Tuesday, September 8, 2009
NFL Preseason Power Rankings
As we enter the 2009 NFL season, all the big stories seem to be about individual players: Tom Brady, Michael Vick, Brandon Marshall, and a couple of attention hogs in Cincinnati and Minnesota who don't need any extra mentions of their names. I bet those guys count their Google hits first thing every day.
With all this focus on individuals, it's easy sometimes to forget that football is not just a team game, but the ultimate team game, a sport in which individuals cannot excel without support from their teammates. That's true to a lesser extent in other sports, but never the way it is in this game. The receiver can't do anything without a quarterback to throw the ball. The running back can't go anywhere without a decent offensive line. The quarterback needs all of them. Defensive players are equally dependent on their teammates. And with apologies to those of us with foul memories about the 1995 Cowboys, you need a great coaching staff to tie it all together.
So forgetting about Brady's injuries and Vick's off-field sins and whatever is going on with Marshall, how good is each team as we open this year's regular season? The rankings below are for right now, beginning-of-season strength, and not necessarily a prediction of each team's success over the course of the year. Brackets show predicted regular-season record.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers [11-5] — Here's what is scary: Ben Roethlisberger did not play well last season. Big Ben is a good quarterback, but 2008 was a down year for him. Promising RB Rashard Mendenhall, who missed most of last season on the injured list, is also back in action, and despite a few losses in free agency, all of the core players from last year's Super Bowl run are still in town. The concern for Pittsburgh is depth. They're especially thin at offensive tackle and wide receiver, and injuries are always a worry for teams coming off a long postseason. Adding an extra month of playoff games to your calendar takes its toll the next year. For now, the Steelers are the team to beat, but I don't expect them to finish the season at the top of this list.
2. San Diego Chargers [12-4] — If the Chargers don't win the AFC West, I will eat my shoe. In fact, I'll eat both of them. You know what, I'll eat all my shoes: athletic shoes, dress shoes, sandals, slippers, flip-flops, those little booties my mom has been saving from when I was little, everything. Partly that's because the rest of the AFC West is utterly hapless. But it's also because San Diego figures to be a powerhouse this season. The loss of Igor Olshansky in free agency is more than offset by the return of Shawne Merriman, the offense is stacked with weapons, and the special teams should be among the best in the league. The shoe-eating bet is off if Merriman goes to jail or Philip Rivers gets hurt early in the season.
3. New England Patriots [12-4] — They have an advantage where the Steelers are weak: New England missed the playoffs entirely last year, despite being a very good (11-5) team. The Patriots have a phenomenal passing game and a solid defense. Their Achilles' heel is Achilles heels: this team is really old. Tom Brady, Randy Moss, Derrick Burgess, Adalius Thomas, Shawn Springs, Jarvis Green, Fred Taylor, Kevin Faulk, Nick Kaczur, Matt Light, and Stephen Neal are all over 30. Dan Koppen will join them before the bye, and Joey Galloway is damn near 50. I don't doubt this team's talent, but how well will it hold up over the course of the season? You have to think the window of opportunity is starting to close here, and this year might be New England's best shot at a championship before some major rebuilding. I like these top three teams much more than the other 29. Everything changes after Week 1, but right now, no one else is close.
4. New York Giants [11-5] — Like San Diego, the Giants return a key contributor who missed last season because of injury, DE Osi Umenyiora. This team has an incredibly deep and imposing defensive line. The offensive line is just as good, though not as deep. If you believe games are won in the trenches, this is your team. But I wonder how the departure of defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo will affect the team, and I don't know who is going to fill the void left by Plaxico Burress. There are a lot of young receivers here, and maybe one of them will step up, but right now I just don't see anyone to scare defenses. Eight in the box.
5. Indianapolis Colts [10-6] — Struck by injuries last year and started 3-4. They're banged up again now, with all-pro safety Bob Sanders the most notable casualty. Furthermore, there's been a lot of turnover in the coaching ranks, and that worries me. Tony Dungy retired, of course, defensive coordinator Ron Meeks is gone, and there were questions all offseason about the roles of key offensive assistants Tom Moore and Howard Mudd. Even Marvin Harrison is gone. If the revamped coaching staff can put it all together, the Colts should be an elite team again. But after seven straight seasons of double-digit wins, it just seems like they're due for a downturn, and changes at the top don't make that any less likely.
