2009 NFL Pre-Season: Early Thoughts

The NFL pre-season means absolutely nothing.  Last year, the Pittsburgh Steelers lost every single game and were particularly ineffective on offense.  Pre-season means nothing.  Still…

Santonio Holmes - Super Bowl MVPSantonio Holmes – Super Bowl MVP

I can’t help thinking that some of what I’ve seen is instructive as a prelude to the 2009 season.  Here are some early thoughts:1. The Minnesota Vikings are going to be a tough out.  I watched the Vikings and Texans last night.  While the Texans are by no means a formidable defensive crew, they have talent.  They feature Mario Williams, DeMeco Ryans and Eugene Wilson (former free safety of the New England Patriots — a converted CB from Illinois).  The traditional West Coast offense that the Vikings run is designed to keep teams off balance.  They mix in a number of screens and draws with sweeps, dives and play action passes.  The Vikings don’t have the best receivers, but they have a tight end who could catch 70 balls this season, and they have 3 game breakers (Adrian Peterson, Bernard Berrian and Percy Harvin) that can get behind ANY defense in the league.   Those 2 defensive tackles are going to give people fits — and they’re going to generate a lot of 3rd and long situations.

I still don’t believe the Vikings will go as far as they would like — in fact, I believe their season will end just as it did in 2008: at the hands of the Philadelphia Eagles or a similar team with the capacity to stuff the run and force the pass.

2. The Kansas City Chiefs and Denver Broncos were both known as two of the most stable franchises in the league.  For years, these two teams were characterized by solid coaching (KC – Schottenheimer, Vermeil; Denver – Reeves, Shanahan) and solid ownership/management.  The recent hires of Todd Haley in KC and Josh McDaniels in Denver have led me to believe that both of these teams have lost their way.

Haley just fired his offensive coordinator, Chan Gailey, with less than 2 weeks to the season opener.  The team hasn’t settled on a QB (officially), and the experiment to create Patriots West I seems to have lost some steam.  Gailey has put together a very impressive resume at the professional and collegiate level.  Haley, aside from his reputation as a hot-head, hasn’t achieved much that wasn’t derivative of the superlative talents of Kurt Warner, Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston.  In other words, how does anyone in KC know that Haley knows what he’s doing?

Todd haley and Former FSU Star WR Dwayne BoweTodd haley and Former LSU Star WR Dwayne Bowe

Haley recently benched the team’s leading receiver, Dwayne Bowe (pictured above) as a motivational ploy.  I am sure that Haley sees alot of Anquan Boldin in Dwayne Bowe.  It could be that Bowe had decided to rest on his laurels.  Playing with 3 quarterbacks over his past 2 seasons, he has still managed to catch more balls than Calvin Johnson, for nearly as many yards and scores.

(Bowe: 156 catches; 2017 yards; 12 touchdowns/Johnson: 126; 2087; 16)

The Chiefs have work to do.  I thought this team was on the verge of very positive things last year.  There is clearly a great deal of young talent on defense.  The Chiefs struck gold in the 2006 draft with the late round secondary signing of Jarrad Page, and the selection of Bernard Pollard in the 2nd round.  Only Tom Brady knows Pollard on a first name basis, but that could all change this season.

The situation in Denver is just as bad — if not worse.  Since 2004, the Broncos defense has ranked (points allowed) 9th, 3rd, 8th, 28th and 30th.  Jake Plummer is gone.  Jay Cutler is gone.  Brandon Marshall is in limbo and McDaniels appears to have no clue as to what to do.  Kyle Orton is not a satisfactory replacement.  Knowshon Moreno will not fill the most pressing need of this team.  On the defensive side of the ball, the Broncos had a  precipitous slide from the top 10 to bottom feeder.  Fans cannot be encouraged by what they’ve seen thus far.

3. The Green Bay Packers could be the real deal.  Last year, the Packers pass defense ran away with 6 passes for scores.  They led the league.  This year, they drafted B.J. Raji.  He is simply a mountain of a man.  If he is able to win in the trenches, the opposition will be forced to beat two of the best corners in the league.

