A team jumping from worst to first isn't so rare anymore, which means everyone's preseason playoff hopes aren't crazy at all. It really is anybody's ball game
September 03, 2006

SO, YOU'RE READYFOR SOME PLAYOFF FOOTBALL? With few exceptions, NFL fans across the country areemphatically optimistic about their teams' postseason possibilities. And whocan blame them? Over the last three seasons 24 of the league's 32 teams haveadvanced to the playoffs. Three of the four NFC division champs in 2005 (theBears, Bucs and Giants) had finished last or tied for last in their respectivedivisions in '04.

There's greathope for teams like ... the Titans. They went 4-12 a year ago, and they're inthe AFC South with the powerhouse Colts, yet at the team's training camp inClarksville, Tenn., their fans looked upon rookie quarterback Vince Young astheir instant salvation. Radio play-by-play man Mike Keith, fresh from hawkingthe Titans on the rubber-chicken circuit in four states, said, "The fansthink we're making the playoffs. Pittsburgh barely got in last year and won theSuper Bowl, so [the fans'] attitude is, Why not us?"

The Lions arecoming off a 5-11 season. They imported a new coach, disciplinarian RodMarinelli, and a Steady Eddie quarterback, Jon Kitna. Suddenly, their fans areacting as though Barry Sanders just put on pads. "This is the first time ina long time I've felt we're going to the playoffs," said an airline agentat Detroit Metro airport. "This is finally the year for us."

And so it wentthis summer during SI's annual swing through all 32 camps--from Saints fans inJackson, Miss., certain that Drew Brees and Reggie Bush will work magictogether, to a Cowboys fan on the sideline in Oxnard, Calif., who said,"Watch out for us in January. Parcells finally has a defense like he hadwith the Giants 20 years ago."

You can't imaginewhat it was like at the camps of teams that had good reason to be insanelyupbeat. The Panthers, in their 12th summer training at Wofford College inSpartanburg, S.C., broke the overall camp attendance record set last year,despite having five fewer practices than in '05. The 22 rating in the Charlottearea for the Aug. 24 telecast of the game against Miami was the highest for apreseason game in club history.

The SuperBowl--champion Steelers drew 24,000 to a night practice in Latrobe, Pa., anhour east of Pittsburgh, so overwhelming the bucolic St. Vincent College campusthat people had to park as far as two miles away. "We've never seenenthusiasm like this in the 40 years we've had camp here," said Steelersowner Dan Rooney. The excitement carried over to a bake sale: Terrible Towelcookies were selling for $2.

TWO GENERATIONSago commissioner Pete Rozelle convinced America that ... On any given Sunday... a bad club was capable of beating a good one. With teams more evenlymatched today, putting a wild card within reach of all but the trulydowntrodden, maybe new commissioner Roger Goodell's catchphrase should be ...In any given January ...

Some might laughat the blind faith of Titans fans--even general manager Floyd Reese saysTennessee is probably a year away from playoff contention--but they might alsohave laughed at the Falcons before the start of the 1998 season; that is, untilAtlanta morphed from the 7-9 also-ran of '97 into a 14-2 Super Bowl team.Dallas was 5-11 three years in a row beginning in 2000 then jumped to 10-6 andthe playoffs in '03. And the Bears, Bucs and Giants, 16-32 combined and out ofthe playoffs in '04, were 33-15 and playing beyond Jan. 1 last season.

Here are threefactors that contribute to a team's rapid rise: 1) a smart front office thatuses the free-agent market and the salary cap to its advantage; 2) a qualitycoaching staff that can quickly school its players in a new system; and 3) awillingness to take risks. In 1999 the Rams had a quarterback crisis afterTrent Green was injured in the third preseason game; admit it--you thought DickVermeil was nuts for handing the job to Kurt Warner. And where would thePatriots be if Bill Belichick hadn't chosen Tom Brady over a healthy DrewBledsoe before Super Bowl XXXVI?

The Titans couldwell be this year's quick-turnaround act (complete scouting report, page 132).They swallowed all their nasty salary-cap medicine last year: $26 million incontracts for players no longer on the team. Following the insightfulrecommendations of director of pro personnel Al Smith, and using $17 million incap room in the 2006 off-season, Tennessee signed four proven veterans at needpositions--center Kevin Mawae, wideout David Givens, outside linebacker DavidThornton and strong safety Chris Hope--then drafted Young to replace SteveMcNair. On Monday, for quarterback insurance, the club signed veteran long-ballthrower Kerry Collins.

"Twenty yearsago," says Titans defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, "you had to waiton the slow maturation of rookies. Now, if you've got salary-cap room, you canplug in four or five veterans in free agency who make you better rightaway."

Also working inTennessee's favor is the coaching staff assembled by Jeff Fisher, assistantswho are good teachers. Last year, for instance, the Titans signed free-agentdefensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch for the minimum salary. He'd had four sacks,total, in four injury-plagued years, but defensive line coach Jim Washburnadjusted his pass-rush technique, and Vanden Bosch, healthy at last, finishedfourth in the NFC, with 12 1/2 sacks.

Now the bigquestion in Tennessee is--and here's where the risk factor comes in--when willFisher turn the starting job over to Young? "I'll know the right time,"he says.

SPEAKING OFquarterbacks, one thing that hasn't changed since the beginning of unfetteredfree agency in 1993 is the importance of having a good passer. Just as JohnUnitas and Joe Montana turned losing cultures into winning ones, so have Warnerand Peyton Manning in recent years. And part of a team's transformation is thequarterback's ability to get his teammates to believe in him. "That firstyear I played ['98], we were awful," Manning says. "We'd be gettingkilled, and I'd look over at [coach] Jim Mora, like, Aren't you going to takeme out? And he wouldn't do it. His attitude was, It would be easy to come outin the bad times, but you've got to fight through them. I think I gained therespect of some of the guys that year for the hits I took in the fourth quarterof some lost causes."

The NFL isentering its 87th season more popular than ever, in part because, the way thegame has evolved, every year at this time fans have good reason to believetheir respective teams are playoff-bound. The feeling begins to build with thestart of the free-agent signing period, intensifies during the run-up to theApril draft and crests at the end of training camp in August.

And thatsentiment goes double for the coaches and players. "I believe we cansignificantly flip our record this year," Fisher says, "but in thisleague, we all feel that way right now."


Monday MorningQuarterback
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PHOTOROBERT BECKABOUT PRIDE Strong leadership from the likes of Jake Delhomme (center) marks the Panthers as winners. PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYER (JETS)EVERYONE DROP DEEP Even teams such as the Jets with major rebuilding to do have designs on the postseason. PHOTOMEL LEVINE (FOLD-OUT) PHOTOPhotograph by HEINZ KLUETMEIERLAST ROUNDUP The Packers aren't favored in the NFC North, but with Brett Favre front and center for one more season, don't count them out.