6. Tennessee Titans [10-6] — Everyone knows about the loss of Albert Haynesworth, but the team hopes the additions of Jovan Haye (in free agency) and Sen'Derrick Marks (second-round draft choice) will compensate for his absence. Underrated DT Tony Brown will also be expected to step up. Besides Haynesworth, the player most likely to be missed is special teams standout Chris Carr, who signed with Baltimore in the offseason. The team's offseason priority was improving its mediocre receiving corps, addressed by drafting Kenny Britt in the first round and signing former Steeler Nate Washington. I can't see Tennessee duplicating the success it had last season, but this should be a good team again.
7. Dallas Cowboys [9-7] — This year, it's all about what happens on the field. Terrell Owens is gone. So are Adam Jones and Tank Johnson. The roster remains stacked with talent: Tony Romo, Jason Witten, a trio of promising RBs, and one of the best offensive lines in the league join a strong defense with a scary pass rush and above-average special teams. On paper, there's no reason the Cowboys shouldn't contend in the NFC. But the track record isn't there, and fans have little faith in the coaching staff to bring it all together. The prediction is another up-and-down year, though I'll guess there are more ups than downs.
8. Baltimore Ravens [9-7] — Great at the end of last season, but they were raided by the Jets, losing defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, LB Bart Scott, and DB Jim Leonhard. Several other starters or key role players also left in free agency, and the team's offseason additions were hole-patching, not upgrades. The Ravens will benefit from playing in a weak division — the Steelers are great, but the Browns and Bengals are not — but they won't return to the AFC Championship Game after so much turnover in the offseason.
9. Atlanta Falcons [9-7] — I'm hard on the good teams. I don't need to tell you what's good about the Steelers and Patriots and Giants, because they're mostly the same things that have made those teams good in recent years. Similarly, the Falcons should be optimistic over the same areas where they showed promise last season, especially quarterback Matt Ryan. The team even added all-pro tight end Tony Gonzalez. What's not to like? Well, young QBs often struggle in their second season, so let's not expect Ryan's 2009 to resemble Dan Marino in 1984. RB Michael Turner got a lot of work last year (376 att.) and is unlikely to repeat last year's success. John Abraham, who led all defensive linemen with 16.5 sacks last season, has struggled with injuries throughout his career and is now 31. Can he stay healthy all season? This team has a lot of unknowns, but for now, they're the smart bet to lead the competitive NFC South.
10. Houston Texans [10-6] — I really like their offseason, spent addressing a defense that last year ranked 27th in points allowed. The biggest additions are on the defensive line: Antonio Smith, who started every game for the Cardinals last year; Shaun Cody, who will probably start at DT; and draft choice Connor Barwin, a standout pass-rusher at Cincinnati. The defensive backfield remains a concern, but improvement up front should help to hide any deficiencies. The offense, barring injuries, should be a steamroller. There is a lot of talent at the 'skill' positions. Houston reminds me of last year's Cardinals.
11. Philadelphia Eagles [9-7] — I don't understand the predictions of greatness for the Eagles. This team lost a ton of people in the offseason: both starting tackles, tight end L.J. Smith, defensive captain Brian Dawkins, and defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, who died in July. Middle linebacker Stew Bradley will miss the season on injured reserve, as will rookies Cornelius Ingram and Fenuki Tupou. The team made some trades to help fill the holes: Pro Bowl LT Jason Peters, and DB/KR Ellis Hobbs are both nice additions. I don't see how they're a better team than they were last season, though. In fact, I don't see how they're as good.
12. Arizona Cardinals [10-6] — Yeah, they're the defending NFC champs. They went 9-7 last season in the worst division in the NFL, their offensive coordinator left for Kansas City, and their quarterback is 38. That doesn't sound like a top-10 team to me. Still, I like that the team made an effort to address its deficiencies in the running game (rookie RB Beanie Wells and free agent FB Dan Kreider) and defensive backfield (two draft picks and former Steeler CB Bryant McFadden). This team has a good, young defense with a lot of potential.
13. Green Bay Packers [10-6] — At the beginning of last season, the Packers looked like the best team in the NFC North. Then Cullen Jenkins and Nick Barnett got hurt, and the defense went from good to awful. It's difficult to predict how good the unit will look in its first year as a 3-4, but the returns of Jenkins and Barnett alone should give the defense a substantial boost from the end of last season. The question in my mind is the health of Aaron Rodgers. If he can stay injury-free, I don't see why the Packers can't win their division.
14. New Orleans Saints [10-6] — Suspended DEs Charles Grant and Will Smith are expected to play in Week 1. With most of last year's league-leading offense back in 2009, the Saints' concern continues to be defense. In fact, the offense might even be better this season, since Reggie Bush and Marques Colston missed much of last season with injuries. The defense will be counting on a lot of help from first-round draft choice Malcolm Jenkins, but New Orleans — which doesn't have to contend with an overseas trip this year — figures to be competitive if the team can keep its playmakers on the field.
