Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Titans in Trouble: Injuries, Creeping Competition Spell Impending Doom

Remember the glory days of 2008, when the Tennessee Titans were 10-0 and looked to be a surging AFC power? They had a killer defense and two strong young running backs, and it seemed like they were only going to get better as the playoffs loomed.

Well, those days are gone.

In their past four games, the Titans are 2-2. Their victories were over the Lions and Browns, two teams that might have trouble beating this year’s 5-7 Tennessee Vols. Their losses, however, were to improving teams, the Jets and the Texans.

Therein lies a problem: The Titans’ success might be a by-product of a weak schedule. They have essentially three quality wins in ’08, over Minnesota, Baltimore and Indianapolis. Possibly the Nov. 9 victory at Chicago can be counted as a Q win.

Yes, 12-2 looks mighty nice, but if you’re only knocking off a bunch of pansies, then you’re not getting battle-hardened. Contrast that with the regimen of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have built an 11-3 record playing a schedule that included games versus Philadelphia, Baltimore, the Giants, Indianapolis, New England and Dallas.

Weeks ago, no one would have dreamed that the Titans wouldn’t have had home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Now, the Steelers come into LP Field this Sunday, with a chance to shake up all that presumed security. If the Steelers leave town with an identical 12-3 record, the Titans then face the prospect of playing the red-hot Colts—10-4, and on a seven-game winning streak—in their final road game of the season, and absolute home-field advantage stands a very realistic chance of being in jeopardy. (The Steelers conclude their season at home against the woeful Browns.)

The Titans are hurting. Their staunch defensive line is no more, with injuries to Albert Haynesworth and Kyle Vanden Bosch keeping them out of games until the playoffs arrive. Even then, neither will be at 100 percent.

As for the running game, there’s reason to believe it will return, but the Titans haven’t much balanced the Smash and Dash of Chris Johnson and LenDale White with their passing game. Kerry Collins has his moments, as do his receivers, but there’s no way the Tennessee passing attack will ever be confused with an elite operation. It’s been a concern from the very beginning, even through all those easy-looking early victories: How do the Titans come back in games in which they might just fall behind? Or in situations where they need to score quickly? Or desperately?

The automatic formula for success has been scuttled by injuries and mediocrity, and the fact is that the Colts and Steelers are playing better football at the right time. As are possibly the 9-5 Ravens, Jets and Patriots.

The Titans’ worries would be less, of course, if they’d managed to grab a win in Houston this past Sunday. Down 13-12, late in the fourth quarter, with the ball on the Houston 32, the Titans engaged in some weird decision-making.

It was 4th down, 3 to go. Now, the conservative call is to let ace kicker Rob Bironas attempt a 49-yard field goal to grab the lead, and then allow the sputtering Texans’ offense to try to march the other way with time running out. Instead, Titans coach Jeff Fisher decided to run a play, presumably to get the first down. Strange. The play called had Collins throwing an errant, incomplete pass toward the end zone. Game over. Titans lose.

Were they going for broke? Why, when three yards got them a first down and closer to within Bironas’ range? How about a quick one over the middle to the tight end? Something short and secure.

Fisher claimed at his Monday news conference that the field goal was not, in his opinion, within Bironas’ range. Hmmm...this is a kicker who made a 60-yarder once to defeat the Colts. I’m sure that wasn’t within his range either that day, but the fact is that Bironas has a strong leg, and 49-yarders are, if not a gimme for him, then certainly a good bet with the game on the line.

Even playing uncertain football, the Titans could be 13-1 and sitting in the catbird seat. Instead, the Steelers are breathing down their collective neck, and the smell of inevitable postseason failure is in the air.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Big 12 Teams Play No Defense, Sooners' Dominance Based on Skewed Statistics

Oklahoma is hanging its claim on a shot at the national championship based in large part on the fact that they have scored more than 60 points in each of their past four games. It’s evidence, says coach Bob Stoops, of momentum and superiority. We won’t dispute that the Sooners are swamping their opponents, but do points mean dominance when you play in a conference where nobody plays any defense??

I jumped on the Big 12 bandwagon myself after watching Texas Tech defeat Texas 39-33 on Nov. 1. That was a very exciting game, and both Tech’s Graham Harrell and the Longhorns’ Colt McCoy looked like supermen, standing back in the pocket (with seemingly all the time in the world), eyeing their receivers with precision and then zinging the ball with frozen-rope accuracy. Entertaining stuff.

But has it ever occurred to anyone that maybe the high-profile Big 12 quarterbacks—McCoy, Harrell, Sam Bradford, Zac Robinson—put up all those unreal numbers not because they’re so otherworldly great but because no one in the Big 12 gives a hang about putting a kickass defense on the field? Heck, even the vaunted Sooners routinely give up 30 points a game (except when they’re playing such challenging out-of-conference opponents like Chattanooga).

This line of inquiry induced me to take a look at a list of the current active NFL quarterbacks. My premise: If the Big 12 is so darn great, and so dominant offensively, how many quarterbacks from the conference are presently playing in the NFL, and at what level?

The answer is four, and not that prominently: Sage Rosenfels, Iowa State (Texans), Chris Simms, Texas (Titans), Seneca Wallace, Iowa State (Seahawks), Vince Young, Texas (Titans). Not exactly a collection of world-beaters. And not a one from Oklahoma. Or Texas Tech.

Young in particular stands out: an impressive physical specimen who wowed college sports in leading the Longhorns to the national title following the 2005 season. After some exciting performances with the Titans in ’06 and ’07, Young played himself off the field in ’08, and in fact he had showed signs of difficulties in running a pro offense long before that. Simms looked promising a few years ago with the Buccaneers, but now he sits waiting for a chance along with Young in Nashville, both eclipsed by an aging Penn State product, Kerry Collins. Wallace has never risen above the level of a mobile QB who occasionally makes plays. Only Rosenfels actually looks like a first-string pro, though he sits behind Matt Schaub when Schaub is healthy.

Fact is, when you randomly riff through the names of the all-time-great pro QBs, past and present, the Big 12 rarely comes up. Starr (Alabama), Marino (Pitt), Favre (Southern Mississippi), Namath (Alabama), Bradshaw (Louisiana Tech), Staubach (Navy), Montana (Notre Dame), Tarkenton (Georgia), Unitas (Louisville), Fouts (Oregon), Young (Brigham Young), Jurgensen (Duke), Brady (Michigan), Manning (Tennessee/Ole Miss), Bob Griese (Purdue), Phil Simms (Morehead State)—not a one of these guys played in the Big 12. And here’s an interesting tidbit: Troy Aikman, who excelled at UCLA and became an NFL great, actually began his college career at Oklahoma before transferring. One wonders what might have happened if he’d stayed in Norman.

Could it be that the factory football school mentality found in the Big 12 is not conducive to producing creative, inventive quarterbacks who can lead on a bigger stage? I’m just asking.

In any case, now that the Sooners have been crowned, as it were—and presuming they can get past Missouri in the Big 12 title game (I’m praying for an upset, of course)—I’m definitely looking forward to seeing them play Florida or Alabama in the title game. And actually, it's too bad USC is probably out of the title picture. Those guys know defense.

The best teams play D—except in the Big 12. Sam Bradford, beware.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Musburger's Misquote of Famous Rickey Aphorism Leads Weekend Media Hits

Brent Musburger bit the big one over the weekend. While broadcasting the Oklahoma-Oklahoma State football game on Saturday night for ABC, dumb ol’ Brent misquoted the great baseball executive Branch Rickey. Trying his darndest to be “eloquent,” and make a relevant quip germane to the game action, Brent burst forth excitedly with this gem, “As Branch Rickey once said, ‘Luck is the residue of...skill...’ ” Uh no, Brent, you horse’s ass. The Rickey quote, known far and wide to intelligent, well-premised sports observers everywhere, is, “Luck is the residue of design.”

Musburger’s nearly 70, and he’s still as big a putz as he ever was. Getting into broadcasting must be like getting a position in city government: once you're in, you can stay in, even if you're an idiot, so long as you don't kill someone.

Speaking of putzes, familiar with this cat named Jason Whitlock? He was subbing for the godawful Jim Rome on FOX radio this past Friday, and he hit the airwaves ranting and raving about how ESPN isn’t interested in good stories, how the sports giant dominates with lousy (often tabloid-style) ideas designed only to promote their broadcasting agenda, and how they’re not interested in the truth. Whitlock went on and on and on and on...stopping to take a breath only to further pepper us with his belief that the Ball State football team had achieved its unprecedented 12-0 mark this season in spite of lousy support from the school’s administration—take that, Muncie!—and also how ESPN had apparently systematically overlooked this story because it wasn’t “cool” (or something like that).

Moments later, a guy calls in, extols Whitlock for his forthrightness, and then begins to criticize Rome as yet another sports a**hole of the very type that Whitlock was decrying. In one of the most glaring examples of broadcaster hypocrisy you’ll ever witness, Whitlock then cut off the caller, saying that he couldn’t allow criticism of Rome, since it was Rome’s show and Whitlock was there filling in for him. Doh!

Yer an a**hole, Jason. And a hypocritical horse’s ass. What a d-bag.

The news isn’t all bad on the broadcasting front, though. Greg Gumbel and Dan Dierdorf handled the play-by-play for Sunday’s Steelers-Patriots game (CBS), and they did an excellent job. Gumbel’s always very good—straightforward, clear, informative, appropriately enthusiastic—but the improvement in Dierdorf is remarkable. For years, ol’ Dan used to bombastically lisp his fat-mouthed way through his commentary, preferring to use volume to make his points instead of wit or insight. Now Dan’s never going to be a member of Mensa, but at least he’s lowered his voice a bit and delivers reportage in more measured tones. He keeps the hyperbole to a minimum now also, and he seems to have conquered his speech impediment. Way to go, Dan. You’re still a meatheaded jock, dude, but you appear to have learned a little about making the game interesting for those of us watching it.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Tuesday Morning Quarterback: NFL Week #12 Winners and Losers

The beat goes on, but at the moment we're no closer to declaring anyone officially in the playoffs yet. What is official is that Monday Night Football's Tony Kornholer remains an alien presence on the airwaves. And we finally figured out why this sports media loser is a worthless POS. It's not that he doesn't really know anything about football (even though he doesn't), or the fact that his dour personality and his "Entertainment Tonight" mentality are both unappealing and lame-o. No, what's really very obvious and why he should be replaced immediately, is that Kornholer is not a fan. He's basically a media whore who ended up in sports. Kudos to Jaws Jaworski for shutting down Kornholer's attempt to make a Brett Favre-related soap opera out of Aaron Rodgers' QB play for Green Bay. Yesterday's news, Kornholer. Ya putz.

New York Jets 34, Tennessee 13—Titans (10-1) finally take a hit, as Brett Favre and the 8-3 Jets supposedly make a statement, winning their second straight key road game and maintaining their one-game AFC East lead over the Patriots. The Jets had a varied offensive game plan, and they executed it well, thus keeping the Titans’ defense on the field for more than 40 minutes. Of course, if the Titans’ offense had showed up, it might’ve been a game, and it’s less clear if the Jets’ D didn’t simply benefit from the lax play of Titans receivers (who dropped a bunch of catchable passes) and running backs (Chris Johnson fumbled at a critical juncture, and LenDale White was MIA). Favre played very well—discernably vintage, actually—but the Jets still have a lot to prove.

