The 2006 NFL season opens Thursday under a cloud of doubt and steroid suspicion.
Oh, wait. No it doesn't. That's just baseball.
The same fan culture and media that are ready to rewrite the record books and pillory any slugger who looks good in Under Armour or hits four home runs in a week as a probable juicer, the same Congress that drags baseball in for regular show trials and admonishments about the youth of our nation: A group shrug at men the size of buildings running 4.5 40s and NFL team doctors going to the pokey for handing out steroid prescriptions like aspirin samples to active players.
Works for me. I don't get it, but it's more fun to talk about pinpoint passing than syringes, more interesting to think about how somebody might stop Peyton Manning, which is theoretically possible, than to think about how we might stop elite professional athletes from trying to cheat, which is not.
So we turn to Part 1 of our annual ridiculous and almost certainly disastrous NFL predictions, the NFC. It's been the lesser conference the last few seasons, and while I think it will be so again this year, I also think the pendulum is starting to swing back the other way. We'll assay the AFC Thursday, which is Opening Day, the Miami Dolphins and Pittsburgh Steelers kicking off in prime time after some bad entertainment.
In one of this column's more pointless traditions, we swim against the tide and go west to east. Teams are listed in order of predicted finish, with 2005 standing in parentheses.)
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NFC WEST [PERMALINK]
Seattle Seahawks (13-3, first place in 2005): The conference champions are banged up coming out of preseason, especially at wide receiver. They lost Steve Hutchinson off the offensive line, which is a huge loss, and also said goodbye to receiver Joe Jurevicius and half their starting secondary. Watch out for running back Shaun Alexander not being quite as good without Hutchinson, and that's not to mention the Madden curse. The defense has been upgraded, with linebacker Julian Peterson the big add.
The Seahawks are still the favorite in a weak division and there's no real reason to think they'll take a big step back, except that Super Bowl teams often do, especially Super Bowl losers. But unless Alexander can repeat his record-breaking season -- and how often does that happen? -- and quarterback Matt Hasselbeck can be as sharp as he was late last year, they could take a small step back.
Arizona Cardinals (5-11, third place): After signing Edgerrin James at running back to complement receivers Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald, the Cardinals now have a great set of weapons for their quarterback. Unfortunately their quarterback is still Kurt Warner, who can be effective at times, but is more brittle than something that's funny how brittle it is, except that brittle isn't funny.
And a terrible offensive line doesn't figure to protect him unless they're really good at yelling "Watch out!" That line doesn't bode well for James either. Warner's backup is rookie Matt Leinart. I'm not convinced Leinart will be a great pro, but I'm pretty sure he won't even be very good as a rookie behind that line.
The defense wasn't terrible last year, it just seemed that way because it was on the field so much, thanks to the Cardinals' terrible running game. That should improve a little this year, not a lot. The Cardinals are moving in the right direction, and a slick new stadium should help over time. Might even give them a little home-field advantage boost this year. But they're not there yet. They'll grapple with the Rams for second place, out of the wild-card picture. It's a tossup but I'll say successfully.
St. Louis Rams (6-10, second place): A hideous defense was upgraded, but not enough to be called good. The Rams still have what looks like an explosive offense, but hasn't played like one for a while now. Torry Holt is a great player, but Isaac Bruce and most of the line are getting old, Steven Jackson is no Marshall Faulk -- who it says here was just as important as Kurt Warner in the Greatest Show on Turf era -- and Marc Bulger is good but fragile.
San Francisco 49ers (4-12, fourth place): The 2005 49ers were a sight to behold, if you ever bothered to behold them. They were really and truly awful. They can't help improving in 2006. They'll still give up a lot of points, and I'll believe quarterback Alex Smith when I see it, but with new offensive coordinator Norv Turner and talented rookie tight end Vernon Davis, the pieces are in place for Smith to improve all the way to mediocre.
A 6-10 record and an escape from the cellar would be a big achievement, but this is a franchise digging out from years of mismanagement. Better times are ahead. See, I could have pointed out that 49ers-digging pun there, but I'm better than that.
