Bill Dungsroman 09/04/2003 

Hey faggots, it’s that time of year again. Time to get all worked up and sweaty for the new football season! Time to get oiled up and lathered over your team’s prospects of making the Super Bowl! Time to stiffen up and get pumped on your draft picks and free agent acquisitions! Time to jack off and ejaculate over…uh…I guess this analogy is getting out of hand…OR BACK IN IT HAHAHA!!

New York Jets (9-7, 22nd O/24th D) at Washington Redskins (7-9, 20th O/5th D)

The NFL has decided that, in these post-9/11 times, it would be more heroic and honorable to kick off each season by playing their pointless little homoerotic male-bonding games in a city that has suffered some kind of tragedy. My question is, why isn’t it in Arizona? New York was the obvious spot last season, so next in line is Washington. I’m guessing Pittsburgh will host the ’04 kickoff in honor of the airplane that crashed in Pennsylvania on 9/11. I’m sure at some point a hurricane will devastate Florida or any of the southern states, so like Dallas and Detroit on Thanksgiving, Jacksonville, Miami, St. Louis, New Orleans and Houston will get heavy rotation on Kick Off Thursday, unless something funny happens in California. There’s hope, San Francisco, Oakland and San Diego! An earthquake could give one of you a spot at the table.

Speaking of spots at the table, the Jets seriously outperformed expectations in 2002 by going 9-7 and winning their division, albeit just barely over New England. These guys were projected (by others as well as myself) to come in dead last in their tough division. Indeed, by records alone, the AFC East can easily be considered the toughest in football last season, with the three-way tie between New York, New England, and Miami, and Buffalo only one game behind. When you look at the Jets’ rankings, you can see this team seriously overachieved. You can thank coach Herm Edwards’ early-season Jim Mora-esque press conference meltdown ("Playoffs? Playoffs?!?! Man, we can’t even win a game! We’re worried about next week.") plus the maturing of QB Chad Pennington. Too bad the area of focus going into this season is the maturing of now-starting QB Vinny Testaverde, who will turn 40 this season and is running the show thanks to Pennington inelegantly falling on his own hand and breaking it. When I said Chad had soft hands, that isn’t what I meant. I’d like to give the Worst Sports News Pun Award to ESPN’s Stuart Scott, for using "Hanging Chad" to set up a report on Pennington’s injury. As an aside, Pennington and Vick’s injuries have NFL wonks clamoring for a reduced preseason schedule. Is everyone stupid? Club owners charge for these games, there is no way they will shorten the number of preseason games, unless they jack up ticket prices for regular season games. Oh wait; they do that already and still rake in the cash on the preseason games as well. Forget it, folks. Also, notice the two guys who got hurt, as well as how: young QBs trying to make a big play by scrambling out of the pocket. Uh, nobody cares enough about these games (except Patriots coach Bill Belichek) to warrant shit like that, Mike and Chad; just fucking throw it away. Back to Vinny: let’s keep in mind why he rode the pine last season: he sucked. He was more or less responsible for the Jets’ 1-4 start. He stood there in the pocket and stared at the rush like a rookie, worse even. Pennington didn’t win the starting job, he was given it by default. Now, question is, what will Vinny do with this, especially without deep-threat WR Laveraneus Coles? I don’t think Curtis Conway is an acceptable replacement, even though he is ostensibly a deep threat. He can go long, but I don’t know how threatening he is when he gets there. Wayne Chrebet is still the dependable slot/clutch-down guy, but it’s really up to Santana Moss, who needs to play more like (Randy) Moss and less like (Carlos) Santana; more HEL-LO! and less mellow, y’know? Moss needs to at least double his totals (30 catches for 433 yards) from last season to give the Jets a chance. Edwards intends to use more two TE sets until he can get a feel for his receiving corps, so TEs Anthony Becht and Chris Baker will both get some time on the field. Oh, and the running game. RB Curtis Martin is the epitome of durable, but time catches up with all men, especially RBs. 261 carries for 1094 yards isn’t pedestrian by any means, but it’s the lowest totals for Martin ever, battling ankle sprains as he was. The idea is to keep him fresher so he can get the big and clutch gains, so RB LaMont Jordan will get more time, including coming out with Martin in two-back sets. Jordan has power and deceptive speed, he ought to figure in big in New York’s schemes, especially since the run just took center stage again, and the departure of FB Richie Anderson is going to mean less ball-handling for the FB position. Likewise, the line must hold now more than ever. Perennial Pro Bowler C Kevin Mawae deserves his Hawaiian trips in February, and even though LG Dave Szott is aging, he’s still very good, and RG Johnathan Goodwin, who replaces the retired Tom Nutten, should do in just fine. OTs Jason Fabini and Kareem McKenzie are a solid duo, but God forbid they get injured, as their bench is gimpy (Brent Smith) or raw (Chris Smith).

Questions about the Jets’ chances don’t just spring from Pennington’s injury. The defense is a serious concern. The defensive line should be good, since it boasts 5 first round picks. Their best defensive lineman, pass-rushing expert DT Josh Evans, is serving suspension for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. That leaves Jason Ferguson and Dewayne Robertson to try to rush the passer, and they’re more suited to run-blocking. DEs John Abraham and Shaun Ellis are the starters. Abraham should do very well this season, since doctors diagnosed him with a 90% blockage of his airway owing to chronically enlarged tonsils, and had a tonsillectomy. Ellis, with only 4 sacks last season, is better vs. the run, so expect Ellis and Abraham to rotate with last year’s first round pick Bryan Thomas, who needs to perform at a level to warrant his early drafting. The linebacking corps is a serious concern: they only combined for 2 ˝ sacks last season. Pfft. However, Mo "Hits" Lewis is coming off hip surgery and should be more mobile and WLB Sam Cowart will be expected to play sideline-to-sideline, and I think he’s up for it. Marvin Jones, however, turned 31 and is good for two downs at a time only, and is terrible in space. The secondary needs improvement as well. SS Sam Garnes is great in the box vs. the run, but not much help against the pass. FS Jon McGraw takes over for departed Damian Robinson (Seattle). He has a grand total of one start, so expect him to get killed early on in the season. CBs Donnie Abraham and Aaron Beasley should improve after getting a full season in under DC Ted Cottrell’s system. They need to be, Cottrell likes man-to-man matchups and Abraham and Beasley are better in zone coverage. Nickelback Ray Mickens gets to the ball but has zero INTs in three consecutive seasons. This defense needs a better pass rush and some playmakers in the secondary. That all adds up to passing on the Jets.

The Jets ended up doing so well last season because Herm Edwards is a terrific motivator and Pennington was a huge surprise. There are no surprises this time, and the Jets are going to end up in a similar losing-record hole, with no way of getting out of it. By the time Pennington comes back, it will be far too late.

