By: Dave Baker
Part 1: The AFC
The NFL regular season is in the books and Wild Card Weekend is upon us. For twelve franchises, January football presents a rare opportunity to chase dreams and become legends. Familiar names like Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Aaron Rodgers will captivate the football world and incite asinine, but fun, debates among aficionados from the press box to the barroom on their places among the all time greats. Ray Lewis will suit up for his final playoff run, signaling the end of an era for a Hall of Fame generation of defenders. Adrian Peterson will lead a surging Vikings team into the postseason and three rookie quarterbacks will make their playoff debuts – two of which will square off against each other when Russell Wilson’s Seattle Seahawks travel to Landover, Maryland to take on Robert Griffin III and the explosive Washington Redskins. Though the regular season is over, it’s time to reevaluate, rebuild, and reload for 20 NFL teams missing the 2013 postseason. Shoddy play, organizational instability, or simple bad luck has landed these franchises and their fan bases in another year of football limbo. It’s going to take grit. It’s going to take dedication. And in some cases, it’s going to take a not-so-small amount of money and good fortune, but playoff football may not be too far off the beaten, damned, and totally fucked franchises of the National Football League.
Miami Dolphins– Under new head coach Joe Philbin, the Miami Dolphins made several positive strides in 2012. They dropped a few close games, and losing their season finale 28-0 against division rival New England isn’t exactly the momentum they wanted going into the offseason, but there is a silver lining in South Beach. Ryan Tannehill proved that he is the quarterback of the future. His passing yards were solid, his turnovers weren’t completely alarming, and the touchdowns will come with an improved receiving corps. The Dolphins’ defense overachieved, ranking in the top ten for fewest points allowed and playing stingy against the run. The AFC East has been dominated by the New England Patriots for the better part of a decade. If any team is poised to challenge them for supremacy, it’s this young, intriguing Dolphins team.
1. Get Ryan Tannehill some help
A decent crop of free agent receivers will be available this offseason, a group led by Green Bay’s Greg Jennings, Kansas City’s Dwayne Bowe, and Pittsburgh’s Mike Wallace. With some young talent already on this roster in Brian Hartline and Davone Bess, Miami seems to be a logical landing spot for a guy like Greg Jennings. Just north of 30, Jennings is a slight outlier on a Packers’ roster boasting a young, talented, and emerging group of receivers consisting of Jordy Nelson, Randal Cobb, and James Jones. Jennings provides Miami with the speed, experience, and most importantly, a number one target they clearly lack.
2. Do not overpay for Jake Long
Jake Long has cemented himself as one of the premier left tackles in the game. However, at 27 and five years into his career, Long struggled in 2012. Name recognition alone will make him one of the most sought after free agents this spring, so why should the Dolphins break the bank for an underachieving left tackle? There are plenty of teams that would be more than happy to overpay for Long’s services. Miami would be wise to lockup Brian Hartline or Randy Starks instead.
3. Fire Jeff Ireland
Early reports indicate that General Manager Jeff Ireland is safe. Given the new direction Miami is taking, ownership should reconsider how well suited Ireland is for acquiring the right talent for this team. Ireland will likely be on notice and how the Dolphins perform in 2013 will go a long way in determining his future in this “what have you done lately” business.
New York Jets– It’s real simple: the New York Jets need a quarterback. With Mark Sanchez under center, the Jets ranked 30th in passing yards per game. Sanchez was a turnover machine and gifted us possibly the Not Top Ten play of the decade when he knocked himself out running into offensive lineman Brandon Moore. The Jets’ offense was abysmal, the defense was porous, and head coach Rex Ryan’s mismanagement of backup quarterback Tim Tebow has likely ruined the former first round pick’s career. While Tebow’s throwing mechanics are the subject of constant scrutiny, he remained one of the few proven playmakers on the Jets’ roster. Keeping him off the field, even after the Jets were eliminated from playoff contention, is the coaching gaff of the season. Jets ownership has also dismissed general manager Mike Tannenbaum, leaving an absolute mess for the incumbent GM to inherit.
1. Find a legitimate Quarterback
The Jets won’t find help in the draft, and the free agent market is slim. Baltimore’s Joe Flacco is the only true starter available and his future with the Ravens will rest on whether or not he can mount a deep playoff run. Other names include journeymen backups like Jason Campbell, Tavaris Jackson, and Matt Moore, all of whom have started in this league at one point or another. The Jets can of course try to deal for a bigger name such as Alex Smith, Matt Flynn, or Kevin Kolb, but it seems the Jets may be a year or two away from finding their long-term answer at QB.
