Thursday May 6th, 2010

May is minicamp season in the NFL, which means hope and optimism are permeating the air as teams go about their work in shorts and helmets, confident improvement is well within reach, if not inevitable. But we all know reality is coming, and sometimes it bites.

Even amid the happy talk that prevails in the spring, it's often easy to see a storm clouds forming around a team from miles away (think Atlanta, circa 2007, or the post-Super Bowl Eagles in 2005). But sometimes trouble can slip up an organization, and a disappointing season can result from issues that only become obvious after it's too late to fix them (the surprising struggles of the 2009 Titans and Steelers come to mind).

Flash back to this time last year, and hopes were high everywhere as well. But that make-or-break season that seemed to be on the horizon in Buffalo? Well, it broke, and the fissure opened even before the games started counting, with the Bills firing offensive coordinator Turk Schonert in the preseason, just a few months before canning head coach Dick Jauron. The tea leaves also read ominously for Washington last May, and the predicted end of the Jim Zorn and Jason Campbell eras indeed eventually came to pass.

In hindsight, the same can be said about the early and telling missteps committed by the new head coach-general manager tandems that went to work last year in Kansas City and Tampa Bay; sure enough, before the season was out, the Chiefs and Bucs had combined to win only slightly more games (seven) than the number of coordinators they had canned (four). And don't forget the first-year coaching and front-office struggles experienced by Eric Mangini and the Browns and Jim Mora and the Seahawks; a lot of the losing that ensued in places like Cleveland and Seattle last year now looks utterly predictable.

So which clubs seem headed for setbacks and disappointment in 2010? With a pessimistic eye peeled toward the upcoming season, we measure the vibes emanating from around the NFL and take our best guess at the eight teams that have reason to worry in 2010:

REASON TO WORRY: Go ahead. Dissect the Bills' offseason and make the case that they've closed a significant chunk of the gap that existed between them and the rest of the AFC East. I dare you. The Jets went on a headline-name shopping spree (Antonio Cromartie, LaDainian Tomlinson, Santonio Holmes), the Dolphins reeled in Karlos Dansby and Brandon Marshall and the Patriots tried to re-stock with five of the first 90 picks in this year's deep draft. Buffalo, meanwhile, kept a low profile in free agency (Dwan Edwards, Cornell Green, Andra Davis) and made something of a luxury-item pick in the first round, drafting talented Clemson running back C.J. Spiller. Receiving considerably less attention were the fairly vital positions of quarterback and offensive tackle.

It just looks like more of the same for the Bills, who have been running in place for so long now that it's hard to detect any motion at all. And this time around they don't even have a Terrell Owens signing to whip up a little interest in an otherwise lackluster team.

REASON NOT TO PANIC: New Bills head coach Chan Gailey has made some good-but-not-great quarterbacks go a long way in the past, and Kordell Stewart, Jay Fiedler and Tyler Thigpen know it. Gailey had a pretty solid record as an offensive coordinator for three teams, and he went two-for-two in taking the Cowboys to the playoffs as a head coach in the late '90s. The Bills could be -- and have been -- in far worse hands.

REASON TO WORRY: Honest question: When's the last time a true make-or-break year went the right way for a team? I suppose you could say Dallas and Wade Phillips fit the bill last season, although almost every year feels like it's Super Bowl-or-bust for the Cowboys. But that's what embattled head coach Lovie Smith, general manager Jerry Angelo and the Bears are up against in 2010: Win enough to shoo the wolves away from their doors, or close out their Windy City tenures with a fourth consecutive non-playoff season. Working under that kind of pressure rarely brings the best out of anyone, or results in smiles and backslaps all around.

As if that's not enough of an omen, the Bears went out and dominated early in free agency this year, signing the likes of Julius Peppers and Chester Taylor. There's not really a long track record of pace-setting free-agent success leading to on-field success in the same year -- a lesson teams like Washington, Oakland and Denver have learned the hard way.

REASON NOT TO PANIC: The Bears (7-9) weren't bad from start to finish last season. They started 3-1, and finished 3-2. It was that 1-6 stretch in the middle that killed Smith's team. On paper, Peppers, Taylor and offensive coordinator Mike Martz are all upgrades at their positions. And Year 2 of the Jay Cutler era can't possibly be as much of a rollercoaster ride.