The Redskins, by contrast, were a ship without a captain last year. Quarterback by committee doesn’t work. Steve Spurrier is apparently learning the key to the win-now mentality of the NFL: snag proven players from other teams in free agency or by trade (like the 3 guys he took from the Jets), fuck trying to get dudes who are familiar with his "Fun ‘n’ Gun" (which was neither) system. 14 guys were brought in and 13 were released, the only notable losses being RB Stephen Davis, DE Daryl Gardener, and CB Darrell "Old" Green. The upgrading this team gave itself by working the market is significant. I laughed at Spurrier’s idiotic ideas last season and he managed to surprise me by going 7-9. I figured he’d do much worse. This year, however, I figure he’ll do better. But, for all the reworking this team has been getting, there are still some serious lingering issues. Back to the captain: QB Patrick Ramsey has been named the starter. Unfortunately, he’s still a work in progress. He reads well, understands the offense, moves about in the pocket well, and throws with zip, but his zip sometimes gets away from him when he’s throwing mid-range or deep. However, camp and preseason has thus far shown that he has improved in those regards. There are worse drawbacks than having your QB throw too hard or long. Let’s hope he isn’t injury-prone, because Rob "Stitches" Johnson is backing him up, and after he goes a quarter or so and gets wasted, it’s…NOBODY! Spurrier is going with only 2 QBs into the season. Here I was, all ready to put Raiders coach Bill Callahan at #1 on my Stupidest Coach List due to his laziness in the Super Bowl, but ol’ Stevie has trumped him by pulling this maneuver. Are you out of your fucking Florida-sun-baked mind, Steve? You don’t even have 2 QBs, you’ve got 1.5 thanks to Stitches. So, how’s the line? Well, just like the guy they’re protecting, there are quality starters but little depth. C Larry Moore is serviceable, but guards Randy Thomas and Dave Fiore are the best acquisitions the Redskins made in terms of position upgrade next to WR Coles. Rookie RG Derrick Dockery, an imposing 6’6" 347 lbs, will be eased into starting RG, moving Thomas to the left and Fiore to center, where he was pretty much starting material for the Niners when he was called to fill in on several occasions. OTs Jon Jansen and Chris Samuels are as good as any, so the ideal line with Dockery in is pretty good, except there’s no depth. The acquisition of WR Laveraneus Coles seriously upgraded the receiving unit. Coles is a rarity in the league, a big-play guy who can go deep or over the middle, and create in either situation. He’s in the same league as Terrell Owens. WR Rod Gardner can also go over the middle and has improved. Figuring in is rookie WR Taylor Jacobs, who has played in Spurrier’s system and is one of the fastest guys on the team. Chad Morton, more a returns specialist, has been fantastic in running the draw, so he ought to get some time on offense. Royal and Flemister are the TEs, and I’d like to see something out of one of them, as neither is particularly impressive. As for the running game, which the Redskins should seriously rely on, it hasn’t gotten better by replacing Davis with RB Trung Canidate. I’m sure Spurrier wishes he could cut off Trung’s fumblicious hands and replace them with second-stringer Kenny Watson’s sure ones. Since FBs Johnson and Cartwright are both solid blockers and decent runners, I expect to see some interesting backfield arrangements utilizing both RBs and the FBs. Spurrier is really shooting himself in the foot with this whole Run ‘n’ Gun bullshit, he needs to get opposing defenses thinking run to give Ramsey a chance.

The Redskins’ vaunted defense, which took 5th overall last season, might miss a step this year, although playing the same system for another year (under DC George Edwards, who isn’t changing a thing that Marvin Lewis set up) helps. The line has been somewhat overhauled with the loss of Wilkinson and Gardner, but those guys were a bit overrated as of late anyway. Brandon Noble is hurt, and he was the main run-stopper. Here’s hoping Jermaine Haley can help in the pass rush. He’s big enough to be a run-stopper, but one of these guys has to give a push on passing downs. At end, expect Bruce Smith to do what all aging-yet-still-capable defensive linemen to do, become a third down specialist. Even though Smith is officially a starter, Regan Upshaw will take his place on first and second down along with Reynaldo Wynn. The good news here is that Peppi Zellner is also starter material and will figure in heavily. The best LB in the NFC, LaVar Arrington, is the driving force for this defense. His help are a couple of guys rapidly approaching the twilight of their careers, Jessie Armstead and Jeremiah Trotter. Trotter’s got some years left, but he was pathetic last year as he constantly battled injury. Similarly, the secondary is essentially Champ Bailey and some other dudes. The safety positions are like the last day of the Sundance Film Festival: lots of options, some promise, no stars. SS Ifeany Ohalete is good against the run but not so good against the pass. Newcomer FS Matt Bowen is good but has only started 8 games, so he may come up short as the safety valve in passing downs. David Terrell gets demoted to back-up SS since he couldn’t make one goddamn big play, regardless of his solid tackling skills. Fred Smoot had a terrific rookie season, supplanting Darrell Green in the process, but last year he was less then spectacular, citing back problems and the ball-busting pace former DC Marvin Lewis set for the defense. Sorry, Fred, but nobody’s gonna throw to Bailey. Another lesson Spurrier learned was special teams is vital, so along with Morton on KR/PR duties, K John Hall comes over from the Jets. Hall is a premier kicker, and has won more than a few games with his sure leg.

The Redskins are doomed. They will literally run out of QBs at some point and have to hire a QB who isn’t even on a team, like Akili Smith or Danny Kanell.

I’m going to posit a completely baseless trend, based solely on last season: home teams in the Pitybowl will lose. The Giants did last year, and the Redskins will this year. The downside of overhauling your team to make it better is the melding into a unit takes a few regular-season games; Jets.

Arizona Cardinals (5-11, 27th O/29th D) at Detroit Lions (3-13, 28th O/31st D)

By rankings, the ‘Tardinals and the Lions were arguably the two worst NFC teams last year. Obviously, some major reworking is in order for both. So, what did Arizona do? Get rid of its starting quarterback, center, strong safety, and all three wide receivers. Ooh, well, that’s a new tack. There’s an old medical school joke: "What do you call the guy who graduated last in his medical school class? Doctor." The Cards are the pro football equivalent of the guy graduating last: still managing to be considered a team, but you wouldn’t want to put much faith in them. Let me put it bluntly: the Cardinals are going to unquestionably be the worst fucking team in the NFL, bar none. How the hell does coach Dave McGinnis still have a job? Oh yeah, the Cardinals owners don’t give a fuck, obviously. This year’s Long-Suffering QB Award goes to Jeff Blake, who has played more years on shitty teams (mostly by virtue of his long, sad stay in Cincy, but he rotated through Baltimore) than most. Now, Jeff George and Tony Banks don’t count; guys who make clubs shittier by virtue of their presence don’t qualify. Plus, Blake finally got his due in New Orleans, only to finally get the injury he’d magically managed to avoid all those tortuous years in Cincinnati, and then lose his job to upstart Aaron Brooks, for whom the jury is still out. Well, if Trent Green can do it, Blake can. But the years are gaining on Blake, so protecting him is key. Oops. With the release of C Mike Gruttadaria, the center position is a question mark, and don’t count on the same starter from week to week. It’s probably going to be Pete Kendall, who is good but is better at guard and battles injuries constantly, Leonard Davis moves from RT to RG, and OTs Shelton and Clement suck. So, what does a re-worked line with marginal or injury-prone players tell you about that line’s stability? Oh, and defenses will be coming right fucking at it, since I’m sure RB Emmitt Smith is supposed to be the focal point of the offensive plan. Smith’s ability – or waning level thereof – aside, there’s good news and bad news for the running game. The bad news is that unspectacular RB Marcel Shipp will get playing time to keep Smith "fresh," and he’s mediocre and terrible at picking up blitzes. Analysts calling Smith and Shipp a "good" or "solid" duo or "potentially capable of getting yards" are retards. The good news is FB James Hodgkins is a terrific run-blocker, a veritable latter-day Tim Lester. He should open some lanes for Smith, but that’s like watching the streetlight one block down from you turn green while you’re still stuck at a red.

The Cards’ defense did only 2 things to try to improve their abysmal showing last season: acquire free agent FS Dexter Jackson and draft DE Calvin Pace 18th overall. Beyond that: talk about a No-Name Defense. Beyond Pace, whom the Cardinals are praying will create some kind of pass rush, the linemen – who cares what their names are – are all mediocre and injury-prone. End Kyle Vanden Bosch is out for the season, and DT Wendell Bryant, who was picked 12th overall last year, was a non-factor. The linebacking corps is probably the best unit on the team, though. LB Raynoch Thompson moves from the outside to the middle owing to his outstanding play last season. The big LB question facing Arizona: Levar or LeVar? That’s Fisher, who is a hard-hitter but missed most of last season with knee problems, and Woods, who will push him for the starting job. It’s Fisher in the meanwhile. Likewise, James Darling will push incumbent Ronald McKinnon. Jackson must emerge as the leader on this beleaguered unit, hopefully pushing SS Adrian Wilson to play to his potential and provide help for the much-tested CBs Duane Starks and David Barrett, who weren’t all that bad last season, considering all the balls that came their way. But Starks is on IR, and who knows who will replace him? Waiver-wire dude Jason "Add the R" Goss? Emmanuel McDaniel? Maybe, but the defense is going to suck in any case.

