Tuesday, January 3, 2006
NFL Week 17 Power Rankings
Five Quick Hits
* Top three announcers this season: Daryl Johnston, Dan Dierdorf, Troy Aikman. Usually, I name a play-by-play guy, but there was no one deserving this year.
* Doug Flutie is my hero.
* Super Bowl XL: Colts over Seahawks.
* Is Michael Irvin trying to steal a job from Drew Rosenhaus? How much of a shill can he be?
* NFC division champions finished a combined 29-4 at home this season.
Coaches call the first Monday after the regular season "Black Monday." It's the day when owners fire the coaches they couldn't wait to can, and this year's Black Monday was one of the "blackest" ever. Four head coaches lost their jobs on January 2nd, but if you count the Sunday terminations of Mike Tice and Dick Vermeil, the total is six, nearly a third of all non-playoff teams. With the Lions unlikely to retain interim head man Dick Jauron, and several other openings likely, it's not out of the question that 10 teams could have a new head coach next season.
One of the reasons so many teams are looking for new coaches is that there are not 32 people who are qualified to be NFL head coaches. It's an exceptionally difficult job, and few have the necessary combination of intelligence, work ethic, public and private people skills, knowledge of the game, and personnel evaluation. Coaches also have to be able to find qualified assistants, and delegate to them. They must handle the media. They have to convince players they care, but be willing to part with them. The point is, the coach must possess a tremendous number of diverse talents.
With so many teams eager to replace their top coaches, I'm not sure whom they're going to turn to. There's not an obvious choice out there this year. Gregg Williams is getting a lot of attention, and he's probably the best bet right now. There are other hot coordinators out there, but none with the kind of can't-miss pedigree Marvin Lewis or Lovie Smith established as coordinators.
Barring an unexpected exodus of big-name college coaches, re-treads figure to get a lot of interviews in the coming weeks. Besides Williams, expect teams to consider Jim Fassel, Dick LeBeau, and maybe Steve Mariucci or Jauron. Even some of the coaches fired on Monday could get a chance somewhere else in 2006, most notably Jim Haslett and Mike Martz.
What's missing from those potential hires, though, is anyone who will satisfy the league's minority-hiring policy, which requires teams to at least interview a person of color for any head-coaching opening. While there are several successful coordinators who might fit the bill, I can't help thinking that Art Shell, who was the first African-American head coach of the NFL's modern era, is probably one of the best choices available.
If you're looking for something slightly left-of-center from the conventional wisdom, consider some interim head coaches who've never gotten a full season to prove themselves: Joe Vitt, Jim Bates, and Terry Robiskie. Vitt coached out the season for St. Louis, Bates led the league's seventh-ranked defense in Green Bay and might be a reasonable choice for the opening there, and Robiskie, the wide receivers coach in Cleveland, got a 1,000-yard season out of Antonio Bryant after Braylon Edwards went down. I don't expect any of those guys to get so much as an interview, but they'd be on my list.
I'll address further coaching developments in Five Quick Hits during the playoffs, but for now, we move on to the final power rankings of the 2005 season. Rankings are for right now, year-end strength. Brackets indicate previous rank.
1. Indianapolis Colts  — When was the last time a team won a game with 11 rushing yards and no rushing first downs? I don't know, but I bet it had to do with playing the Cardinals. A week ago, I was prepared to pick against Indianapolis in the playoffs. Heck, two days ago I was thinking about taking Denver or New England to win the Super Bowl. I'm not sure why I'm back on the Colts train, but in three years of picking the Super Bowl at season's end, I haven't been right yet. In 2002, I liked Oakland over Philly. In 2003, I said New England over Philly, which was half-right. Last year, I took Pittsburgh over Philly. It's a good thing for me that the Eagles missed the playoffs this time.
2. Seattle Seahawks  — No team in the NFC should even challenge them this postseason, but Mike Holmgren's teams seem to struggle in big games. Last year's 0-3 mark against the Rams (who went 6-9 against everyone else) is proof enough, but Holmgren has lost his last five postseason games. He could never get the Packers past Dallas, and lost to Denver as a two-touchdown favorite in Super Bowl XXXII. Even the Super Bowl he won was a bit of a choke job. Green Bay was the much better team, but if Desmond Howard doesn't play the game of his life, or Drew Bledsoe only throws three interceptions, New England might have won. The Seahawks sweep the NFC and lose in the Super Bowl.