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NFC SOUTH [PERMALINK]
Carolina Panthers (11-5, second place, wild card in 2005) They've added Keyshawn Johnson so Jake Delhomme will have somewhere to throw other than to Steve Smith, who was the Panthers' only offensive weapon last year, a little something the Seahawks noticed in time to make Carolina look bad in the NFC Championship Game. We'll see how well a guy whose autobiography was titled "Just Give Me the Damn Ball!" adjusts to being a No. 2.
DeShaun Foster is the new top back right up until he gets injured or the Panthers finally realize he isn't very good, at which time first-round pick DeAngelo Williams of Memphis will get a chance to show he's not another DeShaun Foster. He does look like a stronger runner.
But anyway, the story here is on the other side of the ball, where the Panthers have lost Marlon McCree, Will Witherspoon and Ricky Manning Jr. and gained two big tackles in Maake Kemoeatu and their own often-injured Kris Jenkins, who's back, at least for now. With Julius Peppers, one of the more freakish athletes in pro sports, leading the way, this is one of the best fronts in football, though there are serious questions in the secondary.
If those get answered, and with any offense at all, the Panthers could go deep again. But -- at the risk of stirring up Panthers fans again -- this looks like a potential playoff team, but not a late-January team.
Atlanta Falcons (8-8, third place): A contender, but only if this is the season Michael Vick masters the art of passing in the NFL. We heard a lot two years ago when coach Jim Mora installed the West Coast offense that it takes a quarterback two or three years to master it. Well, didn't happen in two, so ...
Shouldn't the system fit the personnel? What would be ideal would be a system that could take advantage of Vick's crazy athleticism and his cannon arm, and downplay his accuracy problems. That would probably involve big, strong receivers who can fight for non-pinpoint passes. Guys like -- oh, Keyshawn Johnson. The Falcons have '04 and '05 first-round picks Michael Jenkins and Roddy White, who so far have inspired Vick to say, "Where's Alge Crumpler?" They also have former Denver underachiever Ashley Lelie and a weaker offensive line with left tackle Kevin Shaffer gone.
Getting middle linebacker Ed Hartwell back from last year's injury will give the defense an upgrade, though he'll miss at least the first game with sore knees. Also important was the signing of pass rusher John Abraham. The Falcons could contend for the division or the wild card if Vick steps up.
I was bullish on Vick when the mainstream media was agog with him and the smart guys were saying he couldn't hit the broad side of a barn. Now that the mainstream media has turned on him, I'm still bullish. I'm just a sucker for an out-of-this-world athlete, I guess. Wild card.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: (11-5, first place): The Bucs more or less stood pat after winning the division last year, something that I never trust. They tried to address their offensive line weakness in the first two rounds of the draft. Chris Simms is their unquestioned quarterback now. He had a nice year last year, but does he seem like a deep in the playoffs quarterback to you?
Cadillac Williams is an explosive runner, but probably too small to be a workhorse over time. The Bucs' defense, on which they've dined out whenever they've been good this century, is aging. I don't think they'll be as good as they were last year.
New Orleans Saints (3-13, fourth place): With quarterback Drew Brees and running back Reggie Bush in town, plus new coach Sean Payton taking over after Jim Haslett held onto the job for at least a year too long, there's a lot of excitement and anticipation. The Saints returning to New Orleans and a repaired Superdome after a hideous year of Katrina-induced wandering also give a special flavor to the new season.
Unfortunately, the Saints still have a lot of weaknesses, up front and on defense, but if Brees is recovered from his shoulder injury and Bush is half as elusive in the pros as he was in college -- a good rough guess -- he and Joe Horn should lead an offense that's at least fun to watch. A .500 record and an escape from last place in a fairly tough division look like pipe dreams, but after all the fans of this team have been through, why not dream?
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NFC NORTH [PERMALINK]
Chicago Bears (11-5, first place in 2005): The Bears would have to fall flat on their snouts not to win this division. And if my saying that ain't the kiss of death, I don't know what is.
