Before the games kick off, I thought it might be fun to analyze three head coaches, three assistant coaches and three players who will be counted on to make a big impact on their respective teams.
Gary Kubiak, Houston: The Texans have been flying under the radar all offseason after an impressive 8-8 record last year. They would have been a lock playoff team in 2007 if they were in the NFC, but the tough AFC South is a huge challenge.
Kubiak has done a wonderful job of rebuilding that team and can really make a statement as a head coach if he can find a way to win more than two road games this season. He's extremely smart, can manage a game and has been secure enough to surround himself with some very good assistant coaches. And Kubiak's greatest strength as an offensive coach will be demonstrated in his play-calling this year.
Getting Matt Schaub to play in all 16 games will enable Kubiak the freedom to make excellent calls at critical times in games. Consistency from the quarterback position allows the play-caller this freedom. This is a defining year for Kubiak and I have a very sneaky suspicion he will rise to the challenge.
Brad Childress, Minnesota: Two years ago, there were 10 NFL head coaching jobs open and Childress was in consideration for every one. He settled on the Vikings and vowed to restore the franchise to the winning ways of the Bud Grant era. So far, the Vikings have struggled on passing offense and scoring. Childress has failed to get the Vikings quarterback ratings above 75.0, and the passing game has not shown any signs of being explosive.
But this year is his big chance to put his real mark on the team and make a statement. His expertise is based in offensive football, and though he no longer calls the plays, he can set the direction and use his talents to get this passing game to a top 10 level. If he can accomplish that goal and make his mark, regardless of whom his QB is, with the roster in Minnesota, this team can go very far in the playoffs.
Marvin Lewis, Cincinnati: Entering his sixth year at the helm, Lewis is four games over .500 and this year may test his talents of being a head coach. Lewis is working with his third defensive coordinator and has to find a way to improve that unit. He also has to find a way to get the offense back to the levels it achieved during the 2006 season.
Lewis has clearly allowed his assistant coaches to coach without his involvement. But now is the time to step in and do the things he wants to do. At the end of this season his success will be determined on how much he devotes his time into making his teams do the critical elements pertaining to winning. Being a leader is doing the right things all the time. Lewis needs to be the leader this year.
Gregg Williams, defensive coordinator, Jacksonville: I cannot think of coach walking into a better situation than Williams. He gains a very talented defense that ran a similar scheme to the one he ran in Washington. In Jacksonville, he can add a little spice and make all the difference in the world. Williams' ability to scheme and prepare allowed the Redskins defense to play well last year. Now with the Jaguars, he has more talent and speed. Added to his good fortune was the Jaguars spending the first two picks in the draft on defensive ends as they try and find a way to rush the passer from the outside. Williams will prove to be the best free agent signing of the offseason for the Jaguars.
Mike Heimerdinger, offensive coordinator, Tennessee: In his second stint at Tennessee, he will be asked to do the same thing he did in his prior stay -- take a natural athlete and harness his skills into becoming a legitimate NFL quarterback. As he showed with Steve McNair, "Dinger" has the skills for the task at hand. He understands the things Vince Young does very well at quarterback and will allow him to continue doing those things. Heimerdinger will craft the offense around Young and not force him into the offense. Heimerdinger has not gotten a chance to interview for many head coaching positions in the past few years, but he has a chance to make the difference in Tennessee. If he gets Young to improve his talents in the passing game, he will be a very popular head coaching candidate come January.
Turk Schonert, offensive coordinator, Buffalo: The timing is perfect now for Schonert. He has exceptional skill players on the Buffalo offense, he has a formidable offensive line and he has a very bright young quarterback. With talent that creates mismatches on offense Schonert can use his skills as an innovative coach and attack teams with these weapons. If he does, many in the NFL will stand up and take notice. Like an artist with the right tools for his craft, Schonert has a platform to make an incredible portrait.
Jake Delhomme, QB, Carolina: The Tommy John surgery comes to the NFL. If Delhomme comes close to his play of the first three weeks of the NFL season in 2007, when he threw eight touchdowns and had only one interception, then watch out for the Panthers in 2008.
He led the Panthers to two road wins before the elbow gave out, and the Panthers season went downhill from there. Now with a much improved line, a big-time back (yes, another shoutout for Jonathan Stewart) and the great wide receiver Steve Smith, all that is missing is for the Panthers to have a great year is for Delhomme to be the player we saw in 2007.
