Yes, it is only the first week of the NFL season, but there are signs that it could be a seriously down year for our 13 SPF teams.
It starts with the core of our group of teams - the eight squads that make up the NFC South and AFC South. In the past, these two divisions have been extremely competitive with every team fighting for a playoff spot deep into the season. We are only one week in, but there just isn't the same level of competition in these two divisions like there has been in the past.
It's hard to ignore the idea that it could be the poor economy working against these teams.
In the AFC and NFC South combined, there are only two Top 10 metro markets, Atlanta and Houston. The next best is Tampa which barely is in the Top 20. The rest lie outside with New Orleans and Jacksonville in the 40s.
Swampland Sports thinks there is little doubt that owners are making cost conscious decisions in this current climate. Although it is affecting some teams more than others, all are affected in some way.
Going outside these two divisions, there are some large markets. Dallas, Miami, and Washington are all in the Top 10, St Louis is in the low teens, and Cincinnati is in the mid 20s. The problem with these teams is that even if they have greater means than the others, they still have organizational issues to overcome.
Let's take a quick look at each of our SPF teams ranking them from top to bottom.
THE TOP (Playoff Locks):
Indianapolis Colts - This team starts at the top based largely on reputation. They still have good ownership in a brand new stadium with one of the league best QBs in Peyton Manning. However, they didn't look great at home in their close win against Jacksonville. The also have an unproven, first time head coach in Jim Caldwell. Still, the Colts remain one of the NFL's best teams which makes them a cinch to top our list.
Tennessee Titans - Despite being in a relatively small NFL market, the Titans remain one of the best organizations in the league. They had the best regular season record last year, and they are looking to improve on that by going farther in the playoffs this year. In this season's opener, the Titans took the reigning Super Bowl champion Steelers to OT on the road. There is little reason to believe that they will not be playoff bound again.
Atlanta Falcons - This is our surprise team. Whereas the Colts are at the top due to reputation, the Falcons are here due to fundamentals. They are one of our five teams that are in a Top 10 market. They have also put together one of the best front offices in the NFL. Their owner, Arthur Blank, is engaged in the team while still allowing his people to do their jobs. He has a bright young GM in Thomas Dimitroff and a good coach in Mike Smith. The Falcons also have an emerging star under center in Matt Ryan with plenty of support around him. They may be year away, but it wouldn't surprise us to see the Falcons competing for a Super Bowl title in February.
THE NEARLY TOP (Possible Playoffs):
New Orleans Saints - The Saints, despite their potent offense, are edged out by their division mates from Atlanta. The Falcons have proven balance - good defense, solid running game, consistent passing game. The Saints have yet to prove that their defense can keep up with their offense. We still put them at the top of this group because we do expect them to be in the playoff picture all year long. We just think they won't get there as NFC South champs.
Dallas Cowboys - Yes, Jerry Jones is still running the show, but there is good talent here. Many question whether Wade Phillips can lead a team to a Super Bowl, and that question remains to be answered. Most think this will be his final chance to do so with established coaches like Bill Cowher, Mike Shanahan, and Jon Gruden available. Considering the Cowboys issues, it says volumes about the weakness of SPF teams in general that they place near the top of our list. In the end, the Cowboys playoff chances are hurt by being in the NFC East behind New York and Philly - two better and more consistent teams. This is too bad because Jerry really wants the Playoffs this year with his new stadium all shiny and new.
Miami Dolphins - They have a good owner who is trying hard to engage his market. They have a great front office led by top NFL guru, Bill Parcells. They have a strong coaching staff as well. Their issues are with their lack of overall talent, especially offensive playmakers. This team went to the wildcat last season mainly because of need. Teams are catching to this on already based on how Atlanta handled them in week one. Until Parcells & Co. can get some more talent via the draft or young players like QB Chad Henne or WR Ted Ginn emerge as elite, the Dolphins can't become an elite team.
NEARLY BOTTOM (Potential, but 8-8 probably best they can do):
Carolina Panthers - It pains us to put the Panthers on the wrong side of the playoffs. They had a good 2008 season that showed them to have all the components that the Falcons have. They even are the defending NFC South champs. Sorry to pile on a guy we like, but Jake Delhomme's implosion in his last two games (one playoff game and the first game of the current season) have to raise serious doubts. Doubt is one of those intangible things. If a team doesn't believe in its QB, then they aren't going anywhere - at least not the playoffs.
