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The source for back issues of Football Thoughts.

For 1/12/2005

Now that the 2004 regular season has now come to an end, let's take a look back at my preseason picks and see how accurate I was.

AFC East

1st Place - New England Patriots: Got this one right. Although, that was about as softball-easy as it gets.

2nd Place - Buffalo Bills: Back in August, I said "the Bills go 10-6 this year and earn a wildcard spot". Well, if they had won their last game, I'd have been right.

3rd Place - New York Jets: I said that they were the least talented team in the division, but also one of the best coached teams in the league. As such, they finished ahead of the Bills and made the playoffs.

4th Place - Miami Dolphins: Possibly the second-easiest call I made. The Dolphins tried to rebuild their offense on the fly this year and that went over like a lead balloon.

AFC North

1st place - Baltimore Ravens: Historically, this team's anchor has been its offense and this year was no different (which is why the Ravens will start 2005 with a new offensive coordinator). However, there were a few times this year when the defense broke when it was supposed to bend and that's why these guys didn't make the playoffs.

2nd place - Cincinnati Bengals: In the end, this team was let down by its defense. However, consecutive non-losing seasons for the first time since '89-90 means that they aren't regressing.

3rd place - Cleveland Browns: In August, I said that Butch Davis only proved that he's "undisciplined, power-hungry, and generally overmatched" and I was right. However, I was surprised by the speed with which everything went south.

4th place - Pittsburgh Steelers: Man, I couldn't have been more wrong about this team. I said this team had "a problem brewing on their defense… and I don't think that… Dick LeBeau can fix it". I also didn't like the team's "shift from a run-based offense to a passing-oriented one". Well, they fixed the problems on defense (by vastly increasing the amount of pressure he brought on opposing QBs), and the team went back to a running game. Good results.

AFC South

1st place - Jacksonville Jaguars: Done in by the lack of a pass rush. While they didn't win their division or make the playoffs, they made big strides this year and they're on my short list of Super Bowl contenders for next season.

2nd place - Indianapolis Colts: I said that Peyton Manning had a chance to have a special season and might challenge some of Marino's single-season records from 1984. Well special doesn't even come close to describing Manning's season and he didn't challenge Marino's records, he assaulted them. Indy's defense might not be top-10, but it's good enough to hold its own while the offense lights up the scoreboard.

3rd place - Tennessee Titans: The third-place finish prediction came with the benefit of the doubt. Oops. Injuries proved to be the downfall, but as they're projected as being $26M over next year's salary cap, things will get worse for this team before they get better.

4th place - Houston Texans: Another year, another small improvement in the win column (one more than last year). The offense showed real signs of life this year and the defense improved over last year's abomination, enough to get this team out of its perpetual cellar-dweller status.

AFC West

I picked this division in completely inverse order. Obviously, I wasn't doing my homework.

1st place - Oakland Raiders: Possibly my only prediction which was worse than Pittsburgh. I said "Mark my words, they'll field the division's best defense." Can someone please pass the salt, my foot tastes a little bland. Despite winning one more game than they did all of last year, the Raiders are still a sorry bunch. There will be big changes on this team before next season, and I'm not sure if they'll be for the better.

2nd place - Kansas City Chiefs: Racked up more yards of offense than any other team in the league and scored more points (>30/game) than anyone but the Colts. However, they allowed more than 27 points and 375 yards per game.

3rd place - Denver Broncos: I predicted "the Broncos having a good start but falling apart as the season progresses. 9-7 at the best." The only reason this team went 10-6 and made the playoffs was because they finished the regular season with a game that meant nothing to their opponent. And message to Jake Plummer: shave the beard and lose the knit hat, you look like a vagrant.

4th place - San Diego Chargers: I can only take solace in the fact that San Diego's dramatic turn-around caught everyone off guard, not just myself. Drew Brees played like a man on fire and the Chargers defense, full of guys that most people knew nothing about, was masterful. Kudos!

NFC East

1st place – Dallas Cowboys: I can't recall how other people were picking the Cowpokes before the season, but I know that I sure overestimated this team's talent and coaching. I wonder if Parcells would still rather have had Vinny as his QB than Quincy Carter?