One of the game's best defenses makes them tough, but if the offense can put things together, the Bears could really be contenders. Problem is, the Bears didn't do a whole lot to beef up a really bad offense.
No, hang on. See how you were ready to just keep reading here? I don't think you really stopped to appreciate and savor just how really bad the Bears' offense was last year, considering the Bears made the playoffs.
Every NFL playoff team last year scored at least 300 points except the Bears, who scored 260. Every team except the Bears and Buccaneers scored at least 350. Washington got to the playoffs despite its offense, and it scored 99 points more than the Bears.
If you like more sophisticated stats, Football Outsiders ranked the Bears 28th in the league in DVOA, defense-adjusted value over average, a measure of offensive efficiency. Only the Texans, Bills, Jets and 49ers were worse, and none of those teams sniffed teams that sniffed the playoffs. In fact, the next eight teams above the Bears in DVOA also missed the playoffs.
The 2005 Bears had the defense of a Super Bowl team and the offense of a 3-13 team.
OK, let's continue.
So Rex Grossman gets yet another chance to be healthy for more than five minutes, but the Bears smartly signed Brian Griese as a backup, meaning not only that another Grossman injury wouldn't be a disaster but also that Griese might just win the job on merit. Then again, if that happens, what do you have: Brian Griese.
There's a similar crowded field at running back, where Thomas Jones seems to have won the job from budding 2005 draft bust Cedric Benson, and backup Adrian Peterson had some nice games last year. Muhsin Muhammad, a disappointment last season, is the best of an ordinary group of receivers. The Bears probably can't score enough to go all the way, but nobody's going to want to play them. Any improvement at all on offense -- and they'd have to improve almost by accident -- makes them formidable.
Minnesota Vikings (9-7, second place): They replaced receiver Nate Burleson with Koren Robinson, already likely a downgrade, and then cut Robinson after a drunken-driving arrest. They've also replaced quarterback Daunte Culpepper with Brad Johnson, who becomes the oldest starting quarterback in the league. Former Raven Chester Taylor replaces Michael Bennett at running back.
The good news is the overhauled offensive line, featuring Seattle import Steve Huchinson, and the clean-slate regime of new coach Brad Childress. He isn't bringing excitement to the Twin Cities, which had all the excitement it wanted from the Love Boat bunch last year. But the solid, stolid, organized approach may be just what the Vikings need. What they need more is enough offense to overcome a so-so defense, and I don't think they'll have that. But if the bottom of this division is weak enough, they might get enough free wins to hang around the wild-card chase.
Green Bay Packers (4-12, fourth place): Brett Favre might not be as washed up as he looked last year when he threw interception after interception. He was desperately trying to make plays after his lousy offensive line broke down in protection. Then again, he might be just that washed up, unable to do much else but heave the spheroid desperately.
Whatever. Look for more of the same this year, with Favre another year older and lacking much in the way of weaponry beyond Donald Driver. The Packers would have been wise to cut Favre loose, save themselves a ton of cap space and get on with the future.
The defense has a chance to be pretty good, though, and might keep the Packers in games as long as Favre's more ridiculous flings aren't being returned for touchdowns. Top pick A.J. Hawk is expected to contribute right away at linebacker, and cornerback Al Harris is coming off his best year. The Packers also signed free agents Charles Woodson at corner, Ryan Pickett at tackle and Marquand Manual at safety, and some springtime wheeling and dealing left them with an extra pick in the second through sixth rounds.
They used their first seven picks -- through the fourth round, on two linebackers, two offensive linemen and three receivers. This is another one of those bad teams that are moving in the right direction, but they might move faster if the old quarterback moved out of the way. I'm picking them to finish ahead of the Lions only because the Lions finished ahead of them last year.
Detroit Lions (5-11, third place): New coach Rod Marinelli has the Lions working hard and competing with each other and doing all those old-school footbally things they didn't do under Steve Mariucci. Solid journeyman quarterback Jon Kitna should be a stabilizing influence on offense, where one of the gazillion receivers the Lions have wasted high draft picks on is bound to step up someday, and maybe someday soon if new offensive coordinator Mike Martz works his old St. Louie magic. It won't be Charles Rogers, who was cut last week.