At the risk of repeating myself, the Cardinals are going to end up looking fondly on their 5-11 record last season, as they’ll get maybe 3 this year.

Meanwhile, Detroit’s owner Willie Clay Ford awoke from his suspension coma and realized that when you want to get wins, you get a winner for a coach, not one of his toadies. Aside from that for a moment, I fucking hate Matt Millen. I hate how he came into Detroit like he was the new sheriff come to clean this town up, and turned a near-playoff team that usually stayed just above .500 and fucking ruined it. Marty Morningwheg was such an absolute spineless disaster, it’s amazing he wasn’t Dallas’ coach last season. Not since Wayne Fontes has a Lions coach worn such a depressing hangdog expression so consistently as Marty did. Enter Steve Mariucci, who proved in San Francisco that he can build a playoff-caliber team in short order as long as he can start with a nucleus of quality players, and get some draft and free agency action. He has that in Detroit: QB Joey Harrington has what it takes to make it in this league, I promise you. Hey, getting Brett Favre and Aaron Brooks’ former QB coach as your head coach can’t hurt. One of the things Mariucci, the quintessential player’s coach, did was reduce the verbiage and amount of plays the offense has. See, Morningwheg brought his big-ass OG West Coast Offense playbook with him, which pretty much blew Harrington’s mind. The guy confessed an undying love for Ms. Pac Man, what do you want? That playbook was reserved for guys like Joe Montana and Steve Young (side note: the very fact that Jeff Garcia learned that playbook inside and out and excelled with it is proof-positive of his talent). Notice last season how strong Harrington came out, as he was being eased into the system, then he got overwhelmed with the system and struggled. But check this out: Mooch isn’t sold on Joey 100%, and he’s keeping Mike McMahon ready to jump in. Fortunately for everyone, third stringer Ty Detmer is quite familiar with Mariucci’s system and can tutor both the boys well. Improvement on both sides of the ball has become evident since Mariucci checked in. The awful WR corps of last season stands resurrected this year, due in large part to first-round pick and my choice for Rookie of the Year Charles Rogers, who stands a great chance of getting a lot of balls, since Bill Schroeder is a good WR but can’t beat double teams very well. Az-Zahir Hakim was virtually a non-factor last year, but that’s because someone forgot he’s a fucking slot receiver and put him outside where he was useless. Is anyone surprised Mariucci, who watched Hakim make tons of important slot catches as a Ram, put him back in the slot? Plus, he’s over his hip injury. I’m interested in how TE Mikhael Ricks performs, since Mariucci likes a TE who can make clutch receptions as well as block extremely well, a serious demand on most TEs. Similarly, Mooch likes his FB to catch and tote the rock as well, so FB Cory Schlesinger is going to figure in big, especially since both back-up RBs behind last year's starter James Stewart are gimpy, and Stewart himself is out for the year. It's Olandis Gary to the rescue! RG Ray Brown comes in to work for his old coach and offer guidance to improving C Dominic Raiola to help his pass protection, and Eric Beverly will be in at LG, with a very capable Matt Joyce backing up all interior linemen positions. OT Stockar McDougle, perhaps at last more excited about his team’s chances than what’s on the buffet line, has finally gotten into shape and is ready to play. That leaves OT Jeff Backus, the weak link on this line, to get better in a hurry.

On defense, LE Robert Porcher, who is aging but able, will be in as a pass-rushing specialist, with James Hall. Hall will be spelled by Kalimba Edwards, also effective against the pass but younger, and is intended to eventually replace Hall. In the meanwhile, Edwards will be in on some rush downs to improve his run-stuffing skills, which need work. The real glaring problem that hasn’t been addressed is at DE, where Luther Ellis is battling a torn pectoral muscle, and Shaun Rogers is injury-prone. Dan "Fat Daddy" Wilkinson is in, but I think he’ll make club caterers more miserable than opposing offensive lines. Rookies and so-so players are back-ups, not a good thing. The old Lions linebackers were awful and Mariucci prizes a strong, fast, deep LB corps above anything else on defense (evident in SF, where there was no pass rush or stellar CB play, but terrific run-blocking and midfield tackling). Enter free agent MLB Earl Holmes, 2nd round steal Boss Bailey, and 5th rounder James Davis for depth. Suddenly WLB Barrett Green isn’t the star by default, he’s got some guys to help out and even outshine him. The safeties resemble Mariucci’s guys from SF: slower but strong vs. the run. Harris and Walker make a pretty good tandem, but aren’t as much help in space as they should be, which is why faster rookie Terrence Holt is set to eventually replace Harris at SS. CB is improved with the addition of free agent Dre’ Bly (hopefully; Dre’ got smoked frequently in off-season workouts). Opposite him will be…? Cash, Goodman, or Watson, and it’s Goodman to start for now. Whoever it is going to get thrown at. Another bonus is that Bailey and Holt will be in on special teams, and they should seriously improve the Lions piss-poor special teams play. Helping out is obsessive-compulsive K Jason Hanson who, as a kicker, is As Good As It Gets.

There are a lot of growing pains that the Lions are going to suffer, so they’ll play so-so in the beginning of the season and improve as they go, with a strong finish. They’re lucky to be in the worst division in the NFC, too. The House of Cardinals is, as usual, poised to collapse with one or two injuries. They may come out strong but they’ve got nothing but heavy fumes to begin with. The Lions will win in a game that isn’t worth watching to find out.

Denver Broncos (9-7, 3rd O/6th D) at Cincinnati Bengals (2-14, 18th O/17th D)

Do official offensive/defensive rankings mean anything at all? The Jets were at the bottom third of the league in both, yet won their division. The Patriots did the same two years ago and won the Super Bowl. Yet, the Broncos had great rankings and couldn’t make the playoffs, and Cincy was middle of the pack (not that bad a place in the NFL) but won only two fucking games. Denver did what any team with rankings like that do in the off-season: jettison your QB and manage to lose your DC. Yeah, okay, but maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Remember, we now live in times where firing your winning coach in order to get another winning coach to win a Super Bowl isn’t a stupid idea. So in comes QB Jake Plummer and DC Larry Coyer (to be fair, Seattle coach Mike Holmgren lured his buddy Ray Rhodes away to work with him). Maybe I’m a deluded fruit who’s huffed too much carburetor cleaner, but Plummer seems like he belongs in a Broncos uniform. He looks comfortable. People ask which Jake the Snake is Denver getting: the hip-shooting playmaker with a penchant for last-minute wins (too temptingly like the Legend whose shoes he’s trying to fill, like his predecessor failed to), or the scrub who gets harassed easily and throws up turnovers like a bulimic at a fruit pie festival? Judging by the preseason game I watched the other day that Jake played over half of, both. However, Plummer is the healthiest and in the best shape of his career. Let’s look at what makes Jake the Champ beat Jake the Chump. Like a latter-day Bob Newhart, Plummer relies heavily on a strong supporting cast to make his nut. In Denver, the supporting cast is so good, you’d think Woody Allen was director of personnel. Throwing or handing off to, he’s got options. WR Rod Smith is off his 6th straight 1000-yard season. Clutch-player Eddie McCaffrey has actually lost his starting spot to hot prospect Ashley Lelie. Now, what do you think Ed is going to do with that? I think he’s going to go make a lot of on-field noise, that’s what. Even though TE Shannon Sharpe claims this is last season and admits he’s lost a step (if Shannon himself is admitting it, it must be true), he’s still the quintessential TE. Preseason isn’t supposed to be much of a judge of a player’s ability, especially a vet, but Sharpe looked pretty damn…well, you know. Coach Mike Shanahan, after having his contract extended into the next epoch, and OC Gary "Koob" Kubiak have tinkered with the offense some more. Now, expect RB Clinton Portis to catch more passes in the flat, because he’s flat-out dangerous when he does. Portis added 18 ponds of muscle and has been following the demanding schedule of the Broncos RB coaches to the letter. FB Mike Anderson ought to still figure in. The health of the offensive line is a concern. Can’t Plummer ever get behind a healthy line? 4-time Pro Bowler C Tom Nalen and RG Dan Neil are both off knee problems. Matt Lepsis and Ephraim Salaam are the tackles, but both found themselves getting overpowered last season. As such, sooner or later first round pick George Foster, a non-overpowerable 6’5" 338 pounds, will rotate in to eventually be a starter.