REASON TO WORRY: It's crystal clear from the comments made this offseason by both Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio and owner Wayne Weaver that they will enter this season with something less than brimming confidence in starting quarterback David Garrard. Both have challenged Garrard to step up his game to an elite level, in part, no doubt, to justify the elite contract Jacksonville gave him in 2008. Garrard has acknowledged this is a crossroads season for him, but by almost anyone's estimation he's the fourth-best QB in the four-team AFC South, and there's even talk that backup Luke McCown could push for the No. 1 job in the preseason (kind of the same way Garrard beat out starter Byron Leftwich in 2007).

It's hard to see where real improvement is supposed to come from in Jacksonville, given the Jaguars still don't have enough receivers to make trouble for AFC defenses. They play in one of the deepest divisions in the game and their schedule this season happens to be the fifth-toughest in the NFL (a .535 opponents' winning percentage). Looking back, last year's 7-9 mark might have represented overachievement.

REASON NOT TO PANIC: The Jaguars fielded a lot of young players on both sides of the ball last season, and that move might reap even bigger rewards in 2010. It's often said the biggest jump young players make in developing their game comes as they enter their second season, which would bode well for Jacksonville offensive tackles Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton. The Jaguars also have a still-emerging star in receiver Mike Sims-Walker.

REASON TO WORRY: What are the feel-good, party-loving, defending Super Bowl champs doing on this list? Well, if you're talking about teams in prime position for a letdown, the prior season's Lombardi Trophy winner is always a strong candidate. Need we remind you that there has only been one repeat champion in the past 11 NFL seasons (2003-2004 Patriots), or that the Steelers didn't even make it back to the playoffs last year after winning in 2008?

The Saints are undoubtedly still loaded and should again be the class of the NFC South. But there are factors that should make them wary. For one, Super Bowl champs seem to consistently underestimate the impact of having the shortest offseason in the league, and in New Orleans, where the victory parades seemed to roll on into March, that disadvantage might be even more acute this year.

And then, of course, there's the potential elephant in the room. I can't help but think it's not a positive development to be dealing with the specter of New Orleans coaches Sean Payton and Joe Vitt and general manager Mickey Loomis linked to a civil lawsuit and a DEA investigation involving stolen Vicodin from the team's medicinal cabinet. If this story grows legs, it would represent the kind of first-class distraction that could blow up a season and derail any team's plans.

REASON NOT TO PANIC: Check out the New Orleans roster, then check out the NFC South. With all that talent, and with the Bucs and Panthers unlikely to be making any playoff runs this season, Atlanta is the only team capable of making the Saints really work for another division title.

REASON TO WORRY: Nothing real tricky about picking the Steelers. When your starting and two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback is currently in counseling and slated to open the year with a four- to six-game league suspension, there's officially reason to worry about the direction of the season. Though I'm on record as saying Ben Roethlisberger's suspension (I'm still banking on it being four games, and I imagine Ben is too) won't necessarily doom the 2010 Steelers, you have to be realistic. Pittsburgh can't give the likes of Baltimore and Cincinnati a month-long head start in the AFC North, so the Steelers have to be in survival mode from Week 1 on this year, and not play the flip-the-switch football that Mike Tomlin's team exhibited far too often last season.

Given the Roethlisberger and Santonio Holmes sagas, and that the Steelers missed the playoffs last year, this has certainly been the worst offseason in memory in Pittsburgh. Will Tomlin use that adversity to forge something stronger in the Steel City, or will his team fall back on the excuse that the troubles of its star quarterback robbed it of its winning mojo? My sense is things might get worse in 2010 before they get better.

REASON NOT TO PANIC: The Steelers are among the NFL's most resilient and resourceful franchises. They know who they are, what they've traditionally done well and how to build a winning team. They won't overreact and try to re-invent themselves without Roethlisberger in the lineup. If anything, they'll probably get back to Steelers basics and win with defense, a running game and the element of surprise.

