As evidenced by the last two Super Bowl champions, this era of free agency is proving that being strong on just one side of the football is good enough. In 1999 the explosive Rams prolific offensive show proved that an unstoppable scoring attack is enough to take a team all the way. In the very next year, the Ravens proved the opposite as their menacing defense took a team with a marginal quarterback to a Super Bowl victory.
Free agency has had a more dramatic impact on the NFL than it has in other sports, bringing a whole new definition to parity. No longer is it possible for a team to be strong in all three phases of the game: offense, defense, and special teams. Instead, in this turnstile league, teams can make the Super Bowl one year, and not get into the playoffs the next (case in point: the Atlanta Falcons).
In the off season of 2001, players have yet again jumped ship, changing the face of the hierarchy of the league. The Rams seem poised to get back their title, as they capitalized on free agency by rebuilding last year’s league-worst defense. St. Louis will potentially have eight new starters and three new coaches on its defense. Along with St. Louis in the chase to make it to Super Sunday is a collection of other teams; it will be a battle to see which trend wins out this year, offense or defense.
In the offensive group with the Rams are Indianapolis, Minnesota and Denver. It is evident this group will score points in bunches; the strongest threat to making a run is Denver. Sure, the Rams proved a dominant defense is not a prerequisite for a championship, but Indy and Minnesota lack any kind of presence on defense. Denver at least brought in some pricey free agents in Leon Lett and Chester McGlockton to compliment John Mobley and Trevor Price in stopping opponents in their tracks. If Denver comes out of the AFC it will be thanks to the triumvirate of running backs and the play of Brian Griese, but Broncos defense does put them a notch above the others in this group.
Teams that are all defense and impotent on offense include Baltimore, Miami, Tampa Bay, and the New York Giants. Each can pitch a shutout in any given week, but historically have struggled to put points on the board. Tampa Bay might have the best offense out of this bunch with the addition of pure pocket-passer Brad Johnson, but he has yet to really prove himself anywhere. Baltimore still reigns supreme out of the defensively-minded teams, because they have what is probably going to go down as the best defense of all time.
Rounding out the top twelve probable playoff contenders are Tennessee, Oakland, and Philadelphia. None of the three in this group are that much more dominant on one side of the ball than the other. Philly may still be a year or two away, but Tennessee and Oakland are the real deal and gearing up at a run for it all. The question for them is whether or not they can buck the trend and be the first well-balanced team to win the Super Bowl in this new millennium of free agency.
1.) Philadelphia Eagles
After coming out of nowhere in 2000, the Eagles are back to prove last year was no fluke. Quarterback Donovan McNabb accounted for 75 percent of the team’s total offense last year, and he finished runner-up in the MVP voting. He should only be better going into his third season, and is joined by a savvy offensive line and returning all-pro running back Duce Staley.
2.) New York Giants
As good as the Eagles look on paper, the fact remains that the Giants have won eight straight against their NFC East rival. While fulfilling Jim Fassel’s prophecies last year in their Super Bowl run, the Giants were a bunch of underachievers that had everything go right for them. G-men starters lost a combined total of only nine games to injury in 2000. The team remains well coached and hardworking, but lacks the talent to come anywhere close to a repeat performance of a year ago.
3.) Washington Redskins
Last year the Redskins proved in football what the Baltimore Orioles have demonstrated in baseball: a rich owner, overpaid contracts, and a myriad of talent do not exactly translate into success. Spending close to $100 million of his own money, middling owner Daniel Snyder brought together a collection of players with less chemistry than Darva Conger and Rick Rockwell from Fox’s “Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire?” In is disciplinarian head coach Marty Shottenheimer, who hopes to help solve the soap opera of the Redskins and finally get this pool of talent to live up to expectations.
4.) Arizona Cardinals
Jake ‘Plummer’s butt’ has been the target of much criticism over the past few years. After leading the Cardinals to a playoff victory in 1998, he has battled injuries and bad decision making as the Cardinals toiled well below mediocrity. Many cite his 45 interceptions in the past two years as a basis for the Cardinals’ failures, but a paltry, thin offensive line and a weak defense could be held equally culpable.
5.) Dallas Cowboys
Starting quarterback Quincy Carter was quoted the other day as saying he expects to be more than just a rookie quarterback, but a quality NFL starter as well. Carter has the confidence to be a premier star in the league, but not the talent. Jerry Jones picked Carter in the second round last April at the NFL draft, but the Georgia quarterback was projected by most as a fourth- or fifth-round pick at best. Aside from the debacle behind center, Emmitt Smith was talking the other day about how in an ideal world Aikman, Irvin, Daryl Johnston, and even Jay Novacheck would still be around. Anyone who has not been in a time warp since 1996 knows none of these guys are left, and it is going to be a far-from-ideal world for Emmitt and the Cowboys this year.
