Snap Judgments: Offseason leaves some teams on rise, others falling
The Super Bowl was three months ago, but we're still a long way away from watching another meaningful football game in 2008. That said, with the draft in the books, the personnel acquisition phase of the offseason is nearly complete and teams largely are already what they're going to be this season. Who's on their way up? Who's on their way down? Here's our post-draft assessment of the team in each division poised to make the biggest move this year, in either direction.
AFC East: Buffalo (Going up) -- I foresee the Bills being in the thick of the AFC wild-card scrum as the regular season winds down in '08. They're better at quarterback with Trent Edwards entering his second season as the unquestioned starter. They're better at offensive coordinator, where Turk Schonert will fight predictability at every turn. They're better in the defensive interior even if tackle Marcus Stroud is no longer a Pro Bowl perennial, and they're better with cornerback Leodis McKelvin and receiver Kevin Hardy arriving via the draft. With improved health early on, Buffalo's season won't be over before it even starts, as was the case in '07.
AFC North: Baltimore (Going up) -- The Ravens were neither as good as their 13-3 record in '06 or as dreadful as their 5-11 mark last year. They'll come back to the middle this season, and while that won't be good enough to make the playoffs, they're going to get a nice little bounce from energetic first-time head coach John Harbaugh and new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. This figures to be a transition year for Baltimore's beleaguered quarterback position, but with Steve McNair retired and first-round pick Joe Flacco now on hand, the Ravens at least have a plan that extends longer than year by year.
AFC South: Indianapolis (Going down) -- The Colts have won the division five years in a row, and made the playoffs all six seasons that the AFC South has existed. But the rest of the division has steadily narrowed the gap, with the Jaguars, Titans and Texans all finishing .500 or better last season. Indy has again had a status-quo offseason, retaining its own free agents and eschewing any headline acquisitions. We're not predicting gloom and doom for the Colts in '08, in what could be head coach Tony Dungy's farewell tour, but let's just say we don't think the big issue in Week 17 this year will be whether or not Indy should rest most of its starters.
AFC West: Denver (Going up) -- It's not easy to identify an AFC West team on the move, because the Chargers are the clear class of the division once again and the Chiefs and Raiders won't surprise us unless they get better than expected results from their young quarterbacks. That leaves us with the Broncos almost by default. Here's the best slice of history to bank on in Denver: Coach Mike Shanahan has never had three consecutive non-playoff seasons in his 13-year tenure, a streak that's going to be put to the test in '08. The Broncos made a series of small moves this offseason, but their path to improvement centers on protecting quarterback Jay Cutler better, and the third-year veteran producing his breakthrough season.
NFC East: New York Giants (Going down) -- Unless you're Jeremy Shockey, it's good to be a Giant these days. But the NFC East is one treacherous landscape to navigate, and New York's three division opponents have all upgraded. When I try to ordain how the Giants' title defense will go, I keep coming back to the following statistic: In the seasons after its previous three Super Bowl appearances, New York won six, eight and seven games, respectively, missing the playoffs each time. Staying hungry after the ultimate success is particularly difficult in the fishbowl that is the New York market. The Giants never seem to respond as well when the target is on their backs.
NFC North: Minnesota (Going up) -- In a division that appears ripe for a challenger to defending champion Green Bay (who lost a certain quarterback this spring), the Vikings made the most daring move, prying NFL sacks leader Jared Allen away from Kansas City. It was an all-in kind of gamble, and it should result in the Vikings fielding one of the league's most dominant defenses this season. On offense, we already know what Adrian Peterson can do, so it's up to Tarvaris Jackson to grow up a little at quarterback and start pulling his share of the weight. Anything less than a double-digit win season and a playoff berth will rate as underachievement.
NFC South: New Orleans (Going up) -- Oh, that wacky NFC South, where the last-place team from the season before has gone on to become the new division champion for four years in a row -- with all four of the division's teams executing the move once each. That streak ends in '08, because the fourth-place Falcons aren't rebounding that far, and the Saints are on their way back. New Orleans didn't deal with the raised bar of expectations last season, burying itself with that 0-4 start. But it was lesson learned. Defensively the Saints have addressed several weak links, adding linebackers Jonathan Vilma and Dan Morgan, defensive end Bobby McCray, cornerback Randall Gay and defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis, their first-round pick.
NFC West: Seattle (Going down) -- When I do the math, I realize that I expect the three-win Rams, the five-win 49ers and the eight-win Cardinals to all improve upon those totals in '08, making it difficult to project another division title for a Seahawks team that went 10-6 last year to win its fourth consecutive division title. While I think Seattle made a solid choice with its coaching line of succession in Jim Mora, my sense is that Mike Holmgren's final go-round won't come off with a storybook ending. The Seahawks skill positions aren't in the best of hands, and the loss of kicker Josh Brown to the Rams could swing a key game or two. Defensively Seattle didn't substantially change the unit that Green Bay abused in the snow at Lambeau.
What a ridiculous story the Jason Taylor saga has become in Miami. Now the Dolphins' "Dancing with the Stars'' defensive end is ticked because the team's football czar, Bill Parcells, reportedly ignored him to his face when Taylor made a recent visit to the team complex.
I'm no big fan of Parcells' penchant for Jedi mind tricks, but what kind of greeting did Taylor really expect from a guy who has always been all about football? All Parcells knows about Taylor at this point is that he's more intent on launching his Hollywood post-playing career than he is preparing for the '08 season. Not showing your face around the Dolphins' complex except for a drive-by meet and greet isn't going to earn Parcells' respect.
When Taylor wants to act like an active and committed player who still has football as his top priority, Parcells will likely accord him the status he has earned within the Miami organization. But if Taylor deems it more important to make like the retired Emmitt Smith and Jerry Rice and dance his offseason away, he shouldn't expect Parcells to applaud the whole silly show.