, his selection would be a true gamble but one which may reap dividends.
You can follow me on Twitter @liamblackburn.
“The further off from England, the nearer is to France. Then turn not pale, beloved snail, but come and join the dance”
It’s difficult to call Joe Cole’s career thus far a failure.
His medal cabinet proudly boasts three Premier League titles, three FA Cups and two League Cups, and they sit alongside 56 England caps, a very respectable haul for a man yet to reach 30.
And Cole has provided us with the occasional champagne moment. There was the dipping volley against Sweden in 2006 (when he was arguably England’s best player of the tournament) and the powerful solo goal which showcased all of his close control ability against Manchester United just a few months earlier.
But whilst the highlight reel and the YouTube compilations will provide Lille fans with evidence that their new man is a player of genuine talent, the overriding impression of Cole is his is a career that has been unfulfilled.
Those tipped for the top before they’re even out of school rarely hit the high notes (Freddy Adu being a case in point) and whilst Cole may have chimed one or two resonate chords, there’s always been the lingering impression that his talent has been somewhat wasted.
Part of that is down to injuries and part of it is motivated by tactics. Can anyone really pinpoint Joe Cole’s best position?
Has he been marooned on the left-wing through suitability or convenience? His skill-set should have leant itself to that of a playmaker, the irrepressible number 10 and the fulcrum from which teams were built around. But any hopes of him assuming that role when he was most in-form were dashed under José Mourinho at Chelsea. Accommodating Cole in such a berth would be a luxury that the Portuguese manager rarely affords within his line-up.
Cole’s career was one which instantly sprung to the mind of Pat Nevin when he was interviewed for the Guardian’s excellent series ‘Small Talk’ recently.
“If you ask his coaches when he was younger, they would have argued that he was the most skilful player they’d worked with but at Chelsea he was out on the wing because José Mourinho played a 4-3-3. Instead of producing these players, it would be, ‘Oh he’s not doing it every week, stick him out on the wing’.”
Nevin also reflected on his own career, stating:
“Having played the game myself, it would have been a position I would have seen myself in when I came into the game, but I was quite quickly stuck out on the wing.”
That could be just as applicable to Cole.
The notion which Nevin sort of alluded to was that playmakers are less valued in England, that the type of ‘boom or bust’ philosophy which they live by is simply not risked. It accounts for a derth in creative minds on these shores.
How different Joe Cole’s career could have been had he gone abroad. Unbeknown to Nevin at the time that’s exactly what he’s done since by joining French champions Lille. And what a refreshing move it is.
When the news came through on deadline day that Aston Villa had an interest in Joe Cole, there was a sense that he’d opt to stay in England and play at a lesser level. Too few English players test their abilities abroad and it’s disheartening to see. Villa boss Alex McLeish is an astute manager but his record with creative types is less than stellar as Jean Beausejour and Alexander Hleb will attest to.
Yet Cole made the move to France and it’s a move which could finally see him realise his potential as the wand-waving genius he was meant to be. He’ll slot into Lille’s 4-3-3, possibly out-wide or possible in a central position but he should be freed from the tactical restraints which shackled him in England.
“This offer excited me,” he told the BBC.
“It looks a great club. They did the double last season and I wanted this experience to test myself in the French league.
“Ever since I was a young lad, I wanted the opportunity to play abroad.
Good luck, Joe. Here’s hoping you blaze a trail for some other potential English young playmakers too.
You can follow me on Twitter @liamblackburn.
“Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos”
Whilst the NFC has provided the previous two Super Bowl winners, the AFC is home to the perennially strong. The New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers, Indianapolis Colts and San Diego Chargers have had strangleholds on their respective divisions for the best part of the last decade. The Patriots have won their division in eight of their last 10 seasons, Steelers five of the last nine, Colts seven of the last nine and the Chargers five of the last seven. Throw in the recent boost Rex Ryan has given the New York Jets (back-to-back AFC Championship games) and the savvy drafting of the Baltimore Ravens (reached the play-offs in four of the last five campaigns) and it’s difficult to look past the main pretenders once again.