1.) Tampa Bay Buccanears
The Bucs are predicted every year by armchair quarterbacks and over-zealous ESPN analysts alike as Super Bowl contenders. Everyone loves his defense, and the hope is newcomer Brad Johnson will be able to fix Tampa’s Achilles heal, the quarterback position. The pressure is mounting, however, as this vaunted bunch has to live up to its billing on paper. Otherwise, coaches and/or players will start getting the pink slip.
2.) Green Bay Packers
Brett Favre has not missed a start since 1992. He alone makes the Packers a threat. Ahman Green is coming off a good 2000 season, and Gilbert Brown has dropped down to a slender 335, lower than his weight during the 1998 Super Bowl run. Green Bay is not laden with super-star talent, but have fewer holes than most in the NFC Central. And one has to love the addition of Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila.
3.) Minnesota Vikings
As dominant as Minnesota is on offense, it lacks enough talent on defense to go anywhere. Second-year phenom Daunte Culpepper and freak receiver Randy Moss, along with veteran Cris Carter, will light people up on offense. But the concern here is who is going to make plays on defense. Staple on the defensive line John Randle is gone, as is Dwayne Rudd, and the Vikes have done nothing to sufficiently replace them.
4.) Detriot Lions
Charlie Batch is not an NFL quarterback, but apparently the only ones who have yet to realize this are the Lions. New GM Matt Millen has done some nice things since taking over command of this franchise, but failed in his most important objective — getting Barry Sanders to come out of retirement. Without Sanders the Lions remain what they have been for the past few seasons: mediocre and uninteresting.
5.) Chicago Bears
Former first-round pick and quarterback of the future Cade McNown, along with a seventh-round pick, were traded to the Dolphins for a sixth-rounder a few weeks ago. One wonders if the Bears tried to move the turbulent and unpopular McNown for a bag of shiny footballs, but were turned down because the ‘Fins thought they were getting the short end of the stick.
1.) St. Louis Rams
The Rams are the class of the league again, and this time they are more than just a one-dimensional team. Last year St. Louis gave up more points than anyone else in the league, squandering close to thirty points per contest. The Rams revamped their defense by fulfilling an old adage: out with the old and in with the new. Draft-day acquisition Aeneas Williams is still one of the best corners in the league, and tackle Damoine Lewis is a player to watch. Oh yeah, and if Kurt Warner stops talking about Jesus for long enough to make a few touchdown passes, this team could go all the way.
2.) New Orleans Saints
It is not right to root for a player to get injured, but one would not mind seeing Saint’s running back Ricky Williams go down with a torn ACL or a broken leg in week one. Maybe that is what New Orleans was thinking when they drafted Duce McAllister at running back in the first round. Regardless, the Saints made a run last year despite injuries to players at most of their skill positions. The game is won in the trenches and New Orleans is as good as anyone in the league up front on both sides. For that reason they will be a solid playoff team again in 2001.
3.) San Francisco 49ers
The ‘Niners enter the post-Jerry Rice years as a true wildcard. They have managed to rebuild their team faster than anyone could of thought, with some talent on defense and a prolific passing quarterback. Combine Jeff Garcia and his 4,200 passing yards of a year ago with two dangerous receivers Terrell Owens and J.J. Stokes, and San Fran can put up some points. The mystery here is whether injury-prone Garrison Hearst can recover from an old ankle injury and replace the productive Charlie Garner who jettisoned to Oakland.
4.) Carolina Panthers
Chris Weinke is really old for a rookie, but people should not overlook him for this. He was the best quarterback on the best team in college last year, and could make an immediate impact. Somehow Carolina had more talent on their team during their inaugural season. In season’s subsequent, they seem to be going straight downhill.
5.) Atlanta Falcons
Atlanta is another enigma in the NFC West. They made it to the Super Bowl two years ago, and since have fallen of the face of the earth. Jamal Anderson looks to be back and could be a major spark. During last year’s 4-12 campaign, Anderson and several other teammates started a fight club modeled after the Brad Pitt movie. A good idea? Probably not, but the Falcons figured they were not hitting opponents so they might as well clobber one another.
1.) Miami Dolphins
The Dolphins are good enough on the defensive side of the ball to make up for their deficiencies at quarterback. If Jay Fielder can play reasonably sound behind center, then this team will really make some noise. Even if Fielder is not sensational, the Baltimore Ravens taught us last year what a big defense and a sound running game can do. Miami has both.
2.) Indianapolis Colts
There is a consensus on the Colts. Everyone knows what the triplets (Peyton Manning, Edgerin James, and Marvin Harrison) are capable on offense, but what are the Colts going to do on defense? There are some good players on the defensive side of the ball, like Chad Bratzke at right end and Jeff Burris at cornerback, but there is not enough there. After all, this same team gave up over 200 yards to Lamar Smith in a playoff loss last year.