2nd place – Philadelphia Eagles: This should have been a gimmie. Except for two things – 1) I didn't think Terrell Owens would be as important to the Eagles as he was, and 2) I learned that the teams that played the most successful defense this year (of which the Eagles were one), maximized pressure on the QB and played zone coverage in the secondary. Translation: losing cover CBs Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor to sign pass-rushing DE Jevon Kearse was a brilliant decision.

3rd place – Washington Redskins: Moral to the story, develop the QB on your roster instead of getting someone else's retread. Aside to Gregg Williams, I think life just informed you that being the best defensive coordinator in the league might be better for you than being a mediocre head coach.

4th place – New York Giants: It wasn't as bad a season as it could have been. This team showed a lot of promise and poise. Eli Manning might just be better than his older brother.

NOTE: In case you're curious, the actual order of finish in this division was Philadelphia, New York, Dallas, and Washington. Since the Giants, Cowboys, and Redskins all finished 6-10, the determining factor became the divisional record.

NFC North

1st place – Minnesota Vikings: The bad news was that they came down with a case of Dolphinitis somewhere around Halloween and couldn't shake it. The good news was that they made the playoffs and beat the Packers anyway.

2nd place – Green Bay Packers: Won the division simply by sheer force of Brett Favre's will. If he retires, this team won't surface over .500 until 2007 at the earliest.

3rd place – Detroit Lions: At least they didn't finish last, again.

4th place – Chicago Bears: Ugly, one-sided team. GM Jerry Angelo has 6 months to acquire the pieces to make an offense that will work.

NFC South

I'd like to point out that I actually got the order of finish correct in this division, although, I have no idea how.

1st place – Atlanta Falcons: When Vick starts, the Falcons are 22-13-1 and they're 10-18 when he doesn't. How can you game plan for a guy like that?

2nd place – New Orleans Saints: Another mediocre season but the flourish at the end saved Jim Haslett's job.

3rd place – Carolina Panthers: Started 1-7 with a rash of injuries for the offensive playmakers. Finished 6-2 and almost made the playoffs. I think they'll use the improved draft picks and be back in the hunt next year.

4th place – Tampa Bay Bucs: Since winning the Super Bowl, Gruden has posted a 12-20 record. I'm not sure whether it's the players or the coaches, but that's just not good.

NFC West

1st place – Seattle Seahawks: Well, they won the division by virtue of not losing more games than anyone else. In the end, they were frauds on defense and need to find receivers who can catch the ball.

2nd place – St. Louis Rams: I think that, on any given Sunday, this team could beat the World Champions or they could lose to a Division 1AA team. The problem is that I don't think anyone, including the coaches or players, know which team will show up.

3rd place – San Francisco 49ers: For the life of me, I can't understand why I thought that the 49ers would do better than the Cardinals this year...

4th place – Arizona Cardinals: In hindsight, it seems pretty obvious that Dennis Green is a better head coach than Dennis Erickson. And by the way, the Cardinals wound up going 5-8 with Josh McCown as the starting QB.


Quick points:

- As things stand right now, only three teams (Cleveland, Miami, and San Francisco) will start next season with a different head coach. That would be the lowest number of new head coaches in the league in more than 15 seasons. Since the start of the 1992 season, at least 4 teams (not including expansion teams) have started each season with a new head coach. Oddly enough, those three teams I mentioned pick first, second, and third in next April's draft.

- Tony Gonzalez (102) was the only player in the NFL to record more than 100 catches this year. That's the fewest number of 100-catch receivers since 1998, when there were none.

- Despite all of the pre-season hype about how the league's "point of emphasis" on downfield contact between receivers and defensive players would open up passing games and inflate yardage numbers this year, it didn't happen. At least not to the extent predicted. The league-wide average for passing yards per game increased to 210.5 yards per game, up 10 yards from 2003's number of 200.5 yards per game.

- New definition of pathetic: the Chicago Bears averaged 238.5 yards of total offense per game. 8 NFL teams averaged more than 240 passing yards per game.