3. New England Patriots  — Prediction isn't normally my specialty, but I'm 25-8 (.758) picking the postseason for Sports Central. I don't always cherrypick like this, but ... there's no way the Patriots are going to lose on Saturday. Bill Belichick and Tom Brady at home in the playoffs? Jacksonville's a good team, so I guess an upset could go down, but I'd have to be really stupid to pick against the Pats in this one.
4. Denver Broncos  — Saturday's game provided an opportunity to watch one of the game's best centers, Tom Nalen, take on one of the best nose tackles, San Diego's Jamal Williams. Neither had a clear edge. During the game, umpire Jim Quirk hurled a flag into the facemask of Charger LB Stephen Cooper. I mean, he really threw it. Officials need to stop doing that.
5. Pittsburgh Steelers  — Ben Roethlisberger had a nasty game against Detroit. That's bad nasty, not good nasty. Big Ben had a season-low seven completions and failed to throw a TD for only the second time all season. Expect better Sunday against the Bengals' 28th-ranked defense. In two games against Cincinnati this season, Roethlisberger had a 95.9 passer rating. Steelers by 13.
6. Chicago Bears  — My all-pro team and 2005 awards will be posted later this week, and I'm still waffling on Defensive Player of the Year. Brian Urlacher is the popular pick, but I haven't been hugely impressed with him. He had no statistical impact against Minnesota, so I'm assuming he didn't play very long. Regardless, I'm not convinced that Urlacher is the best player on that defense.
7. Kansas City Chiefs  — Everyone says the Chargers are the best team not to make the playoffs this year, maybe ever. The Chiefs, though, went 10-6, including an extremely impressive 5-2 run to end the season. They mauled the Texans, beat New England and Denver, lost tough road games to the Cowboys and Giants, and ended by handling San Diego and Cincinnati, with a score of combined 57-10 in those last two games.
8. Carolina Panthers  — Outscored opponents by 132, the second-best mark in the conference. After their first drive, FOX ran a graphic that mentioned Jake Delhomme's touchdown pass to Ricky Proehl, and "Key Play: Repair of Delhomme's pants." As Terry Bradshaw, of FOX's pre-game show, would say, "That's funny." Unlike the forced laughs on ESPN's NFL pre-game show. If Irvin is back next season, I may start sleeping an extra hour on Sundays.
9. Jacksonville Jaguars  — David Garrard has been effective as the starter, so it's not a given that Byron Leftwich gives them the best chance to win. It probably is a given, though, that Leftwich will start against New England. Now that Mike Tice has been fired, Jack Del Río is the NFL's lowest-paid head coach.
10. Tampa Bay Buccaneers  — This team is still playing, so it's not entirely appropriate to speculate on its future, but it will be interesting to see where Brian Griese plays next year. The Bucs have looked vulnerable the last three weeks. They were blown out in New England, needed overtime to beat the Falcons at home, and let New Orleans stick around well into the fourth quarter. I'm taking them to win on Saturday, because Washington is beaten up and doesn't play well on the road, but I'm not happy about it.
11. Washington Redskins  — Beaten up, and they don't play well on the road. Mark Brunell did not look good at Philadelphia — Patrick Ramsey probably should have started, or at least subbed in. Phillip Daniels has had a monster second half of the season. Of coaches who have made the postseason more than once, Joe Gibbs has the third-best record in history (16-5), trailing only Vince Lombardi and Belichick. I hate picking against him, but on the road against another good coaching staff, and with Shawn Springs and Brunell hurting, I'll say Tampa.
12. New York Giants  — One of two NFC teams to score 400 points this year, they're also the only NFC playoff team to allow at least 300. Tiki Barber had his third 200-yard rushing game of the season, tied with O.J. Simpson for the second-highest total ever. Part of Barber's success is the downfield blocking of Plaxico Burress, who is threatening to take the title of "best blocking wide receiver" from his old teammate, Hines Ward. The Giants open the postseason at home against Carolina, but their linebacking corps is in shambles, and I'll take the inconsistent Panthers to advance.
