Saturday, September 11, 2010

Premature Evaluations 2010 - NFC South, NFC West, NFC East

Yeah, I had to hustle it up. That’s fine; predictive analysis is less fun anyway.

NFC South

North Carolina Panthers

You know what people keep forgetting? This team was shot to hell last year, with Jake Delhomme doing everything he could to kill the offense short of lining up on the other side of the field, one receiver who cared enough to get upset about it (Steve Smith straddles the line between sociopath and elite competitor as well as anybody in the NFL), and they still managed to break even at 8-8. Even if Matt Moore is the product of a lack of tape combined with physicality, they still have two solid prospects to groom behind him, and John Fox is the next Jeff Fisher (seriously, they went 8-8 last year, check again), so it’s hard to think that things can’t improve sooner rather than later. If they have the guts to build a gameplan around their most dynamic threats (Williams, Stewart, and Smith), this team could easily sneak in and get a lot of “sleeper” talk, when in reality they’ve been awake all along.

New Orleans Saints

Last year it was all about a collection of unique talents combining to create a synergy of offensive firepower. The result was an incomparable team attack that sublimated individual power for the benefit of the identity of the whole (driven largely by Drew Brees and his remarkable ability to distribute). This season, if the team hopes to catch the league by surprise again and prevent the dreaded “disease of more”, the team must begin to reveal the individuals beneath its banner. Different players will need to become the focal point at different times, instead of last season’s consistent focus on the team as a multifaceted weapon highlighting solely its mission (something that will be impossible to replicate with so many talents in their prime). If opponents are faced with the prospect of having to deal with a consistently shifting best punch, there’s no reason the Saints can’t add another title, this one more personal and less business.

Atlanta Falcons

But for a couple of injuries last year, this team was built to drag the Saints into the paced, metronomic hell they make of the field. A healed offensive line and Michael Turner, the return of Harry Douglas, and a healthy Peria Jerry (also STOP FORGETTING THAT CURTIS LOFTON IS LEGIT) mean that Matt Ryan gets to stop worrying about the scoreboard and exist in that state of calm in which he proved to be the rookie of the year. If the Saints were the celebration that couldn’t be stopped, this team is built to win as the solemn funeral party that won’t be made happy again, recognizing that you don’t beat the champ by doing what they do, but by creating your own, more powerful identity.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

If the Raiders are my traditional sleeper this year, the Bucs are my mutant sleeper, meaning they could make a striking turnaround entirely the result of one year’s overhaul. The sub par receiving corps has been refreshed with two rookie wideouts, both of whom are physical specimens with big play capability (Mike Williams is going to embarrass some corners before he gets the respect he deserves). The porous defensive line is starting two rookies, both of whom are top of the draft picks, and one of whom (Gerald McCoy) has the potential to be every bit as dangerous as the more heralded Suh, only faster. Gone is overpriced RB platoon member Ward, guaranteeing touches to more explosive backs who will work the middle of the defense, forcing defenders inward and giving the aforementioned rookie WRs room to exploit their physicality in their first year of learning the tricks of the trade. Oh, and this secondary has a good chance to develop into a frightening blend of established experience and limitless potential all at once, if Aqib Talib doesn’t go supernova. Also, Josh Freeman shows flashes of Ben Roethlisberger (both the good Ben and the increasingly rare (on the field) bad Ben), minus the off the field garbage.

PREDICTION: Saints win the division, followed by the Falcons, Bucs, and Panthers

NFC West

Arizona Cardinals

When Derek Anderson succeeded in Cleveland in 2007, everybody thought the team was in ruins, but with the help of an underrated running game, a top flight receiver, and a solid passing offense, Anderson overcame the obvious signs that he was a stop-gap quarterback for the year and his physical skills actually gained utility, allowing the team to exceed expectations. Replace “Cleveland” with “Arizona” and tell me this doesn’t sound really familiar. Remember “he just sucks” doesn’t qualify as a thoughtful argument. Maybe there's plenty of tape, but this certainly isn't an unrealistic scenario for improvement.