The view seems to be shared among NFL.com’s experts. All seven of the panel have chosen the Patriots, Chargers and Steelers to win their division. The only difference comes in who will take the AFC South (four picking the Texans, two the Colts and one the Titans).
The biggest hope to smash that monopoly could well be the Texans. They have, in Matt Schaub, an underrated quarterback teetering on joining the elite bunch of signal callers. Andre Johnson is a fully-fledged member of the elite wide-outs and running back Arian Foster ran for the most yards in the league last term. Wade Phillips has revamped the defence and brought in some solid reinforcements to address the reason why they missed out on the post-season last year.
(Predicted finish in brackets)
Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)
The absence of Ben Roethlisberger for the first four games didn’t cripple the Steelers as some had predicted, neither did the loss of Santonio Holmes. Mike Wallace stepped up, Rashard Mendenhall stepped up and yet again, Big Ben dragged them through to another Super Bowl. The defense continues to be scary under Dick Le Beau and if the cornerstone of that unit, Troy Polamalu, stays fit, they look virtually unstoppable.
Baltimore Ravens (11-5)
Could have been heading for another Championship game but their play-off clash with the Steelers turned on its head in a matter of minutes. They’ve lost some valuable offensive experience with the departures of Todd Heap, Derrick Mason and Willis McGahee and there will be some added pressure on Joe Flacco and Ray Rice to carry a heavier burden. Similarly the defensive stars are getting no younger. Ray Lewis and Ed Reed can continue to make plays but they will hope high draft picks Terrence Cody, Sergio Kindle and Jimmy Smith fulfil their potentials.
Cleveland Browns (7-9)
Competing with two fantastically run franchises like the Steelers and the Ravens is always going to be a huge handicap for the Browns. On the plus side, Peyton Hillis exploded as a true star last year and the offensive line is underrated. Colt McCoy has shown flashes of astute quarterback play but against the monstrous Ds in Baltimore and Pittsburgh, he will need to grow up faster if the Browns are to challenge sooner. Rob Ryan is no longer defensive co-ordinator and they could really miss his packages this term.
Cincinnati Bengals (3-13)
The Bengals probably had the most tumultuous off-season in the entire league. Marvin Lewis was on the brink of leaving, Carson Palmer has treated them with utter contempt and the dynamic yet distracting duo of Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens will no longer be lining up in Bengals colours for one reason or another. Andy Dalton really struggled at quarterback in the pre-season and Cedric Benson’s career appears to be nose-diving once again. On the other side of the ball, they still have a decent defensive core but cornerback Johnathan Joseph has gone. Could be in for a very, very long year and Lewis may not see it out.
New England Patriots (13-3)
At times last year, they looked every bit as good as they did in the 16-0 season a few campaigns back. Tom Brady walked away with the MVP award and they gashed several teams for huge victories including the Steelers, Jets, Bears and Dolphins and they also edged past the eventual Super Bowl champions. But Rex Ryan outwitted Bill Belichick in the off-season with a cerebral game plan. Brady will be strengthened this year by having Ochocinco in at wide receiver. The defense has been missing experienced pros in recent years but Jared Mayo and Devin McCourty had Pro Bowl campaigns and if anyone can get something out of Albert Haynesworth it’s Belichick.
New York Jets (12-4)
“Super Bowl or bust” has apparently been applicable to the Jets for the past two years. They’ve not reached a Super Bowl and they’re far from being bust. Expect them to be contenders again but there are a few question marks still to be addressed. Mark Sanchez can be inconsistent. In the play-offs he looked like a mature leader but there were times in the regular season last year when he was woeful. Then there’s the running game which the Jets are so reliant on and Shonn Greene will have to step up. There’s plenty to like about Ryan’s defense but the front 7 has been completely revamped and they are still looking for a sack master.
Miami Dolphins (5-11)
Chad Henne is apparently the answer, at least for now. The confidence in him is not shared by all Dolphins fans. The strength of the Jets and the Patriots is always going to make Miami’s job thrice as hard and Tony Sparano could be under a lot of pressure if they don’t get off to a good start. Ronnie Brown and Rickie Williams have both gone so the new rushing attack of Reggie Bush and Daniel Thomas has got to yield some serious yardage. Plenty to like on defense but is it enough?
