Cover-Two: Six teams who could make the leap into the postseason
Every year, at least one team comes out of nowhere to make the postseason, giving hope for the following season to those franchises that came up short of expectations. In 2013, the Kansas City Chiefs went from 2-14 and the first overall pick in the draft to 11-5 and a near-win in the wild-card round. More importantly, new arrivals head coach Andy Reid, defensive coordinator Bob Sutton and quarterback Alex Smith added elements of consistency and stability that the organization had been missing. And that's the important thing: It's all well and good to come out of nowhere in the NFL, but it doesn't mean much if you slide right back underground.
In the latest installment of Cover-Two, SI's Chris Burke and Doug Farrar give their nominations for teams ready to step into the postseason -- and maybe make some noise once they get there.
Chris Burke: New York Jets
The idea that an NFL team (perhaps shy of the Super Bowl champs) can carry over momentum from one season to the next is a myth rooted in little fact. And yet ... well, there was something to how the Jets closed out 2013. Despite having been eliminated from the playoff race, they delivered a loose, energetic performance at Miami in Week 17, knocking the Dolphins from the postseason and perhaps saving Rex Ryan's job.
If nothing else, that performance seemed to prove that Ryan had not lost the locker room. Far from it.
"Personally, I think it's the right decision," offensive tackle Austin Howard told ESPN.com after the Jets announced Ryan would return for 2014. "Rex has really started something. He's had his image for this team, and it's starting to come to fruition."
For the vision to become reality -- and for Ryan to put an end to any questions about his job security -- the offense must be more dynamic. Last season, New York scored less than 20 points in half its games and failed to even hit double digits on four occasions. Quarterback Geno Smith's brutal touchdown-to-interception differential (12 TDs, 21 INTs) and the conservative play-calling that followed did nothing to help improve those numbers. A more comfortable Smith in Year Two ought to take a step forward, flanked by emerging running back Chris Ivory and ex-Titan Chris Johnson as well as free-agent signee wide receiver Eric Decker. If he does not, Michael Vick is waiting in the wings as a potential ace up Ryan's sleeve.
Of course, given that this is a Rex Ryan team, it ultimately will hang its hat on defense. A Muhammad Wilkerson-Sheldon Richardson combo up front is an extremely promising start there, though the real X-factor lies in the secondary: Can Dee Milliner follow in the footsteps of Darrelle Revis and, to a lesser extent, Antonio Cromartie in becoming a true shutdown corner?
The potential is there, as it is for this entire team. The Jets scratched and clawed their way to 8-8 last season. A similar effort with more talent on the roster could bring about a breakthrough.
Doug Farrar: Miami Dolphins
Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill was sacked 58 times last season, the most in the NFL by 10 over Baltimore's Joe Flacco. That had something to do with the Richie Incognito/Jonathan Martin bullying incidents, but neither Incognito nor Martin were pass-protectors at even a league-average level. Getting Branden Albert to fill Martin's old shoes at left tackle and selecting right tackle Ja’Wuan James in the first round of the 2014 draft should do a lot to keep Tannehill upright. And if Tannehill is given time to make things happen, he'll do it -- though his results will be inconsistent at times.
This preseason, James has given up no sacks or pressures of any kind. That doesn't tell the whole story, but it does indicate that James is a mammoth upgrade over Tyson Clabo, who was a swinging gate at right tackle last season. Head coach Joe Philbin is still evaluating the running back tandem of Knowshon Moreno and Lamar Miller, but the line will help. And maybe with some time in the pocket, Tannehill can get some of those deep balls out to speed receiver Mike Wallace, who caught just six passes in which the ball was thrown over 20 yards on 36 such attempts in 2013.
On defense, the Dolphins have a good front line and pass rush (which could be great if they finally figure out how to use Dion Jordan), a pretty good secondary, and linebackers who need to step up. Also on the list of individuals who need to step up is Philbin, whose demeanor alternated between "fake tough guy" and "totally clueless" when things fell apart for the team last season. I'm not convinced that Philbin is made to be a head coach -- he seems more the assistant type -- but there's a better front office in Miami these days, and the improved talent should be enough to buy the Dolphins a playoff spot in an AFC East that appears to be pretty mediocre outside of the Patriots.
Burke: Chicago Bears
Brandon Marshall said recently that his quarterback, Jay Cutler, could win NFL MVP honors this season. That is high praise for someone who has not hit the 20-touchdown mark in the past three seasons nor played a full 16 games since 2009. Still, Marshall's confidence may not be all that out of line if Cutler can put it all together in Year Two under head coach -- and offensive guru -- Marc Trestman. After all, Chicago had the league's No. 2 scoring offense last season with Josh McCown taking five starts from an injured Cutler.
