NFL Season Preview -- NFC South

Bill Dungsroman 9/10/2004  

Atlanta Falcons

Eager, over-hyped anticipation of how QB Michael Vick will perform in the upcoming season is getting to be a regular fixture in the NFL. First, his rookie season: will he even play and if so, how much? Then as a starter. Now, coming off an injury-truncated season. Besides his ridiculous physical attributes, Vick is throwing some luck and good foresight into the mix. You bet he’s an active participant in voluntary offseason workouts now. His unofficial mentoring by Steve Young was a great idea. The lucky part? Getting Jim Mora as his head coach in place of the sadly-has-been Dan Reeves. Now, at first glance you might wonder why, since Mora’s background is having been the 49ers’ defensive coordinator. What the Hell can a DC do for a burgeoning star QB? Well, besides the obvious bit about smacking the defense into shape which leads to more opportunities to get the ball, keeping leads and getting decent field position, Mora brings more. First and foremost, he brings former Niners offensive coordinator Greg Knapp. The Niners to this day still run the purest, best form of the West Coast Offense extant, and few QBs in the league are better suited for it than Vick. Knapp even realized that the verbiage in the playbook was pretty complicated and dumbed it down so it’s easier to grasp (failure to do this very thing right away was part of former Niners’ OC/Lions head coach Marty Morninwheg’s downfall). That probably means the WCO will again be truncated and de-mystified once it walks out of 3-Com, but still: Knapp’s Niners routinely cracked the top ten, even top five in total offense. All you need are some talented players at key positions. Well, guess what? The Falcons have them. Why was WR Peerless Price so mediocre last year? The same reason Az Zahir Hakim was. Price gets all of his yards post-catch, out of the slot. I don’t give a shit if he thinks he’s burner; he’s not. Make your nut the best way you can, Peerless. Thus, Knapp will have Price shoot out of the slot. That’s great, but who do we have to split wide and flank? Brian Finneran and Dez White. Finneran is this close to being the man in Atlanta, just a little more flash in his game and he’s there. Dez White as the downfield burner? Yeah, doubt it. First-round pick Michael Jenkins is slated to eventually start as the speed guy, but time will tell. The Falcons and their WCO don’t really need a burner anyway; they’ll be working for their yards in short passes and a plethora of rush options. TE Alge Crumpler and FB Justin Griffith will get plenty of balls. The RB duo of Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett rank as one of the best RB duos in the league (but only second in their division – sorry guys, Carolina has you beat). They understand their roles and work together to make the team play better – what a novel concept. Dunn is still ostensibly the starter, but that gimpy foot of his that has hung around since his Tampa Bay days is still there and I’m thinking he’ll cede the job before season’s end. Nobody was handing out trophies to the Falcons’ offensive line last season, to be sure. Mora knows the value of a good line, so he brought in Alex Gibbs’ to serve as not only the line coach, but as an assistant OC as well. Too many chefs? Nope, a smart young coach who realizes that he is no offensive wunderkind. Gibbs’ spent a lot of time with C Todd McClure to better use his shoulders and elbows in blocking right off the snap, before he even puts his head up. All of your elite centers do it that way, but they have to count on their guards to eat up space next to them in the process. The Niners’ D under Mora went from one of the most penalized units in the league to one of the least and this discipline will benefit RG Kynan Forney, who committed way too many penalties tied to his temper. Nasty is fine Kynan, but you must channel your nasty. Robert Garza is the starter on the left, but only because he sucks the least among the candidates. OT is solid with Todd Weiner and Kevin Shaffer but they had better stay healthy; on the bench there’s the ho-hum Jared Peck and literally nobody.

Mora also brought in Ed Donatell from Green Bay to serve as his defensive coordinator. Ed’s no placeholder; the aggressive big-play mentality he had going in Green Bay will be applied here. The Falcons used to be primarily a 3-4 defense but Ed says fuck that, we don’t have the proper personnel for that. Since DT Ellis Johnson wanted to hold out on his contract, the Falcons said Fuck you, Ellis and brought in Rod Coleman. Coleman working alongside NT Ed Jasper makes for a solid interior line. The move back to the 4-3 means good things for DE Patrick Kerney. He totaled 10.5 sacks two years ago when the Falcons were running the 4-3, but only had 6.5 last season. Plus, Coleman will be the guy drawing the double teams this time around. Brady Smith is a pretty good pass rusher and altogether the Falcons’ defensive line looks better than it has since its Superbowl run. The Falcons got positively torched in the passing game last season, which is the A-#1 reason why their defense ranked dead last. I blame the linebackers! So, Keith Brooking is moved to the weakside, since he’s the only LB with the wheels to get to the passer. Chris Draft? Matt Stewart? Oh, boy. These guys had better shape up. Don’t blame the Falcons eye-gougingly bad defensive cock-up on SS Bryan Scott. He was so goddamned good at covering the field as a nickel CB last season, he was handed the safety job this year. FS Cory Hall is a proven vet, but he had better give it all he’s got; he wasn’t doing enough to keep the Falcons from being dead last vs. the pass last season. The CB roster is a bunch of decent guys, but none are remotely shut-down. Teams will still throw on the Falcons with success. Tod McBride will probably lose hi starting job to rookie DeAngelo Hall, but that’s sure to be a fun transition – shitty vet to raw rookie. Mora brought in Jason Webster from San Fran, since he lost his starting job there to Mike Rumph. Aaron Beasley is great in nickel and he might get handed starting honors if/when Webster fails to secure the job for himself.