13. Cincinnati Bengals  — No team in either conference is limping into the playoffs like Cincinnati. I know they didn't go 100% against Kansas City, but even your backups shouldn't lose 37-3. The Bengals were outgained 537-161. They gave up 8.5 yards per play on defense and averaged just 2.9 on offense. Combine that with a loss to Buffalo the week before, and this team is slumping at the wrong time.
14. San Diego Chargers  — It's not giving away much of tomorrow's article to say that Antonio Gates is my all-pro tight end. Early in the second quarter, he turned a two-yard gain into a 12-yard first down. On the play, Gates made John Lynch miss, made D.J. Williams miss twice, made Keith Burns miss, and turned Nick Ferguson around so hard that the Bronco safety fell down. One of the best individual plays I saw all season.
15. Miami Dolphins  — Scored three safeties this season. The league record is four, but the 1984 Rams got three in one game against the Giants. Wonder what Bill Parcells said at the press conference afterwards? Miami finished the year with six straight wins and will be a chic pick next season, but I think they'll be middle-of-the-pack. The Ricky Williams reclamation went surprisingly well, and it should be interesting to see what happens with him and Ronnie Brown.
16. Dallas Cowboys  — Last week, the Rams lost to San Francisco, and this week, they beat Dallas. Right tackle Rob Petitti got positively wrecked by Leonard Little, and Drew Bledsoe had another rough outing. Keyshawn Johnson had a pretty good game, but he seems to have developed a fumble problem.
17. Minnesota Vikings  — No one feels good about the way Tice was fired. He probably deserved to lose his job, but not in the locker room minutes after a season-ending win. A number of Vikings players were very upset by the bush-league way Zygi Wilf treated their coach.
18. Atlanta Falcons  — Lost four of their last five. Matt Schaub continues to show potential, and it's reasonable at this point to ask whether he might be a better quarterback than Michael Vick. If the Falcons decide he is not, they might want to consider trading him. There are probably teams that would consider giving up a low first-round or high second-round draft pick in exchange for Schaub.
19. Baltimore Ravens  — Best home record in their division, beating out the Bengals and Steelers. Baltimore went 0-8 on the road, giving it the biggest home/away difference in the NFL this year (+6). Todd Heap quietly had a very good season.
20. Philadelphia Eagles  — Played hard, and for a half, they looked good. The backup quarterbacks were never up to the task, combining — in seven games — for 1,396 passing yards, five TDs, 11 interceptions, a 47.9 completion percentage, and a 53.0 passer rating. Also, Koy Detmer has got to get rid of his heinous neck-beard.
21. Cleveland Browns  — Dennis Northcutt will never be a star, but he's been a reliable performer for Cleveland for years. There's a nice foundation in place for this team to build on. The Browns probably won't contend in 2006, but Romeo Crennel appears to have this club headed in the right direction.
22. St. Louis Rams  — Played inspired defense against the Cowboys. Big Game Torry Holt was on my fantasy team again this season, and I won my league for the second year in a row. I'm indebted to Torry, Tiki, Tom, Shaun, and Chad, plus a host of role players that at times included Kelly Holcomb. Go team.
23. Arizona Cardinals  — In average yards per rush, the team's leaders were (in order): WR Larry Fitzgerald (5.1), QB Josh McCown (4.8), WR Anquan Boldin (3.8), backup RB Damien Anderson (3.5 on two carries), and rookie RB J.J. Arrington (3.3). The team's leading rusher, Marcel Shipp, finished at 2.9. Unfortunately, Reggie Bush probably won't be available with the 10th pick in next April's draft.
24. New York Jets  — Bush probably won't be available with the fourth pick, either, so expect a chorus of boos on draft day. Rumors about Herm Edwards abound, and it sounds like he's probably going to Kansas City. To know how I feel about the non-stop, no-actual-information discussions about Edwards and Parcells, refer to the Green Bay section below.
