Five Teams on the Rise, Five on the Decline
Five Teams on the Rise, Five on the Decline
Line of Scrimmage: Five Teams on the Rise, Five on the Decline
June 14th, 2007
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - If you're seeking some solid tips on the bear market, look no further than this space.
It was around this time last year that we referred readers to five teams on the decline, correctly asserting that 2005 playoff entries Pittsburgh, Jacksonville, Tampa Bay, and Denver would struggle to keep their footing into 2006. We missed on just one of the five teams we pegged for tougher times - New England - though we accurately predicted that the Patriots would win a watered-down AFC East in spite of their perceived inadequacies.
The bull market? Apparently not The Sports Network's specialty.
We did predict that the Eagles and Saints, who combined for nine wins in 2005, would reverse their respective courses in 2006, though this writer abandoned his Philadelphia pick after Donovan McNabb got hurt and didn't think New Orleans would win the NFC South until the day it clinched the division.
Our other three "teams on the rise," were the Raiders, Lions, and Browns, or in other words, the first three franchises on the clock in the 2007 Draft. By the way, which of those teams' nine combined 2006 wins was your favorite?
Anyway, we'll be shooting for a little more consistency this time around.
Below we take our annual look at five teams primed for an imminent ascent, and their counterparts in the department of descent.
ON THE RISE
49ers - The Niners are the darlings of the 2007 NFL offseason, but are the high expectations all a case of too much, too soon? On the contrary, it would seem that all the stars are set to align for Mike Nolan's group. A team that went 7-9 and remained in the Wild Card discussion until the concluding weeks of '06 upgraded in several key areas including the secondary (free agent cornerback Nate Clements and strong safety Michael Lewis), linebacker (ex- Patriot Tully Banta-Cain on the outside and first-round draft pick Patrick Willis on the inside), receiver (Darrell Jackson, Ashley Lelie) and on the offensive line (first-round pick and tackle Joe Staley). The team's most important offensive players, quarterback Alex Smith and running back Frank Gore, should make a positive leap from year two to year three of their respective careers. In addition, the weakness of the division will help immensely, as the Seahawks and Rams appear stuck in neutral and the Cardinals will begin what could be another painful coaching transition this year. Skeptics remain, but all signs point to San Francisco winning 10-12 games and becoming a playoff factor for the first time in what seems like ages.
Broncos - Had it not been for a second-half home collapse in the season finale against the 49ers, Denver would have been a playoff entry, albeit a pretty weak one, in 2006. Frankly, Mike Shanahan sealed his team's fate when he moved up to draft Jay Cutler in the first round of last year's draft, and the battle over whether Cutler or short-timer Jake Plummer would run the offense had everything to do with the club's 2-5 mark in its final seven games. Cutler is a year wiser, and though he can't be expected to move the team with Elway-like poise and efficiency, his supporting cast is better. Travis Henry is perfectly suited for Denver's zone rushing scheme, and Brandon Stokley and Daniel Graham offer the young quarterback two more much-needed targets. The defense has also improved, with a couple of young pass rushers added to the fold in Jarvis Moss and Tim Crowder, three all-important interior line reinforcements (Sam Adams, Jimmy Kennedy, Alvin McKinley) to help stabilize that area, and Dre' Bly brought in to start opposite All-Pro corner Champ Bailey following the tragic death of Darrent Williams. San Diego remains the class of the AFC West as the season begins, but should Norv Turner perform his patented face-plant, a high- quality Denver team will be lying in wait to reclaim the division.
Panthers - Carolina joined Miami on a short list of the NFL's most disappointing teams in 2006, but it wasn't lack of talent that kept the Panthers from delivering on their preseason promise. Significant injuries to quarterback Jake Delhomme, a large chunk of his offensive line, and defensive principles like linebacker Dan Morgan cast a pall over Carolina's campaign, and an unimaginative offensive scheme didn't help matters. But John Fox's squad will enter 2007 with improved health, a dash of fresh talent (rookie linebacker Jon Beason and wideout Dwayne Jarrett, for starters), and a new offensive mastermind in former Browns coordinator Jeff Davidson. Plus, due to New Orleans' emergence in the NFC South, Carolina won't be saddled with outsized expectations, and it is when the hype has been kept to a minimum that Fox has done his best coaching jobs (2003, 2005). There's no reason why the Panthers shouldn't be at the forefront of the Wild Card race in a watered-down NFC, and they should also have an opportunity to nip at the Saints' heels in the division.
Bengals - Was there an NFL team more maddeningly inconsistent than the Bengals in 2006? Cincinnati jumped out to a 3-0 start, found itself stuck in a 4-5 rut by mid-November, seemingly righted the ship during a four-game winning streak, then promptly lost its final three games to finish out of the playoff money. That Jekyll-and-Hyde performance was less memorable than the team's off-the- field shenanigans, which had to have a major impact on team chemistry and morale. There is no guarantee that the Bengals will stay out of the police blotter (especially with "hear no evil, see no evil" Marvin Lewis running the show), but there is clearly enough talent for this team to take a major run at Baltimore in the AFC North. With Carson Palmer, Chad Johnson, Rudi Johnson, and T.J. Houshmandzadeh at the forefront of his offense, there is no excuse for the Bengals ranking outside the NFL top five in scoring. The defense will again be the key, and though there have not been a large number of upgrades in that area, there is a school of thought indicating that the fat the team trimmed (Sam Adams, Brian Simmons, Tory James) in the offseason will help that unit carve out a new, positive identity. If it doesn't, and the team fails, Lewis deserves to be on the hot seat heading into 2008.
