Crushed Optimists

We are twin brothers who grew up in Central Washington. This blog is devoted to the life of Seattle sports fans, as well as various other topics that we will espouse for your enjoyment. We could be called another OFFICIAL SEATTLE SEAHAWKS site, but we'll take our uneducated crack at the Mariners, Sonics, and Huskies as well. A Seattle Sports Blog? Must be the land... of crushed optimism!

Monday, August 29, 2005

NFL Preview: NFC South

2004 Standings:

Atlanta: 11-5
New Orleans: 8-8
Carolina: 7-9
Tampa Bay: 5-11

Overview:
As the last three years have shown, this entire division seems to rest entirely on the shoulders of one Michael Vick. Actually, it's up to Atlanta's DEFENSE to continue their marked improvement of a year ago if Atlanta has a prayer of returning to the NFC Championship game. New Orleans made no changes to a more inconsistent and maddening team then the Seahawks. Carolina is back, and John Fox is ready to make some noise in a weak division, and, heck, conference. Finally, John Gruden wants to return to his winning ways, but the whole rebuilding process should take a bit longer.

Atlanta:
Or.... The Michael Vick Show, sponsored by your friends Jim Mora Jr. and Rich McKay, and used to be sponsored by new Seahawk headman Tim Ruskell. People thought that Vick would make a difference, but very few people thought that they would reach the NFC Championship game. However, a revamped defense and powerful running attack made up for a terrible passing game.

Key Losses: LB Matt Stewart, PK Jay Feely

Key Additions: G Matt Lehr, LB Ed Hartwell, PK Todd Peterson

Offense: This offense depends on Vick remaining healthy, more for his legs then his arm. This was the #1 rushing attack per game in the NFL, led by Warrick Dunn, helped by T.J. Duckett, and put together by Vick. Most analysts didn't believe that Dunn could handle a full workload, and it remains to be seen if Dunn doesn't start to wear down this season. If he does, Duckett could be an adequate replacement. He hits the hole hard. Very hard, capable of dragging multiple linebackers with him for some time. The wide receiving corps is, well, pathetic. Peerless Price has completely underachieved, and Dez White is a complete joke. Michael Jenkins underachieved last year, and Atlanta, while outwardly saying all the right things about how Jenkins is ready to become the #1 receiver this year, has to be worried about where the passing attack will come from. My best guess is Alge Crumpler, who had a great season and should remain the top target for Vick (if he actually passes the football). It seemed to me that Vick was so ready to run that he couldn't stay in the pocket long enough to progress through his reads and make something happen through the air often enough. The offensive line is undersized, but should be up to the task of cutblocking, since that's what their offensive line coach, Alex Gibbs, formerly of Denver, is all about. All in all, an ok offense, but not one that will carry a team to the Super Bowl.

Gavin: I don't know if I would even call this offense "ok". Yes, Michael Vick can make some incredible highlight reel plays every game, but it's the plays he doesn't make with his arm that don't make the press. I don't put the blame entirely on the wide receivers (although they collectively are awful). Vick has to become more of a pocket passer for this offense to succeed, because eventually they will be exposed in the same way as Philly did in the playoffs as a team that you can stack 9 in the box to stop the run. Warrick Dunn can't make it against that. Can Roddy White, pick from UAB, make a difference? Only if Vick improves. This offense will struggle against a team like Carolina until that improvement is consistent.

Defense: 2 years ago, the Falcons defense was one of the worst in the league. Last year, they magically turned things around and became one of the best. That should worry Falcons fans, as those kind of success stories don't usually carry from year to year in the NFL. The Falcons were lucky with injuries, and a pretty easy schedule (did you look at that division?) and were throwing a new look out there that teams hadn't seen and weren't as able to prepare for. DE Patrick Kerney became a top-5 DE in the NFC, and seemed to carry that defense with his energy and quickness to the football. Rod Coleman was extremely effective on the inside. Honestly, that entire D-Line seemed to all have career years, and they were not a young line. They have some interesting young blood, led by 2nd year man Jordan Babineaux, but it remains to be seen if they can continue the massive surge of a year ago. The linebacking corps improved with the offseason signing of Ed Hartwell from Baltimore, who is a very good run-stuffer who is marginal against the pass. The secondary is the weak link. DeAngelo Hall is a possible stud, but noone else is anything above adequate, especially either safety. If the pass rush falls off, teams might be able to pick apart the Falcons through the air.

Gavin: I totally agree with Colin. I would be concerned if I was a Falcons fan. I remember two seasons ago a Dallas Cowboys defense that, with unique schemes, was the number one defense in the NFL. I also remember what happened to them the year following. The Falcons simply lack a lot of premier players. They thrive on making people like me look stupid, and maybe they do it again, but I'm not so sure. The signing of Ed Hartwell was a terrific one (although they did overpay). I am very curious to see how they do, because the offense is not going to consistently score.

