Way back in 1985, in my first season as a glorified errand boy for the San Francisco 49ers, I could barely contain my excitement in the draft room, reacting to each pick like it was life or death. Sensing my misplaced enthusiasm,
What the 49ers legendary coach was referring to was the popular theory that there are only a handful of teams each season completely committed to making a run at the Super Bowl. Some teams may make an appearance in the playoffs at times, but in Walsh's mind, there were only eight constant teams striving for excellence. Every since that day, I have only judged teams as being one of the eight, or not. At times I worked for teams that were, and at times I worked for teams that were not. Trust me, it's easy to tell.
So, here in 2008, we know the Patriots, Colts, Chargers, Cowboys, Giants, Packers and Seahawks are all ready for another visit to the playoffs. The tricky part is finding the teams that might be ready to make the leap. Last year, of the 12 teams that made the playoffs, six were not in the postseason the year prior. Will we see a 50 percent turnover again? That remains to be seen. But with that in mind, here are three teams that missed the playoffs in 2007 that are ready to make the leap in 2008.
(It's very important for me when judging teams to take into account two factors, their quarterback and their schedule. Those are the most important reasons we see a flux in playoff teams. The schedule changes from year to year, all based on how you finished the prior season, so it gets a little tougher and the marginal playoff teams cannot duplicate their prior success. And any injury to a starting quarterback forces a team to struggle.)
The Bills are a team I love. They have a talented core of young players. They have a very good defensive line with DE
Their special team units, covering and returning kicks, are in the top five in the NFL. Very few teams can match their talent in the kicking game and they can control field position with these units. Parrish is dynamic with the ball in his hands on punt returns and
They do have a favorable schedule, playing the AFC West and the NFC West this year. Last year, the Bills were 7-6 heading into the final three weeks of the season, but could not close out with any wins. They also had two home games clearly within reach that they let slip away -- the opener against the Broncos and then against the Cowboys. Add those two wins and they would have been 9-4 with three weeks to play. So, with a few breaks -- or maybe a few less breaks than a year ago (the Bills led the league in IR players last year) -- expect the Bills to be a very tough team this season.
I live near the City of Brotherly Love, and all everyone wants to talk about are the Eagles. The fans ramble on how quarterback
McNabb will be back and really healthy. Two years removed from tearing his knee ligament, McNabb will be stronger, allowing him to avoid some of the rush and keep his eye level down the field to make big throws. I really feel he is poised to have a huge year, with the Eagles offense built around his talents. I love that the Eagles are a "throw early team" and believe in the concept of winning the first-half point differential.
Secondly, the Eagles used the offseason to improve their pass rush, something that was lacking last year. Adding DE
The Eagles play the NFC West and add in Atlanta and Chicago to what is a very favorable schedule in 2008. I know they play in the NFC East and that is always tough, but the Birds know how to handle that division. With some soft games against teams like the Rams and 49ers, the Eagles will accumulate wins.
Count the Birds in the playoffs.
The Saints are another team that has improved this offseason. With a Pro Bowl player at quarterback in
The Saints know how to score points on offense, ranking 12th in the NFL last year. When they can play with a lead like they did in '06, they can become very dangerous. In 2006, the Saints had a plus-66 point differential in first-half points scored and allowed. In 2007, that margin was only 10.
This year, they don't have to deal with the rugged opening schedule that was the result of their remarkable 2006 run. Brees will not be able to start the year as he did in '07, throwing nine interceptions and only one touchdown in the first four games. My only concern is that the Saints need to find a big back between now and the end of the preseason. Once they add this player to their offense, they will be tough to slow down.
Add the Saints to the 2008 playoff roster.
Postscript: I know I am going to get e-mails from diehard Browns and Vikings fans, and the truth of the matter is I like those teams as well, but my editor only wanted three. So it is not that I don't love those teams; I just happen to love these three a little more.
What the GM was referring to, and we all tend to lose sight of this fact when discussing Green Bay's dilemma, is that Favre was one of the top players in the NFL last year. The 2007 season was one of the best in his illustrious career; he may have been the MVP of the league had
"Once a guy is the guy, he better stay ready and stay atop his game," Nolan said. "It's not like this is a locked-in job forever."
Look for the 49ers to play musical chairs at quarterback this year. One bad game will lead to a change. When the battle seems this close, making a change is not a hard issue.
• Would the Jets have any interest in Favre? From the
Why would the Jets have interest in Favre? It's easy: Their quarterbacks last year threw 15 touchdown passes combined; Favre threw for 28. It may not be clear to the Jets that they need a QB, but it's crystal clear to me.
• If I were Packers GM
• If I ran the Dallas Cowboys, I would make sure my offensive linemen left training camp in the best shape of their lives. Last year, late in the playoffs against the Giants, this line struggled to protect and it cost them their season. Training in Thousand Oaks is not always the best for getting in shape with the humidity. Two of the Cowboys' first four games will be played in humid conditions, Cleveland and Dallas, both with 4:15 starting times.
• If I were an undrafted player signed to an NFL contract, I would be in the best shape of my life when camp started. With the new 80-man roster rule in place, most teams will not be very patient with young players and their first impressions will mean a great deal. Those roster spots this year are like gold.
• If I ran any NFL team, I would think twice before trying to sneak someone through the waiver wire because I expect the Dolphins to be very active in claiming players. The Dolphins will lead the league in claims this year and take full advantage of the high claiming spot they earned with their one-win season.