“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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“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.
“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.