A good defense has been a concern of Shanahan’s for awhile now, and they seemed up to the task last season, thanks to Ray Rhodes’ tutelage. Ray’s gone to Seattle, so in comes Coyer. Coyer took a fresh look at Denver’s D and decided that the two main areas that needed improvement are tackling and red zone defense. As a result, in comes smaller, quicker DT Daryl Gardener to replace Chester McGlockton. Now, all they need are some athletic ends to complement him. Trevor Pryce is fine, but who the hell is going to start on the other side? Reggie Hayward? Please. There will be rotation at this position until they can get it settled, and teams will be running at it, and probably getting away with it. Conversely, the linebackers for this team are not a concern: Mobley-Wilson-Gold are perhaps the best LB trio in the AFC. Ian Gold performed to expectations last season (6 ˝ sacks aren’t bad for a LB), and expectations were high, since he’s the guy the defense funnels plays to. Wilson’s probably going to retire after this season, so rookie Terry Pierce will work in to eventually replace him. The secondary is a concern. Both FS Braden and SS Kennedy must improve. Kenoy Kennedy is a good player, but he’s gotten tentative after his suspension for a helmet-to-helmet hit. Who cares, Kenoy, you’re there to hit. CB Deltha O’Neal must become more consistent, but he’ll not get challenged as much as the other CB position, held down by Lenny Walls. Walls is big and fast, a secondary’s dream player. He’s raw, though. Essentially, this defense has some deficiencies that can be exploited, especially early on in the season. K Jason Elam is still as reliable as it gets. Otherwise, on special teams, P Micah Knorr is pretty good, but having O’Neal as the PR is a stupid fucking idea. What happens if he gets hurt?

The Broncos, whether they actually make it or not, are always a playoff threat every season. There isn’t much reason to think they won’t be this year either, with the notorious running game in full effect and an upgrade at QB. However, I don’t see them having the oomph or whatever to advance to the Show.

In order to prevent any actual QB controversy in Cincinnati (nothing can stop the usual gaggle of NFL wags to rant and rave about it, though), Jon Kitna was named the starter before camp even started. That’s the first smart move new coach Marvin Lewis made. Correlating to that is the acquisition of QB Shane Matthews. Rookie Carson Palmer is technically 3rd string, but really he and Matthews are quasi-2nd string. Matthews is there to push Kitna (because, for all the early declarations, Lewis will pull Kitna if the Bengals start 0-2 or 1-3, perhaps earlier), but also to develop Palmer. Lewis’ hope is to never have to put Palmer in this season, but Kitna typically runs out of gas about midway though and Matthews is a journeyman for a reason. Also, if Texans QB David Carr does well this season, Lewis might re-think throwing his rookie QB in and getting him experience, especially late in the season if – when, rather – the Bengals are eliminated from playoff contention. The next concern is the receiving corps. Chad "Who?" Johnson and Peter Warrick are capable, but the team needs a deep threat and Warrick isn’t there yet. Actually, Johnson may very well surprise, he has some ability to get deep and open. To be fair, a lot is expected of Warrick; he’s the #2 WR, but he’ll line up in the slot quite often to take advantage of his good hands in traffic. The Bengals have good depth here and good TEs in free agent Reggie Kelly and Matt Schobel. RB Corey Dillon is silly good as a runner, but I’d like to see him improve as a receiver. Sorry, Corey, you can blame Marshall Faulk and Charlie Garner for the heightened expectations put on RBs nowadays. Speaking of expectations, with #2 RB Brandon Bennett battling a bulging disc, that leaves 2 rookies, Jackson and Johnson, should Dillon be ailing. More than ever, Dillon is linchpin in this offense. Also, the line has been re-worked and shuffled around, and it will need time to get it together.

Lewis, the famed former DC of the Ravens, has his work cut out for him in his area of expertise. However, the line isn’t the problem. Free agent John Thornton will demand double teams, allowing Tony Williams and Carl Powell to get into the backfield. DE Justin Smith is a great pass-rusher as well, so he might beat them there. Signing Duane Clemons further bolsters this line. Running on the Bengals won’t be much fun this year. However, passing on them probably will be. LB Kevin Hardy is a good leader and Brian Simmons is quick. The secondary isn’t worth mentioning beyond free agent Tory James, which means they’re going to end up on the wrong side of some highlight reels this year. Bummer.

Even if the Bengals can get it together, it won’t be for a couple of games at least. They are too weak at defense to do much better than 7-9. The Broncos have no serious concerns, at least not for this game, against this team; Broncos.

Indianapolis Colts (10-6, 9th O/8th D) at Cleveland Browns (9-7, 23rd O/21st D)

Is Peyton Manning destined to become a latter-day Dan Marino, the quintessential pocket passer with letter-perfect technique, who rolls his team into the playoffs consistently but flames out every time once there? Am I the only one who saw an eerie similarity between the 41-0 crushing the Colts got last year and the 47-0 pasting Marino’s Dolphins got in the last game he ever played? Ah, it’s a little early to tell, I know. Unfortunately for Manning, he’s got the most notorious playoffs-with-no-showing-once-there coach in the league, Tony Dungy. The good side is that Dungy did not suppress Manning last season; indeed, another 4000+ performance under his belt, an NFL-record 4th straight. But it ain’t the yards, it’s the INTs and at times slow release that Manning needs to work on. He has the targets: Harrison has averaged 117 catches a season in those last 4 years. No receiver with Harrison’s modest size (5’11") can get open as often as he does. #2 guy Reggie Wayne is coming off his best season, and newcomer Brandon Stokley, who has proven time and again what a clutch player he is, is in. If Stokley has recovered from his off-season foot surgery, he’ll not only be a fantastic #3 WR, he’ll push Wayne for the #2 job. Plus, the Colts took TE Dallas Clark as their first round pick, to help out TE Marcus Pollard. Pollard will be more of a receiving TE and Clark will block, although Clark has great hands. Both will be in as well, as Dungy intends to use more 2 TE sets as well as 2 RB sets, so expect to see both RB Edgerrin James and Dominic Rhodes in the backfield. James Mungro is still around to spell James and Rhodes. The offensive line is in decent shape, anchored by the dependable Jeff Saturday, with an assortment of quality players and a young bench. Although, rookie Steve Sciullo is slated to start at RG, and rookie offensive linemen are always dicey, since crafty defensive linemen can beat them easily.

Speaking of defensive lineman, Dungy has several on the roster, to be used in heavy rotation per his plan. Keep the linemen fresh so the opposing offense can’t roll over you in the second half. It’s a great plan, and it contributed greatly to the Colts’ ridiculously improved defense. Hell, DE Dwight Freeney, whom most talent scouts would consider undersized, put up a club record 13 sacks and a league-high 9 forced FUMs last year. Why? Because Dungy kept him fresh all game and season long. The LBs aren’t bad, and promoting David Thornton in place of Mike Peterson is an upgrade. The safety position has depth but no real standouts. Thus, midrange and over the middle passes can beat the Colts. Also, CB Walt Harris is good, but there are a bevy of dudes fighting for the other starting job. Nick Harper gets the job come kickoff, but there’s no guarantee he’ll remain the starter. That usually means trouble, in both the usual pass defense and in nickel. Dungy’s Cover-2 scheme is designed to compensate for that, but the essence of Cover-2 is to keep the play in front of the DBs, which means more easy action midfield. It’s up to the line to control that by putting big pressure on the QB. K Mike Vanderjagt intends to shut the fuck up and kick.

Good news: there isn’t any reason to think the Colts won’t earn a playoff berth. Bad news: division-mate Titans owns the Colts, beating them the last 3 times they met. The Titans look to take the division, but Indy will hotly contest that. I just like the Titans pulling it off when the chips are down and not so much the Colts.