Washington Redskins - Consider this team the poor man's Cowboys. From owner to front office to personnel, they try to imitate but fall short of following in the crazy footsteps of Jerry's Cowboys. Like the Cowboys, they are cursed with being placed in a division with two other teams that are better run, the Eagles and the Giants.
Houston Texans - They were the chic pick amongst those who were looking for a surprise AFC team. Few teams get as much of a pass as the Texans who have never had a winning record in their existence. Every one wants to say, "hey, they'd be a playoff team in the AFC West or NFC West." The problem is that they just aren't an impressive of tough team. Mark Sanchez might be the next great QB, but the Texans embarrassed themselves by letting a rookie QB beat them in their own building. Say what you want, but anyone who thought the Texans were making the playoffs had week one at home vs the Jets as a win. Until they show something on the field, they look like the same old Texans to us. (This is too bad because this team has every resource to make it elite.)
Cincinnati Bengals - The Bengals have been operating like the country has been in economic decline since 1980. They certainly didn't need to cut any staff since theirs is skeletal already. It's always hard to use words like never, but the Bengals just don't seem like they will ever get back to the playoffs. They've only been once (2005) since Paul Brown died in 1991. Sadly, this year's team still has some of the key ingredients from that playoff squad including HC Marvin Lewis and QB Carson Palmer. Unfortunately, the way that they lost in week one to Denver says volumes about the Bengals.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers - Few teams have taken the risks that the Bucs have in this off season. It's also hard not to believe that the risks they took were financially motivated. They cut loose their Super Bowl-winning coach, Jon Gruden, and his propensity of liking veteran (ie $$) players for a first year coach, Raheem Morris, a first time GM promoted from within, and a young roster led by their future QB in waiting, Josh Freeman.
In Morris, the Bucs are hoping to find another Mike Tomlin, the current Steelers coach who has mentored Morris. Morris certainly sounds like Mike Tomlin in interviews, but the question is whether he can coach like him. Tomlin also inherited a franchise QB and a stable, winning organization as opposed to the rebuilding going on in Tampa.
For the first time in years, season tickets are available in Tampa. They have started 0-1 already. We wish young Morris well, but the Glazer family might be squandering their good will in Tampa by trying to sell an inferior product like it is playoff-caliber.
St Louis Rams - The Rams are a rebuilding team with a first time head coach in a financially stressed market that is currently for sale. This adds up to another bad year. The team couldn't even score in their week one debut. There will be little reason for St Louis fans to tune in all year.
Jacksonville Jaguars - The chickens are coming home to roost on Jack Del Rio and the owner who chose to give him a huge, yet-undeserved contract extension after the 2007 season that he followed up by going 5-11 last year. The Jags have lost 17,000 season tickets since this past season. This has become a huge national story for all the wrong reasons as the Jags face a season of blackouts.
We have been warning owner Wayne Weaver for a long time about his decision to stick with Jack Del Rio as his head coach and de facto face of the franchise. Two years ago, we predicted that Del Rio would force out then GM James Harris and take control of the Jags. He has, and disaster has ensued.
Although the 2007 season that immediately followed was a good one for the Jags, they feasted on an easy schedule, a key component to both of Del Rio's best seasons (2005 and 2007) as the Jags coach. In six seasons, Del has gone 5-11 twice (2003 & 2008), 8-8 (2006), 9-7 (2004), and then 11-5 (2007) and 12-4 (2005). Del Rio defines coaching mediocrity in a league that demands excellence.
Despite the criticisms of former Jags coach - and now Super Bowl winning Giants coach - Tom Coughlin, people often forget that Del Rio inherited strong offensive and defensive lines when he took over from Coughlin back in 2003. Now that he has had to rebuild both those units due to age, free agency and injury, and then lost his former DC to Atlanta where he has become a successful head coach, Del Rio has been completely and utterly exposed.
One of Del Rio's worst sins has been the way he has systematically squandered top draft picks. When Harris was the GM, Del Rio undercut the draft selections of offensive plamakers early in his coaching career by benching first round picks QB Byron Leftwich and WRs Reggie Williams and Matt Jones. This left a relatively good defense and offensive line with little scoring help.
All that's left on offense from the Harris era is Mercedes Lewis and Maurice Jones-Drew. (No, David Garrard was actually a Coughlin pick.) While Maurice Jones-Drew is good, he's not good enough to account for more than 50% of your offense while still winning.
So what kind of draft decisions has Del Ro made since running James Harris out as GM? Last year, he chose two rookie DEs in the first two rounds. First round pick and former hold out Derrick Harvey may now officially be a bust just listening to Del Rio speak of him this week:
"I think what's going to happen until people just understand, he's a big, strong, tough football player. And if people want to see, just because of where he was selected [in the draft], want to see the sexy sack monster, that's just not what he is.
