Work in Sports
AFC West hot spots
With Davis back in action, Broncos are 'X' factor
Sports Illustrated's Don Banks will offer his insights, opinions and analysis of the NFL this season in "Bank on it," a recurring feature on CNNSI.com. Here, as part of our division-by-division NFL training camp previews, is Banks' take on the state of the AFC West.
By Don Banks, Sports Illustrated
Just slap a yellow stripe down the AFC West and call it the middle-of-the-road division. A mere three games separated the five teams from top to bottom last season, with 80 percent of the division finishing either 9-7 or 8-8 and only 6-10 Denver bucking the trend. And there could be plenty more such mediocrity this year.
At first preseason glance, no one in the AFC West looks to have separated themselves from the pack. Every team looks capable of squeaking into the playoffs -- even wildly inconsistent San Diego and Oakland -- or falling flat.
Last year's division winner, Seattle, started fast, stumbled into the playoffs, and was upset at home by a middling Miami team in the first round. Now the question is whether the Seahawks have improved at all this offseason, or lost a little too much talent to defend their title. Is year two of the Holmgren era when the luster starts to come off?
When Oakland rallied to upset Kansas City at Arrowhead Stadium on the final Sunday of the regular season, jolting the Chiefs out of the playoffs in an emotional turn of events, the division had its perfect summary game of 1999. Nothing could be counted on. No lead was safe.
If there is an 'X' factor, it's Denver, of course. Just one year removed from back-to-back Super Bowl crowns, the Broncos could resurface as the division's elite if running back Terrell Davis' recovery from knee surgery is complete, and either Brian Griese or Gus Frerotte start playing like a No. 1 quarterback.
After winning 39 regular-season games and seven more in the playoffs in the previous three seasons, you had to see 1999 coming for the mighty Broncos. One of the NFL's strictest laws of nature finally caught up with Denver: Some years, everything goes wrong.
John Elway retires. The quarterback situation ignites. Terrell Davis goes down. The injuries pile up. The white flag is prematurely waved. It all combined to produce just the franchise's second double-digit loss season since 1967, the start of the Lou Saban era.
In his first official year of being considerably less than a genius, Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan contributed heavily to his team's woes. He already issued a mea culpa over his botching of the Bubby Brister-Brian Griese quarterback switch, and we suspect he's a steadier, more decisive presence this time around.
But the Broncos' fate still rests on the outcome of two situations:
Like more than a few others, I was wrong. After he uttered that weird and wacky "I'd-rather-die-on-the-field" proclaimation early last season, I began counting the days until demonstrative first-year Chiefs coach Gunther Cunningham made it a self-fulfilling prophecy and self-combusted on the sideline one sunny afternoon at Arrowhead.
But Cunningham held things together rather nicely last season and wound up just a Pete Stoyanovich field goal miss away from the playoffs. Kudos to the Big Chief.
Cunningham, however, will have his hands full again this season in keeping control of his emotions. On offense there's still no running game to speak of [you were right, Gunther, Ron Dayne didn't slide all the way to you], the offensive line has holes, and the passing game needs a big impact from rookie receiver Sylvester Morris. When Chiefs fans want to feel good, they think of tight end Tony Gonzalez. But that's not enough.
On defense, Kansas City needs to find its identity in the wake of Derrick Thomas' tragic death. Thomas was not always the destructive, play-making force of his prime, but he leaves a vacancy that could become a vacuum if not filled quickly.
Kansas City looks locked into that great middle third in the NFL -- too strong to not contend, not strong enough to really rise above.
Speaking of tightly wound head coaches who appear to be the definition of a walking time bomb, we give you the Raiders' Jon Gruden.
Gruden needs one more Sebastian Janikowski episode to begin the self-detonation process. Once again, the Raiders' love of risk-taking might have went kaboom in their faces. Janikowski is an unquestioned talent, but he's also immature to a fault and therefore dicey in the role of the draft's 17th overall pick.
Janikowski has grabbed the big off-season headlines, but the Raiders have retooled their defense -- six potential new starters -- and acquired some valuable veterans and role players in the process. Safety Anthony Dorsett, defensive back Marquez Pope, defensive end Regan Upshaw all have a chance to make solid contributions.
The secondary got the most attention and the Raiders have 15 defensive backs in camp in an attempt to unearth eight or so keepers. Like their division breathren the Chiefs, the Raiders' defense was rocked by a death this offseason when free safety Eric Turner died of stomach cancer.
Until proven otherwise, the Raiders remain the poster children for this ho-hum division. In five of the six seasons since they last made the playoffs, Oakland has finished between 7-9 and 9-7. Gruden's two tries have both been 8-8s.
The Chargers were in the middle of the divison pack last season and proud to be there. And let's give them some credit. They were the only team in the AFC West that showed as much as a three-game improvement from the previous season (5-11). Another three-game bump-up and we're nominating good-guy second-year man Mike Riley for coach of the year bows.
But don't start printing those playoff tickets just yet Boltheads. This is, after all, Year Three of the Ryan Leaf era. And yes, we meant era and not error. Now that general manager Bobby Beathard [and it wasn't all that hard to beat the Chargers when Bobby was in town] has retired to his backyard wave machine, maybe the furor over the Leaf pick will quiet down a little and slip into the background. Kind of like Leaf has.
San Diego isn't boring. Riley plays it wide open and oft-concussed quarterback Jim Harbaugh is always good for a few stirring comebacks. But will the Chargers, lost in the NFL desert for some time now, turn to Moses? Moses Moreno is a one-time Bears starter. And that's to be taken literally. He started one game in Chicago. But he may push the Max Headband [Harbaugh] for the top job in camp.
And, finally if you're scoring at home, running back Natrone Means' on-again, off-again career in San Diego is off again. He can now be found growing ever larger in Carolina.
Joey Galloway? Gone. Phillip Daniels? Gone. Sam Adams? Gone. Sean Dawkins? Gone. The Kingdome? Definitely gone. The Seahawks' edge in talent over the rest of the division? Teetering, at best.
At some point you expect veteran head coach Mike Holmgren to have a long, stern talk with novice general manager Mike Holmgren about how he expects him to win by bleeding his roster dry. It should make for an interesting, self-absorbed chat.
On paper, the additions don't equal the subtractions in Seattle. And it didn't help matters when newly acquired cornerback Fred Vinson was lost for the year with a knee injury. But the Seahawks are banking heavily on their draft, and the two No. 1 picks that the Galloway trade gleaned. Running back Shaun Alexander and offensive tackle Chris McIntosh are building blocks A and B.
And let's be fair. Holmgren earned the franchise its first playoff berth since 1988, giving the old Kingdome one last shot of glory before demolition day arrived. If Holmgren can get quarterback Jon Kitna to resemble the confident passer of last season's first half, and not the confused thrower of late last year, the Seahawks may still continue their upward flight.
Don Banks covers pro football for CNNSI.com.
The opinions expressed here are solely those of the writer.