Cleveland had an actual QB controversy and it was decided properly, in my opinion. Coach Butch Davis let them fight it out in camp and preseason, and he made his decision as soon as he felt he could, neither too soon nor sometime the week before September 7th. The problem isn’t the decision itself – I’d pick Kelly Holcomb if I wanted the Browns to win this year – it’s sticking to it. Choosing a QB to start the season isn’t the end of a QB controversy, it’s only the beginning. If Holcomb – the Browns as a whole, rather – can’t win enough games, and/or Holcomb gets hurt and Tim Couch comes in and goes off, what will Davis do then? Holcomb has a few things in his favor. He’s fucking tough, for one. This dude put together a scoring drive with a broken leg, and in a preseason game, he ducked under a defensive lineman, threw him off his back, and took off running. He loves to knock the lights out with deep passes (unlike Couch, who wimped out and dumped off far too often). Holcomb’s the kind of guy you want to play for, and the Browns definitely play for Kelly. Players who make the guys around him play better is a much-desired commodity, and Holcomb is that guy for the Browns. The receiving corps is improving. Kevin Johnson is a lot more special than his generic name would imply and is a terrific deep threat, Quincy Morgan had a breakout year last season, and Dennis Northcutt took himself right off the bubble as well. As for the running game, RB William Green is hoping to ride the momentum he picked up last year. RB Jamel White is going to help plenty, he’s a great 3rd down back with good hands; he could start for another team. Rookie Lee Suggs is recovering from shoulder surgery and is a non-factor this year. The offensive line isn’t bad but rookie C Jeff Faine is slotted to start. He was a first round pick, but rookie centers give me hives.

Former #1 pick overall DE Courtney Brown must not only simply recover from knee surgery, he needs to improve his game to be a force on the line. Especially since DT Orpheus Roye is the only other player worth a damn in the line. DT Gerard Warren was supposed to be the run-stopper, but the only thing he stopped last season were catering trucks. The LB corps, which showed so much promise going into last season, is gone. The new guys are new alright; they all have little or no experience, DC Dave Campo’s scheme relies heavily on stellar LB play. SS Robert Griffith must come back from his shoulder injury, because he’s all by himself in the secondary since CB Corey Fuller bailed.

It’s a good thing Holcomb and Couch excel at coming from behind, the Browns are going to have to a lot this year. They just don’t have the defense to make it in a division with Manning and Steve McNair throwing at them. Hosting the Colts will prove disappointing, as they’ll lose. It won’t be Holcomb’s fault, though.

Minnesota Vikings (6-10, 2nd O/26th D) at Green Bay Packers (12-4, 12th O/12th D)

Am I reading that right? Yes, according to the official rankings at, the Vikings had the 2nd overall offense last season, behind only the Raiders. Contrary to conventional thought, the Raiders only hold a slight advantage in that slot except for total passing yards, in which QB Rich Gannon has about 300 over Bills QB Drew Bledsoe. QB Daunte Culpepper is 5th, so what accounts for the ranking? The running game, obviously. The Vikings had the #1 rushing offense in the league last year. Again, they just edged out Miami in total yards, but the Vikes averaged a league-high (by a decent margin) 5.3 yards per carry. What makes the whole thing funny is that while Miami has the rushing leader, Ricky Williams, the Vikings have Michael Bennett. Bennett gained 1296 on the ground, respectable by any measure, but he’s only 11th. Well, back up RB Moe Williams got 414 himself, and adding in a few hundred yards from various other players (including Culpepper) in rush situations, and you’ve got the rushing edge. The Vikings were terribly out of sorts otherwise, however. Games these days turn on one or two key plays or turnovers, and not being on the right side of those things is the difference between 10-6 and 6-10. The Vikes blew a lot of leads and came up short in crunch time too often. They committed far too many game-breaking turnovers, many of which were Culpepper’s fault, or from receivers bobbling the ball and allowing a defender to take it away. The joke last season went something like this: "How do you know when Culpepper is going to throw an interception? When the ball is in the air." Well, Daunte was rewarded with a big 10-year contract, and Gus Frerotte was brought in to back him up and offer his tutelage. Frerotte is a QB in the mold of Dave Kreig, putting up TDs and INTs with equal aplomb. He will no doubt instruct Culpepper not to worry about turnovers, Lord knows Frerotte never has. Culpepper has already looked sharp in the preseason; if he stumbles, it will not be through lack of trying or commitment. Culpepper’s more committed than Frances Farmer. Intriguing personality-study WR Randy Moss once claimed that he should have been made the go-to guy as a rookie and then the Vikings would have won at least one Super Bowl by now. He was also supposed to "blow up the league" (according to him) but he hasn’t quite made good on his terrorist threats. He had his chance with the Randy Ratio last year (he figured in as the guy in about 40% of all the Vikings’ offensive plays). Although he got his yards – second only to Marvin Harrison – he only scored 7 TDs as compared to Harrison’s 11. Sure, that’s not a huge difference, but there was no Marvin Margin in Indy. As such, there’s no Randy Ratio anymore, either. Minnesota doesn’t need it, though: WR D’Wayne Bates is a great #2 option, and WR Kelly Campell, in his second year, wowed the coaches in camp this year. Coach Mike Tice likes two TE sets, so TEs Jim Kleinsasser and Byron Chamberlain will figure in big. Well, Chamberlain will after he serves his 4 game suspension for violating NFL’s substance abuse policy. As a side note, that violation doesn’t get to me the way it used to. I have to take it with a grain of salt now, since the NFL imposed all of these new restrictions on supplements, and incidents of violations has sharply increased as a result. Anyway, TE Hunter Goodwin will fill in for Chamberlain in the meanwhile. Goodwin is a better blocker than receiver, but Kleinsasser is a great receiving TE. The offensive line has been re-worked somewhat: C Matt Birk remains, Chris Liwienski moves from RT to LG, OT Mike Rosenthal from the Giants is capable, and OT Bryant McKinnie has the potential to be one of the best tackles in the league, if he improves his run-blocking and stops telling everyone how good he is in the wake of his epic holdout last season as a rookie. Shut the fuck up and play, B-Mac.

Shitty defense contributed to Minnesota’s woes last season mightily, so in comes new DC George O’Leary. O’Leary has made some good decisions when handed a struggling defense such as this: get some decent draft picks, try to lure in some quality free agents, and use a lot of Cover-2. Thus, in comes first round pick DE Kevin Williams to take the pressure off DT Chris Hovan, who kept running out of gas in games (which isn’t his fault, he was the only guy capable, and the defense was on the field plenty). Williams ought to take pressure off the DEs as well, so LE Kenny Mixon will have a chance to make some plays. The linebacker squad has gone from terrible to good and deep. Free agent SLB Chris Claiborne is in from the Lions, a definite help. The Vikings will use some 3-4, and pass-rusher specialist SLB Nick Rogers will come in. MLB Greg Biekert is unfortunately starting to lose a step so he’ll come out in nickel, but Henri Crockett is in to assist. SS Corey Chavous, the best returning DB on the team, will probably move to FS to better utilize his abilities, but he’s still scheduled to start at SS. That’s good, because the options for FS/SS aren’t very good. FS Willie Offord should be offered on the waiver wire. Free agent CB Denard Walker bolsters a terrible corner roster. He’s pretty much it, so passing on the Vikings won’t be as easy, but not impossible.

Not having a decent secondary means any team with a marquee QB will move the chains on these dudes, Cover-2 or no Cover-2. It also means in the laughable chance Minnesota makes the playoffs, whoever gets lucky enough to host them will knock their dick in the dirt.