Marshall and Alshon Jeffery combined for 189 catches and 19 touchdowns along the way, which is where the bar will be set for that duo in 2014. Running back Matt Forte will also be asked to replicate his 1,933 yards from scrimmage, a task he is certainly capable of completing.
Can the defense stop anyone? The answer to that question will determine if the Bears are a high-powered middle-of-the-road team, as they were during 2013's 8-8 finish, or a Super Bowl contender. Chicago allowed a staggering 161.6 yards per game on the ground last season, so opponents rarely even felt the need to throw (the Bears' secondary faced less passing attempts in '13 than all but one other defense). In response, the Bears signed defensive ends Lamarr Houston, Jared Allen and Willie Young, then drafted tackles Will Sutton and Ego Ferguson to solidify the D-line.
The defensive reinforcements continued in the form of cornerback Kyle Fuller and safeties Brock Vereen, M.D. Jennings and Danny McCray. Chicago's secondary still may be overmatched on most days, but its explosive passing game will be able to counter, perhaps enough times to get the Bears to the playoffs.
Farrar: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Bucs signed several free agents and had what looks at first glance to be an outstanding draft, but the most important move they made this offseason was to replace Greg Schiano with Lovie Smith as their head coach. Smith isn't dynamic, but he's stable and he has a winning set of systems in place, and that's a massive improvement over Schiano, who seemed to revel in uncertainty. Add to that the acquisitions of quarterback Josh McCown, defensive end Michael Johnson, cornerback Alterraun Verner, and the draft selections of receiver Mike Evans and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, and the Bucs all of a sudden look like a team that was better than what they showed last season (which they were) that used the offseason to add major talent on both sides of the ball (which they did).
One of the best ways to determine whether an organization is on the ball is how often they take failed players from other franchises and put them in position to thrive. Pass-rusher Larry English, who was a monumental bust in San Diego, had two sacks against the Bills in the third week of the preseason. Yes, it's just the preseason, but when was the last time you heard about a player getting better when he came to Tampa Bay from somewhere else? Certainly before the Schiano era began in 2012.
The questions regarding how far this team can go seem to revolve around two issues: Whether offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford has a system that will match talent to scheme, and whether this team, totally depleted at the guard position by Davin Joseph's departure and Carl Nicks' retirement, will allow either McCown or Mike Glennon to stand upright long enough to make it happen with all those big targets. Other than that, Smith has pretty clear sailing, at least from a talent perspective, and if all goes well the Bucs could be this year's worst-to-first team in the NFC South.
Burke: Baltimore Ravens
Two words: Gary Kubiak.
The Ravens' new offensive coordinator has turned this team back to basics, which for Baltimore means running the football and punishing defenses between the tackles. Kubiak's zone-blocking system already appears to be meshing well with a slightly reworked offensive line (Jeremy Zuttah at center, Ricky Wagner at right tackle) and refocused backs in Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce. Perhaps even more importantly, Kubiak's normally sharp play-action passing calls fit right into the wheelhouse of quarterback Joe Flacco.
When the Ravens won the Super Bowl two years back, Flacco kicked it into gear for the postseason run. During Baltimore's four-game streak, Flacco completed 11 touchdown passes, threw zero interceptions and averaged 285 yards passing per game. Anything even in the vicinity of that showing would push a Baltimore team with a steady defense back into the postseason. The arrivals of Kubiak and veteran wide receiver Steve Smith could make the difference for this team in 2014.
Farrar: Washington Redskins
Like the Buccaneers, the Redskins' 2013 record (3-13) was not entirely representative of team talent -- it was as much about a head coach in Mike Shanahan who appeared at times to have checked out early. That's rough to say about a coach with Shanahan's pedigree, but the results were what they were. Now, the Redskins have former Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden in the fold and a couple of vital free agent signings that should help a lot. Ex-Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson will take the top off every defense he faces with his speed, giving Pierre Garcon and Jordan Reed more opportunities underneath. And former Cowboys defensive lineman Jason Hatcher has been one of the NFL's most underrated players over the last few years when it comes to bringing quarterback pressure. He should thrive in Jim Haslett's hybrid defenses.
The one thing that can elevate the Redskins back into the playoff hunt, of course, is the relationship between Gruden and Robert Griffin III. Gruden would like Griffin to take fewer chances as a pure runner that would put him in harm's way, and it may take a while for Griffin to really excel in the pocket -- if that happens at all. Griffin has the physical and mental attributes to get that done, but there may be rough spots along the way. The main reason Washington could make the playoffs with question marks is the overall mediocrity of the NFC East. The Eagles look to be the favorites again, but that requires believing that their defense can turn things around, and the Redskins may be stronger on that side of the ball. In any case, this team seems primed for a decent turnaround in 2014.