By: Dave Baker
Part 2: The NFC
The 2012 NFL season left little question: the NFC is the class of professional football. The Atlanta Falcons (a.k.a. the Greatest Regular Season Team of All Time), San Francisco 49ers, Green Bay Packers, and Seattle Seahawks – pick your poison. Each one of these teams, excluding the Atlanta Falcons because, let’s be honest, Matt Ryan is utterly and completely inept at winning playoff football, has the potential to make a deep run. Green Bay has the best quarterback in football directing its offense. San Francisco’s punishing defense has been smothering opponents, and Seattle is without a doubt the hottest team in the game. What would you have said this offseason if someone told you Russell Wilson, not Andrew Luck or RG III, would be the only rookie QB playing in the Divisional round? Yeah, I don’t know either. Regardless of a clear disparity in talent between the two conferences, the NFC was far more competitive. Final playoff seeding wasn’t determined until late Sunday night of week 17, treating fans to an NFC East title game at FedEx Field between the Cowboys and Redskins, and an NFC North clash between the Packers and Vikings with the final Wild Card spot on the line. It came down to the wire, and in the end two quality football teams in the New York Giants and the Chicago Bears were sent in to the offseason early despite posting winning records. While two phenomenal matchups loom ahead with a Green Bay and San Francisco rematch, and the Atlanta Falcons awaiting a Seahawks team riding an avalanche of momentum, the NFC figures to be just as competitive in 2013 with so many young teams stockpiling talent and keeping pace in some tight division races. The NFC’s offseason will center on fine-tuning and filling roster gaps, not major overhauls.
New York Giants
With 9-7 a record, the Giants were the second-best team to miss this year’s playoffs. They mauled the Eagles 41-7 in the season finale, but a late-season collapse kept them from postseason play. Quarterback Eli Manning couldn’t recapture that fourth quarter magic from his Super Bowl years, and wide receiver Victor Cruz battled all season with a serious case of the dropsies. The once-heralded Giants’ pass rush looked like a shell of its former self, and many from Giant Nation believe Tom Coughlin should be fired like, yesterday. New York’s running game showed flashes of potential with outspoken and freakishly athletic rookie David Wilson poised to take over as featured back in 2013. Buried behind veteran Ahmad Bradshaw and Andre Brown, Wilson capitalized on his scarce opportunities, going off against New Orleans in Week 14 with 100 yards on 13 carries and two touchdowns. The clock has finally struck midnight for the NFL’s perennial Cinderella story, and Giants fans have been humbly reminded that the underdog wins in the movies, not in the NFL.
Note: Truth be told, I’m going to leave this one blank. I don’t mind seeing the Giants fail. They’re spoiled. Their fans are spoiled, Eli Manning is a poser, and Tom Coughlin looks like a leprechaun. They were gifted two Super Bowl titles against New England; one from David Tyree making the catch of his life, and the other from Wes Welker having the drop of his life. Eli Manning is a very good NFL quarterback, but he doesn’t belong in a conversation with the likes of Tom Brady, Peyton, Aaron Rodgers, or Drew Brees. Ben Roethlisberger has two rings and that hasn’t earned him a place in the inner circle. Winning two Super Bowl rings doesn’t guarantee Eli a spot either.
On Sunday December 30th, a light snow dusted FedEx Field. The Dallas Cowboys fell behind the Washington Redskins 21-18, and Tony Romo took the field with a little over three minutes remaining for one last drive. Romo took the snap, Washington blitzed two linebackers, and Romo tossed a desperation ball into the flat. The Cowboys’ season stayed alive for a few fleeting seconds until the ball floated into the arms Washington linebacker Rob Jackson. (West Haven, CT raise up!!) His third pick of the evening and another clip in the highlight reel of Tony Romo faltering in the spotlight. It has been a long-ignored truth about Romo for much of his career: he can’t win the big game. He puts up numbers and he keeps his team in position to win games, but when asked to deliver in do-or-die situations, Romo disappears. Cowboys’ owner Jerry Jones has promised that sweeping changes are coming for an organization that has failed to reach the postseason for a third consecutive year.
