The Super Bowl was three months ago, but we're still a long way away from watching another meaningful football game in 2008. That said, with the draft in the books, the personnel acquisition phase of the offseason is nearly complete and teams largely are already what they're going to be this season. Who's on their way up? Who's on their way down? Here's our post-draft assessment of the team in each division poised to make the biggest move this year, in either direction.
AFC East: Buffalo (Going up) -- I foresee the Bills being in the thick of the AFC wild-card scrum as the regular season winds down in '08. They're better at quarterback with Trent Edwards entering his second season as the unquestioned starter. They're better at offensive coordinator, where Turk Schonert will fight predictability at every turn. They're better in the defensive interior even if tackle Marcus Stroud is no longer a Pro Bowl perennial, and they're better with cornerback Leodis McKelvin and receiver Kevin Hardy arriving via the draft. With improved health early on, Buffalo's season won't be over before it even starts, as was the case in '07.
AFC North: Baltimore (Going up) -- The Ravens were neither as good as their 13-3 record in '06 or as dreadful as their 5-11 mark last year. They'll come back to the middle this season, and while that won't be good enough to make the playoffs, they're going to get a nice little bounce from energetic first-time head coach John Harbaugh and new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. This figures to be a transition year for Baltimore's beleaguered quarterback position, but with Steve McNair retired and first-round pick Joe Flacco now on hand, the Ravens at least have a plan that extends longer than year by year.
AFC South: Indianapolis (Going down) -- The Colts have won the division five years in a row, and made the playoffs all six seasons that the AFC South has existed. But the rest of the division has steadily narrowed the gap, with the Jaguars, Titans and Texans all finishing .500 or better last season. Indy has again had a status-quo offseason, retaining its own free agents and eschewing any headline acquisitions. We're not predicting gloom and doom for the Colts in '08, in what could be head coach Tony Dungy's farewell tour, but let's just say we don't think the big issue in Week 17 this year will be whether or not Indy should rest most of its starters.
AFC West: Denver (Going up) --It's not easy to identify an AFC West team on the move, because the Chargers are the clear class of the division once again and the Chiefs and Raiders won't surprise us unless they get better than expected results from their young quarterbacks. That leaves us with the Broncos almost by default. Here's the best slice of history to bank on in Denver: Coach Mike Shanahan has never had three consecutive non-playoff seasons in his 13-year tenure, a streak that's going to be put to the test in '08. The Broncos made a series of small moves this offseason, but their path to improvement centers on protecting quarterback Jay Cutler better, and the third-year veteran producing his breakthrough season.
NFC East: New York Giants (Going down) -- Unless you're Jeremy Shockey, it's good to be a Giant these days. But the NFC East is one treacherous landscape to navigate, and New York's three division opponents have all upgraded. When I try to ordain how the Giants' title defense will go, I keep coming back to the following statistic: In the seasons after its previous three Super Bowl appearances, New York won six, eight and seven games, respectively, missing the playoffs each time. Staying hungry after the ultimate success is particularly difficult in the fishbowl that is the New York market. The Giants never seem to respond as well when the target is on their backs.
NFC North: Minnesota (Going up) --In a division that appears ripe for a challenger to defending champion Green Bay (who lost a certain quarterback this spring), the Vikings made the most daring move, prying NFL sacks leader Jared Allen away from Kansas City. It was an all-in kind of gamble, and it should result in the Vikings fielding one of the league's most dominant defenses this season. On offense, we already know what Adrian Peterson can do, so it's up to Tarvaris Jackson to grow up a little at quarterback and start pulling his share of the weight. Anything less than a double-digit win season and a playoff berth will rate as underachievement.
NFC South: New Orleans (Going up) -- Oh, that wacky NFC South, where the last-place team from the season before has gone on to become the new division champion for four years in a row -- with all four of the division's teams executing the move once each. That streak ends in '08, because the fourth-place Falcons aren't rebounding that far, and the Saints are on their way back. New Orleans didn't deal with the raised bar of expectations last season, burying itself with that 0-4 start. But it was lesson learned. Defensively the Saints have addressed several weak links, adding linebackers Jonathan Vilma and Dan Morgan, defensive end Bobby McCray, cornerback Randall Gay and defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis, their first-round pick.
NFC West: Seattle (Going down) -- When I do the math, I realize that I expect the three-win Rams, the five-win 49ers and the eight-win Cardinals to all improve upon those totals in '08, making it difficult to project another division title for a Seahawks team that went 10-6 last year to win its fourth consecutive division title. While I think Seattle made a solid choice with its coaching line of succession in Jim Mora, my sense is that Mike Holmgren's final go-round won't come off with a storybook ending. The Seahawks skill positions aren't in the best of hands, and the loss of kicker Josh Brown to the Rams could swing a key game or two. Defensively Seattle didn't substantially change the unit that Green Bay abused in the snow at Lambeau.