Al Harris and Charles Woodson Al Harris and Charles Woodson

Offensively, the Packers are loaded.  Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, Jordy Nelson and James Jones are going to get it done this year.  Add Ryan Grant to the mix and the Packers can do it through the air or on the ground.  Get your popcorn ready for their first tilt vs. the Vikings.  It should be a classic.

4. Tom Brady looks a bit skittish to me.  Rust and timing?  Maybe it’s that in his last two games, he was injured on a blitz by Pollard and harassed within an inch of his life by the Giants.  Doesn’t pressure make all QB’s somewhat less than awesome?  I know it might sound crazy, but he seems like he is more willing to let the ball go a quarter-second early.  He seems less willing to take that big hit — even though he just took a big hit from Albert Haynesworth.  In watching the first half vs. the Washington Redskins, I thought Brady did most of his damage with a clean pocket.  I also thought he did a very good job of getting rid of the ball BEFORE pressure came (until Albert put his weight on him).  I don’t know if Patriots fans would agree, but the ball seems to come out a bit quicker than usual.  He’s still accurate.  He can still throw the deep ball with touch and accuracy.  He still has total command of the offense and is likely to rack up some big numbers, but the real test for this team won’t come until they face elite defenses like Pittsburgh, San Diego (with Merriman), Indianapolis (with Bob Sanders) and others.  By the way, I think the Patriots have enough weapons (including Fred Taylor) to approximate what they did in 2007.  Look out.

5. Two quarterbacks who simply do not throw interceptions are David Garrard and Jason Campbell.  Both operate on a low-risk, low-reward philosophy that could change this season.  Garrard, for the first time in his career, will be able to throw to a real receiver.  He won’t have to worry about cocaine addiction (Matt Jones), chronic underachievement (Reggie Williams, Jerry Porter, Ernest Wilford) or poor route running.  Holt will be where he is supposed to be, when he is supposed to be there.  All Garrard has to do is to continue to do what he’s been doing: pass accurately, avoid interceptions, and hand off to Maurice Jones-Drew.  Over the past five years, the Jaguars defense has ranked (points allowed) 7th, 6th, 4th, 10th and 21st.

Last year’s fall from grace followed the loss of dominant DT Marcus Stroud (Buffalo).  The defense was also forced to spend more time on the field because a decimated offensive line was unable to sustain drives and deliver points.  This year, the Jags can expect to be better on offense, but they haven’t found a replacement for Stroud and the jury is still out on how they’ll stack up defensively.  At the very least, Rashean Mathis still provides superb coverage at CB (usually!).

Jason Campbell catches a lot of heat for a guy who can make all the throws, stands tall in the pocket and doesn’t throw interceptions.  The word in and around the Beltway is that Campbell lacks the fire of a “true leader.”  He doesn’t inspire the faithful in that old Billy Kilmer/Joe Theisman sort of way.  Heck, he doesn’t even remind anyone of Mark Rypien.  He does, however, look a lot like Doug Williams.  I don’t mean that purely from the standpoint of complexion, after all, Doug is quite a few shades darker than young Jason.  The similarities, however, are more than skin deep.  Both hail from proud Southern backgrounds and were steeped in an institutions with grand football traditions: Williams at Grambling, Campbell at Auburn.  Both fit the mold of classic pocket passers.  Both have guns and can throw any pass from anywhere on the field.  Both are taller and bigger than average.  Both achieved greatness at the collegiate level that was either ignored or diminished by a large segment of the sporting public.  Campbell was talented enough to be drafted with the 4th overall pick by the Redskins, but he led an undefeated Auburn through the SEC and received no consideration for a national championship.  Such has not been the case for others (Exhibit A: Tim Tebow’s University of Florida teams.)  Williams starred at Grambling, albeit under the national radar, and was also a first round draft pick.  If those aren’t enough similarities, the differences shed a bit of light on why Washington can’t seem to fall in love with Jason Campbell.

