Sizing up NFL at season’s start
Questions and answers about the league as preseason begins:
The clock continues to tick on the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement, which expires in March. What are the chances of the players and owners striking a new deal in the next few months?
About the same as Mel Gibson being named Man of the Year by the NAACP. Negotiations are proceeding at a snail’s pace, and I don’t really think we’re going to see anything done until February. Wouldn’t even be surprised to see it drag into the first couple of weeks of March.
What was the best thing the league did in the offseason?
I’d love to tell you it was canning Rich Eisen and Jamie Dukes from the NFL Network, but unfortunately, they’re still there.
Roger Goodell gets a big thumbs-up from me for slapping Ben Roethlisberger with a six-game suspension even if the authorities in Georgia didn’t see fit to prosecute him for his college-bar bathroom escapades. But Goodell and the league get my highest mark for their smart decision to backload the schedule with division games this season. In the last three weeks of the season, there will be 28 division matchups, including all 16 of the games in Week 17.
What effect will Roethlisberger’s suspension have on the Steelers’ playoff hopes?
Probably not as much as the departure of wide receiver Santonio Holmes and the Achilles’ tendon injuries to right tackle Willie Colon and wideout Limas Sweed.
For starters, if Roethlisberger can behave for a few months, Goodell likely will reduce his six-game suspension to four games. The Steelers play just one division game in the first month of the season — against Baltimore — and that will be at Heinz Field. They’ll rely heavily on their defense and the running of Rashard Mendenhall in Roethlisberger’s absence. If Dennis Dixon, Byron Leftwich or Charlie Batch can keep mistakes to a minimum, the Steelers will be no worse than 2-2, and probably 3-1, when Roethlisberger gets back.
Can Mike Holmgren find happiness and contentment as the president of the Cleveland Browns?
Unlikely. The Walrus is a hands-on guy. When he hired Tom Heckert as general manager, he said Heckert would have final say on all personnel matters. But he has spent much of the offseason looking over Heckert’s shoulder, and the rest sitting in his lap. Most people around the league think he’ll fire Eric Mangini after the season and take over as the head coach, which is the job he’s most qualified for.
Does LaDainian Tomlinson have enough gas left in his 31-year-old tank to help the Jets?
Yeah, as long as they use him properly. He no longer can be a workhorse running back, but still can be effective as a 12-touch-a-game guy. The Jets need Shonn Greene to fill the 300-carry void left by Thomas Jones and then pick their spots with Tomlinson. If they don’t overuse him, he’ll be a nice addition.
Can the Saints repeat as Super Bowl champs?
When you have a score-at-will offense like they have, it’s certainly doable. But they can’t expect their defense to force 39 turnovers and score eight touchdowns again. Those takeaways managed to offset the fact that they finished 26th against the pass and 21st against the run and allowed 23 or more points in eight of their last 12 regular-season games. They did little in the offseason to upgrade their defense.
Who’s your sleeper team this season?
The Texans. Matt Schaub is the best quarterback nobody’s talking about. He led the league in passing yards and finished fourth in completion percentage and fifth in yards per attempt last season. Andre Johnson is the league’s best wideout (216 catches, 3,144 yards and 17 touch- downs over the last two seasons). They’ve got one of the league’s best defensive front sevens.
Just two problems: They’ve got the toughest schedule in the league, and they’re in the same division as the Colts.
Which teams could be headed for the biggest fall?
The Patriots and the Cardinals are my two prime candidates. The Patriots won the AFC East with a 10-6 record last year but got drubbed by the Ravens in the first round of the playoffs and are in the process of retooling a defense that wasn’t very good at pressuring quarterbacks last season (31 sacks).
The Cardinals are hoping Matt Leinart can replace Kurt Warner, but that’s far from a sure thing. They also traded away wide receiver Anquan Boldin and lost two of their best defensive players, linebacker Karlos Dansby and safety Antrel Rolle, in free agency. Don’t be surprised to see the 49ers beat them out in the NFC.
Are there going to be more first-round holdouts than usual this year?
I don’t think there will be many seeyou-in-September type holdouts, but I think there could be a few more firstrounders who miss the first week or two of training camp. With this likely being the final year before the implementation of a rookie wage scale, the agents for firstrounders are going to want to squeeze every dime they can out of the owners.
Will Sam Bradford be the Rams’ seasonopening starting quarterback?
I highly doubt it. While the Rams probably are going to end up giving Bradford more than $45 million in guaranteed money, they’d be crazy to throw a quarterback with a history of shoulder injuries out there in Week 1 behind a line that finished 25th in the league in sacks per pass play last year. There is no reason to rush him. He’s a potential franchise quarterback. But he played in a spread offense at Oklahoma and has an awful lot to learn about the pro game. Rams
coach Steve Spagnuolo knows that better than anyone. He likely will open the season with A.J. Feeley as his starter and play it by ear as far as when he thinks Bradford is ready.
What rookies do you think will have the biggest first-year impact?
Defensively, Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh (second overall pick) and Raiders linebacker Rolando McClain (eighth) are going to have big years. Offensively, I think the Bills hit paydirt with running back C.J. Spiller (ninth). He’s a Brian Westbrook clone who will help the Bills as a runner, receiver and return man. Might end up with 1,500 yards from scrimmage as a rookie.
Which coaches are on the hot seat?
You can start with the Bears’ Lovie Smith. His team hasn’t gone to the playoffs since they made it to the Super Bowl in February 2007. This is most definitely a make-or-break year for him, especially with the additions of offensive coordinator Mike Martz and free agent defensive end Julius Peppers. The Bears should be better than last year, when they finished 7-9. But they’re still not as talented as either the Vikings or the Packers. So Smith probably is in a no-win situation.
Some others who need big years: the Raiders’ Tom Cable, the Jaguars’ Jack Del Rio and the Panthers’ John Fox.
What do you think of the new playoff overtime rule? It gives a possession to the team that loses the coin toss if the team that wins the toss kicks a field goal on its first possession.
I like it. It clearly lessens the negative effect of losing the overtime coin toss. But I wish they also would have put it in for the regular season.