Overhyped Myth: Michael Vick carried that team last year. Not exactly. In fact, he needs to make a huge improvement in his accuracy, because the passing attack was generally atrocious, and the Eagles completely shut that team down. The defense carried the team last year, and it remains to be seen if they are up to the task this year.

Understated Reality: T.J. Duckett is a #1 back who has accepted his role and gives a TON to that offense. He is a Jerome Bettis-type back who explodes through the hole and easily picks up the 3rd-and-1's that haunt certain other teams. Warrick Dunn and Vick might make the flashy runs, but Duckett makes the hard but necessary runs that are essential to win ballgames and grind down the clock in the 4th quarter.

General Prognosis: If you listen to ESPN, they are a Super Bowl contender. If you listen to me (and I have no reason why you should), they should struggle to make the postseason. They have a tougher division this year. Carolina is back and ready to rumble. Tampa Bay is improved (if not by much). New Orleans is always good for an upset, especially late in the season. The NFC is weak enough that they should make it, but it won't be the joyride some think.

Early Season Game I'm Looking Forward To: Sept. 18 against the Seahawks. Let's see if our revamped D can handle the running attack. The preseason results would seem to say.... no, we can't.

New Orleans:
They were 8-8 last year? How in holy hell did that happen? Anyone? Bueller? This is the story of an underachieving offense led by inconsistent Aaron Brooks and a horrible defense led by absolutely noone. Faced with that, some might have bravely decided to make some huge moves and revamp this team. New Orleans management decided against that course, and this is largely the EXACT same team as last year. Genius. Genius.

Key Losses: S Tebuckey Jones

Key Additions: RB Antowain Smith, WR Az-Zahir Hakim, RT Jammal Brown, RG Jermane Mayberry

Offense: When they are firing on all cylinders, they can really put some points up on you. Unfortunately, they are not usually firing on all cylinders. Jim Haslett SHOULD make this offense run entirely through Deuce McAllister, who is the best player on this roster. Unfortunately, again, usually the offense runs on Aaron Brooks using short routes and, of course, Brooks being inaccurate and a poor decision maker doesn't help matters. The offensive line is strong enough to help Deuce run up some big yards. The problem is the defense is bad enough that this offense can't be as conservative as it should be. They need to score 30 points, and that means not using their strength as much as they should. That puts the onus on Aaron Brooks, who has one incredible receiver in Joe Horn, and a couple other guys. Stallworth supposedly is a good receiver, but he hasn't showed anything the last couple of years besides his helmet getting knocked off by Hamlin. Basically, this is a weird offense that doesn't look extremely good on paper besides the Deuce. If the defense can limit points, the Saints can be an effective grinding team. It remains to be seen if Haslett can pull that off.

Gavin: This is the year for Aaron Brooks. If he still manages to throw the one dumb change-the-momentum interception the Saints fan base will clamor for a change. The draft of QB Adrian McPherson is very interesting. We may see him if the team struggles. Another good offseason acquisition is WR Az Hakim, who can hopefully catch some of the balls meant for the eternally disappointing Dante Stallworth. A lot of pressure on this offense to score, because the defense is going to be awful.

Defense: Again, you are management. You just had the worst rush defense in the NFL. You decide to.... make absolutely no changes in personnel? Are you kidding me? You are in the same conference as Atlanta and Carolina? You make NO CHANGES? The laughter in Carolina and Atlanta must be echoing off the rooftops. They just gave us 151 yards to Chester Taylor of the Ravens. Yeah, I'm never heard of him either. Don't get me wrong. Mike McKenzie is a decent cornerback, and Charles Grant is a terrific DE, so they have a few weapons. It's just that they, seriously, don't play well as a unit. Their linebacking corps is especially terrible, with no headliners and no playmakers in the bunch. Not much more to say here. They were horrible, and they will continue to be horrible. Good night.

Gavin: This is beyond wierd to me. I just don't understand it. You are just asking to be awful when you are bad against the run. You can't control the clock, you can't stop third downs, you can't do anything. They will be able to rush the passer and have a mediocre secondary. I just see one of the worst defenses in the NFL here on paper. I just can't stress how terrible this defense looks. Maybe Haslett knows something we don't.

Overhyped Myth: Aaron Brooks is, finally, ready to have a mistake-free season. Absolutely not. He has consistently made poor decisions throughout his career. There is no reason why he will stop now. You can not depend on this guy to carry your team to the playoffs, much less anywhere deep in the postseason. The Saints should cut their losses and try to really find the answer at the quarterback position.

Understated Reality: The Saints could easily have a top-5 rushing attack IF they make the running game a central part of their offense. That is one place where Brooks can be valuable, running the ball out of the pocket and playing some misdirection plays with Deuce. This is the best part of this team.