2. Fire Rex Ryan
It appears the Jets plan to roll with Rex Ryan for one more season. The Jets are no doubt a flawed organization, something the front office made a poor attempt at covering up by distracting the media with the Tebow circus. As the Jets slogged through a 6-10 season, it became clear that Ryan was a middle-of-the-road coach who, in his previous playoff runs, had been gifted an extremely talented defense and a group of skill position players that could make just enough plays to win games. When Ryan and Sanchez were called on to succeed with a patchwork group of receivers and running backs, they failed. Ryan’s ground-and-pound game plan was exposed as archaic and ineffective. His decision to start Greg McElroy late in the season over Tim Tebow defies all logic. How can anyone say with a straight face that Greg McElroy gives their team a better chance to win than one of the best athletes in professional football? Ryan was likely straddled with a player he did not want on his roster. Had Tebow played and won, it would have proved Ryan was wrong to stick with Sanchez as long as he did. He ruined one career to save his own. I have often said that Rex Ryan is the type of personality you love when he’s on your side and hate when you’re opposing him. It’s time to recognize Rex Ryan for what he is: an arrogant, selfish, blowhard unfit to be a head coach in the NFL.
3. Revamp the linebacker corp.
The once-elite run-stopping duo of Bart Scott and David Harris represented Gang Green’s promising future on the defensive side of the ball. Now, the aging unit is desperate for an infusion of youth. A few younger players like Garrett McIntyre and Demario Davis figure to have expanded roles in 2013, but look for the Jets to make several moves at the linebacker position.
Buffalo Bills– Nobody circles the wagons like the Buffalo Bills. This may have been true in 1992, but a 6-10 finish in 2012 has cost Chan Gailey his job as head coach and starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick is on the hot seat. Running back C.J. Spiller emerged as a featured back and was, by many accounts, a Pro Bowl snub. Prized free agent acquisition Mario Williams’ 10.5-sack season didn’t quite live up to his $100 million contract and the Bills stumbled through a 13th straight season without a playoff appearance.
1. Get Lovie Smith
For a team so inept on defense, hiring Lovie Smith as Gailey’s replacement is the right move. Smith is one of the most successful and respected coaches available. His defenses in Chicago, St. Louis, and Tampa Bay ranked among some of the league’s best over the past decade. His tenure in Chicago resulted in three NFC North division titles, a 2005 Coach of the Year award, and one Super Bowl appearance. Smith is more than capable of righting the ship in Buffalo.
2. If available, draft West Virginia QB Geno Smith
West Virginia’s Geno Smith figures to be the most NFL-ready prospect in this year’s draft class. Smith is hardly an RG III or Andrew Luck, but he has decent arm strength and is deceivingly athletic. He presents an intriguing option for any team looking to solidify the quarterback position and if he’s still on the board, the Bills might be wise to cut their losses with the Ryan Fitzpatrick experiment and take a gamble on Smith.
3. Find a defensive end to start opposite Mario Williams
Mario Williams may have had a disappointing season, however that isn’t to say he’s not an elite defensive end. A player of Williams’ quality consistently draws a double team or an extra blocker out of the backfield. If the Bills can find a solid option to pair with Williams, they should resurrect an almost nonexistent pass rush that produced 36 sacks in 2012.
Pittsburgh Steelers– A preseason Super Bowl contender, the Pittsburgh Steelers limp into the offseason with an 8-8 record. For an organization that has been the picture of stability, .500 football will be not tolerated by the front office or their impassioned fan base. The Steelers were plagued by inconsistency in all three phases of the game. The offense never quite found its rhythm and while on paper they ranked among the league’s best, Pittsburgh’s defense failed to generate takeaways or pressure opposing QBs.
1. Figure out what to do with an aging defense
Linebacker James Harrison and safety Troy Polamalu have been elite defenders in the NFL and mainstays on the Pittsburgh defense for a long time. They are aging stars, and it shows. For one or both of them to remain in Pittsburgh, they’ll have to take a pay cut. The Steelers will be facing tough decisions on whether or not to match the lucrative offers wide receiver Mike Wallace stands to get in free agency, so the front office will have to spend its money wisely.