Pittsburgh 27, Cincinnati 10—It was a game for a while, then it became academic. Bengals, now 1-9-1, are pathetic. Steelers, now 8-3, are atop the AFC North, but only by a game over the surprising Ravens. And their offense looks like it needs a tuneup.

Baltimore 36, Philadelphia 7—Now 7-4, the Ravens kept pace with division-rival Steelers, thanks to a balanced offense led by rookie QB Joe Flacco (12/26, 183 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INTs) and an opportunistic defense that grabbed four interceptions off Donovan McNabb and his second-half replacement, second-year-man Kevin Kolb. The Eagles, now 5-5-1, looked startlingly inept, but they’re still not technically out of the wild-card hunt. McNabb’s days as a starter could be numbered, but no matter who plays QB, the miracle finish seems remote.

Houston 16, Cleveland 6—Parting is such sweet sorrow, Romeo. This might be the game that signals the effective end of the Romeo Crennel regime in Cleveland. Now 4-7, the Browns couldn’t build on last week’s Monday night thriller victory over the Bills, losing at home to a Houston squad that’s notoriously bad on the road. Browns savior QB Brady Quinn wasn’t that, and he was replaced by erstwhile starter Derek Anderson. The duo combined for 13/32, 145 yards, 0 TDs and 3 INTs. Sage Rosenfels put up some halfway decent quarterbacking numbers for the 4-7 Texans, rookie RB Steve Slaton continues to be productive, and WR Andre Johnson had 10 catches for 116 yards.

Tampa Bay 38, Detroit 20—The Lions are 0-11 after blowing a 17-0 lead, and they now head into a Thanksgiving Day game versus the 10-1 Titans. Their quarterbacks in this game were Daunte Culpepper and Drew Stanton, neither of whom seems likely to rescue them from winless freefall. Rookie RB Kevin Smith gained 86 yards on 16 carries, so that’s hopeful, but when you yield four sacks, two interceptions and two fumbles to the opposing defense, you just get further behind the 8-ball. In this case, the Bucs are playing pretty well on both sides of the ball, and once they took a 21-17 lead into halftime it was all but over. Bucs QB Jeff Garcia continues his efficient winning ways, and ageless Warrick Dunn gained 90 yards on only 14 carries. With the win, the 8-3 Bucs tied the Panthers for first place in the NFC South.

Atlanta 45, Carolina 28—In the NFC, only the Giants and the Cardinals have scored more points than the 7-4 Falcons, who continue to impress with a varied offensive attack led by rookie QB Matt Ryan and an aggressive defense. The Falcons exhibit a remarkable can-do spirit, and their turnaround from last year’s disastrous campaign is downright inspirational. Now they’re breathing down the necks of both the Panthers and the Bucs for the NFC South lead. The 8-3 Panthers really didn’t play badly in this one: They had no turnovers, and they passed and ran with efficiency. They simply got outlasted by a very determined squad. Mike Smith for NFC Coach of the Year.

Buffalo 54, Kansas City 31—Bills QB Trent Edwards regained his form in this one—24/32, 273 yards, 2 TDs—which was over by the third quarter. The 1-10 Chiefs show signs of life, but they’re simply too young, and too unformed, to get over the hump. Tight end Tony Gonzalez had 10 catches for 113 yards and a touchdown, but it must be frustrating to be as good as he is and always be surrounded by failure. The Bills improved to 6-5, helped to eradicate the memory of their previous tough Monday night home loss to Cleveland, and kept pace with the Jets and Patriots in the AFC East.

New England 48, Miami 28—The Matt Cassel story keeps getting better. Dude spends his entire college career backing up Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart at USC. Then he carries Tom Brady’s jockstrap in Foxboro till he’s suddenly pressed into service with a huge question mark over his head and the Patriots’ playoff chances on the line. So after a stellar, record-setting day—30/43, 415 yards, 3 TDs (all to Randy Moss) and thus becoming the first Patriots QB to ever throw for 400+ yards in two consecutive games—Cassel has the Pats at 7-4 and stalking the AFC East-leading Jets. The Dolphins dropped to 6-5 after gamely putting up a fight, including some actual on-field fighting that got fairly intense as their chances slipped away. But it’s already a good season for the Fins, who were 1-15 a year ago, and they’re not technically out of anything yet.

Dallas 35, San Francisco 22—Cowboys stifle the 49ers’ running attack, and QB Tony Romo fires three TD passes, including one to Terrell Owens, who racks up 213 receiving yards. This one was a game the host Cowboys should’ve won, and mission accomplished raises their record to 7-4. The 3-8 49ers got a decent performance out of QB Shaun Hill but were simply outclassed.

Washington 20, Seattle 17—Skins avoid the pitfalls of a potential “trap” game in coach Jim Zorn’s homecoming to Seattle, where he starred as a Seahawks QB three decades ago and served as an assistant under Mike Holmgren in the recent era. Playing through injury, Skins RB Clinton Portis gained 143 yards on the ground, and QB Jason Campbell returned to his error-free ways. The 2-9 Seahawks can’t do anything well enough, and it was another mediocre outing for QB Matt Hasselbeck. Skins, now 7-4 and tied for second in the NFC East with the Cowboys, host the division-leading Giants next week.

Chicago 27, St. Louis 3—The Rams are 2-9, and QB Trent Green threw four interceptions after replacing the injured Marc Bulger. The 6-5 Bears held the Rams to 14 yards rushing while piling up 201 yards of their own on the ground, led by rookie Matt Forte’s 132 yards. This one was over by halftime. Bears don’t falter on the road, and continue to share the NFC North lead.

Minnesota 30, Jacksonville 12—You know the Jags, now 4-7, are pretty much done for when they lose badly at home even while holding their opponent to 226 total yards. Fumbles and interceptions did ’em in, and a team once noted for a hellacious running attack gained only 35 yards on the ground. The Vikes moved to 6-5, taking advantage of the mistakes and utilizing their own excellent D, though they’ll have to get more than 104 yards out of their passing attack if they expect to beat anyone good down the road.

Oakland 31, Denver 10—Even good Raiders teams have trouble winning in Denver. For this disorganized bunch to come to the Mile High City and put the hurt on Mike Shanahan & Co. means the world must’ve shifted on its axis a little. Well, what it really means is that the Broncos (6-5) are simply not to be trusted. Their unpredictable offense and troubled defense guarantee that every game’s a crap shoot. They still lead the woeful AFC West by two games over the catatonic Chargers, but they better watch out. Tomorrow is not promised. The Raiders are now 3-8, getting a remarkably efficient performance out of QB JaMarcus Russell (10/11, 152 yards, 1 TD, 0 INTs), 107 yards on the ground from RB Justin Fargas, plus a serious Ashley Lelie sighting, the ex-Bronc WR torching his former team for four catches for 92 yards and a TD.

Indianapolis 23, San Diego 20—More trouble for Chargers coach Norv Turner, whose team is now a disappointing 4-7 with no clear-cut answers as to why their malaise persists. They lost this one at home, despite decent offensive numbers from QB Philip Rivers and RB LaDainian Tomlinson. Simply put, the Colts came up big when they had to, and Peyton Manning hasn’t lost his ability to frustrate opposing defenses. The Colts moved to 7-4 with their fourth straight win and appear to have regained their swagger. They even gained a game on the AFC South-leading Titans, who finally fell from the unbeaten ranks. Marvin Harrison and Joseph Addai made serious contributions in this one, which is definitely good news for Colts coach Tony Dungy.

New York Giants 37, Arizona 29—Not a bad effort from the 7-4 Cardinals against the defending Super Bowl champs. But every time they’d threaten to make a game of it, the Giants—even minus bruising RB Brandon Jacobs, out with a knee injury—upped the ante with an Eli Manning TD pass. Peyton’s little brother threw for three scores and got an assist from sub RB Derrick Ward (69 yards, 1 TD) and K John Carney (three field goals). The 10-1 Giants now head to Washington for an NFC East rematch with the Redskins. Cardinals QB Kurt Warner threw for more than 300 yards for his fifth straight game, but he also threw a critical interception and fumbled once. The Cards’ running game was nonexistent. Their NFC West lead is secure, with their nearest rival the 3-8 49ers. The team travels to Philadelphia for a Thanksgiving Day game versus the Eagles.

New Orleans 51, Green Bay 29—The Saints put on a huge offensive display in running their record to 6-5 and keeping their playoff hopes alive in the ultra-competitive NFC South. QB Drew Brees threw four TD passes, including two of 70 yards, and veteran, oft-injured running back Deuce McAllister set a Saints record with his 54th career touchdown. But maybe most importantly, the Saints might have found a younger, healthier, more consistent every-down RB in second-year man Pierre Thomas, who gained 87 yards on 15 carries and scored two TDs. The Packers were very much in this one at the half, 24-21, but they were swamped by a 21-point New Orleans third quarter, and that was pretty much it. The Pack are now 5-6, dropping a game behind NFC North co-leaders Chicago and Minnesota.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Tuesday Morning Quarterback: NFL Week #11 Winners and Losers

Time to check in on the progress, or lack thereof, of NFL teams. Maybe four squads—Titans, Giants, Panthers, Cardinals—can be said to be definitely zeroing in on playoff berths. Otherwise, there are serious shades of gray still left out there. There are plenty of contenders, but an equal number of pretenders. Here’s a summary of what everyone did this past weekend, and where they all look to be heading.

Tennessee 24, Jacksonville 14—The Titans continue to defy skeptics, running their record to 10-0 and maintaining a four-game lead over the Colts in the AFC South. Their D has weathered a few injuries and keeps performing at a killer level. Opponents have scored only 131 points this year. The offense still seems less than imposing, yet they’re getting the job done, proving once again that with a fabulous offensive line all things are possible. Now 4-6, the Jaguars may be finished. Some folks (including yours truly) had ’em pegged for the Super Bowl. There’s still plenty of talent there, but they just don’t look like the intimidating group they once were. And despite a long-term contract, coach Jack Del Rio has some explaining to do.

New York Jets 34, New England 31—An overtime win in Foxboro is huge for Favre & Co. Jets (7-3) now lead the AFC East (by a slim one game), with the team playing balanced, aggressive football. Favre isn’t always great, but there’s still magic in that indefatigable warrior body. At 6-4, the Pats aren’t out of anything, of course, and it certainly wasn’t QB Matt Cassel’s fault they lost. He threw for 400 yards and a dramatic game-tying TD as regulation expired. The Patriots suffer inconsistency, and injuries have had a lot to do with that. Coach Bill Belichick is in the unfamiliar position of having to reach deeper into his bag of motivational tricks. One serious problem: Way more competition in the division.

