The holiday season is all about giving, so this week's column gives a little hope to the fans of teams that no longer have playoff dreams dancing in their heads. Happy Holidays, everyone, and perhaps even more importantly, a happy New Year.
Atlanta Falcons -- This year's setback can be traced to injuries and a tough schedule, both of which will likely improve next season. Consider this year's mediocre season a temporary bump in the road for a franchise that should be a playoff contender year in and year out. Matt Ryan is only going to get better, and the front office is going to continue to fortify the roster, especially on defensive, with good, young talent.
Buffalo Bills -- This is a tough one. I know and love Bills fans after spending a decent amount of my playing career in Western New York. Your hope should stem from the fact that it is highly unlikely the string of injuries will continue. You'll also have a new head coach and perhaps even a new quarterback to look forward to in 2010. If that doesn't generate hope, nothing will.
Carolina Panthers -- As long as you have Steve Smith, Julius Peppers and those two running backs, you have a chance. That was evident in the 26-7 win over Minnesota last week. The quarterback situation has to get better. As for Peppers, who didn't sign his one-year contract until June, the situation can't possibly get more drawn out than it was last year.
Chicago Bears -- The good news for Bears fans heading into next season is really twofold. For one, there is going to be some sort of major change within the coaching staff. Second, I don't think it would be possible for Jay Cutler to play any worse next season than he did this season. I mean, you know it's bad when your team pulls you in the fourth quarter to spare you from the indignity of throwing a fourth interception. Other than that, the draft choices aren't really there, at least in the first round, so I guess you'll have to be satisfied knowing Johnny Knox was a steal in the fifth round.
Cleveland Browns -- This one is easy. There is plenty to be hopeful about in Cleveland now that Mike Holmgren has been hired as president. His first order of business will be deciding on a quarterback, given that neither Brady Quinn nor Derek Anderson appear to be the solution. He'll have plenty of ammo -- 11 draft choices -- with which to work heading into a draft that most NFL personnel people say will be one of the best in years. It's also helpful that coach Eric Mangini has changed the culture in Cleveland by getting rid of selfish players like Kellen Winslow and Braylon Edwards.Does Mangini keep his job? One would think Holmgren would be smart to give Mangini at least a year to see if he can continue to make the progress that has been evident in the Browns back-to-back victories.
Detroit Lions -- This may sound silly given that the Lions are 2-12, but there is plenty to be optimistic about heading into the 2010 season. New head coach Jim Schwartz and general manager Martin Mayhew appear to have a plan and some direction, something that had clearly been lacking. More tangibly, the Lions have gathered some exciting young skill players who could be a force for a long time. Quarterback Matthew Stafford, running back Kevin Smith, tight end Brandon Pettigrew and wide receiver Calvin Johnson -- what's not to like about that bunch. Now all the Lions have to do is use their draft picks, like all of them, to continue to bolster both lines so that this team can legitimately compete in the trenches.
Kansas City Chiefs -- The best news for Chiefs fans is they have the right man to get this ship righted in Scott Pioli. The problem is that it is unlikely to happen overnight, especially considering the roster he inherited. To build a team that can play at a consistent championship level for the long haul, decisions need to be made with the proper time horizon in place. That is why you won't see Pioli make any knee-jerk moves to appease the media or re-ignite fan interest. Not going to happen. What is going to happen is that he'll continue to methodically make deals to get to the Chiefs to a place where they can put forth a winning effort on a weekly basis.
Oakland Raiders -- I am surprised that I am even writing this, but for the first time in a long while there is reason for optimism in Oakland. Despite getting generally inept quarterback play and making a grave first round mistake in Darius Heyward-Bey, the Raiders are mentally and physically tough enough to beat any team in the NFL. They have shown that this season with quality wins over the Eagles, Bengals, Steelers and Broncos. One could argue that Oakland has more quality wins than the 13-1 Saints, and that is really saying something.
San Francisco 49ers -- Niners fans have a right to be excited about the good young talent that has been stockpiled on offense at the skill positions. Alex Smith appears to be making strides during the second half of the season not withstanding his performance against the Eagles on Sunday. The weapons are young and should only continue to get better in Frank Gore, Michael Crabtree, Josh Morgan, Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker. Now the Niners just have to figure out how to make the critical plays late in games that are the difference between winning and losing.
Seattle Seahawks -- Here's hoping the Seahawks can either figure out or shake the incredible string of bad luck they've had with injuries over the last couple of seasons. Along with that, Seattle fans can look forward to seeing the continued rise of the likes of running back Justin Forsett and linebacker David Hawthorne.
St. Louis Rams -- How about the most dominating defensive player to come out of the college ranks in quite some time? At a position of extreme need for this franchise no less? Of course, I'm talking about Ndamukong Suh, the Nebraska defensive tackle whose name is as difficult to spell as he is to block. Suh is the rare college player whose character, work ethic and preparation have already caught up to his unreal natural ability. Yes, the Rams still need to get their quarterback situation solved, but with no sure-fire No. 1 quarterback in this draft, their best bet is to take Suh so that they can immediately become more competitive.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- Though it's debatable whether Raheem Morris should survive this season, there is no debate about the guy who will be under center. Josh Freeman has played better than most people anticipated, even though he doesn't have a wide array of weapons around him. His progress and the continued youth movement should lead to an improved record next season. Also, the defense promises to get better with the likes of Oklahoma defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and Tennessee safety Eric Berry available in the draft.
Washington Redskins -- New general manager Bruce Allen is in control of football operations, which makes it sound like owner Daniel Snyder may step aside for the first time since Marty Schottenheimer was running the team back in 2001. From all indications, Mike Shanahan appears to be a lock to become the next head coach, and his presence would give the Skins immediate credibility and direction, something that's been severely lacking the last two years.
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