Campbell may be the very first 6’5″ 230 pound QB with a big arm NOT to have a city fall in love with him.  Perhaps its the high expectations.  While Williams was drafted by a miserly expansion team, Campbell was selected by the free-spending franchise owned by Daniel Snyder.  The Redskins have sought the quick fix to building an NFL champion.  Perhaps its the instability at the top.  Campbell notoriously went through a number of leadership changes in college.  In DC, he began his career with the sage Joe Gibbs and is now in the care of Jim Zorn.  The former Seahawk signal caller, however, was clearly overmatched last year.  At times, he looked overwhelmed, confused, and frustrated with the challenges of leading the Redskins.

Jim Zorn has, arguably, been the witness to more mediocre NFL seasons that anyone alive or dead.  During his playing years in Seattle, he was (like Campbell’s predecessor in Washington, Mark Brunell) a sparky, left-handed running QB with a limited arm.  He was not classic by any stretch of the imagination, but he was adored.  He was the first face of the franchise (before Steve Largent).   Seattle went from a Buc-like 2-14 in 1976 to 9-7 in 1978 and 1979.  The city went wild.  Of course, no one at the time had any inkling that aside from 1985 (when Zorn only played 5 games) and 2005 (when Zorn coached QB Matt Hasslebeck to the Super Bowl), the Seahawks would spend TWO decades somewhere between 6-10 and 10-6.

Three times the Seahawks were 6-10.  Four times they finished the season at 7-9.  Four seasons ended at 8-8.  Six seasons ended at the marginally better 9-7.  Two seasons ended at 10-6.  Of course this isn’t all Jim Zorn’s fault — far from it.  It’s just that he knows NFL mediocrity when he sees it.  Last year, the Redskins started out at 6-2 and slumped to the finish line to finish…drum roll please!! 8-8.

If the Redskins are to improve and capitalize on a defense that finished 6th (points allowed), they’re going to do to play outside of their comfort zone.  Jim Zorn is going to have to push the envelope and do things he’s never done before.  He has a QB that doesn’t turn the ball over and can deliver in big moments.   He has to trust him and surrender the keys to the castle.

You can’t win football games if you don’t score points. Before the Redskins bye week, the Redskins were averaging 19 points/game, with Campbell averaging 202.6 yards/game. After the bye, the Redskins scored only 13.4 points/game, with Campbell throwing 170.2 yards/game. Why the drop off?

Zorn stopped letting Campbell throw long. The Redskins failed to complete a pass over 30 yards the second half of the season. While the West Coast Offense is designed to be an offense based on short timing routes, once a defense knows there is no threat of a big play, the offense gets spread thin.

It should also be said that the tailspin in DC began with a Thursday night loss in Week 9 to the Pittsburgh Steelers.  Campbell threw his first interception of the season and the defense was unable to stop Byron Leftwich.  Washington lost to very good teams down the stretch including Dallas, the Giants, Baltimore, and an emerging 49er team on the road in Week 17.  Still, the ‘Skins were able to win on the road in Seattle and at home vs. the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 16.  Perhaps the most devastating loss down the stretch came on the road in Cincinnati.

Campbell Running Through Mediocrity Poster BoysCampbell Running Through Mediocrity Poster Boys

Perhaps it was the high expectations. Washington’s offense line was beat up and the Bengals were on the rise (relatively speaking).  Clinton Portis ran 25 times for all of 77 yards.  Does anyone remember Cedric Benson’s 79 yard screen pass?  Does anyone remember fullback Mike Sellers fumbling at the goal line?  Probably not as many people who “recall” that Jason Campbell is the source of all that ails the Redskins.  There was never any real shame in getting shut down by these elite defensive teams.  Even Dallas’ defense that held Washington to 10 limited Pittsburgh’s offense to 13 points and held the Giants to 8.  And Cincinnati, for all their woes, forced the Giants to overtime in the Meadowlands, tied the Eagles, and surrendered a mere 6 points in their final two contests of the season.

Campbell is the right guy.  Let’s hope that Zorn can become something he’s been only once before.