Marinelli's an old defensive line coach, and this defensive front, led by tackle Shaun Rogers and a speedy set of linebackers, can be good. Rogers missed the preseason with a shoulder injury but should play this week. It could be something to build on, but so far that's all it is, a could be. Approaching a .500 season would be like winning the Super Bowl.
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NFC EAST [PERMALINK]
Washington (10-6, second place, wild card in 2005) Coach Joe Gibbs has brought in Al Saunders from Kansas City to coordinate the offense, while Gregg Williams is back to run the defense. That's quite a brain trust, and a famously expensive one, owner Dan Snyder having noted that there's no salary cap on coaching staffs.
The offense took a hit when Clinton Portis separated his shoulder, though he may play in the opener, and while Mark Brunell has two new weapons in Antwaan Randle-El and Brandon Lloyd, he's still Mark Brunell, only now he's another year older.
I like the defense, but I'm not convinced the offense can score enough, and Washington's strategy of paying top dollar for free agents and trading draft picks for veterans has left it with a stellar first unit and no depth. The team is one injury away from disaster at almost every position.
Of course, all of this was true last year and they went 10-6, so I'll take 'em to win the East, for reasons explained four paragraphs south of here.
Philadelphia Eagles (6-10, fourth place): It won't be as bad as last year and it might be pretty good. Donte Stallworth is the new Terrell Owens, and while he obviously doesn't have the same kind of ceiling, he also doesn't drive his teammates and coaches up the walls. See what I did there?
In Brian Westbrook and Correll Buckhalter, the Eagles have a couple of elusive but injury-prone guys. Westbrook's foot is hurting entering the season. Coach Andy "What, Me Run?" Reid has spent the offseason talking about how he's called too many passes in the past and is going to run more, but we'll see, especially if one or both of those guys go down.
The linebacker corps is a little weak, and the offensive line might be, though they've tried to address it. This team isn't one of the elites anymore, but they're better than last year's injury- and tsuris-riddled disaster, and they aren't to be taken lightly. They're probably good enough to have dominated this division a few years ago when the other three teams were weak, but not this year. I'll take 'em for the last wild-card spot, and then anything can happen in the playoffs.
New York Giants (11-5, first place): The Giants won the division last year and there's no compelling reason why they shouldn't again, except that this is a tough division that anybody can win, and the Giants veered between terrific and terrible last year, and picking repeat division champions in the NFL is a fool's game and I've already picked two in this conference alone. Ergo, the Giants won't win.
They're Eli Manning's team now, and with plenty of weapons, the offense will go as far as he takes it, even if this is the year Tiki Barber, 31, starts slowing down. The Giants overhauled the secondary, though without adding big stars, and added linebacker LaVar Arrington. It should be a powerful unit behind a big pass rush, but if teams can stop that rush, they can go to work.
Dallas Cowboys (9-7, third place): You may have heard the Cowboys signed Terrell Owens. If he's healthy, and if he behaves himself and just plays football, he makes this offense a lot better, even with Drew Bledsoe, whom I've always thought of as ordinary, at quarterback. Those are big ifs.
The offensive line is porous, the defense weak against the run. I've seen predictions of the Cowboys winning anywhere from seven to 12 games. It's always with a shaky hand that you place a bet against a Bill Parcells team, but I'm not really buying what the Cowboys are selling, and my dough's on them finishing out of the money.
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Here, for ease of ridicule, are my NFC picks:
Wild cards: Atlanta, Philadelphia
NFC champion: Chicago
It has to be someone, so I'll take a big flier on the Bears putting together just enough offense to make a 2000 Baltimore Ravens-style run at the Super Bowl, where they'll get annihilated by any one of several teams. I am fully aware that it's a near-100 percent certainty that the NFC champion will not be one of the six teams named above.
Thursday: AFC preview
Previous column: NFL team values
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