15. Minnesota Vikings [9-7] — This will be the only time this season that I mention Brett Favre by name. I have lost almost all respect for this drama queen, petty vengeance, attention hog. I know there are still people out there who blindly worship him, so go ahead and fill up the comment section with your sad protestations of his greatness and bizarre accusations of jealousy. The Vikings did some good things this offseason — I loved their draft — but signing a whiny, insecure old man to a $10-million contract two weeks before the season and starting him at quarterback wasn't one of them. Since his 39th birthday, the new guy has passed for 10 TDs and 18 INT, with a rating of 71.8. Over the same period, Tarvaris Jackson and Sage Rosenfels combined for 13 TDs and 10 INT, with a rating of 92.8. I expect that Minnesota will be about as good this year as in 2008 — a bubble playoff contender — but not any better.
16. Carolina Panthers [9-7] — Last season, the Panthers were remarkably lucky with injuries. This year, the other shoe has already dropped. Starting DT Ma'ake Kemoeatu is out for the year, and several other key players are already dealing with injuries. Carolina is also looking at a tough schedule, and probably can't count on pulling out close games the way they did last year (5-1 in games decided by less than a touchdown). This is still a scary team at home, but a record in the neighborhood of .500 seems likely when all is said and done.
17. Chicago Bears [8-8] — The big offseason move, of course, was the trade for QB Jay Cutler. It seems clear that Cutler should be an upgrade over Kyle Orton, but the Bears' biggest problem last season wasn't the quarterback. Orton didn't have much to work with: his leading receivers were a running back (Matt Forte, 63 receptions), a tight end (Greg Olsen, 54), a punt returner (Devin Hester, 51), and another tight end (Desmond Clark, 41). Hard to be a great passer when you don't have any wide receivers. And because I know you're curious, Chicago's leading non-Hester WR in 2008 was Rashied Davis (35 catches). Anyway, the biggest problem wasn't the passer. It was the pass defense. Last season, the Bears ranked 16th in points allowed, 21st in yards allowed, and 30th in pass defense. Nothing in the last eight months made me think they're going to be any better at stopping the pass this year. Also, Cutler is quickly going to learn that Rashied Davis is no Brandon Marshall.
18. New York Jets [7-9] — They won't have Shaun Ellis for the opener in Houston; he was suspended for ... well, for several things. Anyway, he's not playing. Calvin Pace is also suspended, and he'll be out for four games. The Jets look much different than they did at this time last year: new head coach, new quarterback, massive defensive overhaul, two 16-game starters suspended. Ultimately, the Jets' season may come down to rookie QB Mark Sanchez, but it will also be intriguing to see how Ryan's nü-Raven defense fares.
19. Miami Dolphins [7-9] — This will be Chad Pennington's 10th season in the NFL. Over that time, Pennington has never had two good seasons in a row. Some of that is due to injuries, but his big years have been 2002, '04, '06, and '08. Well, it's an odd-numbered year, and Pennington is due for an off season or a visit to the hospital. Tasteless snark aside, it's hard to see the Dolphins repeating as division champions after so many things broke just right for them last year. Really hard.
20. Washington Redskins [7-9] — Made two big moves to address a toothless pass rush, their biggest weakness on defense: signing Albert Haynesworth and drafting Brian Orakpo. That improvement, though, is partially offset by the loss of Shawn Springs and the absence of a top-flight cornerback. The defense, though, is not the problem here. Special teams have been consistently terrible throughout the decade, and even that isn't the biggest concern. It's still, and I hate to beat up on him, Jason Campbell. This team is not good enough to succeed with a mediocre, play-it-safe QB. Oh, and the star running back has more authority than the head coach. That's a problem.
21. Seattle Seahawks [7-9] — Injuries may derail their bid to reclaim the NFC West crown. Standout CB Marcus Trufant is on the physically-unable-to-perform (PUP) list, and the offensive line is in shambles. The receiving corps added T.J. Houshmandzadeh but remains unimpressive. The running backs now include Edgerrin James, but still don't scare anyone. The team is now coached by Jim Mora, Jr., who last year oversaw the worst pass defense in the league.
22. Buffalo Bills [6-10] — One of three teams to fire its offensive coordinator less than two weeks before the start of the season. That can't be a good sign. Buffalo's offense has been in turmoil all offseason, and not just because the team signed Terrell Owens, who is turmoil personified. Pro Bowl LT Jason Peters was traded to Philadelphia, starting RB Marshawn Lynch was suspended for violating the league's personal conduct policy, the offense is going no-huddle, and now the QB coach is running the offense.
