SO, YOU'RE READY
FOR SOME PLAYOFF FOOTBALL? With few exceptions, NFL fans across the country are
emphatically optimistic about their teams' postseason possibilities. And who
can blame them? Over the last three seasons 24 of the league's 32 teams have
advanced to the playoffs. Three of the four NFC division champs in 2005 (the
Bears, Bucs and Giants) had finished last or tied for last in their respective
divisions in '04.
hope for teams like ... the Titans. They went 4-12 a year ago, and they're in
the AFC South with the powerhouse Colts, yet at the team's training camp in
Clarksville, Tenn., their fans looked upon rookie quarterback Vince Young as
their instant salvation. Radio play-by-play man Mike Keith, fresh from hawking
the Titans on the rubber-chicken circuit in four states, said, "The fans
think we're making the playoffs. Pittsburgh barely got in last year and won the
Super Bowl, so [the fans'] attitude is, Why not us?"
The Lions are
coming off a 5-11 season. They imported a new coach, disciplinarian Rod
Marinelli, and a Steady Eddie quarterback, Jon Kitna. Suddenly, their fans are
acting as though Barry Sanders just put on pads. "This is the first time in
a long time I've felt we're going to the playoffs," said an airline agent
at Detroit Metro airport. "This is finally the year for us."
And so it went
this summer during SI's annual swing through all 32 camps--from Saints fans in
Jackson, Miss., certain that Drew Brees and Reggie Bush will work magic
together, to a Cowboys fan on the sideline in Oxnard, Calif., who said,
"Watch out for us in January. Parcells finally has a defense like he had
with the Giants 20 years ago."
You can't imagine
what it was like at the camps of teams that had good reason to be insanely
upbeat. The Panthers, in their 12th summer training at Wofford College in
Spartanburg, S.C., broke the overall camp attendance record set last year,
despite having five fewer practices than in '05. The 22 rating in the Charlotte
area for the Aug. 24 telecast of the game against Miami was the highest for a
preseason game in club history.
Bowl--champion Steelers drew 24,000 to a night practice in Latrobe, Pa., an
hour east of Pittsburgh, so overwhelming the bucolic St. Vincent College campus
that people had to park as far as two miles away. "We've never seen
enthusiasm like this in the 40 years we've had camp here," said Steelers
owner Dan Rooney. The excitement carried over to a bake sale: Terrible Towel
cookies were selling for $2.
ago commissioner Pete Rozelle convinced America that ... On any given Sunday
... a bad club was capable of beating a good one. With teams more evenly
matched today, putting a wild card within reach of all but the truly
downtrodden, maybe new commissioner Roger Goodell's catchphrase should be ...
In any given January ...
Some might laugh
at the blind faith of Titans fans--even general manager Floyd Reese says
Tennessee is probably a year away from playoff contention--but they might also
have laughed at the Falcons before the start of the 1998 season; that is, until
Atlanta morphed from the 7-9 also-ran of '97 into a 14-2 Super Bowl team.
Dallas was 5-11 three years in a row beginning in 2000 then jumped to 10-6 and
the playoffs in '03. And the Bears, Bucs and Giants, 16-32 combined and out of
the playoffs in '04, were 33-15 and playing beyond Jan. 1 last season.
Here are three
factors that contribute to a team's rapid rise: 1) a smart front office that
uses the free-agent market and the salary cap to its advantage; 2) a quality
coaching staff that can quickly school its players in a new system; and 3) a
willingness to take risks. In 1999 the Rams had a quarterback crisis after
Trent Green was injured in the third preseason game; admit it--you thought Dick
Vermeil was nuts for handing the job to Kurt Warner. And where would the
Patriots be if Bill Belichick hadn't chosen Tom Brady over a healthy Drew
Bledsoe before Super Bowl XXXVI?
The Titans could
well be this year's quick-turnaround act (complete scouting report, page 132).
They swallowed all their nasty salary-cap medicine last year: $26 million in
contracts for players no longer on the team. Following the insightful
recommendations of director of pro personnel Al Smith, and using $17 million in
cap room in the 2006 off-season, Tennessee signed four proven veterans at need
positions-- center Kevin Mawae, wideout David Givens, outside linebacker David
Thornton and strong safety Chris Hope--then drafted Young to replace Steve
McNair. On Monday, for quarterback insurance, the club signed veteran long-ball
thrower Kerry Collins.