- With Terrell Owens on the field, the Eagles scored 363 points in 13 1/2 games. Since his injury, they have scored 23 points. You can talk all you want about how the Eagles were playing meaningless games and how they chose to rest their starters, but the fact remains that Owens is the catalyst that makes their offense work.

- From the finding ways to win department: the Buffalo Bills scored 10 touchdowns from returns of kickoffs (3), punts (2), INTs (4), and fumble recoveries (1).

- From the finding ways to lose department: the Miami Dolphins allowed 10 touchdowns from returns of kickoffs (1), INTs (8), and fumble recoveries (1).


Post-Season Honor Roll

I've never handed out post-season awards and I really don't feel the need to start now. However, I'd like to point out some performances I thought were special that didn't quite get their due.

Coaching

Bobby April, Buffalo – OK, as 99% of you are wondering who this guy is. Well, he's the special teams coach and he's on this list because Buffalo's special teams units have spent the better part of the last decade developing a reputation (well deserved, mind you) as being god-awful. But this year marked a huge turnaround for the Bills, who scored 5 TDs on various kick returns, and I think that counts for something.

Jim Bates, Miami – Interim coaches aren't expected to do much more than stop the hemorrhaging, and steer the ship until the season mercifully comes to a halt. Bates not only won games and put himself on the map as a potential head-coaching candidate, but he quite possibly saved the NFL from having to endure Dave Wannstedt getting another head coaching position.

Bob Bratkowski, Cincinnati – He's been the Bengals' offensive coordinator for several years now and, honestly, I thought he was the problem a couple of years ago. However, after fostering Carson Palmer's development into a big-time passer (which a lot of people I know thought would be difficult, if not impossible) and because he shows no fear of opposing defenses and will throw the ball downfield against any team, he's earned this salute.

Craig Johnson, Tennessee – Another "who's he?" guy, Johnson is the Titans' quarterbacks coach. Possibly one of the better up-and-comings offensive minds in the game, Johnson helped develop backup Billy Volek from an answer to a trivia question ("Who was the QB at Fresno St. before David Carr?") to the guy who posted the best single-game passing performance this year (492 passing yards against Oakland).

Players

Drew Bennett, WR, Tennessee – I don't play fantasy football, but I'm guessing that this guy wasn't even drafted in a lot of leagues. That will change next year because he's establishing himself as Tennessee's best receiver and he catches the ball and can run with it as well.

Daunte Culpepper, QB, Minnesota – You will hear this stated dozens of times over the next 9 months, but, in any other season except for this one, Culpepper (69.2% completion rate, 4717 passing yards, 39 TDs, and a passer rating of 110.9) would have made him the consensus MVP.

Corey Dillon, RB, New England – I'll be the first to admit that I was dead wrong when I said that this guy's career didn't have much gas left in the tank. All he did was set personal and Patriots' single-season records for rushing yardage (1635 yards), rushing TDs, and a personal best 345 carries. If you're looking for a major part of why New England went 14-2 for a second consecutive season, he's it.

Mark Fields, LB, Carolina – Last year, this guy watched his team make it the Super Bowl from a hospital bed and the sidelines while he recovered from cancer. He came back to start 10 of the 14 games in which he played. Hats off to you Mark.

Mushin Muhammad, WR, Carolina – In what was supposed to be list last year as a Panther, Muhammad broke out and had a career season. What you might not know is that it was his play over Carolina's last 8 games (54 catches, 915 yards, and 12 TDs) which was a major factor in the Panthers going 6-2 and rekindling their run at the playoffs.

Wes Welker, KR, Miami – Possibly the brightest spot on an otherwise dismal Miami season. Welker became the first player who was not solely a place kicker to score a touchdown and kick both a field goal and an extra point all in the same season. His kickoff return for a TD was Miami's first since 1988.

Front-Office

A.J. Smith, San Diego – When all the signs pointed towards this team needing a complete overhaul, he stuck to his guns and made only those adjustments that he thought were necessary. He rid his team of malcontents (WR David Boston, C Jason Ball) and underperformers (LT Damion McIntosh, TE Stephen Alexander, and DE Marcellus Wiley) and added solid veterans (LT Roman Oben, LBs Steve Foley and Randall Godfrey, and WR Keenan McCardell) and productive rookies (C Nick Hardwick, DL Igor Olshansky, K Nate Kaeding, and T Shane Olivea). He drafted Eli Manning even after he was told that the kid would never play for the Chargers and he converted him into a QB of equal value and additional draft picks.