1. Keep Jason Garrett?
In two-and-a-half seasons as the Cowboys head coach, Jason Garret has compiled a record of 21-19. He took over for Wade Philips midway through 2010 and closed out the season 5-3. Since then, Garret has failed to crack .500. Jerry Jones didn’t invest $1.2 billion into the Taj Mahal of football stadiums to house a 3rd place finisher.
2. Continue developing Dez Bryant
Wide receiver Dez Bryant is an athletic freak. There have been moments this season where he’s looked like a young Calvin Johnson, and other’s where he has looked like a total head case. The Cowboys envisioned Bryant as the league’s next superstar. He’s shown steady improvement since his rookie year, posting career highs in both receiving yards (1,382) and touchdowns (12). That being said, Bryant has left at least an additional 500 yards on the field between drops and poorly-run routes. Once Bryant figures out how to maintain consistency in the NFL, he will be an absolute nightmare for opposing secondaries.
3. Sign depth at running back
Running back Felix Jones is likely out in Dallas and DeMarco Murray has had difficulty staying healthy. The Cowboys’ rushing attack ranked 31st in the league with only 1265 yards. The only team ranked lower than Dallas? The Arizona fucking Cardinals. That is abysmal.
The Philadelphia Eagles
If you told Philly fans that third-string quarterback Trent Edwards would be starting in week 17, their likely response would be, “Well, yeah. We have to rest Michael Vick for the playoffs.” Vick’s series of injuries, Nick Folk’s general Nick Folkiness, and Andy Reid’s dismissal after a 4-12 finish all collided to form the perfect storm that was the 2012 Philadelphia Eagles. Very few rosters are as chockfull of talent as the Philadelphia Eagles; and few have managed to fail so brilliantly.
1. Cut Nick Folk’s hair
So Nick Folk may not be the long-term answer at quarterback. That’s fine. Only the most delusional of Eagles fans believe in a coming Nick Folk era. At the very least, he should ditch his frat boy haircut. I’m sure this outburst has everything do with the University of Alabama’s A.J. McCarron and his stupid fucking swoop being plastered all over every major news source; but today I’m giving conservatives, Westboro Baptist, stoplights without a left turn signal, and people obsessed with Breaking Bad a pass and directing all my misplaced hate and frustrations at frat-boy chic.
2. Hire Lovie Smith
A record number of head coaches were fired on Black Monday, with seven receiving pink slips, in addition to five general managers. Andy Reid’s departure marked the end of a 13-year run in Philadelphia, which produced a regular season record of 130-93-1, a playoff record of 10-9, and one Super Bowl appearance. Philadelphia is likely embarking on a long-term rebuilding process and while he may not be the most attractive option, former Bears head coach Lovie Smith is the right man for the job. The Eagles are one of the most defensively-challenged teams in football and Smith is one of the best defensive minds in the game. The talent is already in place on offense. All they need now is Uncle Lovie to pick up the pieces.
3. Trade Jeremy Maclin or DeSean Jackson
DeSean Jackson is completely undeserving of the lucrative contract he was awarded and Jeremy Maclin is a glorified possession receiver. One of them has to go, and since Jackson already cashed a fat paycheck, look for the Eagles to shop Maclin around this offseason.