Mathias Kiwanuka, LB/DE, NY Giants: When the Giants drafted Kiwanuka, they thought he could be the eventual replacement for Michael Strahan. The time is here for the third-year defender, who enters the season with 8.5 career sacks. The Giants' strength is in their defensive line, with all the attention focused on Osi Umenyiora when it comes time to pass rush. And when Umenyiora is not getting chipped, then Justin Tuck is getting doubled team. Kiwanuka is the real sleeper on the line. He will face very few double teams, enabling him to make a big statement rushing against the weaker right offensive tackles in the NFL.
Ricky Williams, RB, Miami: The "new" Williams is playing for the love of the game, not the money. He is motivated being around a new regime, plus he has an old time offensive coordinator in Dan Henning, who knows how to properly feature a running back. Williams' fumbling history might put him in the coach's dog house, but the feeling in Miami is they need someone who can carry the load while they sort out their quarterback situation. The stars may finally be aligned perfectly for Williams.
• The San Francisco Chronicle reports, "Oakland owner Al Davis is steamed running back LaMont Jordan signed with New England over the weekend. Davis and Jordan's agent Alvin Keels had an agreement that if the Raiders did grant Jordan's release, he wouldn't sign with the Patriots or the Broncos and may want to file tampering charges against the agent and the team."
That would be an interesting tampering claim because it may open a whole set of other problems for Davis and the Raiders. The agent for Jordan also happens to be the agent for ex-Giant safety Gibril Wilson, who the Raiders signed this offseason. If the Raiders contacted Keels before the beginning of free agency regarding Wilson, which is something I've heard bandied about, this might not go over well with them filing a charge against the Pats. Don't throw stones if you live in a glass house.
• From the Philadelphia Daily News blog, here's Jon Runyan talking about the mysterious holdout of Shawn Andrews: "It's not helping us, and it's not helping him sitting out. The longer he holds out, the longer it will be before he gets in there. So it's going to be a tough situation. If you keep giving reps to the guy who's backing you up, at some point, he's going to pass you."
I agree with Runyan and know from my own experience that if his fellow teammates don't feel Andrews' reasons are valid, there will be problems in the locker room. All the Eagles know the reasons Andrews is not in camp, and if they are angry, not sympathetic, with his absence, there can be huge problems if he ever returns.
• From the New York Daily News, "At Hofstra, WFAN's morning co-host, Craig Carton, tried to whip the crowd into a pro-BrettFavre frenzy. Thirty minutes before practice, Carton, armed with a bullhorn, stood in the middle of the 'Jets Fest' theme park and told a gathering of about 50 fans why the Jets should acquire Favre. Carton began a "Let's Get Brett" chant, which lasted for only a few seconds."
Sounds like the Jets fans in attendance that day have the same enthusiasm as the Jets front office does about acquiring Favre from the Packers.
• From the Rocky Mountain News, John Lynch discusses his situation: "I'm going to explore all of my opportunities Is it retirement? Maybe. Is it playing for another team? Maybe. [Coach] Mike [Shanahan] has given me the opportunity to explore that, and that's what I'm going to do. But I won't be playing for the Broncos."
Lynch is a great teammate, player and person and the Broncos are a class organization. Denver being brutally honest with Lynch about his future and the team's expectations were the best course of action. It might not be what Lynch wants to hear, but it's the right way to deal with a great player. If the Favre situation was handled with this much communication and honesty, it would not be dominating the news every day.
• If I were Jeff Garcia I would be very upset. Not only did I lose $1 million last year by resting at the end of the season and missing my incentives, but also I helped secure new contracts for GM Bruce Allen and coach Jon Gruden. And now I have to deal with a microphone in my face everyday as reporters ask me about Favre playing for the Bucs. You would be upset too.
• If I were the Packers I would be worried about the durability of 2007 first-round pick defensive tackle Justin Harrell. He had durability issues while in college at Tennessee and only played in seven games last year for the Pack. Trading defensive tackle Corey Williams to the Browns this offseason opened the door for Harrell, but injuries might not allow him to find the field.
• If I were in Baltimore I might call Dallas and see if I could acquire one of its young offensive tackles. I would prefer 2007 fourth-round pick Doug Free, but doubt the Cowboys would trade him. Dallas is one of the few teams that has five very good offensive tackles.
• If I were a team playing the Browns I would be worried whenever returner Joshua Cribbs entered the game. It appears the Browns might use this multi-talented player in more ways than just returns. He only touched the ball twice outside of returns last year. I would want him to touch it twice a quarter. He is a big play waiting to happen.
To all of the Hall of Fame inductees this weekend in Canton, a very special toast and thank you. This game is so great because of all the great players and coaches who have done so much for the advancement of the league. Congratulations to everyone. It's well deserved.