As we stand at the precipice of another season, it's natural for every column under the sun to spend this week focused on which team will finish the season in Big D, hugging that shiny Lombardi Trophy. No harm, no foul -- if you're lucky enough to root for a quality football team, more power to you.
It's adorable, really. All you lucky people with your hopes and dreams. But if you're all fired up about your team's chances, read on at your own risk because this column is for the rest of us. We who root for teams mired in the vast wasteland of inept management, first-round busts, and ruptured Achilles tendons.
We who know the haunted look of shell-shocked young QBs with the yips, UFL-caliber offensive lines, and vanilla game plans that telegraph every play.
We who can only dare to wonder if things will right themselves by 2020.
I consider myself something of an expert. As a Bills fan I certainly enjoyed me some 1990s, but time keeps on ticking, ticking, ticking, and I have seen it all during the last 10 years (not to mention some lost chapters in the '60s, '70s and '80s). The constant search for a bonafide NFL quarterback. The alienation of more than one of the best GMs you could ever hope for. The curious drafts, two of which involved the Bills trading future picks for the right to sneak back into the first round to snag the likes of J.P. Losman and John McCargo.
John Mc-who-go? Welcome to my world, help yourself to some Syzurp, it helps you forget.
So it's time to take a tour of the NFL's answer to a bad part of town, where dreams die everyday and never make the headlines. A little shout-out to Cleveland, Detroit, St. Louis, Oakland, and all my long-suffering NFL brothers and sisters -- I feel your pain, and if it makes you feel any better, mine is drizzled with a pungent whiff of franchise instability. Having been around the block a few times, I'm going to take the pulse of every team with a fair to excellent chance of sucking this year… again.
Is there a heartbeat? A prayer? A ray of hope… Tom Petty once said that even the losers get lucky sometimes, so who has a shot at crawling out of the primordial ooze of back-to-back four-win seasons to join the ranks of the elite?
Rams (1-15 in '09)
The case for: Okay, this is like frothing up some B.S. for the essay portion of a high school test. There is nothing that says the Rams go from a one-win season to better than a three-win season, but it doesn't really matter. Sure, they could use the high draft picks next year, but in the big picture it's actually a good day to be Rams fan because this team finally got two huge things right:
1) It's insanely early to anoint anyone, but the vibes here say they shagged a true franchise QB in Sam Bradford. Everyone who doesn't have one knows how important this is. It's the only road to a lasting version of a better tomorrow.
2) They got a new owner, and that means there is a good chance he is not complacent.
What's that I hear, an awkward smattering of applause? Similar to the smatter Emmitt Smith got from his fellow Hall of Fame enshrinees when he talked about balance in life, and the fulfillment you get when you finally stop putting your family on the backburner? It was the kind of clapping that says, "I know you're right, but I didn't do it and thanks for reminding my wife about it on a blazing hot day in the Canton sun…"
Trust me, there aren't a lot of guys wearing those yellow jackets who got there by devoting themselves to balance. We all know owners come with no guarantees, but at least there's a shot he isn't comfortable with Emmitt's balance speech, either, and will hone in on making this team great with the kind of myopia men who accumulate billions of dollars tend to have without feeling the need to make apologies.
The case against: Once upon a time, David Carr had what Marty Schottenheimer called "a gleam" in his eyes… then he was mashed into the turf relentlessly. St. Louis spent a ton of money on their offensive line, which is good. Unfortunately, they gave up 44 sacks last year. Bradford is already fragile. Keep him alive for two more years and this ship is turning around to the playoffs.
Lions (2-14 in '09)
The case for: At the very least, this is easier than the Rams essay question. The job seems to be close to done on offense here. Jahvid Best joins Matt Stafford and Calvin Johnson to complete a young, elite set of triplets in an offense I believe is poised to be truly explosive. They fortified the D with some good signings, and No. 2 overall pick Ndamukong Suh is sure to add some real punch where it counts, not to mention a long overdue mean streak as evidenced by that crick in Jake Delhomme's neck.
The case against: Two flags on the play here -- the defense is a work in progress and this is a tough division. The Bears look to be in decline but they can be ornery, the Vikings and Packers are clearly elite, and when you toss in a schedule heavy on NFC East teams, the win column is not going to reflect much progress in 2010.
Tough sledding in the short term, but I have to say that in the big picture this team is finally coming off the assembly line built right, and I can offer Lions nation my highest indicator -- I feel envy!
Buccaneers (3-13 in '09)
The case for: Despite the banged-up thumb, every time I have watched Josh Freeman I see an NFL QB. There, I said it. I can't over-emphasize this enough -- if you got your QB, you have reason to hope.
Another potential sign of hope -- last year young head coach Raheem Morris was finding his way, sorting out schemes, talent, and coordinators mid-season. This year, it feels like he is taking control -- the releases of Michael Clayton and Derrick Ward made a statement. Add in some great young talent and this team is on the rise.
The case against: Much like the Lions, it's still gonna take a few years and the schedule doesn't look like they do a whole lot better in wins. It's all about the future, but I have hope.
Chiefs (4-12 in '10)
The case for: Starting to amass some serious weapons on offense -- Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones make for a sweet backfield, Dwayne Bowe and Chris Chambers are nice WRs, and wild-card Dexter McCluster is sufficiently tantalizing -- I remain pissed I have yet to add him to any of my fantasy football teams late in my drafts!
Another plus: The AFC West is full of mystery, and not the good kind, so the Chiefs are capable of stealing some wins here and there.
K.C. will always be a tough place to visit on the road.
The case against: The new regime inherited a freakin' mess here -- like when you walk into your infant's bedroom only to realize some home-grown organics have been used to finger paint the crib.