Teaching a young QB the West Coast Offense takes time, especially the San Francisco pure version of it. Despite his physical prowess, I doubt Vick is going to master the system faster than any QB to ever use it. That is, immediately. I also don’t like Atlanta’s defensive personnel overall; sure, Mora and Donatell will improve it, but they’ll still struggle. The Falcons are overrated – this season, anyway. But! Lucky for them they’re in this Mickey Mouse division. If the Panthers can’t hold on and the Saints (predictably) spin their collective wheels again, there’s little doubt they’ll win the division. Next season however, the Falcons are going to reap the benefits of dumping their old, has-been coach for a younger guy who can win them games and get them places, not just in getting to the postseason but beyond. Look what that did for the Saints (first playoff win ever after dumping Ditka), Bucs (first Superbowl appearance and win ever after dumping Dungy), and Panthers (first Superbowl appearance ever after dumping Seifert) over the last few seasons.

Carolina Panthers

Good ol’ QB Jake Delhomme. I was high on this guy entering last season, and he certainly did not disappoint. Last year’s Superbowl was fun, wasn’t it? Sure, the first half was dull if you aren’t a football grognard. Aside from that, it was great that two of the league’s most team-oriented teams in the league were in attendance. Let’s face it: Delhomme got it done as well as any QB in the league. Showcasing his skills as spuriously as he did last season, expect to see the offense evolve to allow for his ability to get the ball into his receiver’s hands. Is he in sync with WRs Muhsin Muhammad, Steve Smith and Ricky Proehl or what? These guys made incredible mid-route adjustments to come up with the big grabs all season long, and most especially in the playoffs. The Panthers would love for rookie Keary Colbert to work into the offense right away – he was outstanding in camp. Of course, the offense is built squarely on the shoulders of the running game, one of the best in the league. RBs Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster became virtually indistinguishable from one another by season’s end – Foster’s play in Davis’ absence showed absolutely zero drop in production, and even seemed to provide a late-season spark. Plus, there’s #3 RB/KR Rod “He Hate Me” Smart and FB Brad Hoover. The offensive line, however, will no doubt be the biggest bone of contention coming into this season, given the massive shake-ups evident here. Sure, C Jeff Mitchell returns, as able as ever, but G Kevin Donalley retired and Jeno James left in free agency. Rich Tylski and Tutan Reyes are as erstwhile as erstwhile gets.  OT Jordan Gross moves to the left where he played in college, as Todd Steussie was released. Matt Willig is in, but he’s more suitable as a competent back-up.

The offensive line may have its potential troubles ahead, but the defensive line is as solid as ever. Carolina likes to rotate a cadre of quality DTs in and out like Indy does, in efforts to keep them fresh and eventually wear down the opposing offensive line. Kris Jenkins and Brentson Buckner are the unqualified starters, but the guys behind them can hold their own. However, all the magic happens at DE: Mike Rucker and Julius Peppers are what make this line click and what prompts NFL “analysts” to declare the Panthers’ Front Four as the best in football. I don’t know, but with the break-up of Ogunleye and Taylor in Miami, Rucker and Peppers easily qualify as the best DE duo. The LB unit is also a bunch of highly-motivated, Pro Bowl-caliber playmakers. SLB Mark Fields (back in recovery from Hodgkin’s Lymphoma), MLB Dan Morgan, and WLB Will Witherspoon are a tough trio (if a tad injury-prone), and Brandon Short could easily start for another team. Hell, he starts enough for this team on an interim basis, anyway. SS Mike Minter is experienced and smart and rarely makes mistakes, plus he’s a great tackler. However, FS Colin Branch is a mystery, nabbing the starting job in the wake of departed Deion Grant. Whither CBs Reggie Howard and Terry Cousin? Cousin was handed his walking papers because he sucked last year and clearly lost out to rookie Ricky Manning, who I hope isn’t coming into a sophomore slump. If for any reason, he has one year of experience on rookie first-round pick Chris Gamble, who starts opposite him. In time, these two might easily evolve into a shut-down duo with few rivals in the league. This year, though…?