Miami 17, Oakland 15—Four straight wins put the surprise Dolphins at 6-4 and vying for an AFC East title. We might add that they’re led by Jets “castoff” Chad Pennington at QB, still savvy, smart and efficient under new coach Tony Sparano’s variable offense, which includes the “wildcat” wrinkle that has given new potency to the running back duo of Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams. The Fins may go belly-up eventually, but they’re clearly not the 1-15 squad from ’07. The Raiders are 2-8 and going nowhere fast. In truth, they showed improvement early in the season, even in defeat. The team does have some talent, and if head coach Lane Kiffin hadn’t been fired, they might’ve even exceeded last season’s total of four wins. (Like, maybe five.) Out-to-lunch owner Al Davis took care of that, however. What’s amazing is that there are three teams worse than them at this juncture.

Dallas 14, Washington 10 —Big road win for the ’boys ties them with the Skins for second place in the NFC East at 6-4. Tony Romo returns to action and makes the important plays. Skins blow a big opportunity to stick it to their longtime rival and announce their arrival as a team to be seriously reckoned with. Their D looked tough, but QB Jason Campbell exhibited some negative recidivist tendencies, though maybe it was Dallas’ D that should get the credit. Hard-fought contest scrambles the NFC playoff picture a little further.

Pittsburgh 11, San Diego 10—Okay, well, there’s something definitely wrong with the Chargers. The vaunted offense was a popgun in a game where their D finally showed up. Philip Rivers throws two INTs, and LT again posts mediocre rushing numbers. The miracle is that, with their 4-6 record, they’re still within shouting distance of the AFC West-leading Broncos. This team was 11-5 in ’07 and finally won a playoff game for the first time in a long while. Is the backward slide Norv’s fault? The 7-3 Steelers grabbed a one-game lead in the AFC North. They may have eked out this win, but they moved the ball on offense every which way, their D still looks impressive, and if they dodged a bullet, so be it. Still the odds-on favorite for the division title.

New York Giants 30, Baltimore 10—Supposedly, the Ravens’ defense was to provide the Giants a stiff test here. It never happened. The Giants average 29.2 points a game, and their defense is as stingy as the offense is versatile. Now 9-1, Tom Coughlin’s troops are the class of the conference, and they’ll be tough to stop. The Ravens drop to 6-4, but with rookie QB Joe Flacco they’re still a good story and only one game behind Pittsburgh. Definitely in the hunt.

Green Bay 37, Chicago 3—Packers scramble the NFC North but good with this laugher over the Bears. Both teams are now 5-5, tied with the Vikings for first place in a division race that should go down to the wire, mainly because not one of these teams can assert any consistency and their out-of-division schedules are tough. Bears QB Kyle Orton hobbled around on his bum ankle, and the Packers defense was all over the field making plays. Packers RB Ryan Grant returned to form with 145 yards on the ground.

Tampa Bay 19, Minnesota 13—Up-and-down Vikes miss a chance to take undisputed possession of first place in the NFC North. Buccaneers (7-3) hang tough behind QB Jeff Garcia and keep pace with the NFC South-leading Panthers. Bucs travel to Detroit next weekend to take on the winless Lions.

Carolina 31, Detroit 22—Pathetic Lions (0-10) put up a good fight on the road—behind QB Daunte Culpepper, of all people—but Panthers’ running game proves too formidable. Now 8-2, Panthers aren’t a complete surprise, yet their division lead over Tampa Bay is but a single game. Carolina travels to Atlanta this coming weekend for what shapes up to be a big NFC South tilt.

Denver 24, Atlanta 20—Hard-fought battle in Atlanta proves one thing: Never underestimate a Mike Shanahan team. Broncos didn’t really put up spectacular numbers here, but they upped their record to 6-4 behind a gutsy performance by QB Jay Cutler, whose moxie and strong right arm often make him look like the new Favre. Falcons played hard, which they’ve done all season, but dropped to 6-4. Even so, they’re in the thick of the NFC wild-card race and still have a shot at a divisional crown.

San Francisco 35, St. Louis 16—That’s the Rams for ya: Lose four games, win two games, lose four more games. Their aggregate 2-8 (2-4 now under interim coach Jim Haslett) is sad indeed for a team with some definitely legit talent. But not only did they lose this game against the similarly underachieving division foe 49ers, they got slammed with injuries to key offensive linemen. Which means QB Marc Bulger can expect to spend the remainder of the season running even farther for his life. RB Steven Jackson didn’t play in his third game out of the last four due to his own nagging injury. All of which made for good news for Niners coach Mike Singletary, who tallied his first ever victory in the NFL. Hard to know what it all means for the rest of the Niners’ season, but now, at 3-7, they’ve assumed sole possession of second place in the NFC West. QB Shaun Hill put up strong numbers, and RB Frank Gore gained over 100 yards. Reality check next weekend: road trip to Dallas.

Arizona 26, Seattle 20—This isn’t how Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren ever envisioned his farewell season in Seattle. His team is 2-8. The return of injured QB Matt Hasselbeck was inauspicious (three INTs), and the leading rusher was Julius Jones with 19 yards on 10 carries. Ultimately, even two fourth-quarter TDs by T. J. Duckett, pulling the Hawks within six of the Cardinals, probably just offered a sadly false hope. The wheels are pretty much off this bus. Meanwhile, Arizona’s 37-year-old “Energizer Bunny” QB Kurt Warner (assisted by his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ) threw for 395 yards—his franchise-record fourth straight 300-yard game (move over, Charley Johnson, Jim Hart and Neil Lomax, not to mention Gary Hogeboom, Tom Tupa and Timm Rosenbach). This Cardinals squad is wafting in the heady aroma of a 7-3 record for the first time in more than 30 years, and it puts them straight on course for their—get this—second winning season since 1984. (Heck, even the Lions haven’t been that inept; they have six winning seasons since then.) Here’s another stat: Since 1948, when they were in Chicago, the Cards have played in a grand total of five playoff games, losing all but one. If they grab that NFC West crown, they might make head coach Ken Whisenhunt King of the Desert. (Don’t blow it, Ken.)

New Orleans 30, Kansas City 20—Apparently, the Saints do want to stay in the playoff race. They pulled to 5-5 with this convincing-enough defeat of the woeful 1-9 Chiefs. But Drew Brees & Co. have their work cut out for them, since even at .500 they’re last in the NFC South. The wild card is their best, most reasonable hope, but they’ll probably have to win five more games and pray for divine intervention. There are currently five other non-division-leading teams in the NFC with better records, and this doesn’t look like a lucky year for inconsistency. As for the Chiefs, well, Larry Johnson returned to tally 67 yards on 19 carries (eh!), and Tyler Thigpen seems to be establishing himself as the best Chiefs QB on two functioning legs. The Chiefs will win another game (but don’t quote me on that).

Indianapolis 33, Houston 27—Colts rediscover their potent offense, win a game they have to win, raise their record to 6-4 and bolster their wild-card chances considerably. The Texans are definitely the best 3-7 team in the league. Bad luck and an unforgiving schedule have conspired against them. They were in this one till a late Sage Rosenfels interception short-circuited their hopes for last-minute heroics. Rookie RB Steve Slaton shredded the Colts D for 156 rushing yards. Houston has yet to play the Packers and the Bears, so they could ruin somebody’s postseason plans.

Philadelphia 13, Cincinnati 13—So apparently, Philly QB Donovan McNabb was unaware that you could have a tie in the NFL. So after his Eagles (5-4-1) and Ryan Fitzpatrick’s Bengals (1-8-1) slugged it out for an extra quarter with no resolution to the game, he mentally prepared to play yet another quarter. Sorry, Donovan. That took cahones to admit your ignorance to the press. Especially for a guy that’s been in the league since 1999. Whatever. A tie is like kissing your sister, but it’s better than being spurned by the homely fat girl with bad acne (i.e., losing). And who knows? It might actually work in the Eagles’ favor come wild-card time. Former Bears RB Cedric Benson returned to form for Cincy: 42 yards on 23 carries (1.8 avg.). Thanks, CB: You had us worried with that 104-yard performance on Nov. 2.

Cleveland 29, Buffalo 27—This Monday night game was very exciting, but it's hard to know what it means in the bigger picture. Either the Browns (4-6) played gutty, or the Bills—now 5-5 after a 4-0 start—are coming apart at the seams. Buffalo QB Trent Edwards' lackluster game—including three INTs—undermined RB Marshawn Lynch's 119-yard effort and the Bills' domination of time of possession. Meanwhile, Brady Quinn won his first game as a starter for the Browns, though his numbers weren't much—14-of-36 for 185 yards. The Browns' timely D and Phil Dawson's late 56-yard field goal won it for 'em, but it could have easily gone the other way if the Bills' Rian Lindell hadn't missed a makeable 47-yarder at game's end. Browns coach Romeo Crennel lives to fight another day, but the win may only have forestalled the inevitable. His record since 2005 is 22-36, and only a near-miracle gets his team into the playoffs. As for the Bills, their fast start keeps them in contention, but suddenly they're last in the AFC East. Head coach Dick Jauron's cartoon-bubble thought: "It wasn't supposed to go this way..."

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

MNF Still Sucks, But It's Not the Game That's to Blame

Did you watch Monday Night Football on ESPN the other night? Did you hear Tony Kornholer being a consummate, uninformed and boring ass? Did you cringe a little when Mike Tirico went into his high-pitched "soft-male" pseudo-thoughtful observations? Did you think Ron Jaworski (aka "Jaws") went overboard on the macho-man scale, with his "insider" meathead talk about how coaches who are former NFL players can relate in a special way with their young charges? (Don't know about you, Jaws, but I'd rather have Vince Lombardi, Joe Gibbs or Bill Belichick—none of whom played in the NFL—helming my team over Mike Singletary.) How about Floozy Kolber's postgame Q-and-A with Kurt Warner, yet another round of asinine reportage based on the timeless modern-day stupid female inquiry, "How did that make you feel?" That question gave Warner the opening he always looks for: a chance to thank Jesus Christ his Lord and Savior for all things good in his life. Ugh.

Then there was lizardlike Stuart Scott, who, in the postgame video highlight analysis, twice called the Cardinals the 49ers—or was it vice-versa?—and was otherwise almost totally lost in narrating the plays. You really sucked, Stu. Emmitt Smith continues to amaze with his lack of knowledge of basic English. Nice guy, embarrassing reporter. (Move over, Jerome Bettis.)

Which left the only guy worth his sports media salt, Steve Young, sitting in the middle of the on-field dais, muttering to himself about the 49ers' absolutely pitiful final play-call, which sealed their defeat. Young had things to say, but Scott handled the host duties so badly that the moment was lost.

Does anyone in a position of authority at ESPN watch this stuff? If not, I'm throwing my hat in the ring for the newly created position of on-air quality control specialist. ESPN's a gazillion-dollar operation, and this is what we get. Sad stuff.

Lincecum Gets Cy; Lidge Gets Jobbed

Congrats to Tim Lincecum, the amazing, and highly entertaining, San Francisco Giants hurler who won the National League Cy Young Award on Tuesday. Lincecum deserved this honor, and it's nice to see the baseball writers paying attention to high achievement on a team that otherwise achieved little and merited little attention. Lincecum is awesome, without doubt. Cases could have been made for others, such as the DBacks' Brandon Webb, the Mets' Johan Santana or even NL latecomer C. C. Sabathia of the Brewers. But based on sheer performance, Lincecum was the premier pitcher in the league.