3.) Buffalo Bills
Buffalo never got it with Doug Flutie. Sure, Rob Johnson always ranks high in QB rating, but what does that stat mean anyway? A more telling stat is that Rob Johnson got sacked one in every five pass attempts last year, compared to Flutie, who defenses were lucky to catch once or twice a game behind the line of scrimmage. Johnson might put up decent numbers, but will never win as many games for the Bills as Flutie could.
4.) New York Jets
Bill Parcells left the Jets in some state of disarray. It is hard to tell what direction this team is taking, as it neither seems to be moving toward youth, nor stockpiling talent to make a run. The defense is still solid, but this year’s edition of the Jets looks a lot like Jets teams over the past few years, minus Parcells and Keshawn Johnson.
5.) New England Patriots
The Pats should have figured out by now that if they are going to give Drew Bledsoe $103 million they ought to protect their asset. Unfortunately for Bledsoe, he runs like a giraffe on stilts, and his offensive line is a sieve. That adds up to 100 sacks in the past two years, and a quarterback who is going to be again running for his life.
1.) Baltimore Ravens
Last year the Raven’s defense was so good it was shocking when anyone scored points on them at all. The whole cast of characters is back, and that is all that matters. This defense was good enough last year to carry the team to a Super Bowl in spite of having Trent Dilfer at quarterback. Granted, the team lost leading rusher Jamal Lewis from its attack, but the Ravens did add Elvis Grbac at QB. The Ravens will again be one of the league’s elite.
2.) Tennesee Titans
The Titans are as talented a team as there is in the league, but Steve McNair and Eddie George both seem to be picking up a bunch of nicks along the way through the years. If everyone here stays healthy, and the Titans can figure out a way to beat Baltimore, they might contend in late January.
3.) Jacksonville Jaguars
What Jacksonville will do this year is somewhat of a mystery. The Jaguars had been one of the top teams in the league up until last year, when they were decimated by injuries and went 7-9. If Fred Taylor can play every down this year — a big if — and the rest of the cast is healthy, the Jaguars will cause some damage in the AFC.
4.) Pittsburgh Steelers
When will the Kordell Stewart experiment end? It is time for Pittsburgh to put all parties involved with this out of their respective miseries. Jerome Bettis averaged 3.8 yards per carry last season and is well on the downside of his career. The Steelers under head coach Bill Cowher always manage to put forth a strong defensive effort on Sunday, but it will not be enough.
5.) Cincinnati Bengals
The best part about 10 consecutive seasons without a winning record is you can accumulate loads of talent through the draft. The Bengals should not win a whole lot of games this year, but they do have workhorse Corey Dillon in the backfield and the talented Peter Warrick at wideout. Lucky for them, they play in the same conference as the Browns, so 4-12 has been good enough to keep them out of last place.
6.) Cleveland Browns
The Browns won two games in their inagural season, and three last year. If the ball bounces the right way a few times in 2001, look for them to keep their steady improvement and win four games in this year.
1.) Denver Broncos
The Broncos have proven in the past few years that even FDR could get a thousand yards rushing for them with the massive holes their offensive line opens up. This year will be no different as Denver takes three talented backs into the season in the league’s best division top to bottom. Denver also addressed some holes in its defense by signing Chester McGlockton and Leon Lett to sure up their D-line. It also does not hurt that the Broncos strength of schedule ranks 30th in the league.
2.) Oakland Raiders
Jerry Rice a Roni will no longer be the San Francisco treat as he has moved across the bay to Oakland. Coming along with him from the ‘Niners is Charlie Garner to give the Raiders two 1,000-yard rushers from a year ago. Add Trace Armstrong coming off his best year at 34, and this Oakland team has the makings to improve on last year’s 13-3 record.
3.) San Diego Chargers
No, this is not a misprint. The lowly Chargers won only one game a year ago, but will rebound and possibly squeeze into the playoffs. This team was not as bad as people thought last year, and they now have the ultimate underdog in Doug Flutie. Why is Flutie still such an underdog? All he did in Buffalo was win games and was ousted. This is similar to the way he won the Heisman, then was never given a shot in the NFL, so he went to Canada and became the most dominant player in CFL history. LaDainian Tomilson will be AFC offensive rookie of the year.
4.) Seattle Seahawks
The former crusaders of the Kingdome brought in a ton of talent on defense. If Mike Holmgren’s moves can mesh together, scoring on them will be difficult. The additions of Levon Kirkland, Chad Eaton, and John Randle could help, but what is on paper does not always add up on Sunday. Holmgren maybe should have called Daniel Snyder from Washington about this before he went and spent so much money on players clearly on the downside of their careers.
5.) Kansas City Chiefs
Does Trent Green remind anyone else a lot of Elvis Grbac? Sure, Green is a stud with a strong arm and back-up credentials on his resume, but what does he have that will make him flourish that Grbac did not have? The Chiefs are by no means a bad football team, but with so many new additions they have the most questions in the most difficult division in football.