Rarely do we see a freefall like the 2012 Chicago Bears. After starting the season 7-1, the Bears went 3-5 in their final eight games. Another December collapse cost the Bears a postseason berth and Lovie Smith his job. How does a season go from promising to bad to unfuckingbearable? First, there are the obvious reasons: porous offensive line that couldn’t block a pop-up add, lack of balance on offense, injuries to key players, aging defense, etc. I think there are greater forces at work here. After witnessing Derrick Rose’s career-altering injury in game one of the Eastern Conference quarterfinal;, the Cubs suffer through a 101 loss season, their worst since 1966; and the Bears historic meltdown, it became clear that Chicago is a cursed sports town. All the star power in the world makes no difference. In the end, Chicago teams are bound to lose. All right, maybe that’s a bit melodramatic, but make no mistake; this is the end of an era for the Chicago Bears. Lovie is gone. Brian Urlacher, the face of the franchise, is entering free agency, and Devin Hester is mulling retirement. For as long as I’ve been watching football, the Bears have been a team built on defense. That is their identity. The storylines in Chicago have shifted from Urlacher, Lance Briggs, Julius Peppers, Peanut Tillman, and drifted towards Jay Cutler, Brandon Marshall, Matt Forte, and how to keep up in an offense-first league. I knew the sun was setting on this corps of great Bears defenders. I just wasn’t ready for them to go out like this.
1. Hire an offensive-minded head coach
When teams interview potential head coaching candidates, the process is as much about learning new philosophies and gathering intel from around the league as it is finding the right coach for the organization. Bears general manager Phil Emery has wasted no time in searching for Lovie Smith’s replacement, casting a wide net with a new name surfacing on the Bears’ radar almost every hour. Emery is notoriously tight-lipped about the inner workings of Halas Hall, and in all likelihood he has two or three candidates on his shortlist. Offensive coordinators Mike McCoy of the Denver Broncos, Bruce Arians of the Indianapolis Colts, Tom Clements of the Green Bay Packers, and Rick Dennison of the Houston Texans are all in line to interview for the Bears job at the conclusion of the postseason. Mike McCoy and Bruce Arians stand out as strong candidates to take the Bears’ offense to the next level. McCoy built a top-ranked rushing offense around Tim Tebow in Denver last season and has received praise for his play calling with Peyton Manning under center, generating nearly 400 yards per game en route to 13-3 record. Arians is one of the most respected offensive coordinators in the game. He’s won two Super Bowls with the Pittsburgh Steelers, and while serving as interim head coach for the Indianapolis Colts during Chuck Pagano’s bout with cancer, the Colts went 9-3 and found their way back to the postseason after going 2-14 in 2011. The Bears are looking to go in a new direction and either one of these candidates would provide a strong foundation.
2. Rebuild offensive line
The Bears’ offensive line is among the worst in football. The 2013 NFL Draft figures to be deep along the offensive and defensive lines, giving the Bears ample opportunities to shore up issues at such pivotal positions. Picking up Jake Long in free agency might not be a terrible idea either.
3. Put Jay Cutler on notice
Jay Cutler is quickly becoming his generation’s Jeff George: a big arm with all the physical tools to succeed in the NFL, but is guaranteed to make poor decisions and lose the games that count. Cutler enters the offseason without a contract extension and may enter next year as a lame duck quarterback. That leaves Smokin’ Jay with one last chance to prove to the Bears they can win with him as their signal caller.
Undisciplined, dirty, and led by a quarterback who is good for little more than padding his stats, we learned that the Lions 2011 playoff run was a fluke. It’s a shame Calvin Johnson’s Hall of Fame career is going for naught in Detroit. It may to early to say that, but this season’s 4-12 campaign tells me that something greater than a running game or solidified defensive backfield is missing in Detroit: leadership.
A late season charge saw the Panthers rebound from a 3-7 start and finish 7-9. Cam Newton continued to show his potential to develop into Michael Vick 2.0, however post-game meltdowns and reports from last year’s Pro Bowl indicating that Newton is a self-obsessed diva lead many to question his abilities as a leader. And with good reason; no matter who you are or what you’ve accomplished in this league, no player has the right to call out Ray Lewis. Have some class, young blood.
