Teams headed for trouble in 2010 (cont.)
REASON TO WORRY: Nothing real tricky about picking the Steelers. When your starting and two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback is currently in counseling and slated to open the year with a four- to six-game league suspension, there's officially reason to worry about the direction of the season. Though I'm on record as saying Ben Roethlisberger's suspension (I'm still banking on it being four games, and I imagine Ben is too) won't necessarily doom the 2010 Steelers, you have to be realistic. Pittsburgh can't give the likes of Baltimore and Cincinnati a month-long head start in the AFC North, so the Steelers have to be in survival mode from Week 1 on this year, and not play the flip-the-switch football that Mike Tomlin's team exhibited far too often last season.
Given the Roethlisberger and Santonio Holmes sagas, and that the Steelers missed the playoffs last year, this has certainly been the worst offseason in memory in Pittsburgh. Will Tomlin use that adversity to forge something stronger in the Steel City, or will his team fall back on the excuse that the troubles of its star quarterback robbed it of its winning mojo? My sense is things might get worse in 2010 before they get better.
REASON NOT TO PANIC: The Steelers are among the NFL's most resilient and resourceful franchises. They know who they are, what they've traditionally done well and how to build a winning team. They won't overreact and try to re-invent themselves without Roethlisberger in the lineup. If anything, they'll probably get back to Steelers basics and win with defense, a running game and the element of surprise.
REASON TO WORRY: Call me alarmist, but when I see a Panthers franchise in the midst of a payroll-cutting purge of veterans (see Julius Peppers, Jake Delhomme, Damione Lewis, Maake Kemoeatu, Chris Harris and Brad Hoover), perhaps with an eye toward a potential 2011 lockout, and a head coach about to work the final, lame-duck year of his contract, I quickly deduce the coming season in Carolina might not be the proverbial magic carpet ride.
The Panthers are suddenly a pretty young team in a host of spots -- just four players on their roster are 30 or older, and two of those are kicker John Kasay and punter Jason Baker -- and that's not really the blueprint for success that the veteran-loving John Fox has used in Carolina the past eight years. Some speculate Fox will coach free and easy this year, with little to lose, but it looks to me like the Panthers decided to go lean and mean this season, and hope that will pay dividends down the road. In other words, this is a classic rebuilding year, even though it may be some other head coach in 2011 who winds up inheriting the fruit of Carolina's 2010 labor.
REASON NOT TO PANIC: No team with Jon Beason on defense and Steve Smith, Jonathan Stewart, DeAngelo Williams and a quality line on offense is going to be out-classed on too many occasions. The Panthers have talent, but there's not a surplus by any means. Still, they've surprised us with bigger than expected seasons several times in recent years, and might once again.
REASON TO WORRY: There's not a lot of ground left to lose when you finished 5-11 in 2009, but don't forget the Browns ended the season on a hopeful four-game winning streak and also hired Mike Holmgren and Tom Heckert to run what had been a chaotic front office, further stoking optimism in northeast Ohio. So don't underestimate Cleveland's ability to disappoint this year, not that the storyline changes all that much with the Browns from season to season.
I like some of what Holmgren and Co. have done so far, but I'm still not sold on Mangini being the right fit in Cleveland. And why is it again the Browns decided to seemingly tie their 2010 fate to Delhomme at quarterback? By all accounts he's a heck of a good guy and a great teammate, but the ex-Panther's game really never recovered from that January 2009 playoff meltdown at home against Arizona and I see no way he plays well enough to keep his job for all 16 starts this year.
And while we're at it, who exactly will Delhomme be throwing to? The Browns receivers amount to Josh Cribbs and keep your fingers crossed. Maybe Mohamed Massaquoi, Brian Robiskie, Chansi Stuckey and sixth-round rookie Carlton Mitchell all develop into playmakers this season, but you won't get anyone to even lay odds on hitting that parlay in Vegas.
REASON NOT TO PANIC: You can't really miss what you've never had, and Browns fans -- at least the ones who have rooted for this expansion incarnation of the franchise -- can't be too disappointed considering 6-10 would represent progress this year.
REASON TO WORRY: The Raiders have actually been earning some praise this offseason, and I lauded them long and loudly for their boffo work on draft weekend. But the reality is Oakland has been so bad for so long, we've started grading Al Davis' team on a curve. And that means we're probably over-rating the 2010 Raiders for just being competent, which should be the baseline in the NFL rather than the superlative. Oakland had some impressive wins last season, but the Raiders own just one two-game winning streak in the past two years, and any way you cut it, 5-11 in both 2008 and 2009 is still 5-11.
And here's my take on the team's five-man competition at quarterback this spring: It's basically phony and all for show. Barring injury, Jason Campbell will start, and Bruce Gradkowski will be his backup. JaMarcus Russell is still around, but I don't think his tenure will extend past June (Editor's Note: Russell was released Thursday afternoon). Cutting Russell would actually make me more optimistic about Oakland. Until the Raiders admit their mistake and cut all ties to him except his direct deposit information, he'll continue to loom over the organization like a black cloud that never had its silver lining.
REASON NOT TO PANIC: The talent level has improved in Oakland, and while that doesn't guarantee success in the NFL, stock-piling playmakers always gives you a chance to win. Retaining head coach Tom Cable was a vote for stability, and that can't hurt a franchise that has been in near-constant upheaval for seven years. The facts say the Raiders already can compete with the Chiefs and Broncos in the AFC West (they won last year at both Kansas City and Denver), and they even played the Chargers much tougher in 2009.
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