Alas, Phillies shutdown reliever Brad Lidge got jobbed into the bargain, in that if it were any other year, he might have easily won the award, as dominating relievers occasionally do. The only solution to this problem is for the BBWAA to institute an official award for relief pitchers. Call it the Hoyt Wilhelm Award or something, and throw all the relievers in to that category and get 'em out of the CYA consideration.

For all you youngsters out there, Hall of Famer Wilhelm was in many ways the first modern specialist relief man (in which role he won 124 games, still the record for relief pitchers). He is recognized as the first pitcher to have saved 200 games in his career and the first pitcher to appear in 1,000 games. He is also one of the oldest players to have pitched; his final appearance was 16 days shy of his 50th birthday. (See Wilhelm's record at http://www.baseball-reference.com/w/wilheho01.shtml.)

Do they still have the Fireman of the Year Award? Or the Rolaids Relief Pitcher Award? Whatever... There should be a way to separate these two pitching disciplines so the highest achievers don't get overlooked.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Obama's Dream Team: Oprah, Athletes to Join in Cause to Save America

And now it is done. We’ve elected a president who claims that he plans to levy new taxes only on the wealthiest 5% of Americans. This is good. It guarantees money in the federal coffers, it will sustain the needs of the remaining 95% of us who are not so fortunate, and it appropriately penalizes a lot of people in America who have no earthly right to be that rich.

Like Oprah Winfrey. Where else but in America could a middle-brow, mediocre-minded person like Oprah get elevated to goddesslike status? That most fickle, random and nondiscriminating of financial vehicles—the media—has made her rich beyond the wildest dreams of any 100 average citizens. Without any intellectual prowess, Oprah has, besides commandeering a media empire of voracious proportions, even managed to become the arbiter of taste in American letters. Her opinion means more to book authors than does the combined critical acumen of the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker, or the New York Review of Books. And how deliciously fortuitous that she operates from the new power center of the country: Chicago.

To be sure, Oprah Winfrey has money to burn. And trust me: She will not miss a few hundred million. Doubtless, given her hallowed status as modern-day saint, she will feel very good knowing that her spuriously gotten gains will go to ensuring health care for poorer folks all over the country, to making housing and education more affordable for all, and to help ease the credit and mortgage crunch. Not to mention helping to support our men and women in arms.

Oprah is an obvious target for the new president’s share-the-wealth ideas. But there are many other obscenely rich Americans that the new commander-in-chief should have in his sights.

The worlds of American sports and show business count among them thousands of individuals who are grossly overpaid for what they do. The new president, true to his word, surely won’t allow them to skate while Oprah does the heavy lifting.

Here’s a partial list of sports, movie and music figures who certainly fall into the 5% category. It’s time they did their duty in support of the plans of the new leader of the free world to make life bearable for all:

Quincy Jones, Bill Cosby, Chris Rock, Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, Morgan Freeman, Spike Lee, P Diddy (or whatever he’s calling himself these days), Michael Jackson, Russell Simmons, Vanessa Williams, Will Smith, Jamie Fox, Prince, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady, Shaquille O’Neal, Michael Jordan, Ken Griffey, Jr., LaDainian Tomlinson, Vince Young, Reggie Bush, Ray Lewis, Randy Moss, JaMarcus Russell, Terrell Owens, Ryan Howard, Allen Iverson, Barry Bonds.

This is just a start, of course. Once all the professional sports teams comply by providing detailed lists of their players’ yearly salaries, deferred income, bonuses, etc., there are many second- and third-tiered jocks who will neatly fit into the 5% category. DeAngelo Hall, a defensive back for the Oakland Raiders, has already earned $8 million through the first 8 games of the 2008 season. Not bad for a guy that was released by the team just today and was put on waivers, where he can be picked up by any other team willing to absorb his 7-year, $70 million deal, under which $24.5 million is guaranteed. (Don’t worry, someone will step up and help DeAngelo out.)

Suddenly, the frightening aspects of the new presidency—tantamount to the scenario of a Disney movie where the nice-looking, adorably charming office boy is suddenly thrust into the CEO’s chair—don’t look so bad. At least he won’t be spending my money.

Barack? You go, boy!!

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Black Athletes Victims in Their Own Communities: When Will It Stop?

ESPN.com headline: Doctors: Collier paralyzed below waist, one leg had to be amputated

Jacksonville Jaguars offensive tackle Richard Collier joins the late Sean Taylor and Darrent Williams as the latest pro-athlete victim of black-on-black violence. Last year, when I wrote about Taylor’s tragic death, I received quite a bit of mail from readers who claimed that I was racist to suggest that Taylor’s demise had something to do with a certain violent mindset in the black community. I certainly didn’t mean those comments as racist; to me it was simply a matter of surveying the evidence and drawing a possible conclusion.

Collier, shot in Jacksonville—get this—14 times on Sept. 2, while waiting in his car for ladies to arrive for a double date, now faces a life of paralysis, minus one leg, his promising and potentially very lucrative career as an NFL player ended. Doctors reported that five bullets alone were removed from the 26-year-old’s urinary bladder, plus he battled pneumonia and renal failure in recovery before the decision to amputate finally had to be made.

This is just heinous stuff, and a lot of citizen response has taken the form of outcry against the culture of guns in America. Maybe. But yet again, this is a crime that happened to a black man, more than likely perpetrated by a black man, and yet again I’m astonished at the lack of outrage coming from black national leaders about black-on-black violence.

Barack? Jesse? Charlie (Rangel)? Al (Sharpton)? Anybody gonna come out and say that the incidence of crimes perpetrated against high-profile black athletes by other blacks has got to stop? How about taking back one’s own community from such thuggish, destructive behavior? Does it bother anyone that black athletes have become marked men in their own neighborhoods?

If these anti-athlete crimes were spread across the racial or ethnic spectrum, then maybe the anti-gun advocates could make their points with singular certitude. That, alas, is not the case. Blacks are targeting blacks. The culture of guns in America might be problematic, but the culture of guns in the African American community is absolutely deadly. And apparently it isn’t stopping.

I don’t think it’s racist to recognize a trend and form an opinion about it. I won’t pretend to know all the deep-rooted reasons why there seem to be too-frequent incidents of gun violence in the black community. What I want to know is, When are the black leaders going to publically address that community and tell them that enough is enough?

Frankly, I don’t have a clue as to how you stop dangerous people from acting out on innocent people. But when a successful black athlete is in more danger in his own community than he might be in a predominantly white community, then something’s truly cock-eyed. Indeed, the tables have turned on racism in this country. I’m for Richard Collier and Darrent Williams, but apparently there are black dudes somewhere who are not.

The Colliers, Taylors and Williamses of the NFL should be looked up to as high achievers by American blacks. Instead, they’ve all three been gunned down.

Why can’t it stop? That’s the question I want Barack Obama to ask from a podium somewhere on the campaign trail. Somehow, I don’t think it’s gonna happen.

In the meantime, let’s all say a prayer for Collier. He’s going to need a lot of good will and hope as he tries to rebuild his life.

And let’s hope this is the last time we write about such an event for a very long time.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

NASCAR (Is) for Dummies

1. an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment : “team sports such as baseball and soccer” | [as adj. ] ( sports) “a sports center.”

So, the question put before us today is, Is NASCAR a sport?

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was on Dan Patrick’s FOX radio show Wednesday. Dan asked him, “Would your dad [the late Dale Earnhardt] have been on Kyle Busch’s ‘side’?” This is in reference to Busch’s so-called “rivalry” with driver Carl Edwards. (They’ve been bashing their cars into one another on the racetrack, in case you were not aware.)

Uh, “be on his side”?

Ya mean like in the schoolyard? Neener-neener-neener???

The NASCAR culture has a combined IQ of about 47. It is, without doubt, the sport for morons. If it’s a sport at all.

Remember Keanu Reeves in the movie Parenthood? He’s a young, dumb guy who pursues drag racing. When he totals his car at the end, everyone’s concerned for his safety, except the guy who owns the racetrack who asks, “Hey, can you come back and do that next week?” The “athlete” as cannon fodder.

NASCAR, IndyCar, or any level car-racing, is as boring as it gets—except for the crashes. So where’s the sport in that? What kind of person, I ask you, sits in the stands at a racing event and watches dozens of cars go around and around at high speed for hours and hours? What aspect of athleticism are they appreciating? If there’s no crash, do they go home disappointed? Or are they appreciative of the dumb drivers’ ability—sorry, “skill”—to sit their cast-iron asses in a car seat all afternoon and drive really fast? What, I ask you, distinguishes the “skill” of a Dale, Jr. from that of a—pick name at random—Greg Biffle? (“Man, that Greg Biffle can sure grab a hold of that steering wheel!”)

Fact is, you could take the #1 tire-changer guys from the pits of all NASCAR drivers, put them in the driver seats instead, let ’em race, and the average fan wouldn’t know the freakin’ difference at a glance. But at least the crashes would look the same: messy, fiery, smoky, hopefully fatal.

There’s always a lot of talk about Team Earnhardt or Team Gibbs (a la the former Redskins football coach who’s owned race cars for years), or Team Rahal, in which David Letterman has a stake. (Is it just me, or is it totally weird that Letterman, the political liberal, digs car racing? Didn’t you know, Dave, that the IndyCar series is a fave of overweight. low-educated blue-collar men and women who swill beer and voted for Bush?)

The “team” deal is an attempt to further promulgate racing as a “sport.” That dog won’t hunt. Do they give out awards for fastest oil-change?? Or lug-nut removal?? Well, they don’t yet, anyway. Hold onto your shotgun seat.

But let’s look at that definition again: “an activity involving physical exertion and skill...” Well, football certainly qualifies. LaDainian Tomlinson exerts himself mightily every Sunday and his physical skills as a runner are unquestioned. Basketball? No sweat. LeBron and Kobe are supremely physically skilled—we can actually see it—and the name of their game is nothing if not exertion. Hockey? Yes. Baseball? It’s less exertion but still has plenty of it, and the skill factor is huge. Yes to baseball. As a matter of fact, yes to any sport where the athletes involved must put their bodies into shape, perform in a public arena and display physical exertion and obviously superior skill at the activity involved. Heck, I hate soccer. It’s boring. But you can’t say it doesn’t fulfill the definition of sport. (FYI: I can’t hit Tim Lincecum’s fastball, but I drive all the time. Once I hit the mid-90s in my old Acura Integra on a trip from Chicago to Nashville. I know: It’s not the exact same thing, but you get my drift.)

Here’s Dale, Jr., in an online issue of Men’s Health magazine: “I used to not even pay attention to my health. I'd eat what I wanted to eat, I went wherever I wanted to, raised hell, didn't sleep. But it takes away from how quick-witted you are and how sharp you are in the race car...” Good thing he wasn’t driving on any average city street before this big revelation.