Seattle Seahawks

Sigh. I admire Pete Carroll’s confidence in his ability as a coach, particularly in the face of people thinking he’s doomed to fail simply because he was a winning coach at the collegiate level. Hell, I’m thrilled that he’s proving my “a coaches job is to allow talented, though sometimes difficult, individuals to reach their potential” credo with Mike Williams. And yes, it definitely pays dividends to allow the players you believe in to gain the experience that is necessary to master their system and see if they can become the part of your vision that you hope they’ll become. Still, giving up the present for the sake of some future that may never come is just another way of avoiding responsibility. Why is Seneca Wallace in Cleveland instead of getting the chance to function in a new, working offense (no, I will never let this go, thanks for asking)? Why is Housh in Baltimore instead of giving this team the chance to compete with a scary, massive receiving corps against an NFC West in transition? Look, I’ll take the good with the bad, but it’s frustrating when the steps back feel so...unnecessary, particularly if this regime is supposed to be the new perspective on coaching.

St. Louis Rams

Never forget: This team took boring Chris Long over freakish talent Glenn Dorsey (who is only not a star because of a 3-4 system), and just took Sam Bradford (who looks good) over Ndamukong Suh (who looks like a more athletically gifted Warren Sapp). Then remember the motto: Scared money don’t make none.

San Francisco 49ers

This is the rare can’t lose watchable team for me. If Alex Smith succeeds, then it’s the triumph of intelligence and talent over circumstance and the NFL “toe the line” coaching culture. If Alex Smith fails, Troy Smith comes in, and with these receivers emerges as the solid, athletically gifted, pro savvy quarterback that he’s shown flashes of being all along, and that he should have been but for that Sugar Bowl. If both fail? Well, if I’m THAT wrong about both of these players, I deserve to suffer for it. Also, this receiving corps, if it makes proper use of Ted Ginn, can and should kill on every level…which plays right into Alex Smith’s strengths. Yeah, a favorite that I can get behind with both Alex Smith and Troy Smith as potential quarterbacks. It’s a weird NFL season.

PREDICTION: 49ers win the division, followed by the Seahawks, Cardinals, and Rams. I think Seattle catches people off guard early in the year thanks to all the turnover, and thanks to Anderson being mediocre in Arizona.

NFC East

Philadelphia Eagles

Kevin Kolb is not Donovan McNabb. That said, the hourglass that began running when the team drafted Kolb in 2007 had run out of sand. Getting those draft picks in exchange for McNabb is a forward looking move. Yes, the team will never know whether or not they could have won it all with McNabb and mature, talented receivers, but that’s life. I know, slap that motto on Eagles t-shirts.

NY Giants

Does anybody else think this team is in trouble this year? Eli Manning emerged as a passer last year, and is finally proving that he’s a talented enough quarterback to make stars out of receivers who would merely be good on other teams (sound like anybody else we might know?). That said, the run game is slowing down; Jacobs can’t be BRANDON JACOBS anymore, and whatever everyone else is seeing is Ahmad Bradshaw’s statistically average work as the number one back, I must be missing it. Teams are going to figure out how to sit down on Steve Smith, and unless one of the other receivers this team has drafted shows they can be explosive and punish single defenders (and I’m not sure anyone here can, unless Hakeem Nicks has a gear I haven’t seen), does anyone see him building on last season? Throw in a secondary that I just don’t believe in (Antrel Rolle was an awful, AWFUL signing), and this team looks a lot like a one and a half trick pony (a stout defensive front and a strong pass rush) without the set of second punches those sort of teams need to succeed in the NFL. Remember, the Giants trench warfare have won in 2007 without their massive, speedy receiver who could exploit mismatches resulting from opponents gearing up against the usual Giants offense. On a completely unrelated note: Vincent Jackson is still holding out. Seriously, I feel like I’m starting to sound like Rain Man.

Dallas Cowboys

I was trying to understand why I care so little about this team, and then I figured it out: If all of these aerial weapons have remained the same (a rookie Dez Bryant is about as useful as a Patrick Crayton), and the defense hasn’t changed, why would exchanging an average left tackle for a bad one (Flozell > Alex Barron) make me like this team more?

Washington Redskins

Pretty much the reverse of what I think about the Cowboys. Add a good quarterback, a top talent at left tackle, and continue the development of a receiving corps that has plenty of talent and hasn’t come close to peaking, and revamp a defense while still making use of your best player (resist the temptation to throw Haynesworth to the wind, and the world is yours, Shanny), and tell me how we can NOT expect this team to stun the competition. Plus, the happiest quarterback in the league is playing angry while he’s still got the talent to do so well.

PREDICTION: Redskins win the division, followed by the Cowboys, Eagles, and Giants.

And with that, let’s get the season going already.

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