General Prognosis: The absolute best hope is 9 wins. I will guess on 7 wins, with a few wins towards the end that, once again, will result in misplaced optimism about the future. This defense can't give you any more then that.

Early Season Game I'm Looking Forward To: Sept. 11 at Carolina. A Week 1 matchup where that running defense can take center stage, either shutting me up or proving me right in all respects. I would wager on me being proven right..... this time.

Carolina:
A team that had all the classic signs of a Super Bowl letdown last year, though injuries played a tremendous role as well, especially those of Stephen Davis and Steve Smith. They started 1-6, but had a real chance at the postseason later on. They are a scary team to think about this year, as John Fox seems poised to make some real noise in the NFC.

Key Losses: WR Muhsin Muhammad, LB Mark Fields

Key Additions: TE Freddie Jones, G Mike Wahle, S Thomas Davis, CB Ken Lucas

Offense: Can they stay healthy? That's the main question surrounding this team, because they lost their #1 playmaker of a year ago in WR Muhammad, now with the Bears. QB Jake Delhomme has proven himself to be, if not spectacular, a consistent, quality quarterback at the NFL level. He takes charge, and seems to have improved at throwing the deep ball. He also seems to light up in the 4th quarter, a nice trait to have in your quarterback. The running back situation is interesting. Steven Davis, if healthy, is the logical choice, but he will be challenged for carries by DeShaun Foster. If either of them really does stay healthy, the running game should be alive and well in Carolina behind a strengthen offensive line led by T Jordan Gross, a monster of a tackle. Even the wide receiving corps seems to be quality, led of course by Steve Smith, but don't forget about Keary Colbert, who put up some pretty nice numbers as a rookie. Ricky Proehl is just one of those people you like to have on your team. He somehow always gets open, even though physically I have no idea how. IF.... IF..... If this offense stays healthy, they should have the ability to really put up some points, whether through the ground or through the air. Even John Fox improved last year in opening up the offense and becoming more flexible instead of going with the running game even when it wasn't working. There should be cause for optimism here.

Gavin: This should be a terrific offensive team. I have never seen a team go through the type of injuries Carolina did. It was flat out insane. To lose your top two running backs, top wide receiver, top defensive tackle, and it continued. The good news is that the major factors are all back. Steve Smith is a top five wide receiver. Keary Colbert is a terrific number two. Stephen Davis/DeShaun Foster are a great tandem. Jake Delhomme was one of the hottest QBs in the league the second half of the season. One of the main reasons I think this is the best team in the division.

Defense: There are a few questions around this unit, but, by and large, it should be extremely good. CB Ken Lucas is a solid pickup (though overpriced) and should be a fine complement for up and coming star Chris Gamble. The loss of Mark Fields will be a huge blow, more for his leadership skills then for the talent level on the field. The real question will be if DT Kris Jenkins can return to his worldbeating self after injury problems last year. If he can, then that D-Line will be incredible, led by freak-of-nature Julius Peppers, who can do everything on the field. The weakness might be in the linebacking corps, which might hurt both the run defense and will hinder the ability to run a zone defense out there, which is a pain Seahawks fans know all too well. I would expect good things to happen with this unit. They don't need to be a top-5 unit to be successful, their offense should be good enough to pick up the slack. They should be in the top half of defenses, and that should lead to several wins and a probable playoff berth.

Gavin: Well, they should be pretty good for sure on the defensive side of the ball. I'm interested if Julius Peppers has a NFL Defensive Player of the Year type season. I think he could do it... The secondary should be decent, although we all are well aware of Ken Lucas' shortcomings. He was most definitely not worth the money, and Carolina will regret it. That linebacking corp won't be awful, because Dan Morgan is still around. Another year older, but still around. I wouldn't want to be an offense going up against this regularly.

Overhyped Myth: The loss of Muhammad will really hinder that offense. Absolutely not. He hadn't even flashed that type of talent until last year, and they have Smith, Colbert, and Proehl, who are MORE then adequate. Enjoy Chicago, Muhammad, and enjoy watching the postseason and cheering on your old team.

Understated Reality: This is a Super Bowl contender in the weak NFC, for sure. In fact, I believe they are the strongest team in this division, and will talk about that more in the prediction blog we will run out soon. They know what it takes to get to the Super Bowl, they have excellent coaching, great veteran leadership, and the fire to prove they weren't a one year wonder. I would actually be shocked if they don't make it past the wildcard round of the postseason.

General Prognosis: See above. This is a good team that very few people are talking about. No one was talking about them during their Super Bowl run, either, but that didn't stop them from almost upsetting the Patriots. They could be the representative once again.

Early Season Game I'm Looking Forward To: September 18 vs New England. This will be a real early-season test that will show a lot of people where this team is at, even if they don't end up winning the game. They might actually lose Week 1 because they will be looking forward to this game.