2. Keep Defensive Coordinator Dick LeBeau
Dick LeBeau has served as Pittsburgh’s defensive coordinator since 2004. He’s been at the helm for two Super Bowl teams and his units have been absolute terrors in the league. LeBeau will shoulder much of the blame for the unit’s lack of production in 2012, but this can mostly be attributed to an aging defense and a diminishing talent pool. LeBeau should stay on to ensure that the new-look defense transitions smoothly.
3. Resign Tight End Heath Miller
Heath Miller mastered the role of Ben Roethlisberger’s insurance policy. He was solid in run blocking and an almost-sure-thing in the short and intermediate passing game. This season, Miller caught 71 balls for 816 yards and 8 touchdowns. He’s exactly what the Steelers need at the tight end position.
Cleveland Browns– Running back Trent Richardson broke 1,000 all-purpose yards and racked up 12 touchdowns; that was pretty cool. And how about Brandon Weeden? He didn’t suck nearly as much as I thought he was going to. Maybe their next coach can crack the elusive six-win mark they’ve been reaching for since 2008. Honestly, I think anything short of merging with the Jacksonville Jaguars won’t fix the NFL’s habitual whipping boy.
San Diego Chargers– Norv Turner is out in San Diego, ending a six-year run as head coach. A young, talented roster led by QB Philip Rivers makes San Diego an attractive landing spot for potential head coaching candidates. Rivers has been on the decline over the past two seasons, however he is a Pro Bowl-caliber talent and his issues are very correctable.
1. Surround Rivers with better talent
Rivers’ ball security issues can largely be attributed to San Diego’s massive drop-off in talent over the years. This season, Rivers played without his number one target in wide receiver Vincent Jackson, and in the past Rivers was quarterbacking a vastly talented offense that featured the likes of Antonio Gates and LaDainian Tomlinson in their respective primes. This year’s draft is incredibly deep along the offensive and defensive lines, addressing the Charger’s protection issues. San Diego will likely look to free agency to upgrade at wide receiver and running back.
2. Land an Offensive-minded head coach
In an offense-first league, the Chargers will need a coach equipped to give the Chargers’ offense the facelift it needs. Denver Offensive Coordinator Mike McCoy and New Orleans O.C. Peter Carmichael should be all over San Diego’s radar.
3. Ditch the current uniform and go back to the powder blues
Throwback uniforms are always popular among fan bases. But they’re at best a novelty, something to look forward to once a season. The powder blue Chargers jersey is the exception. This organization should make the switch and go retro.
Oakland Raiders– When they write the history of the Oakland Raiders it will be a series of one bad decision after the other. A panic move for Carson Palmer still baffles fans and experts alike. Changes in Oakland will first have to come at the top.
1. Hire Jon Gruden
It’s no secret that Jon Gruden loves the booth. He’s the perfect color guy for Monday Night Football and his sound bites from ESPN’s QB Camp are absolutely hilarious. For the right price though, Gruden would return to the sideline. He’s a football coach. It’s in his DNA. Gruden belongs on the sideline. His attitude coupled with his experience could make for a very special return to Oakland.
2. Re-sign Richard Seymour
Richard Seymour’s season was cut short by a hamstring injury. That’s not to say he wasn’t productive in his first eight games. Seymour had 12 tackles and three sacks, putting him on pace for a six-sack season. That would have significantly boosted a pass rush-deprived defense. Even at 33, Seymour still has some good football left in the tank.
3. Target defensive backs in free agency
The Raiders’ secondary was riddled with holes this season. Cornerbacks like Atlanta’s Brent Grimes and safeties like Buffalo’s Jairus Byrd could shore up a defensive backfield that ranked 28th in points allowed and 20th in passing yards per game.
Kansas City Chiefs– Any time a professional football franchise employs a quarterback-by-committee comprised of Matt Cassel and Brady Quinn, it’s time to clean house and start over. Hiring Andy Reid sounds like a logical starting point.
Tennessee Titans– There is talent on this roster. Chris Johnson is still a top-tier running back and Kenny Britt will benefit from an offseason to rehab a nagging knee injury. They are desperate for Jake Locker to take the next step in his development, and I hope to god they continue to employ Rusty Smith. The league is better with quarterbacks named Rusty in it.
Jacksonville Jaguars– This offseason, fans will be treated to the training camp competition of the century: Chad Henne vs. Blaine Gabbert vs. Tim Tebow. With Tim Tebow under center, the 2011 Denver Broncos topped the league in rushing. With a healthy Maurice Jones-Drew in the backfield, it’s not out of the realm of possibility to think the Jaguars could win eight or nine games in 2013.