Then there’s the presposterous legacy crap that goes on in car racing. Does anyone believe that Dale, Jr. achieved “greatness” in his sport? Did he pay his dues? Did he demonstrate his ability pitted against other drivers in the minor leagues? No, we all know that nepotism is the name of that game. It is a rarity when a pro athlete’s kid makes it in the same sport. It certainly happens—the Boones, Alous, Bondses, Fielders, etc., in baseball; the Simms and Grieses and Winslows in football. But anyone remember Pete Rose Jr.? Poor Petey. He wanted to follow in dad’s footsteps and it proved an impossibility. Heck, Petey wasn’t even given a second chance. Why? Because while he may have been willing to exert—like many wannabe pro athletes—he simply didn’t have the skill.

More Dale, Jr.: “I didn't look like my dad, and my mannerisms weren't like his, so I didn't get many comparisons to him. So the pressure of being Dale Earnhardt Jr. wasn't so great. Just trying to make it was hard enough, you know? I liked the fact that I was able to drive for my dad, but I always knew that it might not work out. It's real hard to work for family. Fortunately, it has worked out. I can't believe they pay me to do this.”

I’ll bet a lot of guys can’t believe it either, Dale. As for it “not working out,” were you perchance planning another career? Maybe as a dentist?

Here’s Dale, Jr. on the legacy thing: “If I have a son, hell yeah, I want him to race. I'll be like those damn beauty-queen moms. You know how they have those little 6-year-olds that they're rushing to beauty contests? That's the kind of dad I'll be with racing. He'll be 6 years old, and I'll be yelling, ‘Damn it, you didn't go 'round that corner right! I told you, man, late apexes!’ ”

Late apexes?? Is that anything like hitting the curve ball? Lord help Dale III if he wants to be an entomologist. Hell yeah!

I met a lady once who owned a pawn shop. She took me into her office one day, and proudly pointed to what she claimed was her prized possession hanging on the wall: a large triptych of color photos of, and signed personally by, Richard Petty. “That’s my big thing,” she pronounced with reverence.

“Oh, yeah,” I said politely. But just what kind of “thing” is that, I wondered. Kinda a dumb, mindless thing.

Official attendance figures for 1998 North American auto racing were 17,079,004. It’s not easy to find current figures. That’s a lot of people, but not more than the Yankees, Red Sox, Cubs, Dodgers, Cardinals and Angels combined in a single season of baseball.

Nevertheless, the sport obviously has its fans. But that don’t—oops, sorry: doesn’t—make it a sport.

But what’s really amazing is that the major radio sports outlets broadcast car racing on the weekends. With play-by-play announcers! Hilarious.

Now what kind of a dummy LISTENS to an auto race on the radio?? A big one—with a lot of time on his hands apparently.

The evidence is overwhelming. NASCAR is not a sport. It's spectacle—for IQs below 80.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

The Tuesday Morning Quarterback: NFL Week #1 Recap

Verbal wanderings, from the field to the broadcast booth:

1. Hats off to the Falcons! The new and improved backfield, featuring rookie QB Matt Ryan and RB Michael Turner, looked potent in a sound defeat of the (admittedly) lax Lions. And no dogs were injured in the making of the “W.”

2. The TV networks should be ashamed of themselves for foisting on the American public some of the most grammar-challenged, low-IQ dumbass ex-jocks ever. Jerome Bettis: a really nice guy who actually went to college (Notre Dame) but needs someone to sit down and teach him about the rules of agreement between subjects and predicates. (Singular subjects take singular predicates, Bus. America’s children are watching.) Moron Brian Baldinger: still haunting the airwaves with his Neanderthal grunts and stupid observations.

3. All hail, Brett Favre. He can still throw a monster pass, and the gods have not forsaken him. With the injury to Tom Brady, suddenly the Jets’ chances at a playoff berth seemed to improve. Favre's Green Bay doppelganger, Aaron Rodgers, had a decent opening Monday night game in the Pack's defeat of the Vikings.

4. Sad to see Brady in pain. It didn’t look good. Ditto Vince Young, only in his case, it might be to the Titans’ benefit if he stays on crutches for a while. VY still looked lost in the Titans’ gutty 17-10 win over the Jags, and it was backup Kerry Collins who came in and looked assured running the offense. At this juncture, with a fine defense and a budding new star in RB Chris Johnson, the team might thrive under a veteran dropback QB who still has a decent arm. And, has anybody noticed that Jay Cutler of the Broncos, after a Monday night display of stellar leadership and arm strength, has clearly surpassed Young and Matt Leinart of the Cardinals, both of whom were drafted ahead of him in 2006. To think the Titans had their crack at Cutler, who played right here in Nashville at Vanderbilt. There's a lesson to be learned here: All that glitters is not gold. Spot observation: Vikes QB Tarvaris Jackson—also a 2006 draft choice (#64 overall out of Alabama State)—is further along in his development than Young.

5. Anybody got Daunte Culpepper’s cell number? The former All-Pro called it quits just a few days ago, saying no one was interested in his services. But QBs went down in Tennessee, New England and Kansas City (Brodie Croyle). Apparently, Chris Simms was already on New England’s speed-dial. Now all we need is a Jake Plummer sighting.

6. Big game for Philly’s Donovan McNabb. He sent the Rams reeling, and maybe that big year St. Louis QB Marc Bulger had in 2006 was a mirage.

7. TV executives should also be ashamed of themselves for foisting on the American public some of the most ego-inflated and self-absorbed non-jock announcers and commentators. Keith Olbermann is simply a goon and has no rightful place in our TV-watching lives. Joe Buck almost made it semi-successfully through the Cowboys-Browns broadcast, until for some reason he decided to interject some crap about baseball. (No doubt Joe’s insecure way of reminding us that he’s FOX’s man on the MLB beat, too. Fag.) Said fact-challenged Tony Kornheiser during the second quarter of Monday night's Packers-Vikings game, "Okay. Permit me to state the obvious..." (You always do, Tony. You always do.) Most disappointing was Dan Patrick, who sat in with Bob Costas and Olbercreep on the NBC dais. Dan seemed out of sorts. He left ESPN last year, and has returned on FOX radio with his own show, and is cleverly driving internet traffic to his own website. But what seemed like a cool maverick media move got lost Sunday night amid awkward pauses and a lack of spontaneity. We like Dan, except that Dan apparently likes Olberturd, so perhaps we must reevaluate.

8. The Bears looked very good. Stout defense, a careful Kyle Orton, and a hot new RB named Matt Forte. If they keep this up, they might very well contend for that NFC North title, after all. They soundly defeated the Colts (in Indianapolis), whom we predicted will have trouble this year making the playoffs. So far, so good on that one.

9. Bravo, Jake Delhomme. The Panthers’ QB, back from injury in 2007, threw an incredibly sharp pass into the end zone as time ran out, connecting with little-known second-year man Dante Rosario and defeating the Chargers in San Diego. Big opening victory for John Fox and his Carolina squad, who suddenly look more viable in the NFC South, winning a game most every pundit would’ve counted as a loss before the opening kickoff.

10. That “GU” on the uniforms looked kinda weird. And we’re gonna hafta look at it all the bleepin’ year long. Bad move. They don’t do that when other Hall of Famers die, leaving us only to conclude that Gene Upshaw got the honor because he was the head of the players' union. Now there’s a sensitive notion: "He helped inflate players' already obscene salaries and benefits and also drive up ticket prices for the average fan to unreachable levels. So let's put his initials on our jerseys and look ugly all season." Tasteless is what it is.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Injuries, Roster Changes and Rookies Make for Difficult 2008 NFL Predictions

Preseason NFL games are meaningless in the standings. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have meaning. Guys get hurt in ’em (the Giants’ Osi Umenyiora, lost for the season). Improbable faces excel and gain unlikely starting roles (J. T. O’Sullivan, 49ers). Most of all, we get a first glimpse at the raw talent of incoming rookies who might alter the fortunes of their teams (Falcons’ Matt Ryan, Titans’ Chris Johnson, Dolphins’ Jake Long).

If you happened to have made your predictions about the 2008 season before the preseason games started—like those magazines that try to get a jump on things in order to sell early product to anticipating fans—you might have a lot of egg on your face before the year is through. That’s because a lot occurred during the preseason, with veterans reporting late to camp due to surgery (Colts’ Peyton Manning) or nagging injuries (Patriots’ Tom Brady), or guys getting banged up in the games themselves (Bengals’ Chad Johnson, Redskins’ Jason Taylor, Browns’ Derek Anderson). Or, in the case of the Bears, you lose a vaunted rookie (Chris Williams) to herniated disc surgery before he can even line ’em up to show you what he’s got.

There are transitions on the horizon, however subtle. A lot of familiar high-achieving teams are out there (Colts, Pats, Giants, Cowboys, Chargers), but encroaching age and injury and free-agent roster changes are hovering overhead just enough to make guarantees impossible. Plus, recently lame-o teams (Raiders, Texans, 49ers) might be ready to surprise. Heck, even the revamped Falcons might make an occasional joyful noise.

The key to the playoffs (and to prognostication) is the schedule. It’s not enough to have high aspirations. For many teams, the schedule has to provide opportunity, mainly because parity is rampant. Plus lackluster teams get a chance to make a softer landing the year after they suck. (Though maybe no one told the Raiders this.)

Not that it’s ever bad, but this could be an exceedingly awesome season. It kicks off on Week #1 with the Dolphins and Chad Pennington vs. his old team, the Jets, and Brett Favre. (Shhh...no more talk about La Favre. Let’s just watch.)


1. New England Patriots

2007: 16-0
Projected 2008: 13-3

Presuming Tom Brady’s foot is okay, the Patriots’ offense should be as potent as ever. There are few changes on that side of the ball, so expect a dynamic, multilevel attack and plenty of points on demand. The defense stacks up a little differently. There’s creeping age in some quarters—Bruschi, Vrabel, Harrison—and the team picked up Bengals castoff Deltha O’Neal in a last-minute move to shore up the secondary. However, the trench guys—Richard Seymour, Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren—are excellent, blending enough youth with solid experience. Plus, all seven of the Patriots’ draft choices made the team, and five of those guys are defenders, including Jerod Mayo, who moves into the starting lineup as weakside linebacker. Repeating 16-0 won’t happen probably, but this team is still loaded.

2. Buffalo Bills

2007: 7-9
Projected 2008: 9-7

The scrappy Bills had a strong draft, which included James Hardy, a wide receiver from Indiana who looked good in the preseason. Along with Lee Evans and Josh Reed, the Bills have a fairly formidable crew to catch Trent Edwards’ passes. Meanwhile, Marshawn Lynch is looking to build on his fine first year at running back (1,115 yards). He kind of needs to do that, because depth is an issue here. Presuming Edwards’ growth at QB, the Bills should have no trouble scoring points. J. P. Losman is the capable backup signal-caller. The defense is mostly young, with a few vets sprinkled in (e.g., Marcus Stroud, picked up from Jacksonville, and Kawika Mitchell, in from the Giants). On balance, the Bills are a homegrown outfit, with eager youth hoping they're ready to blossom. The Bills have a legit shot at the playoffs, and it should be fun watching them pull an upset or two along the way.