25. Buffalo Bills  — Willis McGahee had his first 100-yard rushing day in eight weeks, and they lost. A lot of people around the league will be watching to see what the team does with Eric Moulds this offseason.
26. Detroit Lions  — Joey Harrington outplayed Roethlisberger, and he may have saved his job in Detroit, but it will probably depend on who's coaching the team next season. Matt Millen is deeply unpopular, and he'd love to make the kind of big splash Daniel Snyder got when he lured Joe Gibbs out of retirement in 2004. Pete Carroll fits the bill, but if he's pinning his hopes on Carroll leaving USC and choosing the dysfunctional Lions, Millen might as well try to get Bill Walsh.
27. San Francisco 49ers  — Finished with a one-point loss at Jacksonville and two wins to close the season. This is the first time all season I've ranked them higher than 30. I was rooting for them to be the first team to spend an entire season in the bottom three, but the Niners have earned their way into the 20s.
28. Oakland Raiders  — Lost six in a row and eight of their last nine. By all accounts, Norv Turner is dead in the water — he may have been fired by the time you read this — but I think Al Davis should give him another year. He's not the second coming of John Madden, but Norv has done some good things, and I'm not convinced that Davis can get anyone better right now.
29. Green Bay Packers  — Aikman made my best announcers list pretty much because when Joe Buck was pestering him — during the Washington/Philadelphia game — about Brett Favre retiring, Aikman shot back, "Is that not the most worn-out subject?" It is. You got the feeling this week that the media was more interested in people retiring than actually playing or coaching.
30. New Orleans Saints  — Good move by FOX switching from the Panthers' blowout to Bucs/Saints, which was in question until the final minutes. The Saints had the odd distinction of finishing 20th in total offense, but 31st in scoring. They have the second choice in the draft, and many observers expect them to take Matt Leinart. If the new coaching staff isn't crazy about Leinart, though, this team has a lot of other holes, and they might trade their pick to another team interested in the USC quarterback.
31. Tennessee Titans  — Own the third pick in April's draft, and the priority should be getting someone who can contribute immediately. The Titans suffered from a lack of consistency this season. They need a quarterback and running back who can stay healthy. They need reliable offensive and defensive linemen. A good middle linebacker to complement Keith Bulluck and a veteran to lead the young secondary. Basically, a lot of help.
32. Houston Texans  — Domanick Davis had some injury problems this year, but when he was healthy, Davis looked like a top-10 back. Bush is the kind of talent that's hard to pass by, but it doesn't make sense to trap him on the same roster as Davis. If I were Charley Casserly, I'd try to get a two-firsts, two-seconds kind of trade for the first draft pick, or else shop Davis.
The All-Loser Team
Don't miss my real all-pro team in a column later this week, but in the spirit of giving, it's time for the fourth annual All-Loser Team, an all-star team composed entirely of players whose teams missed the postseason.
QB Drew Brees, SD
RB LaDainian Tomlinson, SD
FB Tony Richardson, KC
WR Larry Fitzgerald, ARI
WR Anquan Boldin, ARI
TE Antonio Gates, SD
C Casey Wiegmann, KC
G Brian Waters, KC
G Kynan Forney, ATL
OT Willie Roaf, KC
OT Orlando Pace, STL
DT Jamal Williams, SD
DT Pat Williams, MIN
DE Kyle Vanden Bosch, TEN
DE Jason Taylor, MIA
OLB Keith Bulluck, TEN
OLB Shawne Merriman, SD
ILB Zach Thomas, MIA
CB DeAngelo Hall, ATL
CB Ty Law, NYJ
FS Darren Sharper, MIN
SS Michael Lewis, PHI
K Neil Rackers, ARI
P Mike Scifres, SD
KR Terrence McGee, BUF
Honorable Mentions: Larry Johnson (RB, KC); Torry Holt (WR, STL); Will Shields (G, KC); Rod Coleman (DT, ATL); Aaron Schobel (DE, BUF); Leonard Little (DE, STL)
Happy New Year, everyone. I hope you enjoy the upcoming all-pro column and next weekend's playoff games.