Now that free-agency has pretty much played-out like that afternoon swap meet, a really, really pricey, lawyer-laden swapper, it’s time to get down to the nitty-gritty.
It’s time to ask the big question, the one that’s been hanging in the air since SB48 mercifully ended and will drive the debate from now thru X-mas: Is there a team, a stratagem that can dethrone the reigning champion Seattle Seahawks?
‘But hold on,’ you say, ‘aren’t you forgetting something, Stevo, May’s draft?’
I didn’t forget.
Rookies can be impactful (Wilson, Wagner, Kuechly & Walsh (‘12); Lynn & Rice (MLB ‘75)), but unless you’re Earvin “Magic” Johnson (‘79-80) or John Huston (Maltese Falcon (‘41)), forget about it. Most greenhorns are, at best, contributors, 2nd / 3rd squad or too high a’ draftee to cut loose too soon but not long for the National.
Back to the biggie.
Is there an NFL armada out there that can scuttle the Seahawk (The Sea Hawk (’40)), lay grapeshot into her broadsides, light on her decks, plunder her stores and then sink her to the muddy depths of the grassy gridiron (I love the classics, what can I say)?
Not on paper there ain’t.
Seattle’s defense is a stonewall (R1: 14.4 o.ppg / 274 o.ypg) and Lynch (1257 / 12td) is pretty superb in carry, both attributes that should make 40 & uppers wax nostalgic for those Ditka – Payton Bears that cut a swath through ‘85 NFL like knife through butter.
There are some qualifiers.
The Bowl of Super is the “Great Exaggerator,” where winner is never as good as their victor’s laurel portends (‘11 NYG / ‘12 BAL), nor loser as bad as we bemoan (DEN) . The post-season is where legends are forged but before that casting you must first be in position to be great, and that’s the regular slate (W1-17): make it in, keep it at home.
The good ship Seahawks is no leaky vessel but not the tightest ship that ever sailed the NFL seas. Offense needs a tweak or two (R18 / 339y) and those ‘85 Monsters of Midway would’ve never given one away at home so late in the campaign (v. AZ, W16).
And to stay fit, stay on top, you’ve gotta’ re-tool and keep priming the pump, every off-season. That means there’d better be a righteous reason for passing on Jared “What’s a schism?” Allen. He’s a 3rd° game-changer, like some’d tag Sherman.
There’s no prohibitive favorite to seize the Lombardi from Seattle’s grip. But there is a flotilla of tall masts on the horizon that might sidle-up & wrest away that prized booty.
San Francisco 49ers
Kaep, RG3, D-Jax, they all out-sell Wilson 2-to-1 in jerseys, but popularity w/the tikes is no ticket to NFL greatness (See: Vick, Tebow). In fact, I’d go as far as to write Colin will work a drag on the 49ers, his performance peaked and a Vick-ATL scenario starts.
The San Francisco signal-caller’s not progressing like his Seattle counterpart who flashed signs of Staubach & Starr in SB48. One advantage for Russell, he’s got Pete who tailored & taught his young student who apparently listened & applied. Fancy that in 2014?
Consecutive campaigns (SB47, NFCT 14) now have ended in frustration for 49er faithful. With games on the line and six-shooters drawn, Niners are firing blanks in the red-zone.
You needn’t be a Rhodes scholar to be a pro quarterback but you do need grasp of the gridiron, ability to think beyond wrist-bands and not let feet do the thinking for you, a tack Jim Harbaugh’s athletic QB turns to too often after big wins-in-run at Lambeau.
RZ funk, loss of star Bowman (knee) and Gore’s gas tank (10y) all have San Fran on pins & needles. Jim praised Manziel but has his hands full w/Sir Runs-a-lot and needs more flash like he needs hole in the…yeah. Scamper can produce (3-NFCTs-3y) but SF needs a pass-scheme to navigate the short-field or red-zone will remain a Bermuda Triangle.
Plunder possibility: $$½ (of $$$$)
Green Bay Packers
If you ever hear a Packer-backer say da’ Bears are their biggest rival, don‘t you believe it. The Peppers signing exposed that malarkey.
Julius still has tread on the tires but Jared Allen was Packerland’s answer to a defense that’s become (Swiss) cheese in land of milk & colby. Allen’s supposed demand for king’s ransom proved over-speculative (See; Bears), while his purple lineage proved toxic to Green Bay’s stingy & stubborn Board & base. That’s a shame, for backers.
GB’s season will again ride on their tackle corps of Hawk, Burnett, Jones, Williams & Jennings while the superlative Rodgers will, as usual, pick apart division rivals. Packers have found their run-game in Lacey (1178y / 11td) & Starks (5.5) but cannot engage playoff opponents in shootouts or 2015 will end unexpectedly early, again.
Plunder possibility: $$$
Romo will start healthy and unless Tone suddenly decides to chuck it all for the links, Jerry will ride his stats for as long as he piles ‘em high. And who can blame the guy, with Tony’s contract and current crop of QB prospects that may require leaps in faith.