3. New York Jets

2007: 4-12
Projected 2008: 8-8

The Jets pulled out all the stops in the off-season. They drafted well—all six of their initial picks made the team. They spent money on free agents and made trades (acquiring Alan Faneca, Calvin Pace and Kris Jenkins). Then they pulled the biggest move of all, dumping QB Chad Pennington and bringing in Brett Favre. Last year’s 4-12 record, after 10-6 in 2006, must’ve stung a lot, and so they’ve rolled the dice on making a lot happen now. Actually, the defense—about the middle of the pack in ’07—wasn’t so bad, and may definitely be improved once the new pieces gel with the younger vets. So Favre is here to jump-start the offense, the third worst in the AFC last year. It should make for very entertaining television no matter what. The running game is Thomas Jones (talented, hardworking, usually not a game-breaker) plus third-year pro Leon Washington. The receivers are Jerricho Cotchery and a banged-up Laveranues Cole, plus Brad Smith and a few other unknown quantities. The starting tight end is seventh-year pro Chris Baker, who had his best season in ’07, with 41 catches. Rookie TE Dustin Keller will probably get a solid shot at hauling in Favre’s checkdown passes. As schedules go, the Jets’ is fairly soft, as befitting a 4-12 team from the previous season. An optimist would look at it and venture 10 wins. We’ll go with 8, and that may be a gift—a nod in the direction of Favre’s ability to deliver. Heck, even 7 wins is a distinct improvement, and it’s not clear whether the Jets—Favre aside—have the offensive talent to vault into the playoff picture.

4. Miami Dolphins

2007: 1-15
Projected 2008: 5-11

The Dolphins are rebuilding under new GM Bill Parcells, but in one fell swoop they got something a lot of other, supposedly better teams are still searching for: a genuinely gifted and proven quarterback. Chad Pennington can’t turn it around all by himself, but he’s a fantastic pickup, and maybe—just maybe—new head coach Tony Sparano can get positive results a lot quicker than anybody figured. The running back situation is a little weird—Ricky Williams (yes, that Ricky Williams!) and Ronnie Brown trying to rebound from flakiness and/or injury—but wide receivers Ted Ginn, Ernest Wilford and Derek Hagan might click with Pennington, along with Anthony Fasano, who’s not a bad tight end. The defense mixes vets and younger talents, including Vonnie Holliday, Channing Crowder, Akin Ayodele, Joey Porter and Will Allen. The team’s #1 draft pick, offensive tackle Jake Long, has struggled so far, and he and the rest of the offensive line will have to progress to at least adequacy in order for any serious improvement to happen. Most importantly, they need to protect Pennington, who has a history of injury. There’s nowhere to go but up in Miami.


1. Pittsburgh Steelers

2007: 10-6
Projected 2008: 10-6

Parker, Mendenhall & Roethlisberger sounds like a law firm. But what it is is a potent backfield for the Steelers, who made the playoffs in ’07 but were dismissed in the first round by the Jaguars. Rookie Rashard Mendenhall has looked very good in the early going, and Willie Parker looks healed up from injury. BRoeth has good receivers too (Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes, maybe rookie Limas Sweed). The off-season loss of OL Alan Faneca to free agency doesn’t help, however. The Steelers’ D looks strong enough to contend, with a 3-4 dominated by good linebackers, and with veteran DBs in the secondary. To back up BRoeth, the Steelers picked up Byron Leftwich, but sitting behind him is very exciting fifth-round draft choice Dennis Dixon, who’d be awfully fun to watch if necessary. The schedule’s no softie, of course, with road games at Philly, Jacksonville, New England and Tennessee, and home dates with the Cowboys, the Chargers and the Colts. The Steelers can’t let up because, like last year, if they don’t win their division, there might not be a wild-card berth to secure.

2. Cleveland Browns

2007: 10-6
Projected 2008: 8-8

Browns missed the playoffs last year on the tiebreaker formula. No doubt they want it for real in ’08, but an unforgiving schedule might get in the way. The division games versus Pittsburgh will be tough, but also they play Dallas, the Giants, the Jags, the Colts, the Titans and Philly. If they beat up on the remaining mediocrities, chances for the playoffs improve dramatically. Still, Derek Anderson has to prove ’07 was for real, Jamal Lewis is a year older at running back, and the receiving corps doesn’t begin the year at total strength. Presuming the great-on-paper offense achieves, it’s up to the defense to improve over the 382 points allowed in ’07. One major step was taken in that direction by getting tackle Shaun Rogers from Detroit in a trade involving DB Leigh Bodden, who might be missed. The remaining secondary guys have some experience (if not a lot of track record), and the linebackers are a young, hungry bunch that includes Kamerion Wimbley, Andra Davis and D’Qwell Jackson, with 36-year-old Willie McGinest providing veteran presence. Could the Browns leap to 11-12 wins? Theoretically, yes. But the pragmatics of parity and the potential for a slump are all too real. If Anderson falters, the Brady Quinn fans will start hollering.

3. Cincinnati Bengals

2007: 7-9
Projected 2008: 6-10

The more things stay the same... the more things stay the same. Injuries, suspensions, soap operatic turmoil—it’s business as usual in Cincy. The Bengals released running back Rudi Johnson, who’s been the backbone of the rushing attack for five years. A committee replaces him, including Chris Perry and Kenny Watson. If Ocho Cinco and Housh can stay healthy, then QB Carson Palmer will have someone to throw to, but depth is a real problem here. Believe it or not, the Bengals’ offense may actually struggle. The D has veteran (but not usually All-Pro) players at every tier, but fans will be watching #1 draft choice Keith Rivers, yet another Southern Cal product, who’s been given a starting linebacker job. Still, ya gotta wonder what’s up when the Bengals release former All-Pro DB Deltha O’Neal and he’s immediately snapped up by, of all teams, the Patriots. The out-of-division schedule is not fatal, but there are too many questions about the Bengals’ overall profile to see them doing much better than six wins.

4. Baltimore Ravens

2007: 5-11
Projected 2008: 5-11

The vaunted Ravens defense yielded nearly 400 points in ’07, while the mediocre offense produced only 275. They’re unsettled at quarterback (Troy Smith or rookie Joe Flacco?), and somewhat at running back (if healthy, it’s Willis McGahee, with rookie Ray Rice coming on). The receivers are decent, with reliable Derrick Mason (entering his 12th year), Mark Clayton and Demetrius Williams, plus Yamon Figurs, whose main task is to return kicks. Todd Heap and Daniel Wilcox are solid at tight end. There’s all kinds of veteran name-talent on the defensive side—Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs, Trevor Pryce, Chris McAlister, Samari Rolle, Ed Reed—but age might be catching up with some of them. First-year coach John Harbaugh has his work cut out for him. If anyone asked me, I’d say Flacco ought to get the nod. Aspiring to .500 is at least a reasonable goal.


1. Jacksonville Jaguars

2007: 11-5
Projected 2008: 12-4

The Jags look ready. Marcus Stroud and Bobby McCray are gone from the defensive line, but they filled those holes from within and through the draft, the latter including Florida’s Derrick Harvey (who signed late) and Auburn’s Quentin Groves. Plus, they added former Charger Drayton Florence to an already first-rate secondary, and the LBs are led by the excellent Mike Peterson. Meanwhile, quarterback David Garrard should be one year better, and there’s big talent at running back with ageless (if sometimes injury-prone) Fred Taylor and the amazing Maurice Jones-Drew. Late draft choice Chauncey Washington from USC made the squad, and he showed running ability in the preseason. If there’s a weakness here, it’s at wide receiver. Offseason pickup Jerry Porter has nursed a nagging injury, leaving Reggie Williams as a major player along with veterans Dennis Northcutt and Matt Jones. Josh Scobee returns to full health as the placekicker, and that’s good news too. The Jags should compete for all the marbles, which probably makes coach Jack Del Rio happy but nervous.

2. Indianapolis Colts

2007: 13-3
Projected 2008: 8-8

After starting the season hobbling around on his surgically repaired knee, Peyton Manning may go through his team’s toughest season in a while. The schedule is insanely difficult—Jacksonville (2), Tennessee (2), improving Houston (2), at improving Minnesota, at Green Bay, New England, at Pittsburgh, at San Diego, at improving Cleveland—and it’s gonna take all of his QB magic to stay on course for the playoffs. The offensive tools look pretty much the same—Addai, Harrison, Wayne, Gonzalez, Clark—and rookie RB Mike Hart might help to add a new dimension to things. The D’s a year older and not necessarily a year better, and the draft only seemed to add potential depth without really finding an impact guy. It’s hard to stay consistently among the league’s elite; this year the Colts exhibit chinks in the armor.

3. Tennessee Titans

2007: 10-6
Projected 2008: 8-8

Defenders will need to stay healthy, because the offense is a huge question mark. Even at that, the Titans may underachieve. Their schedule, compared to Indy or Jacksonville, is a tad easier, but if Vince Young isn’t yet a sharp NFL quarterback, then no amount of great D will raise the team much above .500. The first-string receivers (Gage and McCareins) are nothing great, and one has to wonder what’s going on with personnel evaluation when the Titans get rid of WR Courtney Roby and he ends up making a Colts squad that already has some of the best receivers in the game. Maybe rookie WR Lavelle Hawkins will emerge—and maybe he won’t (just like last year’s receiving hope, Paul Williams). With Young showing a limited mastery of a pro offense, the fallback position is run-run-run, throw checkdown passes to newly acquired tight end Alge Crumpler, and play shutdown defense. The offensive line looks good (mostly young vets, with the exception of aging center Kevin Mawae), and third-year man LenDale White could team with gifted rookie Chris Johnson to provide a thunder-and-lightning running back tandem. The defense has plenty of talent: Bulluck, Vanden Bosch, Thornton, Haynesworth, Hope, Griffin, and Jevon Kearse, the latter hoping to jump-start a career on the wane. Under head coach Jeff Fisher, the Titans never lack for playing tough football. They hit with intensity and can wear an opponent down. Alas, if the aspiring competition rises up to meet them, and if Young starts to look more like Michael Vick—and less like Steve McNair—this could be a longer season than most might’ve thought, especially for a team that made the playoffs in ’07.

4. Houston Texans

2007: 8-8
Projected 2008: 8-8

The Texans are desperately wanting to go above .500 this year. They’ll probably need some luck to do that, but, like last year, they’re an interesting team who can cause problems. The quarterbacking is in good hands (Matt Schaub, Sage Rosenfels), and there’s at least one great receiver (Andre Johnson) along with capable others, including Kevin Walter. Not so sure about running back, though. There’s aging Ahman Green, and there was former Titan Chris Brown, until he went on injured reserve. So it’s a good opportunity for rookie Steve Slaton to show what he can do. The defense has young studs in the trenches (Mario Williams and Amobi Okoye), the key linebacker is DeMeco Ryans, and the secondary is capable but was better until recently losing Dunta Robinson to the PUP list. The schedule’s not the worst but has its pitfalls. Besides the expected tough divisional games, they have road trips to Pittsburgh, Minnesota, Cleveland and Green Bay. If they can make some hay out of the other six games, they should remain respectable.


