I hit the road July 27 going from NFL camp to NFL camp. I watched tape, interviewed coaches, owners, players, watched practices, observed games. Now, as the preseason camps and games come to an end for 2007, I have a number of issues I wish to discuss.
1. Have the Colts become the latest Super Bowl winner to get dismantled?
Remember when the Ravens beat the Giants in the Super Bowl down in Tampa? A few months later you couldn't recognize that Ravens team. It looked like a liquidation sale. If any one player can overcome the number of players removed from a roster and return to the big game, it is Peyton Manning. But even he is facing a big challenge. Especially when it looks like the other top teams in the AFC appear to be stronger than last year. New England, Pittsburgh and San Diego all look like they have closed the gap with the Colts.
Gone from a Colts defense that was ranked 21st in 2006 are linemen Anthony McFarland (injury), Monte Reagor and Corey Simon; linebackers Cato June and Gilbert Gardner; and defensive backs Jason David, Mike Doss and Nick Harper. The offense lost left tackle Tarik Glenn (retired), RB Dominic Rhodes, and wide receiver Brandon Stokley. Not all of them were major contributors in 2006, but they were all part of building the Colts' Super Bowl team, and they all have to be replaced.
When you consider they only signed OG Rick DeMulling and QB John Navarre and are counting on the draft and last year's roster depth to meet the challenge, 2007 will be a big test. If Tony Dungy and Manning pull it off, it will go down as one heck of a coaching and leadership job. If they don't, it will go down as another team to suffer from the battle of defending a Super Bowl title. Only the Patriots and Broncos have been able to defend the title in the post Collective Bargaining Agreement era.
2. Is the Tampa 2 defense starting to fade?
A number of coaches have received head coaching positions because they come from the Tony Dungy tree. Kansas City's Herm Edwards, Chicago's Lovie Smith, Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin and Detroit's Rod Marinelli all join Dungy in using the principles of the Tampa 2 coverage. It means playing the run with seven in the box instead of eight. It means asking the middle linebacker to be a force player against the run and a deep middle dropper vs. the pass.
When the Bears' Smith played Dungy's team in last year's Super Bowl, some problems surfaced because Dungy knew how to attack the Tampa 2 package. Every offensive coordinator in the league studied that game tape and have a much better understanding of just how to attack it. There are running opportunities, and Dungy knew the draw play -- which looks like a pass -- would trigger a deep drop by linebacker Brian Urlacher and enable the running back to do a lot of damage. The Colts exposed the weaknesses and now every team that plays the Tampa 2 is going to get a dose of the Colt medicine. Offseason film studies of the Tampa 2 scheme may have earned a coach or two his head-coaching opportunity, but these coaches don't run it as much as you might think. There will be lots of changes this season and the Tampa 2 coaches may need some new answers. Otherwise, this package is going to start to fade away.
3. Is the hybrid defense the way to go?
My travels put me in places like Oakland, New England and New York (Giants), where hybrid defenses are critical to effectively defend. Defensive coordinators are starting to realize that properties of the 3-4 and the 4-3 are needed to keep the offense off balance. Very few coaches line up in one alignment and play. Most want to create a competitive edge for themselves and try and find matchups that should be successful. The Cowboys under Wade Phillips may say they run a 3-4, but on the snap of the ball it turns into a four-man front in which you don't know where the heat is coming from. More players than ever are telling me "our defense lines up in every look."
4. Have the rookie contracts changed everything going forward?
This is the year we start to really hear from the veterans about the amount of money first-round draft picks are receiving. If JaMarcus Russell gets the $30 million he is expected to get then the top eight picks of the draft will average $20 million in guaranteed cash. Heck, there are eight unproven players receiving more guaranteed money on average than the proven Larry Johnson. Paying rookies is going to be questioned and there will be some stories before the end of the 2007 season that a rookie wage scale is more than just a hope of veteran players and management. I think it might be time for discussions about a two-to-three-year fixed wage followed by a free agent period. Good players will be paid, bad players will go away and veterans will get all the extra Benjamins. There's something wrong with a system that puts the biggest contract at a certain position in the hands of a kid who has never played a down in the NFL.
5. Will the personnel decisions made in Buffalo come back to haunt the Bills?
I understand that when the Bills sat down during the offseason and evaluated the players on defense they didn't believe some of the key veterans were playing up to their salaries due in 2007, or were worth the money they might receive on the open market. But as the preseason winds down, the collective loss of Takeo Spikes, London Fletcher, Nate Clements and the inability to sign Darwin Walker may be greater than each individual performance. The preseason is meaningless in many ways but this team has generated just three sacks in 104 pass attempts (one sack every 35 pass plays). Last year the Bills were seventh against the pass, 10th in sacks and 12th on third downs. This summer they have given up 86 points in three games. It may take a while to gel with all the young faces on the field.
6. Can the Browns hold off the temptation to play Quinn?
|Steve Dykes / Getty Images|
|Brady Quinn will eventually get his chance to lead the Browns.|
There are basically three models to prepare a first-round quarterback for life in the NFL. The Peyton Manning method of throwing him out there from Day 1 and letting him learn under fire is one way. The Eli Manning method of giving him about half his rookie season so he can come back in his second year with some experience, is another. And then there is the Carson Palmer method of sitting him the whole year and having him take the field in his second season.
Brady Quinn is a different story. I believe the Browns intended to use the Palmer method, but Quinn has played well enough that the Eli Manning plan is probably closer to reality; another solid outing this week from Quinn will have everyone crying for the Peyton method. I believe general manager Phil Savage and coach Romeo Crennel both know the second they put the talented Quinn on the field that the honeymoon is over. But it is getting very tempting to change plans.
7. Has the 3-4 defense lost its surprise factor?
I remember the competitive advantage the Steelers always had when their 3-4 defense was just so different that one week wasn't enough time to prepare for them. But as I travel around to all of the camps, especially in the AFC, it is no big deal to get ready for the 3-4. Consider the fact that there are six teams using the 3-4 in the AFC. By mid-season, many teams will have already faced it. The competitive edge is gone. Over in the NFC, Dallas and San Francisco will still get some benefit from the 3-4, especially against the NFC South and North, where no teams in those divisions play it.
8. Is waiting to extend a QB a tactical error?
I can't remember asking as many quarterbacks as I did this summer about playing out the final year of their contracts. The cost to lock down a starting QB can be astronomical. Heck, the Raiders' Russell hasn't called a play in the NFL and he wants over $30 million guaranteed. Some team is going to look pretty smart to wait ... and at least one team is going to get burned by waiting. The franchise tag might save a team, but that price will be well over $12 million for one season. Will it be Dallas? Jacksonville? Chicago? Who smiles or who frowns? I'm sure St. Louis is relieved they got Marc Bulger off the market. Between Atlanta, Kansas City and a few other teams, someone will be lurking to grab a QB.
9. Can offense win championships?
The Colts played better defense down the stretch but tbey were really built to outscore teams. But can teams built around offenses break down the old adage that defense wins championships? It sure looked like the Bears found out that a great offense can beat a great defense. So, are the Bengals, Rams and Lions headed down the trail of winning by outscoring their opponents in shootouts every weekend? Most coaches and GMs I spoke with this summer flat out rejected that idea, but they all mentioned the rules are set up to make it happen.
10. Is it time for teams to carry 100 players in the offseason?
With NFL Europa gone for good, the offseason programs and the preseason is the only training ground for players. One GM suggested to me that it may be time to let clubs have closer to 100 players on the roster for the offseason so coaches could work with them and develop their own players. It's not a bad idea that your core veteran stars don't report until April for the offseason but that the other larger group works through February and March to improve on their skills.