Like other trad’l powers this off-season (SF: Bethea; GB: Peppers), Dallas has been conservative in free agent dice-roll. They did bolster the QB slot with Weeden and cover Ware’s departure in pick-ups J. Hatcher (DL / 4y) and H. Melton (DT / 1). Not the level of activity you hoped for from the worst ranked defense in the NFL (32).
On offense, Terry Williams should fill void left by Miles release and plenty of capable hands available for Tony, if Dez Bryant can keep his ‘head (off) a swivel’ and screwed on straight. Bryant’s melt-downs have become too common & destructive to morale.
Plunder possibility: $$½
New York Giants
Given the up & down pattern established in the Coughlin era, last season’s poor showing (7-9) portends 2014 as an up-year that sees the Giants back in the thick of it.
Defense was a bright spot in 2013 (8) w/ long-timer Tuck in Oakland. NYG took to free agency w/zest in bolster & fill signings Beason, Rodgers-Cromartie (5) and Thurmond (1). Offense was gloomy, bringing up rear at 28 (307 ypg) as Eli had his worst year and bunged-up run couldn’t crack 100 (83 / 29R). Jennings (RB) was added, along w/short-signs handy-men Manningham (WR), Holliday and a beefed-up O-line (Brown + 3).
With 2 rings, Tom’s earned his Giants’ job for as long as he wants it but may exit at season’s end of own volition if malaise continues. Expect de-malaise at MetLife.
Plunder possibility: $$$
New Orleans Saints
Apart from needed re-signs (Thomas / Strief) and small in-roads into FA (Byrd / Lorig (FB / TE)), Saints will retain a similar look in ‘14. This bunch took it into Divisionals in January where they kept it respectable in a loss to eventual titlist Seattle, 23-15.
Sean Payton didn’t miss a beat. He picked up in 2013 right where he’d left off before his 2012 suspension and has New Orleans back into upper echelon of serious contenders.
With the best balance in the biz in ‘13 (defense (#4 / 19p) / offense (4 / 399y), effective run-by-cmte and master matriculator in Drew Brees whose priority is replacing the 71 grabs of departed Sproles (PHI), Saints should be sitting pretty come January.
Plunder possibility: $$$½
If teams could only merge to account for deficiencies, Cats (O) & Pack (D) would make one formidable foe. So, what would you do with Camster, then? Best back-up in NFL.
Carolina was one good wind-gust behind Seattle’s sail for top-defense in ‘13 (2) and QB Newton had a fine campaign (61.7 % / 24-13). But his corps’ been depleted (Smith / Ginn / LaFell) w/one notable addition in Cotchery. It’s a shake-up that a young, developing signal-caller doesn’t need. The ‘13 COY Rivera (12-4) has his work cut out on the o-side of things, as Panthers poor, home playoff showing attests (SF 24-10).
Plunder possibility: $$½
Were best-record the playoff tabulator, Arizona would’ve made the cut in last season’s PS instead of a pathetic North division ‘champ’ getting an invite, as Pack (8-7-1) went one & done in a home loss to, who else, the 49ers who, of course, ran wild, yet again.
Cards came in at 6 (D) & 12 (O) and fairly active in agency. Only team to top the titlists in Seattle (W16), but couldn’t handle success and closed out w/ home loss to the Niners. Trouble is, now they’re scrambling on defense with stalwarts Karlos Danby gone (CLE), D. Washington likely susp‘d (plea-a/a) and Ty Mathieu (knee) working back.
Carson Palmer’s getting toothy but had one of his best in yards (4274) & C% (63+) while INTs tallied high (22). His target pool grew w/ FAs Ginn & Carlson (TE), O-line beefed up w/ Raiders alum J. Veldheer who missed most of ‘13 w/triceps, but backfield re-work is in order as Mendy retired (3.2 ypc) and 2y Ellington (5.5) looks to fill the void.
Plunder probability: $$$
If not for Broncos’ juggernaut, Eagles matriculation would’ve been NFL standard (417 / 457 D) last season, gaining nearly 7000 yards in total. As is, they ranked #2, found a QB for the future in Foles (27-2) and possess a dynamo in Mr. McCoy (1607ry / 52r).
But like Packers, Philadelphia ‘robs Peter (D-29) to pay Paul (O-2).’ They did give some back to ‘Pete’ in signing d-backs Jenkins & Carroll and the draft will find some bodies.
Blasphemy in City of Brotherly Love, but jury’s still out on Nick (& Josh). Foles had an MVP-like season in 13, coming off bench to step into the breach, but it’s quite a different matter to start as the anointed one w/ high expectations and pointed opposition honed-in.
Kelly’s pro inaugural was “tale of two (seasons) (3-5 / 7-1),” fire-up coinciding w/ Foles entrance and a buying-into (?) the Kelly Way. Release of Jackson, by one report “gang” ties & “attitude (NJ.com; 3/28),” is a big blow (1332y) to production & continuity.