"Now hopefully, he'll become that some day and get more sacks. I don't think the fact that he's not a 20-sack guy like [DeMarcus] Ware or like a [Dwight] Freeney in Indianapolis. Those guys are very rare. What we have is a good, solid, tough defensive lineman that's about 6-5, 285 and he plays hard. And so let's appreciate what he is and stop worrying about whether he measures up to some standard that's been established by somebody besides me, [general manager] Gene Smith or his teammates. I think if we do that, we'll be in better shape."
Um, this isn't going to fly, Jack. If you don't want to hear it from us, listen to your local Florida Times-Union sports scribe Gene Frenette:
A top-10 draft pick is suppose to be a special kind of player, a future Pro Bowler at some point. But Del Rio on Wednesday, along with defensive coordinator Mel Tucker today, make it sound like the expectations for Harvey should be equal to a third-round or fourth-round pick.
"Derrick is a tough, hard-nosed football player," Tucker said. "He does have some pass-rush ability. We know he's going to play hard and be physical."
Uh, shouldn't a defensive end taken in the No. 8 draft slot have more than just "some pass-rush ability." Shouldn't he be your best pass-rusher, if not immediately, then by his second or third season?
The answer is, of course, yes. Oh, and second rounder Quentin Groves hasn't been a world-beater either.
Del Rio quickly followed up that stellar draft by drafting two OTs in the first and second round. After first rounder Eugene Monroe had an extended hold out (notice a trend), Del Rio started these rookies at both tackle spots. He was rewarded in week one with a Colts pass rush that crippled Garrard's production.
Del Rio's poor personnel moves aren't limited to the draft. His free agency record is equally lacking.
It doesn't help that the mediocre Del Rio also seems to prefer mediocre players that don't challenge over good to great players who do. The most recent example is former Gator Mike Peterson whose run in with Del Rio got him cut in the past off season. Peterson landed in Atlanta with former Jags DC and current Falcons coach Mike Smith. Needless to say, Peterson had a great first game against Miami.
We could go on and on about Del Rio, but why? The jury is in. Jack Del Rio is the face of the Jags, and 17,000 season tickets have not been renewed. He inspires little hope or confidence in potential Jaguar ticket buyers.
The bigger issue is that the Jags have never had any understanding of marketing. Sure, some teams can care too much about marketing and forget aboutgood football decisions (see the Cowboys and the Redskins), but even those teams sell out and are two of the leagues most valuable teams.
After years of ignoring the football passion in their own backyard, the Jags seem to be waking up to the fact that they have to appeal to college football fans. Recently, Wayne Weaver publicly talked about wanting to draft Tim Tebow, but this seems a little desperate.
Jacksonville came into the NFL with a distinct market disadvantage. The only way to make it in a small NFL market is to regionalize like Green Bay and New Orleans.
Jacksonville lies in the center of one of the most hungry football regions in America, soth Georgia, and north and central Florida. The NFL also gave Jacksonville an incredible gift when they entered the league - the burgeoning Orlando market.
Well then if the Jaguars... want to claim Orlando then let them do something for Orlando...If we're such an important market to the... Jags, why hasn't either of them played a preseason game here? Better yet, why haven't the Jags played a regular-season game in Orlando? It's not like Jacksonville fans are flocking to Jags games. In fact, the Florida Times-Union recently reported that all Jags' home games will likely be blacked out this season.
Memo to Jacksonville owner Wayne Weaver: Change your name to the Florida Jaguars and play half your home games in Orlando. What have you got to lose? If you had fewer games in Jacksonville maybe more fans would show up. And with a much larger population base in Central Florida starving for big-time football, just think of the potential fan base you could develop here.
The point is this: Orlando is not a "secondary" market. We are not a suburb of... Jacksonville.
Well written, Mike!
We wish success to the Jacksonville Jaguars. We don't want to lose a team to another market outside our region. We only hope that they see how far they've driven their product down.
They have opportunities, but they must work as hard as possible to connect to other large and close markets like Orlando and other large football fan bases like Florida's, FSU's, and Miami's. This worked for the Bucs during their recent glory years.
As much as we hate to say, it also has to start by firing Jack Del Rio and the whole front office and replacing them with people that have a winning track record, preferably one that people in their backyard know about already.
PS You also need to stop asking your mayor to beg people to buy tickets.