Oops, too bad they have to play Green Bay twice. I Know Preseason Doesn’t Matter, But™ QB Brett Favre absolutely scorched when he was on the field this August. Favre has been doing this will-he-or-won’t-he retirement dance for the last few years. All I know is, ask John Elway what helps the decision: winning the big one. Brett ought to know, John and the Broncos whupped his Packers to do it the first time. Is there a tougher dude, at any position, than Favre? I see these consecutive-game stats for him and it’s large, but for some reason it didn’t hit home to me until I realized he’s started every game since his first, which was over ten years ago. Ten years? Most guys can’t even play that long. The average RB that started when Favre did has been out of football for 7 years by now. So, who the hell replaces Favre when he goes? Coach Mike Sherman is currently looking at Craig Nall, who was an NFL Europe standout. Doug Peterson, who has the easiest job in the NFL, isn’t the answer. He isn’t even a question. #1 WR Donald Driver, who I may remind you was #4 on the Packers’ roster a mere two seasons ago, has earned his spot. Fuck Terry Glenn; the supposed super-duper deep/end zone threat reached the house a mere twice last season. Driver was the 1000-yard receiver on Green Bay. WRs Javon Walker and Robert Ferguson, eyeing the #3 spot as up-for-grabs, both put on muscle on the off-season and will battle heavily for Farve’s favor on the field. Adding TE Wesley Walls from Carolina opposite TE Bubba Franks makes for a TE duo that ranks among the best in the league. The Pack have an above-average running game too, by the way. If RB Ahman Green stays relatively healthy he’s a terror, but man does his production wane when he’s a little gimpy. It’s nice to have RB Lamar Smith on board, he’s a guy you can beat the shit out of and still get yards, and FB Najeh Davenport is great in short yard situations. The line is in fairly good shape. The interior of Wahle-Rivera-Flanagan are great, and OTs Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher are as well, but both are coming off pretty bad injuries (remember Clifton’s, a shot by Warren Sapp that almost prompted a brawl between Sapp and Sherman at halftime). They might get beat off a corner blitz.

It’s hard to not play hurt in Green Bay when Favre’s your QB, so it’s no surprise to see NT Gilbert Brown tough it with a torn biceps muscle. Personally, I’m just surprised to see Brown still playing, the big oft-injured bastard. Problem is, something untoward happens to him at any time and he’s out for the season. Joe Johnson is in at end to replace Vonnie Holliday, and he’ll move inside to bolster the pass rush. Kabber Gbaja-Biamila will be in full-time, so if he plays to the level he has at times, the pass rush is pretty safe. If DT Cletidus Hunt plays at 100% (he often doesn’t), the line could be a terror against the pass. The LB position was rebuilt somewhat with speed in mind. So, assisting "Hammers The Final" Na’il "In Your Coffin And" Diggs is free agent SLB Hannibal Navies and first round pick Nick Barnett. FS Darren Sharper is a quality guy, and he and Mike "Predator" McKenzie are great safeties. CB Al Harris is good in a big and physical way, but not in a speedy way. Nickelback Bryant Westbrook, replacing Tod McBride, is also of the bigger-and-slower variety. A team with quick WRs can burn these guys, but they can use their skills to fend off a lot of passing plays.

This should be a pretty good game, actually. I see the Vikings on an upswing (relatively speaking) but Green Bay is once again a serious postseason threat. That Atlanta loss last postseason isn’t gone in the minds of these guys and they will be out for blood; Green Bay.

San Diego Chargers (8-8, 16th O/30th D) at Kansas City Chiefs (8-8, 4th O/32nd D)

Hey, what do you know: for once the Chargers’ offense faired better than its defense, but boy did the defense ever suck. So, does Losing LB Junior Seau make it even worse? No, Junior’s "glory" days are behind him. He looked plain terrible this preseason with Miami, no zip whatsoever. He can still serve as a role player on an already elite defense, like Miami’s, but he can’t carry the whole thing on his back anymore. Let’s talk about the offense first. QB Drew Brees is developing quite well. Winning three OT games, as well as winning one in the last seconds against – guess who? – Kansas City, Brees can ball when it counts most. He’d be even better if he could get into a rhythm early, but Martyball puts the run first. Brees needs to learn how to spread the ball around (which is why all elite QBs value a good receiving TE, and Stephen Alexander is a good TE) as well as improve his decision-making and accuracy with the deep ball, especially in the middle. Opposing defenses already know coach Marty Schottenheimer’s basic run-first game plan, Brees needs to do his part and keep those DBs honest and off the line. He’s got the guy to throw it to too, in WR David Boston. Don’t hold drug possession charges and, worse yet, playing in Arizona against Boston; he’s a big-play guy, and he knows how to score his YACs (yards after catch). #2 WR Reche Caldwell takes responsibility for his inconsistent play last season, admitting that at times he was lazy and unfocused. I’ll never figure on guys making millions and not being able to get motivated and with the program, but Caldwell appears to have done both coming into this season. Hey, even with his self-admitted subpar play, he still led SD with 79 catches. He ought to be outside and be in position for swing passes (which Marty likes) and checkdowns (which Brees must improve on). This allows WR Tim Dwight to line up in the slot and stay fresh for PR duties. There are few RBs in the league with LaDainian Tomlinson’s array of skills. Great vision, speed and agility, as well as soft hands, LT has it all. RB Doug Chapman is in as a short yard gainer, and FB Lorenzo Neal is a Pro Bowler. On the line, free agent Solomon Page is in to bolster pass protection, a glaring spot in SD’s line last season. The overall health of the line is improved over last season as well, and it has one of the best coaches in the league with the improbably-named Hudson Houck.

The defensive line is small, except for DT Jamal Williams, so naturally he gets the double teams. He warrants them, though: in the 4 games last season that Williams didn’t play, opponents rushed for over 150 yards in 3 of them. A savvy offense with big bruising offensive linemen can put the run away from Williams, as the rest of the line can be pushed around by big guys. DEs Marcellus Wiley and Raylee Johnson combined for 22 ˝ sacks in 2001, but only 12 ˝ last season. Two words: stay healthy. LB Donnie Edwards, realizing his blinding speed could be of better service outside, moves to WLB from MLB per his request. SLB Ben Leber was a rookie last year and started all 16 games, and in doing so proved his worth. He’ll be in on all rushing downs, but he’ll figure in on nickel, too. The secondary needs to be re-worked with the release of SS Rodney Harrison. CB Ryan McNeil moves to FS and Rogers Beckett moves to SS from FS, but that’s a problem. Beckett does not have the skills to play well in the Chargers’ 2-Deep scheme. Uh oh. The CBs are both first round picks: Quentin Jammer, who is physical off the line and quick but must keep his eye on the ball and Sammy Davis, who isn’t as physically gifted as Jammer and relies on technique and positioning to make plays. The nickelback position is up for grabs, which means this defense is going to have troubles with a tough offense. K Steve Christie is the most underrated kicker in the league; he has nailed some ridiculous shitty-weather clutch kicks over the last 2 seasons.

The Chargers are poised for a playoff run, but Schottenheimer is one of those coaches with a history of rolling into the playoffs and pussing right out of them. Their chances sure are tight in this division, and they’re going to have to hope for some luck and setbacks from all their division mates to get an edge.

The Chiefs ended up in the same boat last season as San Diego, but even more dramatically. Will coach Dick Vermeil ever care about defense? C’mon Dick, you need one to make it anywhere these days. What’s the upside of having an abysmal defense and a top-five offense? Your QB must not suck, and QB Trent Green certainly does not suck. Last season really worked him, and he’s reaping the benefits of it. Green has curbed his propensity for turnovers, has upped his big play frequency, and all but laughs at the pass rush now. Plus, the Chiefs return all 11 starters on offense. Here’s the sticking point: with TE Tony "Yeah, I’m a Tight End, Just Like Mike Alstott Is a Fullback" Gonzalez drawing all the double teams, WRs Eddie Kennison and Johnnie Morton need to be blowing up the field. Fuck, does it get any better for a WR to have the tight end be the defense’s focus? Plus, as long as RB Priest Homes is on the field, nobody’s looking at the WRs anyway. Come on, you guys. Hell, throw WRs Marc Boerigter and Dante Hall out there, too. I guess Vermiel got antsy when he saw Priest go down with that hip injury, KC drafted RB Larry Johnson in the first round. RB Derrick Blaylock is around to help, too. Weigmann, Shields & Waters aren’t an investment firm, but they protect KC’s Green well enough. Having Willie Roaf and John Tait at tackle is great too, but nobody better get hurt.

