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, Bill Walsh calmly walked over to me and said, "Michael, relax, it's no big deal. We are only competing against eight teams."
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 Aaron Schobel and offseason acquisition Marcus Stroud at DT. They have a bright young quarterback in Trent Edwards, who is surrounded by some of the best skills players in the NFL with wide receivers Roscoe Parrish and Lee Evans and running back Marshawn Lynch. This is a potentially dynamic offense -- as they learn how to play the game, they will improve and become very tough to slow down. They should score points in bunches.
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 Terrence McGee as the kickoff returner assures the Bills great field position every time he touches the ball.
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 Donovan McNabb may get replaced with Kevin Kolb by midseason, that McNabb has a bad shoulder, that his career is in ruins. They also ramble about how this might be the final year for coach Andy Reid if the Eagles don't get things turned around. Well, from where I sit, the Eagles will be a playoff team this season and they will make a long run once they are in the playoffs. A few factors to consider:
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 Chris Clemons from the Raiders gives Eagles premier pass rusher Trent Cole some relief from the double teams he faced last season. With the added rush, the Eagles are hoping to improve on their paltry 19 takeaways in 2007, which was last in the league. Pressuring the passer means turnovers and I expect the Birds to be vastly improved in this area.
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.
New Orleans Saints
The Saints are another team that has improved this offseason. With a Pro Bowl player at quarterback in Drew Brees, and a schedule that has them playing the AFC West and the NFC North, I really like the Saints chances to take over the NFC South from the Buccaneers.
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.
• From Peter King's Monday Morning Quarterback: "I talked to one GM the other day who told me, "Ted's got no choice. If he doesn't take [Brett] Favre back, he's an idiot.''
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 Tom Brady not played lights out.
• Mike Nolan, the 49ers head coach, told the Sacramento Bee that both his quarterback candidates, Alex Smith and Shaun Hill, would have an opportunity to start an exhibition game and that he hoped one of them would be leading the competition by the third exhibition game Aug. 21 in Chicago. That player would then start the Chicago game and be the 49ers' opening week starter.
"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 New York Daily News: "It's a long shot right now that the Jets have any interest. I wouldn't spend any time on that," an NFL source familiar with the Jets' thinking said. "I can't rule out 100 percent they won't have interest, but I would say it's 90-95 percent. I would be very surprised if he wound up with the Jets."
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 Ted Thompson, I would take Favre back but tell him he has very short rope this year. The first sign of his age showing up on the field, I'm making a move. We love you, we honor you, but we need to protect ourselves. And the only reason I'm bringing you back is based on your performance last year, not your name.
• 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.