Tampa Bay:
This team reminds me of the Mariners. They got real old, real fast, and now they are in full rebuilding mode with not a lot of hope on the horizon. Bucs fans have to hope that Jon Gruden can pull some magic out of the Chucky hat, and that Brian Griese can actually become a consistent quality quarterback, two things that are doubtful for this year.

Key Losses:

Key Additions: RB Cadillac Williams, WR Ike Hilliard, TE Anthony Becht, DT Chris Hovan

Offense: Well, Gruden, it's go time as for whether you still are an offensive genuis. Your tools are the enigma that is Brian Griese, an unproven and already hurting rookie in Cadillac Williams, an old and, well, bad offensive line, and a bunch of no-name wide receivers except for rookie stud Michael Clayton. Can that offense manufacture some big games? Maybe a few, but it won't be in the top half on the NFL by any means. Griese showed something last year, and is definitely a better fit then Chris Simms, who I could never believe had so many people fall in love with him. Whenever I watched him, he sucked, whether in college or in the NFL. He made bad decisions, rushed, got flustered in the pocket, and couldn't lead the offense. But he had a good arm! His dad won a Super Bowl! Who..... the hell..... cares? So Griese will be an upgrade, but that isn't so much a compliment to Griese as it is an indictment on the state of this franchise. Williams is a stud, but he was already getting worn down in college, so it remains to be seen whether he can last the wear and tear of a full NFL season, especially stuck behind this miserable offensive line. This line has been bad for several years, even when they did win the Super Bowl. Well? Still is. Williams might be able to find a hole TO run in. Finally, Michael Clayton might make some noise, but there is noone else to make big plays for this offense. Weak, weak, weak. This will be a boring team to watch.

Gavin: Kudos to Colin for the excellent Chris Simms rant. I totally agree. Cadillac Williams should be good. Michael Clayton was the best rookie WR in the league. This offense should be okay, but as long as the o-line blows will struggle with consistency. As Colin said, we will see a few great performances that makes people think Tampa's better than they are.

Defense: They got even older. Sure, they still have Simeon Rice, who had 12 sacks last year, and they still have Greg Spires, who had 8 sacks last year. That means that the defense won't be terrible. However, their true intimidating days are behind them, those days when they could psyche the other team out before the ball was even snapped. Booger McFarland hasn't been as good as Sapp, and you can't think that Chris Hovan will suddenly turn back into a good player. Derrick Brooks is also older, but he still should have a nice year or two left in the tank. All in all, the linebacking corps still should be solid, and extremely fast, but, again, they just aren't as good as they used to be. Somehow this secondary managed to be the #1 passing defense last year, allowing just over 160 yards a game. However, this is not a huge strength. Barber is, well, old, and Brian Kelly has never truly developed into a prominent stopper. All in all, the defense should be solid, but injuries might be a problem, and there isn't tremendous depth on this roster. If things go downhill, everything might fall apart all at once.

Gavin: Until Tampa's defense struggles, I will be a believer. They are a dynasty. Maybe this is the year. Colin has lots of great reasons above. Until that shows however, I just can't totally doubt. They keep on doing it. Of course, they will have to in order for this team not to lose 11 games.

Overhyped Myth: Jon Gruden has lost his coaching fire and edge. He hasn't lost his edge. He simply has no players to get an edge with. The NFL is a players league. Bill Belichick was not considered a genuis until he was with the Browns. Mike Holmgren hasn't won a playoff game with the Seahawks. Bill Parcells had a terrible season with the Cowboys last year. If Gruden gets some players, he will win again.

Understated Reality: This isn't a team on the rise. This is a team still falling, needing a huge infusion of young blood before it will rise again. They are capable of a few nice wins, but won't make any kind of noise in the division or the conference.

General Prognosis: One of the worst teams in the NFL even with the above-average defense. They will struggle to get back to the 5 win mark, but that will be it.

Early Season Game I'm Looking Forward To: October 2nd against Detroit. This might be the game that puts Joey Harrington out of a job, if he can't get it done against the Bucs.

Conclusion:
A boring division. Seriously. Expect the media to talk about the Falcons, but expect the Panthers to be the class of the division.

posted by colin_hesse @ 5:36 PM  2 comments

2 Comments:

At 1:10 PM, Blogger Tash said...

Great article! I agree with you totally on the Tampa Bay situation. You write better then the guys we have out here writing for the sports section of the newspapers. (The Providence Journal). I do think that New Orleans can put it together and win the division if their defense decides to play. Again, Great writing!!

 
At 7:42 PM, Blogger colin_hesse said...

Thanks Tash! By the way, I stopped by your site, you have some funny stuff there!

True statement about New Orleans. Just don't think it's possible FOR the defense to decide to play.

 

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