Jan. 9, 2009—Eight of the 12 playoff teams start their sprint for the Super Bowl this weekend, but for me the real action is with the 20 teams licking their wounds as their players clear out their lockers, and say goodbye until spring mini-camp or preseason in July or, in some cases, forever.
It’s neither morbid fascination nor the usual pangs of a sports fan from Chicago that causes this intrigue for me, but rather the tumult that is common in the NFL. This time last season, the Atlanta Falcons and the Miami Dolphins looked like they would be digging out of the wreckage from their miserable seasons for several autumns to come. Instead, both teams are gearing up for playoff games this weekend. By contrast, if last winter you tried to make a bet that Green Bay and Jacksonville would meet in Super Bowl XLII in Tampa on Feb. 1, you would have received fairly short odds. Instead both teams suffered double-digit losses and didn’t come close to contending for the playoffs.
Let’s look at the varying scenarios.
Some teams are in need of total overhauls. We reviewed the situation in Detroit last week, but the Lions aren’t the only team that needs to clean house and start over. The St. Louis Rams, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns and the Kansas City Chiefs all need to broom their front offices and coaching staffs and start to rebuild their rosters. Although each team showed momentary signs of life, none sustained it. The Rams allowed 29 points per game and scored only 14. The Bengals had two of the top receivers in the game, Chad Johnson (or Ocho Cinco or whatever he prefers to be called) and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, and Cincinnati scored a meager 13 points per game. Cleveland closed the season with six lifeless losses in a row. When Kansas City dealt defensive lineman Jared Allen in April, it signaled the start of a rebuilding phase, but then they stopped. Their 2-14 mark and the departure of longtime team president Carl Petersen should signal a necessary acceleration of the process.
I don’t include the Oakland Raiders in that group because of their late-season surge (yes, Cincinnati won three in a row at the end, too, but it was mostly against teams that were speeding in the wrong direction). The Raiders need better play from their offense, and they have young skill players with good credentials. If they can build a line and keep intrusive owner Al Davis from mucking things up, then they might contend for a playoff berth next year.
Some teams can rightly blame injuries for their woes. Jacksonville lost key players from both their offensive and defensive lines. Green Bay lost many key defensive players. Seattle’s injured reserve list could probably have beaten several winning NFL teams. It wasn’t just quarterback Tom Brady; the New England Patriots lost more starting players than I can list here.
Some teams need to focus their offseason agenda mostly on one side of the ball. New Orleans has a ferocious offense but a defense that allowed 393 points. The Chicago Bears entered the seasons with mostly question marks on offense, and most of those were resolved well, but their defense allowed an un-Monster-of-the-Midway like 350 points, which suggests changes are needed there. The Washington Redskins, by contrast, had an excellent defense, limiting teams to only 296 points (best among the teams that missed the playoffs and better than half of those that did), but their offense managed only 265 points. In terms of point differential, Houston was essentially the same team as last year, which means their defense, 394 points allowed, needs to improve mightily for them to move into playoff contention.
The Super Bowl dreams of the Dallas Cowboys were undone by three big things. There were weaknesses in the middle of the defense that weren’t sufficiently addressed, brain drain in losing Tony Sparano and several other assistant coaches to Miami, and the team’s offensive line got old in a hurry. The Cowboys; megalomaniacal tendencies didn’t help. Almost every week, some comments that belonged in the locker room were being made in front of microphones. The on-field problems can be remedied; the ego stuff is probably just Dallas being Dallas.
The Buffalo Bills and San Francisco 49ers are mediocre teams that are probably moving in the right direction. The Niners improved their coaching situation at midseason giving Mike Singletary the reins. Buffalo has steadily improved the age and profile of their roster while remaining on the fringe of the AFC East playoff picture. Both teams need more talent on both sides of the ball, but neither is in need of drastic rebuilding.
This is also the week when teams start jettisoning their coaches, and two firings make little sense to me. Denver canned Mike Shanahan after 14 seasons, only two of which were losing ones. Shanahan is an excellent coach who after winning the team’s second consecutive Super Bowl 10 years ago, was given control of personnel matters. He’s not as good a GM as he is a coach, and the Broncos failed to draft well. However, they have improved in recent years. Quarterback Jay Cutler and Offensive Tackle Ryan Clady are two of the best young franchise cornerstones in the NFL. Shanahan won’t be out of work long.
The Jets parted ways with Eric Mangini, whose three seasons were a mixed bag. It seems to me that Mangini is the fall guy for Quarterback Brett Favre’s late-season meltdown. Favre played like an all pro for the first two-thirds of the season then sunk to the level of a washed-up scrub for final five games, four of them losses. Nevertheless, the Jets improved from 4-12 to 9-7. It’s keeping things like that in perspective that will separate the winners from the losers in the NFL offseason.
In the NFL, to paraphrase the Las Vegas tag line, what happens in last season stays in last season. New England and Indianapolis are exceptions to this rule (and just barely), but all other teams must respect that there are wide range of potential outcomes next season. Unlike baseball and basketball where teams vary only slightly from season to season, today’s NFL doormat could become next year’s championship contender and vice versa. How well each ran their offseason game plan will go a long way toward determining their fortunes next fall.