Buffalo Bills (4-12)
Fought valiantly last year with Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback but in this division they’re still streets behind everyone else. Facing off against the NFC East this year won’t help matters either. They have good players but lack truly great ones. Have pinned their hopes on Shawne Merriman and Nick Barnett who look like washed up has-beens. The double coverage that Lee Evans used to get will now be transferred onto Steve Johnson and that will seriously limit his productivity and the explosive C.J Spiller enters his second year with plenty still to prove.
Houston Texans (11-5)
The Texans always find some reason to mess it up and fail to reach the play-offs but it’s hard to find too many reasons to doubt them this time. The offense is as highly-powered as those on the Packers, Falcons or Saints’ rosters and they appear to have made serious strides in improving their defense. Their biggest challenge then is holding it all together and not throwing games away (the last-gasp defeat to Jacksonville last year springs to mind). The Colts will of course be their main threat but there’s a consensus that Indianapolis will retreat to the shadows to lick their wounds this year and the Texans must hog the vacant spotlight.
Indianapolis Colts (10-6)
Peyton Manning got a new contract but will he begin the season on the sidelines? Manning is not just a very good quarterback; he is the turbine fuelling everything the Colts do. Their main strength has always come from his ability to read defenses and produce the goods whether they sit back or blitz like mad. No quarterback is more important to what their team does. Elsewhere they also look vulnerable on defense despite being just one year removed from a Super Bowl.
Tennessee Titans (5-11)
The Chris Johnson problem threatened to disrupt the Titans last year and it transpired to do just that this off-season. They now have their man tied down and all of their post-season aspirations surely weigh on his shoulders. Matt Hasselbeck was a nice pick-up to go in under centre after Vince Young left in a huff and Hasselbeck’s acquisition will give Jake Locker time to learn the ropes. The defense has never really looked potent since Jim Schwartz left and they’ll need to perform far better if they’re going to have a winning season.
Jacksonville Jaguars (5-11)
The Jaguars performed well at times last year and only narrowly missed out on the play-offs. Despite this they took a quarterback, Blaine Gabbert, in the draft. David Garrard blows hot and cold and although solid, is never likely to lead Jacksonville to the promise land. Whether Gabbert can, only time will tell. The ‘Pocket Hercules’ Maurice Jones-Drew is a fantastic player and like CJ2K, he needs a big season again. They also made some quietly impressive defensive additions like Drew Coleman and Paul Posluszny.
San Diego Chargers (11-5)
They had the best offense and the best defense in 2010 yet failed to make the play-offs. They are a very real example of the importance of special teams. Fortunately the new kick-off rules should aid them more than most. Philip Rivers is on the cusp of something very special if he can reach the play-offs and Vincent Jackson will be available for the entire campaign this year which makes the aerial threat they pose positively scary. Look for more from Ryan Matthews in his second year as he attempts the unenviable task of trying to emulate LT.
Denver Broncos (7-9)
All the hype this time last year around Josh McDaniels and Tim Tebow has subsided considerably. McDaniels is gone and Tebow’s so far down the depth chart, he is virtually irrelevant. Going with Kyle Orton at quarterback is the most logical solution and he got a lot of Brandon Lloyd amongst others last year. They need a running back to step up and be a real threat rather than relying on several men to do bits and bobs. This job should still belong to Knowshon Moreno if he can finally recapture some of his college form. Von Miller has been getting plenty of praise and with him lining up opposite Elvis Dumervil, the Broncos could have one of the best pass-rushing duos in the league.
Kansas City Chiefs (6-10)
Surprised some people by making the play-offs last year but they called some ingenious plays on offense which made them a joy to watch. Sadly they were easily brushed aside at the post-season’s first hurdle and looked out of their depth. They have plenty to like on the offensive side of the ball and could this be the year when Jamaal Charles is told to go out and get the rushing title? The Chiefs could very well ride him all the way to the play-offs.