1. San Diego

2007: 11-5
Projected 2008: 11-5

The Chargers remain loaded. The offensive attack looks potentially as good as ever, especially with tight end Antonio Gates starting the year injury-free. Philip Rivers, LaDainian Tomlinson, Chris Chambers—it’a all good, plus rookie RB Jacob Hester from LSU should contribute. First-round draft choice Antoine Cason should help the secondary also, thus bulwarking an already top-flight D. Why All-Pro linebacker Shawne Merriman would risk further injury playing on a bum knee is beyond me. The Chargers could survive without him, and he might get to play 10 more years. Whatever. I guess even at 85% he’s better than most anybody, but possibly he’s a fool, and why the front office doesn’t put him on injured reserve—thus forcing him to address the problem—is beyond me. Pats, Saints, Steelers, Colts and Bucs are the tougher out-of-division opponents this year, and the division itself might not be a cakewalk after all. Holding at 11-5 will disappoint some fans—and give head coach Norv Turner a few more worry lines and gray hairs—but the playoffs are the playoffs.

2. Oakland

2007: 4-12
Projected 2008: 9-7

It’ll be exciting in Oakland this season, even if not completely successful. The Raiders could make some noise, with their blend of potentially all-world young talent on offense and some oncoming younger vets on defense. It’s JaMarcus Russell time at QB, and #1 draft choice RB Darren McFadden will attempt to do what Adrian Peterson did for Minnesota last year: provide a scary ground attack while a young signal caller gains his chops. Justin Fargas is currently still atop the depth chart at running back, but that could change soon, plus the Raiders have a wild-card in former Louisville standout Michael Bush, who was drafted in ’07 on the rebound from injury and now appears healed up. Javon Walker leads an otherwise somewhat unheralded receiving corps, which also suffered some injuries in the preseason. Zach Miller is a good young tight end. Russell does have a big body and an even bigger arm but what’s in his head is the multi-million-dollar question. The D actually looks pretty good, with veterans on the line (Gerard Warren, Derrick Burgess), linebacking led by Thomas Howard and Kirk Morrison and talented younger DBs Nnamdi Asomugha, Michael Huff, Gibril Wilson (fresh off a Super Bowl win with the Giants) and also DeAngelo Hall, picked up from the Falcons. If Lane Kiffin, a bit of a youngster himself, can coach ’em up, the Raiders might pull a big surprise.

3. Kansas City

2007: 4-12
Projected 2008: 9-7

Here’s a phenomenal fact: All 12 of the Chiefs’ draft choices this year made the team. They have a massive infusion of young talent everywhere but at quarterback and linebacker. The big name is #1 draft choice Glenn Dorsey, who will start at defensive tackle. Rookie cornerback Brandon Flowers will also start, and a few other novices will see serious playing time. So the big question is about QB Brodie Croyle and his ability to lead the hoped-for turnaround. Larry Johnson is the running back, and he’s capably backed up by Kolby Smith and rookie Jamaal Charles. Dwayne Bowe is an excellent young receiver, and Devard Darling has potential (though not much of a track record); alas, injuries have thinned out the rest of those ranks. Tony Gonzalez is a great tight end, and rookie Brad Cottam’s in reserve. Napoleon Harris and Donnie Edwards are veteran anchors of the linebacking corps. Gaining five games on last year’s record is a pretty optimistic prediction. Croyle needs to prove he’s more than merely adequate, the kids need to come through and Herm Edwards needs to show that he’s actually a good coach (a proposition that remains debatable). It could happen, though.

4. Denver

2007: 7-9
Projected 2008: 7-9

Nagging injuries (Boss Bailey, Elvis Dumervil, Marquand Manuel, newly acquired Dewayne Robertson, rookies Ryan Torain and Carlton Powell), plus the coming suspension of WR Brandon Marshall, threaten to hamper the Broncos’ return to playoff contention. There are questions at running back also, though coach Mike Shanahan’s always found a way to have a productive ground game. First-round draft choice Ryan Clady is supposed to help that situation at offensive tackle. Otherwise, it’s all QB Jay Cutler, a gamer if ever there was one, but also fresh off the news that he has diabetes and has to monitor his blood-sugar levels with daily care. He’s looked very good in the preseason, so maybe taking care of his body will make him better. Rookie wide receiver/kick returner Eddie Royal is expected to give the team a boost on offense, and there are still very good players on defense, like Champ Bailey, John Engelberger, D. J. Williams and, yes, even aging Dre’ Bly. The schedule’s a nightmare. Six challenging division games include two versus the Chargers, plus they face the Saints, the Bucs, the Jaguars, the Patriots, the Browns and a smattering of other teams right about at their level. Equaling last season’s mediocre finish might be tough.


1. Dallas Cowboys

2007: 13-3
Projected 2008: 11-5

This team is talented, and they look to be healthy. They’ve got vets on both sides of the ball, yet age doesn’t appear to be a serious problem. Getting beat in the playoffs last season by the Giants no doubt still stings, but there’s no earthly reason why the Cowboys shouldn’t make the postseason comfortably again. Rookie running back Felix Jones should be a nice complement to Marion Barber out of the backfield. Tony Romo, Patrick Crayton and Terrell Owens provide the steady passing attack. The defense, already pretty good, adds veteran Zach Thomas from the Dolphins. He’ll turn 35 right before the season starts but still appears to have gas left in the tank. Plus, the Great Pacman Jones Experiment is on, and if the talented cornerback/kick returner keeps his nose clean and concentrates on football, the team gets a huge boost. The Cowboys might even do better than 11-5, but divisional play will be a challenge, and they’ve got road games at Cleveland, Green Bay and Pittsburgh.

2. New York Giants

2007: 10-6
Projected 2008: 10-6

Despite winning the Super Bowl, there are few experts who will admit that the Giants were hands-down the best team in the NFL last year. QB Eli Manning still has a few skeptics, and besides, the real MVP on that team was DL Osi Umenyiora, and he’s down for the season with an injury. Plus Michael Strahan has retired for good. Thus, the D will probably look less fearsome. There are the eternal questions at linebacker, plus some truly unknown quantities in the defensive backfield, though also plenty of veteran depth (R. W. McQuarters, Sam Madison, Sammy Knight). The offense still looks decent, though Jeremy Shockey is gone, leaving a hole at tight end. The offensive line appears healthy, and it’s time for Brandon Jacobs to build seriously on ’07’s 1,000-yard season. If Manning hits Plaxico Burress and Amani Toomer with regularity, the Giants will win their share of games. But exceeding last year could be a struggle, even though the schedule’s not so challenging for a world champion.

3. Philadelphia Eagles

2007: 8-8
Projected 2008: 9-7

Philly fans are expecting a definite improvement on last season’s .500 record. With luck, they could do as well as 11-5. There are definitely opportunities on the schedule to pull out road victories at Chicago, San Francisco, Cincinnati and Baltimore. Plus the home schedule features games versus Atlanta and as-yet-unknown quantities St. Louis and Arizona. The team’s added Asante Samuel to an already aggressive defense, and that’s good. A lot hangs on the performance of QB Donovan McNabb, who’d probably like to prove to some people that he’s definitely not over the hill. Plus, there are those of us who keep wondering how long versatile RB Brian Westbrook can keep doing his Superman imitation. If Westbrook goes down, there’s little behind him. And if McNabb falters in the least, there’ll be a hue and cry for the promotion of second-year man Kevin Kolb, who has looked awfully good the past two preseasons and definitely deserves a shot somewhere. Some preseason injuries have affected the wide receiver corps, but the Eagles have swift and elusive rookie DeSean Jackson ready to make an impact there. (How that guy was left undrafted until the second round is a huge mystery.) Still, it’s hard to presume that the out-of-division competition’s just gonna lay down for the Eagles. They all have something to prove, too.

4. Washington Redskins

2007: 9-7
Projected 2008: 9-7

Anything can happen with the Redskins in ’08 under new head coach Jim Zorn. The best news for this team is that the offensive line looks healthy again, and that’s especially good for RB Clinton Portis. The main receivers are vets—Antwaan Randle El, Santana Moss, Chris Cooley—plus there’s rookie talent waiting in line, like Devin Thomas, Malcolm Kelly and TE Fred Davis. But the wild card is fourth-year QB Jason Campbell, charged with running the West Coast offense. Campbell has ability—60% completion rate in ’07—but he has a tendency to make questionable big decisions. Plus, he hasn’t looked that great in the preseason. A few bad games and the folks in the Nation’s Capital will be calling for rookie Colt Brennan, who may be better prepared to run the West Coast after his incredible career at Hawaii. Brennan would be a risky move, of course, but an exciting one. Then there’s vet Todd Collins sitting around, who took the team to the playoffs last season. The defense, with the addition of Jason Taylor, might be better than we know, with vets like Andre Carter, Cornelius Griffin, London Fletcher and Shawn Springs, plus younger vets Carlos Rogers and Laron Landry. There’s depth, too, on D, with Fred Smoot, Khary Campbell and Demetric Evans. All things considered, the schedule’s not that bad. Besides the grueling NFC East tilts, they play Arizona, St. Louis, Detroit, Baltimore, Cincinnati and San Francisco. If Campbell sucks, and Zorn proves clueless in his big new job, the 9-7 projection goes down the tubes.


1. Green Bay Packers

2007: 13-3
Projected 2008: 10-6

So if your highly touted, virtually a rookie, quarterback screws up once he faces live ammo, how can you possibly match the record achieved the previous season with one of the greatest QBs in the history of the game? Answer: You can’t. The Packers have an aggressive defense sprinkled with gifted youngsters and proven veterans, and those guys need to play well while Operation Aaron Rodgers is launched. Rodgers looked decent in preseason, and there are good receivers (Greg Jennings, Donald Driver) waiting for him to achieve some semblance of Favredom. Running back Ryan Grant is back (after a salary holdout), and everyone hopes 2007 wasn’t a flash in the pan for him, especially since there’s mostly unproven talent on the bench. The Pack could win 10 games, but only if Rodgers proves to be better-than-average. If he melts down, they could be in serious trouble, ’cause there’s nothing but raw rookies backing him up.

2. Minnesota Vikings

2007: 8-8
Projected 2008: 9-7

It’s not easy to project really good things for a team with Tarvaris Jackson at quarterback. He was developing further, it seemed, until he injured his knee in a preseason game against the Ravens. So even if he starts the season for the Vikes, he’s got a cloud hanging over him. Even if he were completely healthy there would be the question of how much he’s improved over a 2007 season in which he recorded 9 TDs and 12 interceptions, with a 70.8 passer rating, thus making him Vince Young North. The backup is veteran Gus Frerotte, who’s a savvy guy (when he’s not butting his head into stadium walls). And besides, the strategy is to hand the ball off to last year’s rookie phenom Adrian Peterson and let the excellent defense maul opposing offenses. This might work. But even if the Vikings sweep their NFC North schedule—highly unlikely—it’s hard to see them winning more than four more games against their other opponents. So unless Jackson or Frerotte really comes on big, the Vikes could still struggle to make the playoffs. The locals think their team is championship caliber, but there’s a lot yet to prove here. Maybe 9-7 will win the division, presuming the Packers falter.