REASON TO WORRY: Call me alarmist, but when I see a Panthers franchise in the midst of a payroll-cutting purge of veterans (see Julius Peppers, Jake Delhomme, Damione Lewis, Maake Kemoeatu, Chris Harris and Brad Hoover), perhaps with an eye toward a potential 2011 lockout, and a head coach about to work the final, lame-duck year of his contract, I quickly deduce the coming season in Carolina might not be the proverbial magic carpet ride.

The Panthers are suddenly a pretty young team in a host of spots -- just four players on their roster are 30 or older, and two of those are kicker John Kasay and punter Jason Baker -- and that's not really the blueprint for success that the veteran-loving John Fox has used in Carolina the past eight years. Some speculate Fox will coach free and easy this year, with little to lose, but it looks to me like the Panthers decided to go lean and mean this season, and hope that will pay dividends down the road. In other words, this is a classic rebuilding year, even though it may be some other head coach in 2011 who winds up inheriting the fruit of Carolina's 2010 labor.

REASON NOT TO PANIC: No team with Jon Beason on defense and Steve Smith, Jonathan Stewart, DeAngelo Williams and a quality line on offense is going to be out-classed on too many occasions. The Panthers have talent, but there's not a surplus by any means. Still, they've surprised us with bigger than expected seasons several times in recent years, and might once again.

REASON TO WORRY: There's not a lot of ground left to lose when you finished 5-11 in 2009, but don't forget the Browns ended the season on a hopeful four-game winning streak and also hired Mike Holmgren and Tom Heckert to run what had been a chaotic front office, further stoking optimism in northeast Ohio. So don't underestimate Cleveland's ability to disappoint this year, not that the storyline changes all that much with the Browns from season to season.

I like some of what Holmgren and Co. have done so far, but I'm still not sold on Mangini being the right fit in Cleveland. And why is it again the Browns decided to seemingly tie their 2010 fate to Delhomme at quarterback? By all accounts he's a heck of a good guy and a great teammate, but the ex-Panther's game really never recovered from that January 2009 playoff meltdown at home against Arizona and I see no way he plays well enough to keep his job for all 16 starts this year.

And while we're at it, who exactly will Delhomme be throwing to? The Browns receivers amount to Josh Cribbs and keep your fingers crossed. Maybe Mohamed Massaquoi, Brian Robiskie, Chansi Stuckey and sixth-round rookie Carlton Mitchell all develop into playmakers this season, but you won't get anyone to even lay odds on hitting that parlay in Vegas.

REASON NOT TO PANIC: You can't really miss what you've never had, and Browns fans -- at least the ones who have rooted for this expansion incarnation of the franchise -- can't be too disappointed considering 6-10 would represent progress this year.

REASON TO WORRY: The Raiders have actually been earning some praise this offseason, and I lauded them long and loudly for their boffo work on draft weekend. But the reality is Oakland has been so bad for so long, we've started grading Al Davis' team on a curve. And that means we're probably over-rating the 2010 Raiders for just being competent, which should be the baseline in the NFL rather than the superlative. Oakland had some impressive wins last season, but the Raiders own just one two-game winning streak in the past two years, and any way you cut it, 5-11 in both 2008 and 2009 is still 5-11.

And here's my take on the team's five-man competition at quarterback this spring: It's basically phony and all for show. Barring injury, Jason Campbell will start, and Bruce Gradkowski will be his backup. JaMarcus Russell is still around, but I don't think his tenure will extend past June (Editor's Note: Russell was released Thursday afternoon). Cutting Russell would actually make me more optimistic about Oakland. Until the Raiders admit their mistake and cut all ties to him except his direct deposit information, he'll continue to loom over the organization like a black cloud that never had its silver lining.

REASON NOT TO PANIC: The talent level has improved in Oakland, and while that doesn't guarantee success in the NFL, stock-piling playmakers always gives you a chance to win. Retaining head coach Tom Cable was a vote for stability, and that can't hurt a franchise that has been in near-constant upheaval for seven years. The facts say the Raiders already can compete with the Chiefs and Broncos in the AFC West (they won last year at both Kansas City and Denver), and they even played the Chargers much tougher in 2009.

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