20 NFL questions (cont.)
15. How pronounced will the Saints' Super Bowl hangover be in the city of hangovers?
When I spoke to New Orleans head coach Sean Payton last month about his newly released book, he said he'd be surprised if the story of his team's 2010 season wound up being one of a defending champion that lost its edge and fire and didn't deal well with the byproducts of the ultimate NFL victory. But honestly, which Super Bowl-winning head coach wouldn't have said roughly the same thing? The glow of success often makes it very difficult to clearly see your weaknesses the season after a Super Bowl win, and to combat that effect you have to have mature, committed team leaders who are self-driven and burning with the desire to re-scale the game's summit.
In that respect, I like the Saints' chances of suffering only a slight case of Super Bowl hangover. I don't believe for a minute that quarterback Drew Brees will let down his guard or grow fat and sassy with that shiny ring on his finger. And on defense, the re-signing of veteran safety Darren Sharper might prove pivotal in the same regard on that side of the locker room. Yes, the party and the parades seemed to go on forever in New Orleans -- when do they not? -- but I don't see a Steelers-like step back coming from the Saints this season. I'm not predicting another Super Bowl run, but New Orleans should still be playing when January arrives.
16. Will Julius Peppers elevate the Bears defense more than Jay Cutler did for the offense last year?
For the second offseason in a row, the Bears went out and landed a franchise-type player whose acquisition created headlines and jacked up Chicago's playoff hopes, not to mention its payroll. But Bears fans have reason to be warier this time around about the difference-maker factor because Chicago with Cutler in 2009 actually fared two games worse (7-9) than it did without him in 2008 (9-7). You can look it up.
Could Peppers use his fresh start in the Windy City to flash the kind of dominating, disruptive play he showed at times during his uneven eight-year career in Carolina? Absolutely. On paper, the Bears' defense is much improved with Peppers at one end, and his mere presence could have a welcome cumulative effect on the rest of Rod Marinelli's defensive line and pass rush. But didn't we say the same thing last year at this time about Albert Haynesworth making the rest of the Redskins' D-line that much better? And like Haynesworth, isn't Peppers a supremely talented player who has been accused of not always bringing the same level of motivation to his work each and every game? I rest my case.
17. Will it be training wheels or a Superman sequel for rookie Tim Tebow in Denver?
The Broncos are in love with Tebow's work ethic, ability to soak up new information, and continued improvement and refinement of his oft-dissected throwing motion. But the math problem that Denver head coach Josh McDaniels faces in trying to get Tebow on the field as a rookie remains: The former Gator is probably going to start the season as the Broncos' third QB, behind starter Kyle Orton and backup Brady Quinn. NFL rules make it difficult to play your No. 3 QB in anything other than desperate situations.
That's why I expect the training wheels analogy to be somewhat closer to what Tebow's 2010 season will look like, with McDaniels making him his No. 2 QB some weeks and finding mid-game opportunities to insert him with a fairly specific package of plays. Goal line or red zone scenarios make the most sense given Tebow's proven effectiveness as a ballcarrier, but I don't think McDaniels will stop there or be able to resist the urge to build Wildcat formation packages around Tebow's unique throw-run threat.
McDaniels has said that Tebow won't play another position like fullback or tight end while he's learning how to quarterback in the league, and I almost want to take him at his word ... until I remember where McDaniels cut his NFL coaching teeth: In New England under Bill Belichick, who treats every piece of information as a vital competitive advantage.
18. Will Sam Bradford be a franchise savior or just another struggling St. Louis Ram?
Here's how the NFL usually works: If you happen to be the coveted first player selected in the draft, you get the biggest contract and the red-carpet treatment everywhere you go -- at least until the season starts. Then the beatings commence. History says that while you're counting all your money, you shouldn't be counting on too many wins after you've been drafted by one of the worst teams in the league. St. Louis fits that script to a T, having won just three times in the past two seasons, and with only six victories since the start of 2007. Contrast that with the fact that Bradford only lost seven starts during his entire collegiate career and you begin to get a sense for the atmospheric change he's likely in for with the Rams.
Bradford simply doesn't have much of a supporting cast at the moment and the Rams might be wise to ease him into the lineup as the season unfolds rather than follow the Mark Sanchez, Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan examples of late. It sounds harsh, but why not let veteran quarterback A.J. Feeley take the early pounding until the Rams are certain their woeful offensive line has improved enough to protect the franchise's biggest investment, who happens to be coming off a 2009 surgery to his throwing shoulder? Realistically speaking, anything that doesn't have the smell of failure or setback might pass as progress for Bradford as a Rams rookie.
19. Is Tom Coughlin light enough on his feet to coach on the bubble all season?
Nowhere is the hot seat hotter than in New York, where the coaches and managers who are placed on it get almost daily reminders of their precarious status from the media. But just 2½ years removed from the Giants' memorable Super Bowl win, Coughlin enters the season with a discernible sense of urgency and pressure on his shoulders. That's the natural outgrowth from last season when New York's heady 5-0 start dissolved into a 3-8 non-playoff finish with the Giants defense collapsing in the final month.
They don't do ultimatums in the Giants' front office, but it was pretty clear when team owner John Mara said he was "unhappy with everybody'' last January that he was serving notice to the head coach that a 2009-like disaster could not be repeated, not with New York moving into its new $1.6-billion stadium this year and not with the franchise having spent so freely on roster upgrades since its Super Bowl upset of New England.
How the season unfolds will tell us plenty about Coughlin's fate in 2011, but suffice to say that if the resurgent Jets are the only winning story in New York this fall, change will likely be in the air for the Giants.
20. Did the Super Bowl-winning Saints provide the rest of the NFL with a blueprint for how to beat Peyton Manning and the Colts?
I love suppositions of this sort. You hear something along these lines almost every year. It sounds fairly intelligent and probing on the surface, but is usually far too simplistic in focus. I mean, if you can tell me that the Colts' other opponents will be able, on a regular basis, to execute a surprise onside kick to start the second half of games, thereby stealing vital possessions from Indy, then I'll start buying the blueprint thesis.
Oh, and it would also help if teams hoping to beat the Colts and Manning can devise a way to make sure they intercept him with three or four minutes to go in their games, taking their picks back 70 yards or so for much-needed, game-clinching touchdowns. That always works pretty well. The same with having your quarterback, as Drew Brees did on Super Sunday, throw up one of those ridiculously accurate 32-of-39 passing performances with about 25 completions in a row when he really gets hot.
Yes, the Saints had an excellent game plan against the Colts and executed it almost flawlessly. They took big chances that paid off in big ways, and they stayed aggressive all game. Other teams will no doubt take a cue from that approach and try to force the issue against Indy to a degree that maybe they haven't in the past. The Colts could definitely see that mentality from opponents more often this season. But no, a blueprint for beating Indy still doesn't exist apart from simply making better plays than the Colts at the game's biggest moments.
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