A couple of years ago, the NFL instituted a guideline for NFL teams regarding the process for hiring a new head coach. It's called the "Rooney Rule" (named after Pittsburgh Steelers' owner Dan Rooney) and you may have heard about it. In short, it stipulates that any NFL team with a head coaching vacancy must interview at least 1 minority candidate for the job.

The spirit of the rule was to encourage diversity within the coaching ranks by requiring teams to interview candidates that they might not normally have considered (i.e., guys outside of the "old boy network"). Another expectation was that it would help some of the up-and-coming assistant coaches within the league prepare for the job of head coach in the NFL.

The premise behind the Rule is a good one and, for the most part, I agree with it. However, the rule has several flaws which I think that the NFL needs to address else the rule will start to be ignored by many teams and the associated fines will be considered merely a cost of doing business.

Issue 1: Does "minority" = "black"?
Because the Rooney Rule only came about after black advocates (Johnnie Cochrane and Cyrus Mehri) threatened legal action against the league, the question needs to be asked whether this rule is this really about advancing the status of minorities within the game or simply African Americans?

Issue 2: Tokenism
The letter of the Rooney Rule requires that a team must interview at least 1 minority candidate but it does not (since it cannot) require that a team seriously consider hiring that candidate.

Issues 3: Conflict with existing NFL rules on tampering
The Rooney Rule makes the assumption that coaching vacancies only occur at the conclusion of the regular season. As the NFL is a 24-365 business, teams who have vacancies outside of the "regularly accepted" window that occurs in the weeks following the end of the regular season are limited in the number of candidates that they can consider.

So, now that we've thrown those out there, let's discuss how the NFL can work to resolve these issues.

The issue of what the NFL means when it uses the term "minority" is very important and it's going to become more important in the not-so-distant future. Currently, the number of players in the NFL who are considered African American is slightly above 60% and the percentage of players who aren't considered "white" or "black" is less than 5%. However, only 5 of the 32 head coaches (15.6%) are black and the rest of the coaches are white and that is a huge disparity. So, I understand the tendency to associate the term "minority" with African Americans.

While this hasn't become a major issue yet (mostly due to a lack of qualified coaching candidates who are neither white nor black), it can soon change. Especially since there are several Hispanic/Latino head coaches at Division-I colleges who could be considered qualified for NFL jobs, most notably West Virginia's Rich Rodriguez and Barry Alvarez, the head coach and athletic director at the University of Wisconsin. [If you weren't aware, as of the 2000 Census, Hispanics/Latinos have become the largest ethnic "minority" group in the USA.]

If the league is truly serious about expanding diversity and not simply paying lip service to the Fritz Pollard Alliance, then it needs to make sure that the term "minority" refers to more than the simply the color of a candidate's skin.

This leads me to the next (and probably most controversial to NFL outsiders) issue that the Rooney Rule faces: ensuring that minority candidates aren't given token interviews simply to satisfy the rule's requirements.

When a team has a vacancy at head coach, 1 of 2 situations occurs. Either 1) the team conducts an open search for its head coach and interviews an array of candidates and hires the coach who it considers to be the best available, or 2) the team has already identified a coach whom it wants to hire to fill its vacancy (a first choice, if you will) and makes a concerted effort to hire him.

While we'd like to think that the majority of these searches resemble the former, but the fact is that they usually take the form of the latter and let me cite a few for your consideration: both of Jimmy Johnson's coaching stops (Dallas and Miami), Bill Belichick's hiring in New England, and Jon Gruden by Tampa Bay. Three of the four of those guys produced Super Bowl champion teams.

There's also the case of Steve Mariucci in Detroit, whose hiring was significant because Detroit's president Matt Millen was fined $200K because he made it clear that Mariucci was his first choice and, as a result, no one else, white or black, could be compelled to interview for the position.