23. San Francisco 49ers [7-9] — First-round draft pick Michael Crabtree has yet to sign a contract and is unlikely to be a meaningful contributor this season. This means that the team's top receiver is presumably 136-year-old (give or take 100 years) Isaac Bruce. Not the best situation for Shaun Hill to succeed as the official starting QB. This team overachieved under new HC Mike Singletary at the end of last season, but there's no substitute for talent, and the 49ers don't have it.
24. Cleveland Browns [6-10] — Filled a lot of holes on draft day, but there's still very little star power on this roster, and the team is even playing coy about who will start at quarterback on Sunday. Sometimes progress comes slowly, though, and it looks like the Browns should be a little better this season than they were in 2008.
25. Jacksonville Jaguars [6-10] — It's only September, and already the defensive line has been ravaged by injuries: three players, including starter Rob Meier, are on injured reserve. Starting RB Maurice Jones-Drew is also banged up, though he is expected to play in Week 1. But with Fred Taylor gone, there's no proven backup to help MJD carry the load. In fact, there are only three running backs on the roster, though FB Greg Jones is a capable runner if called upon. I love Torry Holt, but he's 34, and the team owes David Garrard more support in his receiving corps. I'll be surprised if the Jaguars don't finish last in the AFC South.
26. Tampa Bay Buccaneers [6-10] — Another team that fired its offensive coordinator right before the regular season. I don't have a problem with the team firing Jon Gruden (whom I already hate on "Monday Night Football"), and I know Raheem Morris was a rising star, but I'm not sold on his being ready for an NFL head coaching position, and moves like this don't change that feeling. The team won't have safety Tanard Jackson, who was suspended by the league, for the first four weeks.
27. Denver Broncos [6-10] — Has new head coach Josh McDaniels already lost the team? This team just seems to have set itself up for failure. And by "this team," I mean Marshall, who seems to be deliberately sabotaging his own career. There are good players here, but I question whether they can come together as a team.
28. Detroit Lions [4-12] — I think the Lions are going to be a real NFL team this year. Not a good team, but a real one, at least, competitive with other NFL teams. And they'll win some games this year. I like new HC Jim Schwartz, and they've made some really positive offseason additions, including veterans like Julian Peterson and Jon Jansen who could help change the culture in Detroit.
29. Cincinnati Bengals [5-11] — When you have a team with a reputation for bad off-field behavior, the obvious solution is to sign Tank Johnson, who has been arrested about a thousand times, usually on weapon charges. The team's hopes for success in 2009 are primarily dependent on Carson Palmer and Chad (sigh) Ochocinco rediscovering the form they showed in 2005, and Johnson not shooting anyone.
30. Oakland Raiders [5-11] — Perennial doormats (they have six straight seasons of 5-11 or worse), but they won two in a row to close 2008, and there are some intriguing young players here, especially on offense. Zach Miller is emerging as an elite tight end, and the team has a trio of promising RBs. If the offensive line holds up, JaMarcus Russell takes his game to the next level, and Darrius Heyward-Bey justifies the high draft pick used to select him, the Raiders could surprise people. A lot of "ifs," especially on a team with a hot-tempered head coach and a loony chief executive, but there is real potential here.
31. St. Louis Rams [4-12] — When your team is terrible — and the Rams are 5-27 the last two seasons — you need to make dramatic moves in the offseason. St. Louis got a new head coach, which is a good head start, and did well to bring in free agent center Jason Brown, but as dramatic improvements go, they leave something to be desired. Those are probably steps in the right direction, but there's little reason to believe the team can contend in 2009.
32. Kansas City Chiefs [5-11] — Forgive me if this looks cut-and-pasted from the Buccaneers summary, but I don't have much faith in Todd Haley as an NFL head coach, and firing his offensive coordinator on the eve of the regular season reinforces the impression that he might be in over his head. Also, the team traded its best player, TE Tony Gonzalez, during the offseason. This is a young team that was explicitly rebuilding last season, so if several of the young guys can elevate their play, the Chiefs could resemble a real NFL team. Don't hold your breath.
Wild Card: PITTSBURGH def. Tennessee, HOUSTON def. Indianapolis
Divisional: SAN DIEGO def. Houston, Pittsburgh def. NEW ENGLAND
Championship: SAN DIEGO def. Pittsburgh
Wild Card: GREEN BAY def. Atlanta, NEW ORLEANS def. Dallas
Divisional: NEW YORK GIANTS def. New Orleans, ARIZONA def. Green Bay
Championship: NEW YORK GIANTS def. Arizona
Super Bowl XLIV: San Diego Chargers def. New York Giants