6. I think the Cincinnati Bengals are going to be a much improved team this season —- if Carson Palmer can stay healthy.  All bets are off if he’s banged up again.  There is also this confusing notion that Chad Ochocinco (OC) is no longer one of the BEST receivers in the NFL.  How soon they forget.  Last season, he was so injured that he could barely lift his right arm before the first game (partially torn right labrum).  He played injured all season long and willingly served as a decoy who opened up the field for T.J. Houshmandzadeh and others.  He didn’t complain about his injury.  He didn’t beg out of games.  He didn’t quit on his team.  Still, this five time Pro Bowler and 2 time All-Pro gets little respect.  He is perceived as a malcontent even though he works as hard or harder than every other player (including Palmer) to hone his craft.

What OC did do was complain about the exact same things that Corey Dillon and others have complained about: the teams’ commitment to winning.  The Bengals routinely buy at deep discounts.  They want great athletes with issues who come at a reduced cost.  Exhibit A: 2008 first round draft pick – Andre Smith, T, Alabama.  Exhibit B: 2008 second round draft pick – Rey Maualuga, LB, USC.

Prior to last season, Chad’s production was as good as anyone in the league for 5 full seasons.

I think the Bengals are going to improve because they have some very good pieces in place.  On defense, the team finished 19th in points allowed, but 12th in yards allowed.  That was up from 27th in yards allowed the year before.  That’s a significant improvement and it masks the loss of Keith Rivers to injury.

Keith Rivers Suffers Broken Jaw on Hines Ward BlockKeith Rivers Suffers Broken Jaw on Hines Ward Block

But, it also demonstrates the return the Bengals are getting on players like Leon Hall, Johnathan Joseph, Domato Peko  and others.  The defense is young.   Rivers, Maualaga, Hall, Peko, and Pat Sims are all under 25.  The addition of veterans Tank Johnson and Roy Williams (assuming he’s NEVER left in coverage) will improve the run defense and the pass rush.  If Palmer is healthy, it will mean that the opposition will have the ball for less time and will face more pressure to match the prolific output of OC and company.

Combine all of that with a significantly easier schedule (NFC North and AFC West in 2009 instead of NFC East and AFC South in 2008) and things should be looking up in Cincinnati.  The problem, of course, is that even in Cincy improves on 4-12, they are likely to still be looking up at the Steelers and Ravens.

5 comments

  1. Great write up T3.

    Just a few things……

    I agree w/ your take on the Vikes. I think that they will eventually lose to either the Packers in the Wild Card game or the Eagles in the Divisional round. I also think that the loss of Darren Sharper (New Orleans)in that secondary will hurt them this season.

    I like what i’ve seen from the Packers defense in pre-season. They have an outstanding crew of LBs that swarm to the ball. Kinda reminds me of the Steelers and Ravens on “D”. Dom Capers is trying to do big things in Green Bay with that defense. I’m interested to see how and if their play carries over into the regular season.

    New England will be interesting to watch this year. Not because Brady is back but because of the new faces on defense. They lost Vrabel, Bruschi, Harrison, Hobbs, etc. Those guys were key players on defense but Belichick always seems to get the right guys to replace those he’s lost. I really like the play of Mayo. Dude will be an All-Pro for many years. Regardless of what all the pundits are saying about them being the class of the AFC, the team to beat is still my (and your) Steelers.

  2. Thanks, GN.

    I think the Steelers are the team to beat also, but to be fair, I still have a lot of questions about our ability to beat the Patriots. When the Pats won their championships, they came through Pittsburgh. When the Steelers won, they never played the Patriots in the post-season. In fact, we haven’t played and beaten them (with Brady on the field) since Plaxico was there. Surely you remember the 34-13 blowout in 2007.

    I think the teams are very different now. I prefer Tomlin’s coaching style to Cowher’s. He takes more risks on offense. The Steelers’ secondary is vastly improved, but the Pats still have Moss, Welker, Galloway and company. They even picked up the guy that kills us when he has the legs — Fred Taylor.

    I think the Patriots know the Steelers are the team to beat – and they look prepared for the challenge. It’s going to be a great game. I think our improved DB’s and special teams will be the difference. Maybe Brady only throws for 289 and 2 tds instead of 350 and 4 tds. Maybe Sepulveda and Logan allow us to play on a short field and exploit their defense.

    I’m looking forward to it.

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