Of course, not all targeted coaching searches appear as such. In fact, the New York Giants and Washington Redskins disguised their efforts to hire Tom Coughlin and Joe Gibbs very well. Each of those teams shrewdly paraded a host of token candidates, both white and black, through their offices in their attempts to convince the league that they were conducting an open search.

Another question I have is how would an interview be determined to be a token one? Would minority candidates have to meet certain criteria, such as being a Division I college coach or an NFL coordinator, before they could be qualified so as not to count as a token interview? (Gee, Herm Edwards, since you were only the defensive backs coach for the Bucs, not the defensive coordinator, your interview doesn't count despite the fact that you got the job.) However, this is so ridiculous that it's not worth talking about in detail.

What it all comes down to is that it is practically impossible to determine whether a team is interviewing minority candidates in good faith or not. My solution (on the off chance that Paul Tagliabue happens to be reading this), would be to rewrite the policy so that it stipulates that any team which interviews more than one candidate for a head coaching position must interview at least one minority candidate. This would permit the teams who have a first-choice candidate to hire that person immediately without threat of any punitive actions from the league.

However, if the NFL is not interested in permitting teams to have a "first-choice" policy, then they need to do something to eliminate one of the larger, if not the largest, obstacles towards hiring more minority coaches and that is the league's own rules on interviewing personnel from other franchises.

The NFL's policy on contacting coaches and management personnel from other franchises used to be that you could not contact anyone from a team until their season was completed. End of discussion. This meant that assistant coaches on playoff teams had to wait until their teams had been eliminated from the playoffs or won the Super Bowl before they could even interview for a new job, let alone accept one. Fortunately, the league changed its policy a couple of years ago and now provides a small window of opportunity during the playoffs for assistant coaches on playoff teams to interview for head coaching positions.

But here's the problem, a trend has been developing in the league that openings for head coaching positions are now starting to come about before the end of the regular season. As a point of fact, five of the most recent head coaching jobs to become available (Atlanta, Buffalo, and New York last year, and Cleveland and Miami this year) did so before the regular season concluded.

The upshot of all of this is that a team looking for a head coach before the end of the season must still wait until the NFL's regular season is over to interview candidates from other franchises. Unfortunately, forcing those teams to wait until the end of the season puts them into direct competition with those teams who have waited until the end of the season to fire their head coach for what is an extremely limited talent pool.

What this creates is an onslaught of interview requests for every minority coach thought to be qualified to be an NFL head coach which, for those whose teams are still in the playoffs, can be a major distraction (in the sense that, despite claims to the contrary, preparing for a potential new job and preparing for the most important game of the season, which any playoff game is, puts you into a position where you have to chose which deserves you best effort). It can also dehumanize these men because, in some cases, they are seen more as a commodity and less as a person (although you can make the case that the latter applies to any coaching candidate, not just minorities, evidenced by the fact that neither Romeo Crennell nor Charlie Weis were offered head coaching positions last year despite each being interviewed by several teams).

I think that the NFL should allow teams with head coaching vacancies prior to the end of the regular season to petition for special permission to conduct interviews with another team's coaches, provided that 1) the candidate's team agreed to allow the candidate to interview, and 2) there would be no conflict of interest with the interview.

To clarify that last point, the Miami Dolphins were in the market for a new head coach as of mid-November. Let's say that they wanted to interview Romeo Crennell for the job. Given my "suggestion", the interview could not have taken place before December 21st because the Dolphins were scheduled to play the Patriots on December 20th and, in any legitimate interview, Crennell would have to be asked to give his assessment of Miami's team and to state how he would plan to beat New England (a division rival) and would not have been able to honestly answer the question without divulging the Patriots' plans – a clear case of conflict of interest.

If the NFL had such a policy in place, maybe Atlanta or Buffalo might have hired someone else (such as Tim Lewis in the Falcons' case or Romeo Crennell in the Bills') instead of the guys they did hire.

Lastly, in case it sounds as though I'm on a crusade to get Romeo Crennell hired as an NFL head coach, I'm not. He makes a great example because he's the most familiar minority coach in the NFL who is not a head coach.