Oakland Raiders (5-11)
Still questions at quarterback. Still questions of the ownership. Still questions about whether the coaching regime is up to the task, although possibly harsh given that Hue Jackson is a rookie, he can blame the stream of men who’ve gone before. Darren McFadden had a breakout year last year and the Raiders looked good in patches but all that appears to have been undone. Nnamdi Asomugha has gone and his loss will be felt, as will Zach Miller’s.
You can follow me on Twitter @liamblackburn
Bank on him…
Newcastle’s defence has probably gone under the radar in recent weeks. But perhaps it’s time to give them their dues now the Joey Barton soap opera has moved onto Loftus Road. The Magpies have opened their Premier League account with back-to-back clean sheets. What used to be a problem and source of constant humour for Newcastle has no turned into something of a positive.
Reliable entities such as Tim Krul, Danny Simpson and Fabricio Coloccini are all good fantasy purchases but Ryan Taylor has muscled his way into the limelight. Taylor normally plies his trade at right-back and has found the ever-present Simpson immovable in recent years. But José Enrique’s departure has seen him fill in at left-back and he’s performed admirably.
Taylor’s biggest attribute is his devastating free-kick and this past week saw him score in not one but two dead ball situations. The first against Sunderland in the derby gave them all three points in the league and he followed that up with an equaliser against Scunthorpe in the Carling Cup which took them to extra time.
Taylor currently tops the list of defenders in the Fantasy Premier League with 18 points alongside namesake Steven. S Taylor (£4.5m) has had two three point bonuses but R Taylor’s (£4.1m) ability to curl a ball up and over a wall and into the net makes him a very plausible option. Newcastle have Fulham at home this week before a trip to QPR so both Taylors look good value for their third and fourth successive league clean-sheets. Ryan Taylor will continue to fill in at left-back providing Alan Pardew doesn’t sign a left-back before next Thursday so get him whilst he’s relatively cheap.
Roll the dice…
Everton are still the only Premier League team yet to dip into the transfer market this summer and could conceivably let the window shut without making any additions. The lack of funds will give those within the squad a chance to nail down first team spots as David Moyes has a small squad and he already has injury concerns. Séamus Coleman, a stand-out star last term, is out for a while and there are doubts over Tim Cahill, Jermaine Beckford and Magaye Gueye for this weekend’s game.
The Toffees didn’t get off to the brightest start. They were beaten by QPR, an ‘upset’ which many saw coming given Everton’s static stance this off-season and their history of slow starts. But there was a modicum of joy for Moyes and that came in the form of the performance of 17-year-old Ross Barkley.
“I’ve said to the players in the dressing room that I was disappointed with most of them, but not Ross he played well,” said Moyes.
“He needs a big pat on the back, because he’s not long 17.”
There is plenty of excitement about the development of Barkley and a genuine sense that he will be the finest talent to emerge from Goodison Park since a certain Wayne Rooney. The inevitable comparisons with him are futile, particularly given Barkley’s position, but he did give another glimpse into the reasoning behind the hype against Sheffield United on Tuesday, contributing two assists in a 3-1 win.
He is excellent value at £5m and there are several reasons to like him. The small squad and current injuries to the likes of Coleman mean Barkley is likely to see plenty of playing time. He is a confident player, good with both feet and not afraid to take a shot when an opportunity presents itself. David Moyes is protective of his youngsters but he won’t be afraid to utilise Barkley. Based on the strength of his first two performances, he may have no choice.
One to avoid…
Brad Friedel’s inclusion at Manchester United on Monday seems to have provided a definitive answer to the question of whether he would be Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp’s number one over Heurelho Gomes. The American put in a typical sturdy performance and it is unlikely that Redknapp will reinstall the erratic Gomes.
Friedel (£5.5m) is a reliable performer and Spurs do keep plenty of clean sheets but the time to choose him is not right before they face the irresistible Manchester City. United notched up three goals on Monday night and Friedel prevented them from grabbing plenty more, making a mammoth 13 saves. That earned him four points but you do not want your keeper that active every week. City have helped themselves to seven goals in the past two games and Samir Nasri has joined the cavalry to provide yet another attacking option for Roberto Mancini.