• What a ridiculous story the Jason Taylor saga has become in Miami. Now the Dolphins' "Dancing with the Stars'' defensive end is ticked because the team's football czar, Bill Parcells, reportedly ignored him to his face when Taylor made a recent visit to the team complex.
I'm no big fan of Parcells' penchant for Jedi mind tricks, but what kind of greeting did Taylor really expect from a guy who has always been all about football? All Parcells knows about Taylor at this point is that he's more intent on launching his Hollywood post-playing career than he is preparing for the '08 season. Not showing your face around the Dolphins' complex except for a drive-by meet and greet isn't going to earn Parcells' respect.
When Taylor wants to act like an active and committed player who still has football as his top priority, Parcells will likely accord him the status he has earned within the Miami organization. But if Taylor deems it more important to make like the retired Emmitt Smith and Jerry Rice and dance his offseason away, he shouldn't expect Parcells to applaud the whole silly show.
• Not only did I not know that Randy Moss was a racing fan, but also I didn't even know that NASCAR had a Craftsman Truck Series. Wait a minute. In this case, shouldn't that be Kraft's-man Truck Series?
• Cardinals fans are going to love the team's first-round pick, Tennessee State cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. I know, because he said so himself this week at his introductory news conference at the team complex:
"Not only am I going to bring the athletic ability and hard work and determination, I am also a people person. I am outgoing, very lovable, fun to be around, a man of great character. I'm just a lovable guy.''
Sounds a bit like his first awkward effort at writing a personal profile for Match.com.
• Shaun Alexander to the Bengals sounds like one of those great homecoming stories, given that he grew up just across the river from Cincinnati in Kentucky. But why do I get the feeling that if it happens it'll wind up reminding us of Emmitt Smith in Arizona or EddieGeorge in Dallas?
Maybe because those were two of the most recent examples of great running backs who we knew were done before they knew they were done.
• Speaking of great stories, the Lions drafting Army defensive back Caleb Campbell in the seventh round was one of the feel-good moments of last weekend. But you think maybe ESPN could hold off on the way-over-the-top celebration of Detroit's final pick until he at least makes the team? ESPN staged everything short of a military fly-over inside Radio City Music Hall when Campbell's name was announced.
I'm just wondering if there will be the same amount of fanfare in late August if he would wind up having his name listed in the agate type of the transactions column on roster cut-down day?
• There was absolutely nothing not to love about Kansas City's 12-man draft class, which lead the league in terms of star power, potential rookie impact and solid long-range roster-building. But I still don't know how the Chiefs close the huge gap between themselves and San Diego in the AFC West without giving themselves more starting options than Brodie Croyle at quarterback?
Maybe the Chiefs should talk to the Bears and Ravens about a good team's limitations when it doesn't get quality quarterbacking.
• Spending draft weekend in Dallas gave me the chance to absorb plenty of the wit and wisdom of Jerry Jones, the Cowboys' owner/general manager, who was very much front and center in conducting the team's draft. Jerry-speak has always fascinated me, but I thought he was particularly on his game in his post-picking news conferences.
On whether or not first-round pick Felix Jones is sturdy enough to ever be more than a complementary back behind Marion Barber:
"He's 6-feet tall, 207 pounds,'' Jones said. "Y'all probably heard this, gathered this, but he's thick in the bottom, from the waist down. And we've had another one that was this size, not in height, but about that weight that carried the ball 25, 30 times a ballgame -- Emmitt Smith.''
On the risk of trading for Pacman Jones:
"There's a lot of me that under certain circumstances would rather have somebody who's been knocked down a lot and gotten back up and proven they can get back up. I'd rather be with him or her in tight situations than someone who'd never been knocked down. That does create some resolve, especially in football.
"I'm not trying to sound like some preacher here, but I have always been one that just because a person has made some bad decisions, do not close your eyes and ears and decision-making to giving them an opportunity.''
• You might recall that I was fairly confident throughout the course of the regular season that the '07 Patriots were destined for history's first 19-0 showing. I may have even mentioned it a time or seven in print. Alas, it didn't happen. Now I understand why.
It seems the Patriots have been rather methodical of late when it comes to the business of rescaling the NFL's mountaintop, and I missed the trend. In case you haven't noticed, since last winning a Super Bowl, the Pats have lost in the divisional round ('05, at Denver), the AFC title game ('06, at Indy), and in the Super Bowl ('07).
You know what that means. There's only one more step left to take in '08.
• I could be wrong about this, but Cowboys offensive coordinator and heir apparent head coach Jason Garrett seemed to be the only Dallas assistant who occupied a seat full-time in the team's war room during the draft. The rest of the Cowboys' assistant staff rotated in and out of the room throughout the weekend.
Just another indication that Dallas head coach Wade Phillips is probably what amounts to a well-paid seat warmer in '08.