Continuing to beat the drum: In case you missed it, five of the six offensive tackles selected to this season's Pro Bowl play left tackle for their team. Additionally, all were selected in the first round of the draft, the only position at this year's Pro Bowl to staffed exclusively by first-stanza picks. Once again, we have another indicator that left tackle, not quarterback, is the most important position on a football team.

For those who want to know what position had the second-highest percentage of first-round picks in the Pro Bowl, it would be linebacker; where 7 of the 10 selections were former first-round picks.


Playoff Predictions

Now that we're down to 8 teams left in the playoffs, I'm going to go out on a limb and post who I think will win each of the next seven NFL games. However, before I do so, I want to make some observations.

First of all, the most dangerous teams, in my opinion, are the Colts, Vikings, and Rams, simply because no other teams in the NFL are capable of scoring as many points as quickly as these three teams can. Yeah, you can cite the old "defense wins championships" adage, but don't forget the first part of the adage which is "offensive wins games" and, at this point in the season, its all about winning THIS game. And let's face it, because the Rams and the Vikings aren't even supposed to be here, they have nothing to lose.

Second, with the possible exception of the Vikings, not one team in the NFC makes me think that the AFC will lose the Super Bowl. Three of the four NFC teams remaining did not finish strong and all of them have big weaknesses which can be exploited by any of the AFC teams.

Finally, despite all of the commotion that he's caused with his antics recently, don't be so quick to criticize Randy Moss as being classless, immature, or self-aggrandizing. I see his actions as the cold, calculating moves of a team leader who's very smartly managed to find a way to divert the media's critical attention from his team and its shortcomings to his actions and him personally. I bet that, leading up to the Vikings-Eagles game, you will hear more media coverage devoted to Moss and his behavior than you will hear analysis of upcoming the game.

AFC Divisional Games

Steelers over Jets – Pittsburgh is more physical than New York and they're better rested too. The Jets might make a game of it, but the Steelers defense is relentless and Chad Pennington won't know what hit him.

Colts over Patriots – After years of looking ridiculous against New England's defense, Peyton Manning has really started limiting his mistakes recently. Sure, the Pats won the season opener against Manning, but that was when they had both their starting cornerbacks (Law and Poole), neither of whom will be playing in this game. So, considering that the Pats will be starting their nickel and dime corners against the most amazing passing attack the NFL has seen in 20 years, I see an upset in the making.

NFC Divisional Games

Vikings over Eagles – As I said earlier, the Eagles simply aren't the same team without Terrell Owens. Their offense will spit and sputter and their defense simply won't be able to stop the explosive Vikings. When the game is over, Randy Moss will give "the bird" to the Philly fans to cause another week's worth of controversy (and draw another fine).

Falcons over Rams – This is going to be a very close game because the Falcons' once dominant running game has suffered due to the lack of a fullback. Getting to play the game inside will be a huge advantage for the Rams, who can turn any game played on carpet into a track meet.

AFC Championship Game

Colts over Steelers – Contrary to popular belief, the Steelers do have a weakness and that's in their pass defense – teams who make a commitment to throwing the ball downfield against them (Oakland, Jacksonville, Giants, Buffalo) have had success and kept their games close. Peyton Manning and his blitzkrieg run Bill Cowher's record in AFC Championship games (all of which were played in Pittsburgh) to 1-4.

As an aside, I think a Jets-Patriots match up in this game would be great simply because I would love to hear the New England fans taunt New York with another round of the "who's your daddy" chant again.

NFC Championship Game

Vikings over Falcons – The Vikings win the rematch of the 1998 NFC Championship game despite Mike Vick having a "human highlight reel" type of game because Minnesota rediscovers their running game after Randy Moss' ankle keeps him off the field. However, while being awarded the Halas Trophy, Moss will take a leak off the podium and be promptly suspended by the league.

Super Bowl

Colts over Vikings – As a result of all the Moss hype, ratings are the highest for the beginning of the Super Bowl than they've been in years. But the Colts beat the Vikings easily. Peyton takes the Lombardi Trophy and says something like "Dad, this is for you!" Sons everywhere will get misty-eyed and call their dads.

Well, that's it for now. Stay tuned for occasional updates over the next few months until my brother Greg and I publish the annual draft preview in April.