It’s a well-known tendency for losers of the Super Bowl to eat shit and die the following season. If any team is capable of avoiding this stumble, it’s the Panthers. But, with the shake-up at the offensive line and the secondary, it’s tough to see them owning the NFC like they did last year. They’ll win some games, and seeing them in the playoffs isn’t ludicrous. But, somebody’s going to kick their ass this time once they get there, if they get there.

New Orleans Saints

Surprise! QB Aaron Brooks gets better every season. The problem is, the increments of improvement are too small and little has been done to improve Brooks’ leadership abilities. Sure, he took classes to be a more vocal, outgoing player, but the lessons don’t seem to have taken. He’s the most soft-spoken QB in the league, maybe ever. Players have trouble hearing him call the plays in the huddle. He just simply does not inspire leadership, and that’s a problem. Worse, this team has some serious talent on its roster yet it has under-performed every season since its inspiring playoff bid. The offense is stacked with talent – this offense should be in the top ten – even the top five – every season. WR Joe Horn, for all of his lame end-zone gimmicks, is still a receiver to be respected. Opposing teams must account for his presence. Donte Stallworth needs to stay healthy for an entire season but regardless, he’s explosive when he is healthy. Hell, he’s not so bad even when he’s gimpy. Jerome Pathon doesn’t suck, either. TEs Ernie Conwell and Boo Williams make for a great tandem. RB Deuce McAllister is one of the best RBs in the league in my opinion, and having Aaron Stecker as a change-up makes for some good depth. All of these players have good hands, so there is no limitation on the guys Brooks can get the ball to on any given play. The line looks pretty good. LeCharles Bentley moves inside to play center because RG Montrae Holland was phenomenal last season as a rookie fill-in. LG Kendyl Jacok is a solid run-blocker, but he’s kind of fat. Why do the Saints like to run right? Because LT Wayne Gandy is a stud Pro Bowler in pass protection but a scrub in run-blocking. Big fat Victor Riley moves bodies aside on the right – although you won’t see him in the second level. Either way, New Orleans has one of the biggest fattest lines in the league – Brooks ought to feel well-protected.

The Saints’ defense, once a highly-vaunted unit, is still solid but is distinctively lacking in marquee players as of late. DT Johnathan Sullivan lost his job to free agent Brian Young because he’s a slow, lumbering load. However, Young is a little small to play DT and he can be muscled around pretty easily. Howard Green is pretty good. The most underrated DE duo in the league is without question Darren Howard and Charles Grant. Ever heard of them? Didn’t think so, but they get a lot done for the Saints. How about the LBs? James Allen is good against the run but I don’t know how he’ll fair in the middle. Courtney Watson is a rookie who has barely developed enough to start and Derrick Rogers, although solid, is no game-breaker. Orlando Ruff is also capable but equally vanilla-flavored. The secondary isn’t much different. SS Jay Bellamy has made some great plays, but not in space. You know, where safeties are counted on in big passing downs. FS Tebucky Jones has been good in the past but the flat-out sucked last year. You don’t suppose that was because it was his first year as a free agent with a fat contract, do you? Mel Mitchell was supposed to start and go to work, but he blew his knee out and is not 100% even now. CBs Fred Thomas, Jason Craft and Ashley Ambrose make a tight, dependable team, but you can throw on all of them if the chips are down. Ambrose doesn’t officially start because he’s 33, but he’ll slide outside in nickel because he’d get punked in the middle with his li’l self.

The Saints, for whatever reason(s), just can’t get it done. With Brooks’ cousin Vick healthy and the Panthers coming from behind and dusting them last year, the window of opportunity is closing rapidly. They don’t play so well against the Bucs, either. They should though. They should be the team to beat in this division, they should hang around and get into the playoffs with regularity. They don’t though, and there’s not much reason to think they will this year, either, since absolutely nothing of note has happened to them in the offseason, nothing potentially good or Earth-shaking, anyway, The Saints are a team that needs its foundation shook and until that happens, they’re never going to amount to anything.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

