Snap Judgments: West divisions endure long stretches of ineptitude
Things could be turning around in West, with Raiders and Niners as chic picks
Chiefs put focus on leadership; Broncos not dwelling on up-and-down season
More Snap Judgments on Sam Bradford, Steve Spagnuolo and much more
Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we unpack from training camp travels and crank up Week 1 of the NFL preseason starting tonight...
Everyone in my business gets paid to issue preseason predictions of all sorts, but if you want to really stand out from the crowd when it comes to NFL forecasting, would anything make you look more prescient than pinpointing when the West will rise again? Not that I'm quite there yet myself, mind you.
After visiting the NFC West Rams, and the AFC West's Broncos and Chiefs on my recent camp tour, it occurred to me that it has been a very long time since the two western divisions could hold their heads up and look the rest of the league in the eye. Consider the following:
-- Not only has the NFC West not had two playoff teams since 2004, the sad-sack division hasn't even had a pair of teams with winning records since 2003, when both St. Louis (12-4) and Seattle (10-6) finished north of .500. The next year, both the Seahawks and Rams returned to the playoffs, but Seattle was just 9-7 and St. Louis made the postseason field at 8-8.
-- In the AFC West, things haven't been quite so embarrassing, but it's close. The last time the division featured two playoff teams or two winning teams was 2006, when San Diego (14-2) and Kansas City (9-7) both qualified for the postseason. But neither team won a game that year in the playoffs.
-- None of the other six divisions in the NFL have streaks of longer than one season when it comes to advancing two teams to the playoffs, or having a pair of clubs with winning records. The NFC East has actually qualified two or more playoff teams five years in a row, and seven out of the eight years since the league's 2002 divisional realignment.
-- San Francisco and Oakland are both in the midst of seven-season droughts between playoff appearances (trailing only Buffalo and Detroit, both 10 years, and Houston, eight years) and winning seasons. It has been five playoff-less seasons in a row in St. Louis and four in Denver. The Raiders have set the standard for futility in the West, losing at least 11 games every year since their 2002 Super Bowl team got shellacked in the big game by Tampa Bay.
But there are reasons for renewed hope in both the NFC West and AFC West. Coming off last year's 8-8 finish, which featured a 3-1 mark in the final quarter of the season, San Francisco is a chic pick to win its division this year (I think I headed that direction, too) and restore a little glory to what once was the NFL's model franchise. Seattle has some much needed juice with Pete Carroll installed as head coach, and we write off the Kurt Warner-less two-time defending division champion Arizona Cardinals at our own peril. I happen to think Matt Leinart is going to exceed the limbo-low bar of expectations that people have set for him.
In the AFC West, the Raiders, praise be, even have a little preseason buzz thanks to the arrival of a competent starting quarterback in Jason Campbell. There is talent in Oakland. No one has ever denied that. If the Raiders get solid quarterbacking and coaching, eight or nine wins and playoff contention is plausible. Despite its contractual issues with some key players, San Diego remains loaded, and even the injury-struck Broncos are dangerous, having started 6-0 last season and with improvements being made at quarterback and defensive line.
Even in last-place locales like St. Louis and Kansas City, the Rams and Chiefs have some exciting young skill-position players like Sam Bradford and Dexter McCluster and should be more competitive than they were in 2009. Then again, the league's two Missouri-based franchises combined for just five wins last year, and just nine in the past two seasons, so there's really nowhere to go but up.
After years of being mostly left out of the playoff chase, the divisions that feature teams on the Left Coast may be on their way back. It has been a very long time indeed since the NFL's best was in the West.
His work ethic and dedication in putting in the long hours of preparation are calling cards of Broncos rookie quarterback Tim Tebow, but I wondered if anyone has told him yet when he has to ease his foot off the gas to survive the grind that is the NFL season. Many a rookie has hit that late November/early December wall in the NFL.
"Different players here have talked to me and told me how long the season is and that's something I got to definitely take into account,'' Tebow said. "But that's hard for me. It's something I'm learning here. You can't overwork yourself and get burned out, physically, mentally and emotionally, with depriving yourself from sleep and those types of things. Elvis (Dumervil) talked to me about it. Knowing how to train your body to last not only the 16 games, but also the four preseason games and hopefully the playoffs after that.''
Am I the only one who thinks the whole blowback against rookie hazing in the NFL is getting a bit out of hand? No, I'm not. When I asked Broncos starting quarterback Kyle Orton about Tebow's infamous "monk's'' haircut, he quickly pled his innocence in the matter, but then defended the practice of putting rookies in their place.
"That wasn't me,'' Orton said. "I didn't sanction it. But I think it's a good thing. The rookie stuff is a good thing. I know it's been overblown this year, but it's just a deal that says, 'Hey, you're a rookie.' With the top picks getting so much fanfare, so much attention lately, it's a way of saying a 15-year veteran like Brian Dawkins is our guy, or a 12-year veteran like Brandon Stokley is our guy. To the rookies we're saying, 'We appreciate you and we're glad you're on the team, but you've got a long way to go until you show us anything that you've done.' ''
In other words, you can view part of the rookie hazing phenomena as a correction for the out-of-whack salaries being paid to first-round picks, and the whole monstrosity known as NFL Draft coverage, which seems to grow exponentially every year. Carrying sets of shoulder pads, bad haircuts and having water hoses aimed at you at the end of a hot, steamy practice? What's everybody all worked up about again?
I loved what Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey had to say when I asked him which Denver team was the real thing last year, the one that started 6-0, or the one that slumped to 2-8 in its last 10 games?