Jaguars - The fact that Jacksonville was a Week 17 win in Kansas City away from a playoff berth in 2006 was somewhat stunning given the number of major injuries (Byron Leftwich, Reggie Hayward, Donovin Darius, Mike Peterson) the team had piled up by the end of the campaign. One would expect a healthier Jags team to rise up and assume their rightful place in the land of double- digit wins this year, though things can never be quite that simple. The quarterback situation remains in flux, particularly given the club's apparent fixation on Daunte Culpepper at the moment. New offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter is bound to shake up the backfield, as Maurice Jones-Drew comes off a 16-touchdown season that would indicate 31-year-old Fred Taylor's days of 20-25 carries a game are pretty much over (you heard it here first: Taylor is NOT going to enjoy being a role player). Also, Koetter needs to figure out whether Matt Jones and Reggie Williams will ever become consistent NFL receivers. The defense should be improved, thanks in part to the addition of draft picks Reggie Nelson and Justin Durant, and there is as much young talent throughout the two-deep as on any team in the league. But can Jack Del Rio's squad endure the inevitable drama?
Honorable Mention: Texans, Cowboys, Lions, Browns, Raiders
ON THE DECLINE
Chiefs - Kansas City's backdoor maneuver into the 2006 playoff bracket could end up being the highlight of the Herm Edwards era. As it stands now, the Chiefs are about Larry Johnson and precious little else. The quarterback situation is fluid, with Damon Huard kinda-sorta the starter and Brodie Croyle ready to be handed the reins as soon as Huard gets a hangnail. The offensive line is a shell of its former self now that Will Shields has joined Willie Roaf in retirement, and the top targets are a pretty old guy (tight end Tony Gonzalez) and a pretty young guy (first-round draft pick Dwayne Bowe). The defense still lacks leadership, and the team showed its desperation in that area by signing 34-year-old Donnie Edwards and former first-round disappointment Napoleon Harris to assist at linebacker. Oh, and a team that needed major secondary help added one player there - ex-Lions third-string safety Jon McGraw - via either the draft or free agency. Is it me, or does this ship seem rudderless?
Seahawks - Seattle took advantage of a generally below-average NFC West during its four-year run of playoff appearances, but this could be the year that the chickens finally come home to roost for Mike Holmgren and company. The 49ers (who swept the Hawks last year) appear to many to be the team to beat in the division, and the Rams and Cardinals, though not necessarily playoff-quality teams at this stage, have each upgraded their personnel. Meanwhile, Seattle will trot out the aging backfield of Matt Hasselbeck, Shaun Alexander, and fullback Mack Strong, an o-line that has had myriad injury problems and has yet to recover from the loss of guard Steve Hutchinson, and a secondary that is still short a playmaker or two. Will the Seahawks be light years worse than last year's 9-7 record? No, but given the improvement of their competition within the division, there's a solid chance they'll be home in January.
Giants - Tom Coughlin haters should be monitoring this situation with glee. In a year when he must win to keep his job, Coughlin is contending with the retirement of Tiki Barber, the franchise's leading rusher and a player who was always good for 50+ catches out of the backfield. Third-year-pro Brandon Jacobs has potential, but he's not much of a receiver, and free agent pickup Reuben Droughns doesn't fill that role naturally either. The left tackle situation is sketchy after the team dropped Luke Petitgout (it looks David Diehl will move over from guard), and there isn't a pass-catcher on the team that can be described as reliable on a week-to-week basis. The defense should be solid, especially if Michael Strahan can return from injury and contribute, but won't be dominant enough to disguise the team's other flaws. All of which means the talk radio agenda-makers can begin that Bill Parcells speculation right now.
Titans - And you thought Vince Young was a one-man team last year? Gone from a Tennessee club that made a surprise bid for a playoff berth in 2006 are leading rusher Travis Henry (to Denver), top pass-catchers Drew Bennett (Rams) and Bobby Wade (Vikings), trusty tight end Erron Kinney (released), four-year starting linebacker Peter Sirmon (likely to retire), and cornerback Pacman Jones (year-long NFL suspension), who by the end of last season had become the face of the defense. Who did the Titans bring in to fill the gaps at running back, wide receiver, linebacker, and cornerback? No one with name value on any of the above fronts. Adding to the bleak forecast is the fact that Tennessee plays in the AFC South, where Indianapolis is basically a lock for the playoffs, the Jaguars are somewhere in the next high-quality tier of teams, and the Texans are getting closer to weekly competitiveness under Gary Kubiak. That leaves Jeff Fisher's team searching for ways to stem the tide, and it doesn't look like Tennessee has invested in nearly enough sandbags for 2007.
Jets - Eric Mangini did a masterful job assembling a playoff team from a 2006 roster that looked to most to have below-average talent. But maintaining that postseason standing will require a greater degree of difficulty for the 2007 Jets, who sill have some major issues that need addressing. When does Kellen Clemens get a shot at the starting quarterback job? If Laveranues Coles or Jerricho Cotchery goes down, who catches the football? Is a team that has had trouble rushing the passer going to get anything out of castoffs David Bowens (ex-Dolphins), Michael Haynes (Bears), or Eric Hicks (Chiefs)? Is first-round draft choice Darrelle Revis going to make the required impact for a secondary that showed average playmaking and cover ability a year ago? Will Mangini's squad be able to withstand a tougher schedule, one that includes four games against '06 playoff teams in the first six contests? Mangini was able to answer all of the pointed questions hurled his way last season, if he does the same in year two, all of the early praise heaped upon the Bill Belichick disciple is well-deserved.
Dishonorable Mention: Bills, Falcons, Packers, Vikings, Chargers