ESPN broke w/neutrality, fueling the flicker of protest Tuesday night when notice of DeSean’s Redskins’ (K) came down ($20M gtd.). In chat w/ Schefter late, an anchor gave Eagles blame for having “saddled” DJ with gang tag. Publicly, Philly has kept it light and common sense dictates that no team cuts a major producer w/out just cause.
Plunder possibility: $$½
Expected as serious players for NFC crown in ‘13, no team was a bigger disappointment than Atlanta (4-12). Smith kept the job as injuries played undeniable role in fast fade, but the caveat: healthier hides alone won’t get these birds soaring high again in 2014.
Matt Ryan was fine, no, he was good (67% / 4515 / 26-17), considering the anemic run-attack, fair protection (44S / FA J. Asamoah) and favored hands hobbled in White (731y). Jackson missed ¼ season, never got it rolling (3.5) and ATL hopes there’s still life left (11y), as with new rosteree Dev Hester who did yeoman‘s work w/Bears (kr/pr 1692y).
Had defense earned its keep (#27) the offensive shortcomings would’ve hurt less. Ty Jackson (DE) was added to bring heat, P. Soliai as a stopper and J. Arenas is security (PR/DB). Fortunes can’t be worse and effort will improve but so has competition.
Plunder possibility: $$$
Like other trad’lly defensive-minded units last year, Bears went soft (#30), approaching the dreaded 30 (ppg) / 400 (ypg) ugh-marker. So, Chicago went fishing with vim & vigor, netting big free agency catch in J. Allen. Also reeled in L. Houston who put up strong #s w/OAK (56t-13a / 6s) and d-backs R. Mundy (50t-27a) and M. Jennings (58t-18a).
Veteran rabble-rouser Jared is 2y younger than Julius, better digits and brings dynamism to the field & locker-room that Chicago needs as much as skill & strategy. And the fact he’ll remain in familiar Black & Blue division will keep the fires stoked.
When Cutler’s healthy few are better but he’s been injury plagued. That means back-up is key in Chi-Town. McCown’s in TB, Palmer appears #2 but Kolb, Grossman & Flynn are available. The OL protected (30S) and made holes for Forte who had his best year (1339 / 4.6 / 9). Devin’s gone but wasn’t the same since WR-duties added.
Trestman was tracking for COY early but then wheels came off before JC went down (8-8). Bears will contend and advance if the D can put pressure (Allen), grab & hold (742t), Forte runs strong again and Cutler goes the distance. Fingers crossed.
Plunder possibility: $$$
New era in Detroit with hiring of Jim Caldwell (HC) and the death of long-time Lions owner (‘63) William Clay Ford, Senior. Surviving wife, Martha assumes title but son W.C. (Bill) Ford Jr. will most likely make the calls.
Former Ravens assistant and Colts’ leader Caldwell brings both winning and losing experience and should provide stability & direction to the rudderless silver & blue. Lions looked to be contenders the last three seasons but always seemed to hit reverse late.
Ousted Schwartz bore the blame but some of the guys let him down. The ridiculous snow bowl (PHI) started the spiral, then Matt went on an inexplicable INT spree. The firing filled-out the scapegoat drill.
There’s serious talent in Detroit (6-O / 16-D) but can Caldwell re-energize this group to realize its potential? Every team hits a bump in the road in-season. Jim’s test will be how he handles it and stokes his own fires to get malcontents in line. I wish him luck.
Plunder possibilities: $$½
In wake of recent ruling (NLRB) there’s been talk of NFL cheerleaders and their paltry pay. Every worker should be compensated commensurate with the contribution their efforts add to profits owners reap. Pretty basic, making their under-pay pretty weak.
Admiring beauty in context of sport is one thing. For me, that’d be women’s gymnastics and it used to be swimming, that is, before clothiers sold ‘em on those horrid body suits. Bad play, gals. Let’s face it, short of personal tie-in, non-team sports can test patience.
It’s another thing when one sells eroticism outside natural state & garb. There, it can take on a different feel. The label ‘cheerleader’ got hijacked in Dallas sometime in the 70s and has been run through the Bada Bing Babe Boutique ever since.
Be that as it may, if I were king (I’m pro-union but enough already), I’d persuade NFL / NFLPA to set up & fund a trust to distribute monies to past under-compensated cheerleaders and then pay present performers a salary equal to another team employee of comparable contribution. They’ve earned it. ‘Go team!’
Next Week: AFC sea hunt
NFL Hunch Line
Photo Credit: “Blitz” & Seagals / SB48 / MetLife / wc.cca / 2-2-14 / A.Quintano / Ytoyoda-flickr
About the Author
Written by Steven Keys
A native of the old Northwest Territory (IL), my wife and I have lived in four Midwestern states and Arizona. Today we live in Duluth, Georgia. I have a history / legal background.