So now the search begins for the next club to emerge from the weeds, and I'd like to start with five of my favorites for 2008.
The qualifications are these: You didn't have a winning season in 2007 and you didn't make the playoffs. Otherwise, it's onward and upward, which is where I think these five are headed next season:
|Texans DT Amobi Okoye made an immediate impact in his rookie season in '07. (Getty Images)|
Still, Houston needs a cornerback and another pass rusher, and look for the Texans to start looking at the April draft. Still, they go nowhere if they don't produce a running game, and luring Alex Gibbs out of retirement to oversee the offense should help. One problem the Texans can't outrun: They play in the same division with Indianapolis, Jacksonville and Tennessee, and all were in the 2007 playoffs. Houston was 1-5 against the division; 7-3 against everyone else. That's all you need to know about the AFC South. Another thing you should know about the Texans is they must do a better job of cleaning up their mistakes, and I'm talking about turnovers, not busts like David Carr: The Texans had 38 giveaways, the second most in the league. Yet despite a -13 in the takeaway/turnover ratio they finished .500. That's reason to believe.
Never count the Eagles down for two consecutive seasons. Not with Andy Reid in charge, because it doesn't happen. He missed the playoffs in 2005 for the first time in six years, then won the NFC East the following season. So he missed the playoffs again in 2007. He returns this season, and I say that based on the team's finish: Philadelphia won its last three games, two of which were on the road and one of which was against NFC powerhouse Dallas. It was Philadelphia that exposed the Cowboys, and it was the Eagles who crippled New Orleans' playoff hopes.
These guys could be good if they make the necessary changes -- helping their secondary, finding pass rushers to replace Jevon Kearse and Darren Howard and uncovering a return specialist who is a threat to someone other than ... well, the Eagles. Oh, yes, and one or two playmakers to satisfy Donovan McNabb. I don't worry about McNabb. He returns because he's the team's top quarterback, and he sits down only when he's hurt -- which means you can count on a glimpse of Kevin Kolb. But McNabb will need help, which is where those 12 draft picks the club expects to wind up with come in. You better include a defensive back in there -- safety, cornerback, I don't care -- who knows how to make interceptions. Philadelphia's 11 were tied for last in the league. If the Eagles can do that and figure out how to win at home -- they were 3-5 there -- they're pushing the Cowboys and Giants.
The situation is clear here: Either John Fox wins, or the Panthers join the bidding for Bill Cowher. Simple as that. So Fox knows what he must do, and what he must do is find a playmaker not named Steve Smith. Smith can't keep carrying this offense, and the Panthers have known it for years. That's why they signed Keyshawn Johnson in 2006, and that's why they drafted DeAngelo Williams and Dwayne Jarrett. So which of them made Smith's life easier? Johnson tried, but it didn't work out. Williams and Jarrett? The Panthers are waiting. Anyway, Carolina absolutely, positively must find another impact receiver and improve the league's 14th-ranked rushing game; otherwise Fox joins the unemployment line. Jake Delhomme returns as a healthy quarterback, and that is nothing but good. Without him last season the Panthers sank to their second consecutive losing season, one reason Fox is in a pickle.
Neveretheless, they might've gained more than they lost because they were forced to play undrafted rookie Matt Moore, and tell me he doesn't look like Delhomme's successor. A virtual unknown, Moore gained a chance only because third-stringer Brett Basanez was hurt, but Moore made the most of his opportunity. He beat Seattle and Tampa Bay and looked like someone the Panthers can count on if Delhomme goes missing again. I believe in the Panthers because the NFC South is wide open, because Delhomme is healthy and because Fox is under fire. He cannot fail again.
OK, so the only things that don't change about the NFL are the 49ers' new stadium and the Cardinals not making the playoffs. That's about to change. Coach Ken Whisenhunt did the right thing by reintroducing the Cards to the running game, even though they couldn't get past the 29th spot. I admit it, that's not so good. But their average per carry jumped from 3.2 yards in 2006 to 3.6, and that's a start. So is their 6-2 home record.
The Cardinals are in good shape at the most important position, with Kurt Warner backing up Matt Leinart. Whisenhunt has said Leinart is the starter, but, guaranteed, if he starts floundering Whisenhunt won't hesitate to make the switch. There's something about Warner's 27 touchdown passes that convinces me. The team must re-sign linebackers Karlos Dansby and Calvin Pace, renegotiate Larry Fitzgerald's contract and figure out what it's going to do with running back Edgerrin James.
"I know Edge ran hard," Whisenhunt said. "He got some carries, but we never got quite into the flow we thought we were going to."
Trust me, that will be remedied. Whisenhunt straightened out the Steelers' rushing attack when it bogged down in the Tommy Gun experiment, and he will straighten out the Cards. In the NFC West anything's possible, and Arizona has the players and the coach to push for its first playoff spot in a decade. If I'm Seattle, this is the team that worries me.
I'll get right to the point: I know the Bills haven't been to the playoffs since 1999, but I look at what Dick Jauron did last season and you can see the drought ending. Two reasons: 1) The Bills play in the AFC East, where only one opponent is unbeatable, and 2) They're healthy again. No team was hit by injuries earlier or harder than Buffalo, which had seven players on injured reserve after the third week of the season. Somehow, Jauron persevered, and he would have pulled out a winning season if he didn't blow the Denver and Dallas games -- with the Cowboys' loss the most difficult to stomach.
Jauron has everyone back except Anthony Hargrove, which is good, and a new offensive coordinator in Turk Schonert, which could be even better (Memo to Buffalo fans: You can start sending Colorado State thank you cards, now). Anyway, Jauron said he expects "significant change" in an offense that produced 20 touchdowns, or three fewer than Randy Moss, and some of that will involve the use of running back Marshawn Lynch. Schonert promises to keep Lynch on the field at all times, and that's smart. The guy's a load. What Buffalo must do next is settle this whole J.P. Losman/Trent Edwards drama, and I'm not sure it makes a difference which of them starts. What I am sure of is that Buffalo must shorten the line at the ER. If and when that happens the Bills have a chance to make it to January.