Carlos Tévez could start, Sergio Agüero and David Silva have started on fire and Edin Džeko looks like an entirely different prospect from the one which toiled last season. Brad Friedel may be a good option in the long run but don’t acquire him this week. If he’s already amongst your ranks, show him to his seat on the bench.
You can follow me on Twitter @liamblackburn.
“Nobody can go back and start a new beginning, but anyone can start today and make a new ending”
Around 18 months ago the first three picks of the 2010 NFL Draft went to the St Louis Rams, the Detroit Lions and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The trio had, in their own unique ways, failed dismally the season before. The Rams propelled themselves to the top of the draft with a 2009 regular season which saw just a solitary triumph, over the pitiful Lions. Detroit followed up their winless season with only two victories and the fact this was seen as somewhat of a success shows just how bad their team was. As for Tampa, they left it until week nine to get their first win and notched up another two to be left with a paltry 3-13 record.
But the beauty of the NFL’s parity is that, pending the correct personnel decisions, nobody stays at the bottom for too long. The Rams were able to pick up Sam Bradford who has shown signs that he may go on to be one of the best quarterbacks of any draft whilst the Lions were able to grab Matthew Stafford, Jahvid Best and one of the league’s most dominant performers in Ndamukong Suh. The Bucs, meanwhile, made some astute moves and surrounded blossoming quarterback Josh Freeman with some very capable football players.
All three narrowly missed out on the play-offs last season, Tampa Bay and St Louis on the final day, but they combined for a total record of 23-25, compared to in 6-42 in 2009 and 11-36 in 2008.
The Rams haven’t posted a winning season since 2003 (when they were last in the play-offs), Lions fans have had to wait even longer (since 2000) for a winning campaign and the Bucs haven’t reached the post-season in the competitive NFC South since 2007.
But all that could be about to change as the three franchises look as if they’re moving in the right direction. The Lions and Buccaneers will have to better the past two Super Bowl champions to take their divisions but will be in well in the hunt for wildcards should they fall just short. Meanwhile the Rams are more than capable of taking a wide-open NFC West.
It may have been unthinkable 18 months ago but the Rams, Lions and Buccaneers may just record winning seasons.
(Predicted finish in brackets)
Green Bay Packers (11-5)
The reigning Super Bowl champions went all the way last year despite numerous injuries. Jermichael Finley and Ryan Grant will come back in to make the offense even more potent. Meanwhile the defense has playmakers everywhere and co-ordinator Dom Capers knows how to best utilise the talented Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson.
Detroit Lions (9-7)
The Lions will go as far as Matthew Stafford’s shoulder will take them. He has stacks of talent around him, including Calvin Johnson, Jahvid Best, Nate Burleson and Brandon Pettigrew, but needs to stay healthy. Fans of solid defenses will simply be salivating at the prospect of a front four of Kyle Vanden Bosch, Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley and Cliff Avril.
Chicago Bears (8-8)
The Bears were one step away from the Super Bowl last year and had Jay Cutler stayed fit/not wimped out (depending on your personal stance) they may very well have got there. But the team did it without being particularly spectacular. Question marks remain about Cutler’s ability to lead but they will remain competitive if Brian Urlacher and Julius Peppers continue to destroy on D.
Minnesota Vikings (5-11)
The Brett Favre experiment is over. In comes another experienced veteran warhorse in the shape of Donovan McNabb. The former Redskins quarterback was treated shoddily in the capital and never really garnered adulation in Philly either but he’s still a very good QB especially with Adrian Peterson behind him. Sadly his biggest weapon, Sidney Rice, has gone and an aging defense looks like it could be vulnerable.
Philadelphia Eagles (13-3)
The Eagles have made a concentrated effort to snare almost every free agent available this off-season. Nnamdi Asomugha has been the most impressive recruit but Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Ronnie Brown, Steve Smith, Cullen Jenkins and Jason Babin all improve Philadelphia greatly. Michael Vick will be given the reigns from the start, DeSean Jackson remains the league’s most exciting player whilst Trent Cole may just be the most underrated. They are the ones to watch.