3. Chicago Bears

2007: 7-9
Projected 2008: 7-9

Question marks at quarterback, wide receiver and running back make the Bears’ season a total crap shoot. Yet the team still has serious talent on defense, and it has kick returner Devin Hester providing instant offense. It’s all about the “ifs”: If Kyle Orton can run the offense efficiently; if the receivers come through (Marty Booker, Rashied Davis, Brandon Lloyd [!], Mark Bradley, plus Hester and rookie Earl Bennett); if rookie RB Matt Forte is the real deal (or if former Lion Kevin Jones can rejuvenate his career). The Bears are set at tight end, with vet Desmond Clark and up-and-coming Greg Olsen. Robbie Gould’s a good kicker, too. Outside of divisional foes, there are games against Indianapolis, Tampa Bay, Philly, Tennessee, Jacksonville and New Orleans. Pretty tough slate.

4. Detroit Lions

2007: 7-9
Projected 2008: 6-10

The team that began 2007 with a 6-2 record—then lost 7 of their last 8 games—has a new offensive coordinator in Kippy Brown (Mike Martz fled to San Francisco). Of course, scoring wasn’t the Lions’ problem: No other team in the entire league gave up more points (444). So it looks like another year of losing more shootouts than they win. The big passing attack is led by veteran quarterback Jon Kitna and excellent wide receivers Roy Williams and second-year man Calvin Johnson. Plus, the team is hoping for big things from rookie running back Kevin Smith, with former 1,000-yard rusher Tatum Bell still striving to make his mark in Motown. The D returns many players from last year, but it remains to be seen if that’s a good thing. The team’s leading sacker Shaun Rogers is gone, however, though the trade with Cleveland brought veteran DB Leigh Bodden. Other new faces in the secondary include two vets from the 2002 Tampa Bay Super Bowl winners, Dwight Smith and Brian Kelly. With an NFC North schedule, the Lions have a shot at winning some divisional games, but they also play everybody in the AFC South and the NFC South, which means at least five automatic toughies, plus road games at Atlanta, Houston and Carolina. They might do better if the defense gels, but it’s hard to figure much more than 6 wins.

[LATE-BREAKING NEWS: The Lions added former Bengals running back Rudi Johnson to their roster, and released Tatum Bell.]


1. New Orleans Saints

2007: 7-9
Projected 2008: 11-5

After 2007’s disappointing performance, the Saints look ready to reassume a commanding position in the NFC South. They’ve shored up their defense with vets like Randall Gay, Bobby McCray and Jonathan Vilma, plus they have rookie defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis out of USC waiting to develop. On offense, QB Drew Brees remains an excellent leader, with one of the strongest arms in the game. Marques Colston leads the receiving corps, which also features veteran David Patten coming off a decent year and the hoped-for ascension of younger players Devery Henderson and Robert Meachem. But the biggest addition is tight end Jeremy Shockey. If he stays healthy, and does what he did for the Giants in his best years, Shockey-plus-Brees could be an awesome combo. The running game looks toward the clever variety work of Reggie Bush plus the return of Deuce McAllister from yet another knee surgery. McAllister looked okay in preseason. Whether he can take a year-long licking remains to be seen. Still, there’s depth in the backfield, with Pierre Thomas and Aaron Stecker. Cornerback Jason David has apparently been relegated to second-string work. He was a big free-agent acquisition from the Colts in ’07, but he kept getting burned. Maybe he’ll do better in nickel and dime packages. The only bona fide power teams the Saints play all year—unless you include division foe Tampa Bay (and I don’t)—are San Diego and Green Bay. So the schedule is ripe for the plucking. They might even do better than 11-5.

2. Carolina Panthers

2007: 7-9
Projected 2008: 8-8

The team that used to be a defensive juggernaut amassed only 23 sacks in 2007. They also gave up 347 points—not the worst in the league but nowhere near the best, either. (The NFC leaders in points allowed were the division-rival Buccaneers with 270.) Mike Rucker and Kris Jenkins are gone from the defensive line, which remains anchored by Julius Peppers, and now features former Raider Tyler Brayton and unspectacular but steady vets Ma’ake Kemoeatu and Damione Lewis. There are decent linebackers in Jon Beason, Na’ll Diggs and Thomas Davis, plus a respected secondary featuring Chris Gamble, Chris Harris and Ken Lucas. On the offensive side of the ball, Jake Delhomme looks to be healthy again, though backup Mike Moore is nursing an injury, which induced the pickup of veteran Josh McCown after the final cutdowns. DeAngelo Williams returns at running back, while DeShaun Foster was released in the offseason and signed with the 49ers. Rookie Jonathan Stewart looked very good in preseason, and the Panthers are hoping he’ll add a serious punch to the ground attack and the return game. Talented receiver Steve Smith is suspended for the first two games of the season for a weird training-camp altercation with Lucas, plus he suffered a concussion in the first preseason game. They’ll need him to return to form. Muhsin Muhammad, now 35, returned to the Panthers in the offseason after three years with the Bears, plus they’ve got former Seahawk D. J. Hackett and second-year man Dwayne Jarrett also hoping to get into the WR mix. The Panthers scored little last season, but they’ve added first-round draft choice Jeff Otah to their offensive line, Delhomme is back, and—presuming the defense regains some of its swagger—there are enough skill-position players here to make a run at a wild-card berth.

3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

2007: 9-7
Projected 2008: 7-9

Let’s see... Jeff Garcia, Warrick Dunn, Michael Bennett, Joey Galloway, Ike Hilliard, Antonio Bryant, Kevin Carter, Derrick Brooks, Cato June, Ronde Barber. That’s a lot of old guys playing key roles on a team that made the playoffs last year by the hair of their chinny-chin double-chins. The Bucs were probably the least impressive team to get to the postseason, and it is unclear whether this distinctly veteran crew can do it again. If everyone stays healthy—chiefly Garcia, who, amazingly, threw only 4 interceptions all season in ’07—they should compete. Second-round draft choice Dexter Jackson excited folks in the preseason, and he adds an infusion of youth and speed to the receiving corps and the return game. Besides at least four challenging division games, the Bucs square off against Dallas, Green Bay, San Diego and Seattle (all playoff teams last season), plus wannabes Minnesota (at home) and Denver (on the road). Repeating last year’s success looks pretty difficult, though Garcia is a bit of a magician.

4. Atlanta Falcons

2007: 4-12
Projected 2008: 5-11

Considering all they went through in 2007, the Falcons’ 4-12 record maybe wasn’t so bad. (They were better than the Dolphins at least.) The new Mike Smith regime brings serious change, though there’s a lot of holdover talent from previous seasons. The big news is rookie QB Matt Ryan, who’ll have his hands full overseeing a rebuilding offense. Ryan has looked good early on; he seems smart, and if he can minimize his expected level of mistakes, there’s hope on the horizon. Former Charger Michael Turner gets to prove why he should be a first-string running back, and backup Jerious Norwood is also a young, legit talent. The wide receivers are familiar—Roddy White, Michael Jenkins, Brian Finneran—but they have a chance to renew their careers with Ryan. The biggest names on defense are oldsters: Grady Jackson, John Abraham, Keith Brooking, Lawyer Milloy. It remains to be seen if this unit can play with consistency and avoid injury. A one-game jump upward is definitely possible. Maybe more if the stars align in their favor.


1. St. Louis Rams

2007: 3-13
Projected 2008: 9-7

The Rams got off to a bad start last year and never recovered. Injuries didn’t help. They get a fresh slate with a healthy Marc Bulger at QB, newly signed RB Steven Jackson, some very good veteran receivers (Torry Holt, Randy McMichael), and some interesting new faces from the draft. Chief among the latter is defensive end Chris Long, who lines up with vets Leonard Little, La’Roi Glover and Adam Carriker to form a potentially impressive front four. There are still question marks in the linebacking and secondary, as regards either talent (Tye Hill) or age (Corey Chavous) or injury (Will Witherspoon), but the personnel could gel, especially if the down linemen are in serious pursuit. The schedule’s about as agreeable as it could get—save for Dallas, New England and the Giants—and with luck the Rams could win 10 games easy. Unfortunately, this prediction looks a lot like last year, so we shall see.

2. Seattle Seahawks

2007: 10-6
Projected 2008: 8-8

Injuries and personnel changes cloud the Seahawks’ fortunes. As does the unknown nature of their NFC West opponents. If the Rams, 49ers and Cardinals improve as expected, head coach Mike Holmgren’s announced final season could be a struggle. Injuries, major and minor, have affected QB Matt Hasselbeck, wide receivers Deion Branch and Bobby Engram and linebacker Lofa Tatupu, plus DT Rocky Bernard and safety Jordan Babineaux have suspensions to serve. Former Cowboy Julius Jones is the new face at running back with the release of Shaun Alexander. There are still tough hitters on defense, though, and first-round draft choice Lawrence Jackson earned a starting job at defensive end to bookend the excellent Patrick Kerney. Second-round choice John Carlson from Notre Dame looks to be the starter at tight end. It’s not a dire situation, but the schedule’s no help at all, with games against the Giants, Packers, Bucs, Redskins, Cowboys and Patriots, all of ’em playoff teams in ’07.

3. San Francisco 49ers

2007: 5-11
Projected 2008: 7-9

The Niners have a lot of talent on their roster. But can newly anointed QB J. T. O’Sullivan lead them to the playoffs? He’s kind of got a Kurt Warner-type story, having spent time in NFL Europe and on many an NFL practice squad since being originally drafted in 2002 by the Saints. Coach Mike Nolan’s on the hot seat this year, so the O’Sullivan choice is a heavy one, especially with high-priced Alex Smith now sitting on the bench. O’Sullivan has weapons: Frank Gore and DeShaun Foster at running back, receivers Isaac Bruce and Bryant Johnson, and tight end Vernon Davis. On defense there’s a major young star in LB Patrick Willis, up-and-comers Manny Lawson and Parys Haralson also in the middle, and solid secondary vets Nate Clements and Walt Harris. The defensive line remains a question mark, and former Bengal Justin Smith was brought in to help shore things up. Rookie DE Kentwan Balmer is an interesting prospect. The schedule’s no cakewalk, alas, and O’Sullivan will really have to produce for the postseason to be a reality.

4. Arizona Cardinals

2007: 8-8
Projected 2008: 6-10

Only the Packers and Cowboys scored more points than the Cardinals in the NFC last year. Alas, only the Falcons, Rams and Lions allowed more. The team tried to address these needs, drafting CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and DE Calais Campbell and picking up down lineman Travis LaBoy in free agency. So now the D is a veteran bunch with some apparent depth, and only time will tell if improvement is nigh. Kurt Warner gets the controversial nod at quarterback over Matt Leinart, but you can’t say he hasn’t earned the chance. He’s had a history of fumbleitis, but presuming that’s under control, there are excellent receivers in Larry Fitzgerald, the disgruntled Anquan Boldin and TE Leonard Pope. The running game is again led by Edgerrin James, but the clock may be ticking on him for sure. He’s now 30, yet his durability has not been in question, and he enters the season with 11,617 career rushing yards. Fifth-round draftee Tim Hightower displayed some moves in preseason. Seems like the Cards would do better, but the schedule’s a killer.



Chargers over Bills
Steelers over Raiders

Patriots over Steelers
Jaguars over Chargers

Jaguars over Patriots


Eagles over Packers
Giants over Rams

Cowboys over Eagles
Saints over Giants

Saints over Cowboys

Jaguars over Saints