PatriotsLite!: Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel have been added to lend some Pats luster to both sides of the ball, but this time they come to town having flamed out as head coaches. Between these two and Mangenius, the Belichick coaching tree looks a little barren. Weis certainly won't have any excuses, and should fire up this group. Crennel has a harder day's work ahead, but he does have a nice rookie safety to deploy.
Redskins (4-12 in '09)
The case for: This one its pretty academic -- major upgrades at head coach and QB, Mike Shanahan and Donovan McNabb have to be worth at least four more wins this year, right?
The case against: The Skins need to snag one more viable receiver or the McNabb trade is going to make the Eagles look smarter than they are. I have always liked Santana Moss, but who else is the QB throwing to? Vincent Jackson? Tell me Dan Snyder isn't waiting in the parking lot, hoping to catch Shanahan on his way to the car…
Can Shanahan block? Seriously, this could get ugly. Toss in the best division in football and I say you are looking at a fourth-place finish, seven, maybe eight wins.
Regardless, no team with less than five wins is going to get respectable faster, because the staff in place knows how to do it right.
Browns (5-11 in '09)
The case for: First of all, who deserves a winning football team more than the good people of Cleveland? Unfortunately that has been true since Art Modell split town, and it hasn't happened. The answer? Bring The Big Show, Mike Holmgren, and Tom Heckert to town and watch them get things on track fast.
Good Jake: The guy who was nothing short of brave and brilliant leading the Panthers to a Super Bowl win… if only John Kasay hadn't shtoinked that final kickoff out of bounds. Seriously, the cat was in the bag, the bag was in the river. The guy who clearly just needs a refreshing change of scenery. The guy who has looked like his old self in the preseason.
The case against: Bad Jake: You know -- the carnage of a six-turnover game against the Cardinals in the 2008 playoffs, followed by four-interception game to open the 2009 season, and this time around he gets to do it with no one even close to Steve Smith. In this event, you are left with a team that has yet to solve the QB problem. No doubt Holmgren will get this straightened out, it's just not clear how soon… and no, Colt McCoy isn't looking like that guy.
The biggest tell that the Browns are once again a startup operation is the fact that Eric Mangini is still the head coach. If Holmgren thought they were close, he'd have brought in his own guy.
Raiders (5-11 in '09)
The case for: The Raiders look like a different animal with merely competent QB play. I know it's probably a mirage, but I have a funny feeling Oakland isn't going to be a joke this year, and I'm glad for their proud, resilient fans.
Feel free to push-pin this one into the wallboard, then rub my nose in it when the ammo is live, but there is talent here, there will be a better offensive game plan, and, again, the AFC West is looking pretty weird -- I mean, even the Chargers have found a way to alienate two of their best and most critical players, so who knows...
The case against: Rolando Mclain was a great first-round pick here, but they are still dogged by terrible draft picks. Darrius Heyward-Bey theoretically tops a WR crew that remains a complete mystery, and let's face it, five TDs in two years has all of us wondering if Darren McFadden is a viable NFL running back. You just can't swing-and-a-miss on these top 10 picks and build jack squat -- ask our Lions fans.
That being said, of all the teams with rotten records, I say the Raiders have the best chance to make a big move this year. A winning record? Only if they capture some magic in a bottle and those two bust draft picks suddenly decide to be brilliant.
The respectability of 8-8? Why not, and believe me, that's a hell of a lot better than a five-win season. It transforms Oakland into one of those bubble teams for 2011 that might push it to 10 wins and a playoff spot, something I don't foresee for any other team on this list within the one year framework.
Bills (6-10 in '09)
Rounding things out, I have to deal with my Bills, a team that more than one pundit believes will be lucky to win one game this year. I don't agree, but that doesn't mean I'm willing to walk this construction site without a hard hat on.
The case for: Look, I do not believe this is a team that's going to have a winning season, so I won't even play that game. It is year one of our third or fourth consecutive five-year plan re-boot. Expectations may have been starved for a decade, but the only sane plan is to wipe the slate clean.
In that spirit, I think they are doing it right, starting with GM Buddy Nix, who knows talent when he sees it. We haven't had one of these guys around in a long time. Trust me, when your player of the decade is your punter, someone in your personnel department needs to borrow some of Mel Kiper's hair mousse.
Nix was right to draft C.J. Spiller despite RB not being a position of need; the kid is electric and our superstar cupboard is completely bare. It's not win now, it's win someday, I love the pick.
Ditto the originally disturbing choice of Chan Gailey -- I had no idea how horrible the Bills offensive schemes were in recent years until I watched Gailey's stuff. Even under the vanilla cloak of preseason football schemes, he made things happen. He even got Trent Edwards to uncork some long balls, and by God, Lee Evans looks like he has a pulse again.
The case against: All good stuff, but nothing close to a winning season. For starters, every other team in the AFC East is playoff-caliber and got better. We simply don't win games against our divisional opponents anymore, which makes this Sunday's home game against Miami interesting -- it's our best shot at a home win in the first four weeks of the season because the Fins aren't good at the Ralph, and Miami at home is a special day to the 12th man in my home town.
Please forgive me an impulsive outburst of season-opening exuberance -- back to reality: Our tackles are still scary, we have yet to prove we can stop the run, our QB needs to have a major renaissance to even present as a starter in the NFL, and our special teams have been messy.
Nope, we are still looking for some big pieces of the puzzle -- NFL.com's Mike Lombardi evaluated the elite players on every team, and the Bills essentially had none. I say Spiller changes that, and in three years Nix and company will make it right again.