How? How were the Bucs tenth overall in offense and fifth overall in defense last season? Why did they flame out so utterly down the stretch last season and skid to a 7-9 finish? More importantly, will they right themselves for this season? Can they? Now, I knew head coach Jon Gruden would get the most out of QB Brad Johnson and he did. But, Johnson is still one good lick (recently upgraded to two licks, since he has been able to hang in there for awhile now) away from IR and losing his starting job for the millionth time. He’s overdue I say, but in the meantime he’s still as solid a choice for starting QB as any in the league. He’s accurate (although you can thank Gruden’s playcalling for that to a significant degree) and level-headed, and any QB who wins the Superbowl (yes, even Trent Dilfer) commands respect in the huddle. Yet, the buzz over Chris Simms grows. When to start him? Whenever Brad goes down due to injury – an inevitable event. Nice throw blanco Johnson; too bad your ass got saaaaaaacked! Hey, there’s always Brian Griese if things get dicey (that was a joke). Man, it’s a good thing Timmy Brown jumped ship to be with his old coach; the Bucs are gonna need him. WR Keyshawn Johnson was fired midway through last season, which was awesome because Johnson is a loud-mouthed, me-first faggot who can only play for Bill Parcells because he’s fucking poison in any other club. Meanwhile, Keenan McCardell went off. Too bad he thought he might get paid for it this year. Now, he’s on an epic paid-or-trade holdout. Gruden will not cave, so this should be funny. Well, funny to anyone outside of Tampa City limits. Without him, you’ve got Joe Jurevicus, a big-play guy with small-play knees. Will he ever be healthy? Additionally, why do teams keep giving away first-round picks to get Joey Galloway? Has he done anything ever except get injured a lot immediately after a ton of hype is generated around him because he’s supposedly going to be his team’s deep threat? A point of contention that I love since Galloway has been through Dallas and now Tampa Bay and oh, aren’t they both deep-threat vertical teams? Speaking of FRPs, Michael Clayton had better be ready to grab shit over the middle, because he’s going to have to from the opening day kickoff on. Why the fuck is Charlie Garner the Bucs’ #1 RB? He’s showing his age the way most RBs in the league show their age: frequent doctor visits and bench-jockeying. Oh and Michael Pittman will be suspended the first three games of the season. Plus, FB Mike Alstott is nursing his neck – guess all those years of plowing headfirst into oncoming defensive backs takes its toll. What a fucked-up running game for a team whose coach heavily relies on it, no? What else? Everybody but C John Wade on the offensive line is old, injury-prone, and/or mediocre. LG Matt Stinchcomb should play far stronger owing to his size than he does, RG Cosey Coleman is okay but he’s a stop-gap measure because Matt O’ Dwyer and Jason Whittle are gimpy old geezers and couldn’t possibly start anymore. OTs Derrick Deese and Todd Steussie were both awesome about three years ago. Sure, Steussie was on his game last season (barely, hence his release), but as a part of a solid Panthers line and we all know how old free agent linemen fair for their new teams.

The heart and soul (and fat) of the vaunted Buccaneers defense is 2/3 history. DT Warren Sapp and SS John Lynch are gone, leaving the still-awesome LB Derrick Brooks left to lead the D. Do you seriously think DT Chartric Darby is going to fill the shoes of Sapp? Neither do the Bucs; he’ll move off the NT position so Anthony MacFarland can take it. Still, Simeon Rice and Greg Spires are a quality DE duo, but the point of attack is going to suffer without Sapp’s leadership and talent. Fortunately, the LB corps is fantastic. It starts with the superlative Derrick Brooks, who may slow at some point but he hasn’t yet. Free agent Ian Gold is a huge score for the Bucs’ D; for the Broncos, Ian was as good as…yeah, yeah. Shelton Quarles owns the middle. Despite the loss of Lynch, the Bucs’ secondary is still in great shape. SS Jermaine Phillips is hard-hitting, fast and smart.  People would be singing his praises to the hills if he hadn’t been so goddamned unlucky and ended up replacing Lynch, still one of the biggest hitters in the league. FS Dwight Smith is a hero; he hits like a linebacker and covers like a cornerback, a defensive coordinator’s wet dream. As for the CB duo, few compare. Ronde “Tiki’s the Fumbler, Not Me!” Barber and Brian Kelly are not only exceptional, they get better as a tandem every season. These guys didn’t let their awesome Superbowl play go to their head, they made it go to their game. Bravo, guys. Plus, Mario Edwards and Corey Ivy dominate in nickel and dime. They even spell the starting guys and keep them fresh.

Oh, Tampa Bay’s defense is still going to clamp down on motherfuckers this season. However, the offense is flirting with putrescence. A gimpy, absentee passing game and running game spells Ravens-esque offensive output and 8-8 finishes. These guys are potentially going to chill right at the bottom of the division, unless something miraculous happens and they keep their division opponents in the bag like they have in seasons past. Even still, they’re just relegated to spoiler status.

Bill Dungsroman