"The 8-8 one,'' Bailey said. "All of it. You are what your record says you are in this league. Regardless of how we lost, or how we got there, we were 8-8 and we deserved that record.''
That's probably a good sign for Denver that there's nothing delusional about the 2009 season in its locker room. The Broncos beat Dallas, New England and San Diego last year, but also lost to Washington, Oakland and Kansas City. Denver scored 326 points and gave up 324. It went 3-0 inside its division on the road, but 0-3 at home. That's 8-8 material if I've heard it.
The Chiefs have been noticeably lacking in locker room leadership in recent seasons, and they're making a concerted effort to rectify that short-fall. How? Well for starters, six of the seven players they drafted this season were team captains in college. They have prioritized finding leaders in the draft, and in signing veteran free agents such as Thomas Jones, Ryan Lilja, Mike Vrabel and Casey Wiegmann.
One quick byproduct of the improved leadership quotient in Kansas City: Recent first-round picks like Dwayne Bowe, Glenn Dorsey and Branden Albert didn't come to camp overweight like they all did in 2009.
One of the things some scouts worried about was Sam Bradford's ability to command an NFL huddle, because he has a quiet, more reserved personality than a lot of quarterbacks. But Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo told me that he has seen the eyes of Bradford's teammates "light up'' when the rookie steps into the huddle.
"I'm a rookie, but I don't want the guys to think I'm a rookie,'' Bradford said. "I have to command the huddle, and it's starting to come. I struggled with that in college, but the coaches pushed it to me. The more I'm around the game, I understand how important that part of it is.''
I only watched him in one Rams practice, but it seems to me that Bradford's command of the ball and his ability to put it exactly where he wants it is going to translate into having a pretty good command in the huddle as well. Players will largely follow anyone who can get the job done.
My camp tour had me visiting the 14-2 Colts one day and the 1-15 Rams the next, the virtual yin and yang of the NFL standings. But I couldn't help but notice how similar head coaches Jim Caldwell of the Colts and Spagnuolo of the Rams were described by their players.
Both of them get high marks for their consistency of approach and mood, and how even keeled they were throughout the highs (mostly the Colts) and lows (mostly the Rams) of their rookie seasons as head coaches. I wonder if they had swapped jobs, how much different Indy's and St. Louis's records would have been last season?
Houston owner Bob McNair last week ripped up the final five years of receiver Andre Johnson's contract and gave him a new one that he said ensures he'll be a Texan for life. Colts owner Jim Irsay has made it clear that he intends to make quarterback Peyton Manning the NFL's highest paid player any day now.
In juxtaposition to those two bold-headline examples, New England owner Robert Kraft has been relatively quiet about his plans to keep Tom Brady in red, white and blue indefinitely. Kraft has said he has no intention to see Brady go anywhere, but he certainly hasn't been willing to shout it like McNair and Irsay did regarding their team's superstars.
Everybody wants to play for a winner in the NFL, and that's why there's always a steady stream of veterans finding their way to New England every offseason, eager to get a taste of life from within the league's most recent dynasty. But what is it exactly the Patriots have that's worth modeling, other than Brady's quarterbacking and Bill Belichick's head coaching? That's what I asked both Torry Holt and Alge Crumpler, two of the newest vets to don a New England jersey.
"It's everything I thought it was,'' Holt said. "I could tell by the way they did things on the field. It's the little things. It's the daily operation here. It's all about business. It's about getting better as a football team. That's the approach, and that's something if you're a true ballplayer, and you appreciate those kind of things, then this is the place to be.''
Crumpler said it a slightly different way, but pretty much echoed Holt.
"The older you get and the more mature you become as a professional player, you kind of have an expectation of what you want to experience when you come to work and in what type of environment,'' he said. "This is the type of environment I envisioned. Everybody's professional about things. The coach tells it how it is and everybody is held accountable from day one. That's all you ask. You just don't want any surprises.''
But if the Patriots go a third consecutive season without any playoff victories -- they haven't won in the postseason since the Giants pulled their Super Bowl upset -- will that reputation for professionalism still continue to carry quite as much weight throughout the NFL? The reality is probably not.
The best quote I heard in my 10-team camp tour came from Broncos offensive tackle Ryan Harris, who grew up a huge Vikings fan in St. Paul, Minn. I asked Harris his memories of the 1998 NFC title game, in which the 16-1 Vikings lost at home in overtime to the underdog Falcons, blowing what seemed a sure trip to the Super Bowl. I covered that Vikings team, and Harris said he's still not over that loss, in which previously perfect kicker Gary Anderson missed a game-clinching 38-yard field goal late in regulation.
"I promise you this, there were not a lot of little baby boys named 'Gary' that winter in Minnesota,'' Harris said. "That much I know.''
The Redskins top two quarterbacks are both new this year, and believe it or not, Donovan McNabb and Rex Grossman have this much in common: They're both 0-1 as starters in the Super Bowl, having lost the biggest games of their NFL career two years apart on the East Coast of Florida.
I saw where the Ravens cut veteran cornerback Walt Harris last week. The same Walt Harris they told me they felt lucky to have in camp after Domonique Foxworth was lost for the season due to an early ACL injury.
Guess not. Harris couldn't even get healthy enough to get on the field in Baltimore and the consensus around the league is that he can't run any more and was pretty much done two years ago. That makes it all the harder to believe that Harris actually was selected 13 spots higher (No. 13) than Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis (No. 26) in the first round of the 1996 NFL Draft.