Snap Judgments: West divisions endure long stretches of ineptitude
• Everyone in my business gets paid to issue preseason predictions of all sorts, but if you want to really stand out from the crowd when it comes to NFL forecasting, would anything make you look more prescient than pinpointing when the West will rise again? Not that I'm quite there yet myself, mind you.
After visiting the NFC West Rams, and the AFC West's Broncos and Chiefs on my recent camp tour, it occurred to me that it has been a very long time since the two western divisions could hold their heads up and look the rest of the league in the eye. Consider the following:
-- Not only has the NFC West not had two playoff teams since 2004, the sad-sack division hasn't even had a pair of teams with winning records since 2003, when both St. Louis (12-4) and Seattle (10-6) finished north of .500. The next year, both the Seahawks and Rams returned to the playoffs, but Seattle was just 9-7 and St. Louis made the postseason field at 8-8.
-- In the AFC West, things haven't been quite so embarrassing, but it's close. The last time the division featured two playoff teams or two winning teams was 2006, when San Diego (14-2) and Kansas City (9-7) both qualified for the postseason. But neither team won a game that year in the playoffs.
-- None of the other six divisions in the NFL have streaks of longer than one season when it comes to advancing two teams to the playoffs, or having a pair of clubs with winning records. The NFC East has actually qualified two or more playoff teams five years in a row, and seven out of the eight years since the league's 2002 divisional realignment.
-- San Francisco and Oakland are both in the midst of seven-season droughts between playoff appearances (trailing only Buffalo and Detroit, both 10 years, and Houston, eight years) and winning seasons. It has been five playoff-less seasons in a row in St. Louis and four in Denver. The Raiders have set the standard for futility in the West, losing at least 11 games every year since their 2002 Super Bowl team got shellacked in the big game by Tampa Bay.
But there are reasons for renewed hope in both the NFC West and AFC West. Coming off last year's 8-8 finish, which featured a 3-1 mark in the final quarter of the season, San Francisco is a chic pick to win its division this year (I think I headed that direction, too) and restore a little glory to what once was the NFL's model franchise. Seattle has some much needed juice with
In the AFC West, the Raiders, praise be, even have a little preseason buzz thanks to the arrival of a competent starting quarterback in
Even in last-place locales like St. Louis and Kansas City, the Rams and Chiefs have some exciting young skill-position players like
After years of being mostly left out of the playoff chase, the divisions that feature teams on the Left Coast may be on their way back. It has been a very long time indeed since the NFL's best was in the West.
• His work ethic and dedication in putting in the long hours of preparation are calling cards of Broncos rookie quarterback
"Different players here have talked to me and told me how long the season is and that's something I got to definitely take into account,'' Tebow said. "But that's hard for me. It's something I'm learning here. You can't overwork yourself and get burned out, physically, mentally and emotionally, with depriving yourself from sleep and those types of things.
• Am I the only one who thinks
"That wasn't me,'' Orton said. "I didn't sanction it. But I think it's a good thing. The rookie stuff is a good thing. I know it's been overblown this year, but it's just a deal that says, 'Hey, you're a rookie.' With the top picks getting so much fanfare, so much attention lately, it's a way of saying a 15-year veteran like
In other words, you can view part of the rookie hazing phenomena as a correction for the out-of-whack salaries being paid to first-round picks, and the whole monstrosity known as NFL Draft coverage, which seems to grow exponentially every year. Carrying sets of shoulder pads, bad haircuts and having water hoses aimed at you at the end of a hot, steamy practice? What's everybody all worked up about again?
• I loved what Broncos cornerback
"The 8-8 one,'' Bailey said. "All of it. You are what your record says you are in this league. Regardless of how we lost, or how we got there, we were 8-8 and we deserved that record.''
That's probably a good sign for Denver that there's nothing delusional about the 2009 season in its locker room. The Broncos beat Dallas, New England and San Diego last year, but also lost to Washington, Oakland and Kansas City. Denver scored 326 points and gave up 324. It went 3-0 inside its division on the road, but 0-3 at home. That's 8-8 material if I've heard it.
• The Chiefs have been noticeably lacking in locker room leadership in recent seasons, and they're making a concerted effort to rectify that short-fall. How? Well for starters, six of the seven players they drafted this season were team captains in college. They have prioritized finding leaders in the draft, and in signing veteran free agents such as
One quick byproduct of the improved leadership quotient in Kansas City: Recent first-round picks like
• One of the things some scouts worried about was Sam Bradford's ability to command an NFL huddle, because he has a quiet, more reserved personality than a lot of quarterbacks. But Rams head coach
"I'm a rookie, but I don't want the guys to think I'm a rookie,'' Bradford said. "I have to command the huddle, and it's starting to come. I struggled with that in college, but the coaches pushed it to me. The more I'm around the game, I understand how important that part of it is.''
I only watched him in one Rams practice, but it seems to me that Bradford's command of the ball and his ability to put it exactly where he wants it is going to translate into having a pretty good command in the huddle as well. Players will largely follow anyone who can get the job done.
• My camp tour had me visiting the 14-2 Colts one day and the 1-15 Rams the next, the virtual yin and yang of the NFL standings. But I couldn't help but notice how similar head coaches
Both of them get high marks for their consistency of approach and mood, and how even keeled they were throughout the highs (mostly the Colts) and lows (mostly the Rams) of their rookie seasons as head coaches. I wonder if they had swapped jobs, how much different Indy's and St. Louis's records would have been last season?
• Houston owner
In juxtaposition to those two bold-headline examples, New England owner
• Everybody wants to play for a winner in the NFL, and that's why there's always a steady stream of veterans finding their way to New England every offseason, eager to get a taste of life from within the league's most recent dynasty. But what is it exactly the Patriots have that's worth modeling, other than Brady's quarterbacking and
"It's everything I thought it was,'' Holt said. "I could tell by the way they did things on the field. It's the little things. It's the daily operation here. It's all about business. It's about getting better as a football team. That's the approach, and that's something if you're a true ballplayer, and you appreciate those kind of things, then this is the place to be.''
Crumpler said it a slightly different way, but pretty much echoed Holt.
"The older you get and the more mature you become as a professional player, you kind of have an expectation of what you want to experience when you come to work and in what type of environment,'' he said. "This is the type of environment I envisioned. Everybody's professional about things. The coach tells it how it is and everybody is held accountable from day one. That's all you ask. You just don't want any surprises.''
But if the Patriots go a third consecutive season without any playoff victories -- they haven't won in the postseason since the Giants pulled their Super Bowl upset -- will that reputation for professionalism still continue to carry quite as much weight throughout the NFL? The reality is probably not.
• The best quote I heard in my 10-team camp tour came from Broncos offensive tackle
"I promise you this, there were not a lot of little baby boys named 'Gary' that winter in Minnesota,'' Harris said. "That much I know.''
• The Redskins top two quarterbacks are both new this year, and believe it or not,
• I saw where the Ravens cut veteran cornerback
Guess not. Harris couldn't even get healthy enough to get on the field in Baltimore and the consensus around the league is that he can't run any more and was pretty much done two years ago. That makes it all the harder to believe that Harris actually was selected 13 spots higher (No. 13) than Baltimore linebacker