Speaking fairly, Vermeil knew his defense sucked, so he did something about it. Here’s DE Vonnie Holliday, who will play inside on passing downs to take advantage of the double teams big-but-athletic NT Ryan Sims will get. Holliday’s good against the run, too. DE R-Kal Truluck (yes, that’s his name, folks) will come in as well, and that’s a pretty fine pass-rushing squad. Newcomer WLB Shawn Barber really upgrades the LB unit, which is a bunch of who-dats otherwise. The secondary is likewise populated by clowns. SS Greg Wesley and FS Jerome Woods aren’t that bad, really (Woods missed a lot of time with a broken leg), but CBs Eric Warfield and William Bartee looked like scrubs last year. Both have tried to get it together, but only Warfield has looked improved thus far.

The Third Year’s a Charm legend that Vermeil carries with him (he won the Super Bowl with both the Eagles and the Rams in his 3rd season as head coach) isn’t going to pan out quite as successfully as it has. However, the Chiefs can win games once the defense gets it together and if everyone plays their balls off. They could easily sweep Oakland and possibly San Diego, and split with the Broncos to nab a wild card spot. I can see it happening. As such, I see them beating the Chargers in the opener.

Baltimore Ravens (7-9, 26th O/22nd D) at Pittsburgh Steelers (10-5-1, 5th O/7th D)

Be advised: the post-Super Bowl freefall the Ravens went into after blowing their wad to get there is over. The Ravens opened last season with 34 rookies or new free agents on their roster. They may as well have called themselves by a different name with that kind of turnover. Yet, in case you weren’t paying attention, the Ravens were a late-season playoff threat. Maybe you can thank the new division realignment for that, but there they were anyway. Their biggest concern last season remains: who the fuck is their QB? You know, once upon a time, the Ravens had a proven starting QB hoisting aloft the Lombardi trophy that he helped win. The Ravens canned him before he got back from Disneyland. They also had a great back up RB when their starter went down and they got rid of him, too. So, in the absence of Trent Dilfer and Priest Holmes is Kyle Boller, named starting QB about an hour ago, and Jamal Lewis. Actually, all Boller needs is experience, he has the arm and the cool. But what happens if Boller throws gutter balls and Redman smokes out? Anthony Wright, anyone? Yeah, that’s former Dallas back-up QB Anthony Wright, the guy former teammate Larry Allen called "Anthony ‘Can’t Get It’ Wright" when he introduced the offense in a Sunday night game. Ouch. Let’s move onto who we have to catch those errant passes. Well, the best receiver on the team happens to be TE Todd Heap. When you count on your TE to stretch the field, and you’re not Kansas City, you’ve got problems. WR Travis Taylor is the #1 guy, and he is the definition of inconsistent. #2 is Frank Sanders and #3 is Marcus Robinson, and both good but injury-prone. The rest of the guys are 2nd year dudes who haven’t played hardly at all in a real game. RB Jamal Lewis, as I mentioned, is overweight but otherwise healthy. He’ll get lots of carries (and probably, as history has shown, fumbles) in this offense, and he’ll be spelled by rookie Musa Smith and third-down guy Chester Taylor. The left side of the line is solid with LT Jonathan Ogden and LG Edwin Mulitalo, but the right side blows. RG Bennie Anderson isn’t starter material, and if Orlando Brown loses his other eye and goes down it’s Ethan Brooks, who is only a slight upgrade from putting in no one at all. Brown was good 3 years ago, but he hasn’t played since a ref’s errant flag dotted him in his peeper. Boller’s "victory" at becoming starter may become Pyrrhic when he gets fucking thrown back to the bench in a heap by opposing DLs plowing through the right side.

Running a 3-4 defense with small linemen is a ballsy move, but it works for the Ravens thanks to their athletic players. NT Kelly Gregg is capable and good against the run, but it’s tough to hinge the 3-4 around him. The NT in the 3-4 needs to dominate. Likewise, DE Adalius Thomas is small. The good news is LB Ray Lewis is back and in perfect health. He’s the unquestioned leader of this very young defense, and he wants to prove he’s still the best. He will stab you if he has to. Peter Boulware and Ed Hartwell round out a terrific LB corps. Both jam the run and Boulware is great against the pass. FS Ed Reed is good, but SS Corey Fuller is so good, the Ravens aren’t sure where to put him. He used to be a CB, but he’ll come out at SS due to his awesome hitting ability and range. He’ll also play as the nickelback for those same reasons. Fuller might return to starting CB if Gary Baxter, the only real question mark on this defense, stumbles. He’ll get tested too, since CB Chris McAllister may as well pick daisies growing on the field then worry about offenses daring to throw at him.

I have serious concerns about the Ravens’ offense, and I don’t know if the defense can over-compensate for it like it did in its Super Bowl-winning season. With the QB problems and potential RB issues, there is just too much drama in Balty for them to hope for better than .500.

Pittsburgh’s offense returns essentially intact, which is a big plus. QB Tommy Maddox is the NFL’s Lazarus; lesser men haven’t been able to walk after sustaining a spine injury like the one Maddox got, let alone play like an elite QB. Hey, what do you expect from the XFL’s best QB? Want to know why Maddox thrived in OC Mike Mularkey’s scheme and Stewart, for the most part, did not? Maddox is excellent at throwing to a spot, and that’s how Mularkey’s offense works. Stewart, apparently, cannot throw to a spot. The receiving corps is one of the best in the league, starting with Hines Ward. Ward just gets better every year, and he’s one of the best WRs in the league. Ward and Plaxico Burress combined for more yards than any other WR tandem in the league. The Steelers did jack shit in the middle of the field and I couldn’t even guess as to why. Well, they’re going to this year and #3 WR Antwaan Randle El will be that slot guy along with newcomer TE Jay Riemersma. The other thing that makes this unit a cut above is that they are all excellent blockers. In a surprise but correct roster move, RB Jerome Bettis will take a back seat to newly-appointed starter Amos Zereoue. Why? He’s quicker than The Bus, turns corners better, and has better receiving hands. Jerome will still get to roam the backfield though. In case anyone’s on a Fu watch, Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala was cut. I bet someone picks him up, maybe Tampa. The interior line is a good bunch especially with LG Alan Faneca, who routinely leads the charge on counter plays. LT Wayne Gandy went to the Saints, so Marvel Smith is in on the right. He can get beat by a speed rusher and opposite him is Oliver Ross, whose play ability isn’t a sure bet yet.

The once-vaunted Steeler defense still did well except against the pass, where they ranked 20th. They also sucked in 3rd down defense. They also gave up 30+ points in 8 games last season, counting the playoffs. What did they do to correct this? Ditch SS Lee Flowers (he left in free agency, actually) and replace him with first round pick Troy Polamalu. Counting on rookies to come in and make big plays in the secondary is gay. Well, they reworked their schemes as well. But let’s back up to the line, operating out of the 3-4. The Steelers clamp down against the run, and it’s due in large part to NT Casey Hampton. He’s supposed to come out in the dime package, but he’s so silly good against the run he should somehow figure in, especially since it’s in the dime that the Steelers want more of a push. What are ends Aaron Smith and Kimo van Oelhoffen doing up there when it isn’t a running play, playing pinochle? There are some dudes on the bench who may do better against the pass, I hope coach Bill Cowher uses them. Pitt’s D racked up an AFC-best 50 sacks last season, but only 16 were from linemen. Guess which guy had most of those? It was all off blitzes, and the Steelers have the best blitz packages this side of Philly or Tampa. They want to rely less on them – blitzing is risky nowadays – so they need the linemen to get in there. When I said the pass defense needs a shot in the ass, this isn’t what I meant. LB Joey Porter was recently literally shot in the buttocks coming out of a Colorado-Colorado State game. That's a big loss, and no one knows when he can come back, if at all this season. Fortunately, Kendrell Bell and Jason Gildon are Pro Bowlers and Bell is one of the best LBs in the league. ILB James Farrior started slow but came up to speed feeding off the surrounding talent. Like Hampton, DC Tim Lewis needs to find ways to keep Bell on the field no matter what fucking package they’re in, like in 3rd down so he can rush the passer off a blitz. Hi, I’m FS Brent Alexander and I have no recovery speed, so all you burner wideouts torch me as you see fit. And although nickel CB Deshea Townshend is good, CBs Chad Scott and Dewayne Washington got beat all too often. Hey Chad: quit trying to read the QB’s eyes. You suck at it, consider yourself QB-dyslexic. Washington acts like he’s in Cover-2, all coverage but no big plays.