1. Develop Cam Newton’s supporting staff
Newton has plenty of weapons at his disposal. Steve Smith is one of the most physical receivers in football. He catches everything in sight and is the kind of player you want to go to war with. Greg Olsen, with the ball in his hands, has the pedigree to be a Pro Bowler, and the running back trio of DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart, and Mike Tolbert still has some productive years ahead of them. For whatever reason, this unit hasn’t cracked the top ten yet. A slow start hampered production in 2012. Carolina will need to find a rhythm and consistency much sooner to stay in the hunt next season.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
It was hard for me not to love this Bucs team. ‘Teach me how to Dougie’ Martin making a bid for rookie of year, Greg Schiano blitzing victory formations, and of course the nappy-headed Josh Freeman. This team was downright fun to watch. The NFC South was the tightest division race in football. While the Falcons pulled away at 13-3 and locked up home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, the entire division finished with 3-3 records in divisional play. Returning such a strong nucleus of offensive players should help Tampa Bay keep pace in a division loaded with offensive powerhouses like New Orleans and Atlanta.
1. Come up with a better nickname for Doug Martin
Throughout the season, running back Doug Martin has been referred to as ‘Muscle Hamster.’ Muscle Hamster? Really? That’s the best they could come up with? The Bake Shop has been partial to ‘Teach me how to Dougie’ Martin, but here are a few others to toss around.
1. The Douggernaut
2. Doug and Weave
3. Dougie Fresh (obviously)
*New Orleans Saints
The 2012 Saints deserve an asterisk. Yes, they finished 7-9 and we’ve seen tougher run defenses in high school football movies, but to their credit, T.C. Williams’ defensive schemes were stifling. Has there ever been a better pairing of defensive coordinator and stud D-end than Bill Yoast and Julius Campbell? Probably, but I’ve always subscribed to the belief that there are two kinds of people in this world: those who liked Remember the Titans and those lock their doors when they drive around New Haven. Back to New Orleans. The return of head coach Sean Payton to the sidelines should make for a quick turnaround. The Saints are too good to suffer through consecutive losing seasons.
St. Louis Rams and Arizona Cardinals
This column’s running a little long, so here’s a list of cursory problems the casual fan sees with the St. Louis Rams and Arizona Cardinals. Well, not entirely. They’re more-or-less things on my mind, because I haven’t followed either club very closely.
1. Their quarterbacks don’t look like quarterbacks. I’m sure Sam Bradford is a nice guy, he’s just too baby faced and Indian in the Cupboard-looking to be the face of an NFL franchise. In Arizona, the question isn’t whether or not Ryan Lindley can play quarterback in the NFL. It’s more along the lines of “what else is on his resume?” He’s going to be in serious need of gainful employment.
2. Should the NFL be formatted like the English Premier league? Stay with me for a second. Wouldn’t you rather see the best teams play each other week in and week out than to actually sit through the New England Patriots running seven-on-seven drills against a team like St. Louis? You’re right. That’s an awful idea.
3. At the end of the day, Arizona and St. Louis will have the distinct misfortune of playing in a division with San Francisco and Seattle. Both teams are young, talented, hungry, and neither will be going anywhere for quite some time. Somebody please get Larry Fitzgerald out of Arizona. It’s in the best interest of the league, Rodger. Aren’t you all about that?
4. I know critics are high on Gangster Squad and who wouldn’t be? Ryan Gosling being money in 1920’s fedoras and emptying the clip on a Tommy gun with Emma Stone being all dirty sexy, all of it adds up to a blockbuster. But I have a few issues: 1) they couldn’t come up with a better name than Gangster Squad? That sounds like a straight to Netflix movie staring 50 Cent 2) I hate Sean Penn and 3) I seriously hate Sean Penn. He’s a pretentious, self-righteous prick and everything he does a blatant Oscar grab. Have we forgotten his best role as Jeff Spicoli? Get back to your roots, Sean, and maybe I’ll forgive you for I Am Sam.
Enjoy the Divisional round.