Dallas Cowboys (9-7)
Last season was a colossal failure for Dallas given the strength of their roster. Jason Garrett has assumed head coaching duties and he has a task given Philly’s aggressive moves in free agency. Tony Romo will be back under centre and in Miles Austin, Jason Witten and Dez Bryant he has an excellent receiving corp. The run game stalled last year and Felix Jones must prove he can handle the load. But the biggest concern is the defense which was blown apart on multiple occasions last year.
New York Giants (8-8)
2010 was a strange season for the Giants. They didn’t make the play-offs due to costly errors at crucial times. Eli Manning racked up the yards but he also had a penchant for interceptions. There are still plenty of playmakers on defense and they’ll need them to be at their best in this division. The o-line is aging and may be a cause for concern, particularly if they leave Eli with plenty to do again.
Washington Redskins (2-14)
Each of the elite leagues seems to have a team which lags behind and the side dragging down the NFC East is the Redskins. Neither John Beck nor Rex Grossman is the answer at quarterback and they have a backfield committee without a stand-out star. They have some fine players on the defensive side of the ball but there is little to like offensively.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-5)
Raheem Morris’ young charges did remarkably well last year. There is plenty to admire about Josh Freeman and the rest of the team seems to have gelled perfectly. With another year of experience they could be ready for the post-season. They will have to factor in a trip to Wembley in mid-season but that didn’t prove a deterrent for the Giants in 2007.
Atlanta Falcons (11-5)
They were so impressive in the regular season but were despatched with ease by the Packers at the first post-season hurdle. Their defense was shown up to look very average and they haven’t really strengthened in that area, barring the astute acquirement of Ray Edwards. The Falcons gave up an awful lot for Julio Jones but he can slot in as a useful accompaniment to the marvellous Roddy White and quarterback Matt Ryan is on the elite’s periphery.
New Orleans Saints (10-6)
Competing as the reigning champs is never an easy thing to do but the Saints sneaked a play-off place last year. They were bizarrely beaten by the Seahawks as a weakness to defending the run was exposed. That could be an issue once again although their own rushing attacking has been improved considerably. Mark Ingram was a great draft pick and should be ready to carry the load to free up some space for Drew Brees to do his thing.
Carolina Panthers (3-13)
Selected first at the draft due to a poor campaign and with that pick they drafted quarterback Cam Newton. He won’t be expected to perform miracles straight away, even if he does start. The Panthers aren’t a terrible team but they are in a very strong division where wins will be hard to come by. Didn’t replace Julius Peppers’ influence and must find someone capable of pressuring the quarterback if they are to have any success.
St Louis Rams (10-6)
Sam Bradford’s rookie season was one to remember as he broke Peyton Manning’s record for most passes completed by a novice (354). They gave him a lot more to do than was initially expected proving their confidence in a top prospect and their much-improved offensive line. Bradford has been rewarded with wide receiver Mike Sims Walker who posted some impressive figures in Jacksonville. Still some way from being a great team but the NFC West is wide open.
San Francisco 49ers (8-8)
The 49ers were expected to walk the NFC West in 2010 but they lurched from one disaster to another. There are plenty of talented players on this roster in Patrick Willis, Vernon Davis and Frank Gore but too often they shot themselves in the foot. Who stays under centre and how they perform will ultimately decide whether their season is a success or not.
Arizona Cardinals (7-9)
The Cardinals took a punt on Kevin Kolb and that gamble will define the coming years. Larry Fitzgerald has been signed up to a big contract but they missed the likes of Karlos Dansby, Anquan Boldin and Antre Rolle who were so pivotal in their Super Bowl run a few years back. Dominic Rodgers-Cromartie is another to depart and they must get more out of their running game to assist Kolb.
Seattle Seahawks (3-13)
The Seahawks made the play-offs by the skin of their teeth but even they were not happy with the season as a whole, reflected in the fact that Tarvaris Jackson will be the new quarterback. He was unimpressive in Minnesota but probably deserves another shot; fellow former Viking Sidney Rice’s arrival is a nice upshot for Jackson as is tight-end Zach Miller. Need more from former first-round pick Aaron Curry to show he doesn’t join Vernon Gholston and Aaron Maybin in the first-round outside-linebacker bust group.
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