This is a continuation of the article from September 6. I still had pre-season prognostications, but they do shed some light on the fact that experts are just guessing wildly like many of us do. I’m hoping that 6 of 8 of my picks are right, especially the one with the Cowboys winning the East.
Previous Division Winner: Dallas Cowboys
Cowboys: I’m too biased. As indicated in my previous article, the 2010 Cowboys are better than the 2009 Cowboys on paper. The fact that Favre has returned for his 20th season takes the spotlight off of the Cowboys, to the benefit of the Cowboys. Any team who believes they can replace a future Hall of Fame QB with a first year starter and be better are either the San Francisco 49ers, Green Bay Packers, or delusional. The Eagles were the best coached team in the NFC East when Andy Reid focused on the offense, and Jim Johnson was devising the defensive gameplan. Sean McDermott has not been able to contain the Cowboys offense in three opportunities in 2009. The Eagles will contend, but if they win the division, Reid absolutely must win Coach of the Year (even over Tom Cable). The Redskins added the two most important elements to any successful franchise and they even removed a cancer (Dan Snyder’s meddling). Adding Donovan McNabb and Mike Shanahan immediately improves the brain trust in Washington. However, Shanahan is attempting to exercise his will over Albert Haynesworth and has looked childish in the process. Playing Haynesworth in the final pre-season game was one last attempt to have Haynesworth conform to his will. Certainly Haynesworth can be strong willed, but the matter with the conditioning test (there is zero film of him actually passing that test), the down playing of Haynesworth illness, having Haynesworth playing on the scout team, etc. It is just a pissing contest into a strong headwind. While the Redskins drafted Trent Williams at the top of the first round, their overall offensive line is still in need of an overhaul. Add their transition to the 3-4 defense, and you will have several players thinking about their responsibility and consequently getting beat early in the season.
The team I’m most concerned with is the team that has made the least amount of noise this off-season. The NY Jets have been a black hole of attention, and the Giants were 2-0 against the Cowboys in 2010 and suffered a variety of injuries which lead to their poor performance (which was still 8-8). Bill Sheridan is out as defensive coordinator – enter Perry Fewell of Buffalo. Most people believe the Giants underachieved in 2009 and yet I don’t hear a clamoring of people who say they will return to their 2008 form (12-4).
Previous Division Winner: Minnesota Vikings
When the Green Bay Packers beat the Cowboys in 2009, they completely revamped their offense prior to that game. They were beat by a lowly Buccaneers team the week prior and were playing at a more intense level than the Cowboys. The Cowboys game planned for a different team and the Packers moved the ball effectively. After the Packers elected to become a spread offense, they became a better team. The Packers will still lose two games to the Vikings in 2010, but the Packers will win the division. The Detroit Lions were not as bad as their record indicated, and they will continue to improve; however, they are not nearly as good as either the Packers or Vikings. As for the Chicago Bears, I still think they are a mess. Jay Cutler has struggled in a quarterback friendly system that Kurt Warner, Alex Smith, and Jon Kitna all loved. It should also be noted that Mike Martz’s system is high risk, high reward (e.g. a ton of touchdowns along with a ton of interceptions) and Cutler already has a love affair with the interception (26 in 2009). While the Bears signed a substantial amount of free agent talent in the 2010 off-season, they continued to neglect the offensive line which struggled throughout 2009 and did not appear to take the next step during the 2010 pre-season.
Therefore, expect the Packers to be more consistent in 2010 partly due to the consistent play of Aaron Rodgers. Favre can and will struggle with turnovers and that will be the difference.
Previous Division Winner: New Orleans Saints
The Saints fans and players are relishing their moment in the sun. I get the sense they are enjoying it too much. After decades of futility, the Saints have finally done… something… anything. The Madden curse is a complete manipulation of a natural football phenomena of a player having a good season and then the following season a less than stellar season. Manning, Marino, and Brady did not approach 40+ touch down the season following their record setting season (Marino had the highest total of 30). 2000 yard rushers (O.J. Simpson, Barry Sanders, etc.) have statistically worse seasons the following year. Brees won’t be the victim of a curse in 2010, but rather will receive the best effort from all opposing players week in and week out. The Saints team as a whole may enjoy the benefits (night life, notoriety, etc.) from living in New Orleans. Similar to the Cowboys of the 90’s, distractions will be high and the Saints are talented, but not as talented as the Cowboys were.
So who will win the division? Everyone loves the Atlanta Falcons. I like them too, but I don’t believe the Falcons running game will return to their 2008 form. Their quarterback is still improving, but I don’t believe the Falcons have finalized their identity. The Panthers on the other hand, have former Cowboys quarterback, Matt Moore, at the helm. I loved how he played as a rookie in pre-season games with the Cowboys, I loved how he played against the Cowboys as a rookie with the Panthers, and he has simply been impressive without being flashy. With Johnathon Stewart, DeAngelo Williams, and Steve Smith headlining the skilled positions, I see the Panthers improving upon their 2009 8-8 record (finishing the season 3-1). Save for some poor quarterbacking early in the season, the Panthers would have replicated their 2008 12-4 record. As for the Bucaneers… they finished in last place in 2009 which normally guarantees them a division title in the subsequent year. They just seem too far away and will spend at least one more season in the basement.
Previous Division Winner: Arizona Cardinals
The Cardinals are a mess. They lost very talented players in Carlos Dansby, Antrel Rolle, Kurt Warner, and Anquan Boldin. Worst yet, they are replacing Warner with Derrick Anderson. Anderson had one good season, and only one good season. Anderson won’t be a modern day Scott Mitchell, but it is surprising he had an opportunity to lead a very talented playoff team. The Cardinals have enough talent to finish 8-8 and they won’t finish 4-12, but their fans will wish they did so they could get a top quarterback in next years draft. Wisenhunt may have that exact plan in mind. Get rid of Matt Leinert who would only be OK, and never great. Put in Derrick Anderson who will lose you as many games as he wins. Insert the backup (Max Hall) in the middle of the season, and finish the season towards the bottom of the league. Next year they will sign a veteran and draft a rookie at the top of the draft and the rebuilding plan will be in motion.
Regardless of whether Wisenhunt is capable of setting the dominoes in place, the Cardinals will not be in the hunt for a division title. The Rams are still in their rebuilding phase, and while rookie quarterbacks have lead teams to the playoffs recently (Roethlisberger, Ryan, and Flacco), the Rams don’t have the talent around the quarterback. So that leaves two candidates. The San Francisco 49ers who play tough physical football and have embraced their identity, or the Seattle Seahawks who are lead by a two time failure (Pete Carrol) at the NFL level who hit the eject button to return to the NFL right as his college was missiled down from a lofty perch. The Seahawks may be improved over 2009, but their head coach brings some bad karma to the great north west.
Meet your 2010 NFC West division Champs, the San Francisco 49ers.