The Steelers can win games for sure, but they are going have trouble against teams with an elite QB/WR squad. Fortunately for them, the only team in their weak-ass division with that arrangement is potentially Cleveland, and they can still beat the Browns other ways. They’ll win their division, but unless Lewis made up some amazing pass defense schemes, they’ll get nuked in the post-season.

Houston Texans (4-12, 32nd O/16th D) at Miami Dolphins (9-7, 15th O/3rd D)

Now that OT Tony Boselli has retired, coach Dom Capers must feel like a real jerk-off for taking him back when the expansion draft started. Of course, if Boselli had been healthy and playing all this time, the Texans may not have had the absolute worst passing offense in the league and QB David Carr might not have ended up on his ass a league-record 76 times. What-ifs are worth about as much as pre-printed Cardinals NFC champions T-shirts, though. Well, now we know Carr’s tough, the guy’s been in more ice than Encino Man. He took every snap last season, regardless of the merciless ass-beating. Thank God; his back up is Tony Banks, and nobody wants to see him on the field without a fucking headset and clipboard. The Texans nabbed WR Andre Johnson in the first round, and he’ll be starting in hopes of drawing double-teams off Corey Bradford, who’s fast and can get open when the entire secondary isn’t sitting on him. Johnson’s presence allows Jabar Gaffney to move to the slot, which will create favorable mismatches in attempts to cover him. Team reception leader TE Billy Miller will benefit from Johnson’s presence as well, as opposing defenses will only be able to commit a LB to cover him. Miller won’t have to block as much either, with second round pick Bennie Joppru onboard. Further beefing up the offense is newcomer RB Stacey Mack. Don’t let all that footage of Tom Coughlin tearing Mack a new one on the sidelines for fumbling cloud your perception of Mack; he’s a great runner between the tackles and like his mentor, Fred Taylor, he’s a big guy with deceptive speed. He’s a definite upgrade over James Allen, who fell down as soon as a defender touched him last season. Allen may spell Mack in third and short. The line introduces 3 new starters, but who knows how much better they’ll be. C Steve McKinney missed most of camp with a bum knee, LG Milford Brown has never played in a real game, and Greg Randall shouldn’t even be there anymore, he was so bad last season. Chester Pitts, in at LT, will move Zack Weigart to the right and probably shore things up, however.

Dom Capers is a former defensive coach, so it’s no surprise the Texans’ defense did well. As a bonus, they return 10 starters, and OLB Charlie Clemons is an upgrade. DC Vic Fangio has a good system in place that relies heavily on the 3-4, and NT Seth Payne is a good spearhead for it, but he needs help. DE Gary Walker is that help, but Jerry DeLoach is not. God help the line if any of them get hurt. Now, the 3-4 defense requires OLBs to rush the passer and ILBs to stuff the run. The inside is secure with Jamie Sharper and Jay Foreman, and the outside is in good hands with Kailee Wong and Clemons. The only problem is that although Clemons is good vs. the pass, he hasn’t played in the 3-4 as an OLB ever. The Texans play 2 SS’s in their defense. SS Eric Brown excels at strong, but although SS Matt Stevens is a good player as well, he sort of ends up with the FS-type duties and he doesn’t really have the range for it. The CB duo of Aaron Glenn and Marcus Coleman is fantastic, however. Glenn claimed his 3rd Pro Bowl honors last year and Coleman led the league with 22 defended passes. Kenny Wright was no slouch in the nickel, either. The Texans laugh at your pitiful attempts to throw the deep ball. Just don’t let anyone get hurt, the Texans have the weakest bench in the league, which is no surprise coming from an expansion team in only its second year.

4-12 wasn’t a disaster for the Texans, since the average number of wins for an expansion team in its first season is 3. I expect them to do better this season as well, maybe get 6 wins unless the line implodes again. Carr and 5 other players on offense played their whole rookie season and have matured rapidly. He has more weapons on offense, and the defense is pretty stacked.

Speaking of offensive weapons and a stacked defense, welcome to Miami. Perpetually-underrated QB Jay Fiedler is 28-13 as a starter over the last 3 seasons. In other words, he’s a winner. He’s also injury-prone, so if he’s hurt in comes…Brian Griese? Griese couldn’t even get through camp unscathed and broke his widdle toe. Griese can’t traverse a driveway without eating dust, and this is the back-up to your injury-happy QB? Oh well, by far the worst QB performance last season was Ray Lucas on Monday night, so what are you gonna do? The quixotic good news is that QB coach Mike Shula is gone, so OC Norv Turner will step in as QB coach too. He’s done it before, in Dallas for a fellow by the name of Troy Aikman. It isn’t the QB I’m worried about on this offense anyway, it’s the WRs. Chris Chambers was the epitome of a sophomore slumper last season after his breakout rookie season. In his defense, he suffered a pretty nasty concussion in week 6. James McKnight needs to improve as well, not that he’s terrible or anything. However, newcomer Derrius Thompson is in at the #2 spot. Unfortunately, dependable #3 guy Oronde Gadsden is on the IR list. Turner likes play from his TEs and FBs, so TE Randy McMichael and FB Rob Konrad will continue to get the ball. Who will definitely get the ball is RB Ricky Williams, who led the league last year with 1,853 yards. Williams has been buoyed by his success and continues his rigorous conditioning and remains at 225 pounds, and his burst off the line is still there. The line is solid and sooner or later G Seth McKinney is going to win a starting spot, which is only good news. Beyond McKinney, though, there is no depth.

The fact that Miami’s defense ranked "only" 3rd in the league after Tampa Bay and Carolina is more a testament to the Bucs’ and the Panther’s awesome ability than any deficiency on the Dolphins’ part. Miami is always a post-season threat with these guys, and it’s a real surprise they didn’t make it last season. The loss of Daryl Gardener won’t even be noticed with a line that boasts Tim Bowens, Larry Chester, Jason Taylor and Adewale Ogunleye. Any one of those guys – Taylor especially – is a potential threat against the pass or the run. If opposing offenses care to go pass-happy, in comes pass-rushing specialist Jeff Zgonina to get in your face. Oh, and the bench has a cadre of guys who could start on other teams, so forget about wearing the defensive line down. Should your QB survive long enough to hand off to the RB and should he bust through that ridiculous line, there’s MLB Zach Thomas wherever the ball is. He’s flanked by Morlon Greenwood on the strong side and newcomer Junior Seau on the weak. I dunno about Seau, he looked less than stellar in the preseason, as opposing RBs shot the gap and left him lagging on the come-around. He used to able to close in and get those guys from behind. However, his presence allows Miami’s defense to use more zone coverage and free up Thomas to make more plays. Seau will also command respect in the pass rush, to the benefit of Taylor. Greenwood is the weakest link, and he may eventually lose his starting job to rookie Eddie Moore, who has better instincts, but is out with an injury. SS Sammy Knight comes aboard with his infamous ability to create turnovers (but I don’t know how reliable he is for that game-by-game; plus, he isn’t as fast as the other guys in this secondary) and he complements FS Brock Marion, one of the best free safeties in the league. The CB tandem of Patrick Surtain and Sam Madison are as good as CB duos come, as long as Surtain has recovered from his injury and comes up to speed quickly after missing most of the preseason. Few kickers in the league can trump Olindo Mare’s skills, and P Mark Royals’ punts consistently hit the mark.

As I said, the Dolphins are always post-season possibilities. But, why the fuck do they always flame out down the stretch? I’ve seen this team play so conservatively and horribly at times it bewilders me. Conservative play has been OC Norv Turner’s big knock since he was head coach of the Redskins. They have the talent to make big plays on offense and they need to take advantage of the passing opportunities a running threat like Williams gives them. Oh, they’ll win 11 games and go to the playoffs, but someone’s going to knock them out once they get there. Hosting the Texans is a good start for Miami. The Miami defense is going to eat Carr and Co. alive; Dolphins win.

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