|As a rookie, Courtney Upshaw will face the big task of helping fill the Terrell Suggs void. (Getty Images)|
If there's pressure these days it's on someone like LeBron James or Henrk Lundqvist, not on anyone lining up for snaps in the NFL.
But wait a couple of months. It will be, and it'll start squeezing people like Philadelphia coach Andy Reid or San Diego's Norv Turner, both of whom are under orders to reach the playoffs.
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My concern here is not with Reid, Turner or any NFL head coach. It's with everyone else who's stressed to succeed and to succeed immediately. I know it's early, but let's talk about 13 -- an unlucky 13 -- in the line of fire, and let's start here:
1. Whoever coaches the New Orleans Saints: OK, so the expectations are low. The Saints still have the same Us-Against-The-World mentality that drove New England in 2007, and look what happened there. Plus, the next Super Bowl is in New Orleans, and no host city in Super Bowl history has had its team there. The Saints have the talent to make it. But do they have the right coach? We're about to find out. Make it pressure galore on whoever succeeds Sean Payton ... or on Joe Vitt (he coaches for 10 games after serving a six-game suspension) ... to put the Saints in a position where nobody's been before.
2. Robert Griffin III, quarterback, Washington: The learning curve is steeper for this rookie because of the blockbuster trade that brought him to the Redskins. The club paid a fortune because it believes he's its franchise quarterback for the next 10 years, and I love organizations that have convictions about people -- so long as they're right. The expectation is that Griffin makes a bad club good overnight, and that may be a reach. More exciting? Yes. Better? Probably. But Washington plays in the NFC East where there are three teams more talented than the Redskins. Plus, look around Griffin. The supporting cast is not exactly stellar. Washington mortgaged its future for RG3 because it believes he is the future, and that means he can't just be good. He must be great.
3. Chris Johnson, running back, Tennessee: The Titans paid him as if he were the best running back in the business which, until last season, he might have been. But then 2011 showed up, and Johnson didn't. The back who once eclipsed 2,000 yards eclipsed 100 just once in his first eight starts and, in four of those games, couldn't produce more than 34. He wound up over 1,000 ... but barely ... and had a career-low average of 4.0 yards per carry. Worse, in five of his 16 games he failed to run for more than 24 yards. Johnson was supposed to carry this offense as he had in the past, but he didn't. So the question remains: Which Chris Johnson shows up this season? Or, better yet, does Chris Johnson show up? The Titans were 9-7 with him MIA most of the season. Imagine what happens if he's himself again.
4. Tony Sparano, offensive coordinator, N.Y. Jets: He's the poor guy who decides how and when to play Tim Tebow. People talk about the pressure on quarterback Mark Sanchez, but, trust me, there's more on the guy who decides how many snaps to take away from Sanchez and give Tebow. Sparano has the right temperament, and he worked the Wildcat to perfection in 2008 when, as head coach of the Miami Dolphins, he and offensive coordinator Dan Henning sprung their new toy on unsuspecting opponents and rode it to a division title. Having Tebow means having a weapon opponents must defend, and not knowing how or when he will be used is a problem for them. But it's a problem for Sparano, too, who must balance his two quarterbacks in a market that will not tolerate failure and on a club with a fragile psyche.
5. Kevin Kolb, quarterback, Arizona: The Cards invested heavily in him last summer because he solved a hole at quarterback. Only one year later, he hasn't solved anything ... not yet he hasn't. Instead, he's in a battle with John Skelton for the starting job. But that's not the worst of it. The Cards pulled out of the Peyton Manning Sweepstakes because they had to make a decision on Kolb and a $7 million roster bonus he was due ... and they decided to pick it up. That means somebody there believes in him, and it's time Kolb validates that support. I don't expect him to be Peyton Manning, but I do expect him to be better than he was last season. The team's future could depend on it.
6. Courtney Upshaw, linebacker, Baltimore: Someone has to take the place of Terrell Suggs, the Ravens' best pass rusher and one of the game's top impact players, and Upshaw pulled the short straw. It's tough enough to make it in the NFL as a rookie, but to step in for the Defensive Player of the Year? Good luck, Courtney. When Suggs stepped out of the lineup he took 14 sacks, seven forced fumbles and invaluable experience with him. I don't know, it may take two or three players to replace him, and the clock is ticking. Ray Lewis is 37, Ed Reed turns 34 this season and both are near the ends of their careers. Somebody must do heavy lifting in Suggs' absence, and Upshaw's the first one in line. He thought there was pressure when he sat in the Green Room during last month's draft, waiting to hear his name called. He was wrong.
7. Brandon Weeden, quarterback, Cleveland: The Browns used the 22nd pick on the guy when they could've found another offensive weapon for Colt McCoy, and that should tell you something: Uh-huh, it says they think he's an upgrade over what they have. Normally, you might expect Cleveland to be patient with a rookie quarterback, but there's nothing normal about Weeden, who turns 29 this season and is older than Aaron Rodgers. That means you can forget about developing him. It also means he must play and play now. Cleveland took heat for a pick that seemed like a panic move after wide receiver Kendall Wright dropped off the board. So it's up to Weeden to demonstrate the Browns knew what they were doing, and while that could take time ... time is something that is in short supply for him and the Browns.
8. Todd Haley, offensive coordinator, Pittsburgh: Steps in for Bruce Arians, which means he steps between Arians and his prized pupil, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Arians and Big Ben were close and thrived in a system that took the Steelers to two Super Bowl appearances in three years. Apparently, though, someone must have thought the Steelers threw too much or were too wide-open or some such nonsense. So Arians left, Haley arrived and Roethlisberger is trying to figure out what's different. "I get a little confused at times," he said on a Rich Eisen Podcast, "because I know so much has been made about us quote-unquote throwing the ball too much, or we're going back to Steeler football and running the ball more. But in these meetings I've had with coach Haley, he's all about the no-huddle, using our wide-receiver weapons and throwing the ball and stuff like that. So I'm still confused. I'm not sure what's going to happen yet." I am. Haley's offense will be dissected the moment these guys hit the field, and heaven help him if speed bumps come early.
9. Calvin Johnson, wide receiver, Detroit: He's the best wide receiver in the game. He's also the cover guy for Madden NFL 13. Curses.
10. Matt Schaub, quarterback, Houston: There's an expectation in some places that Houston ... yes, Houston ... may be the team to beat in the AFC because, well, you know, look what it did without Schaub last season. So the Texans not only are the team to beat in the AFC South; they may be the team to beat in the AFC, period. Granted, they lost star linebacker Mario Williams to Buffalo, but they won without him last year, too. So it's all in front of Houston ... or some think so, anyway ... with Schaub the catalyst to make a good team an elite one. Me? I'm not so sure. Schaub hasn't won anything in his career, and the bar was just raised -- with the playoffs no longer enough to satisfy the Texans' fan base. Now, it wants a deep playoff run, and it figures Houston would've made one a year ago if Schaub had only been OK. Well, now he is.
11. Michael Vick, quarterback, Philadelphia: After last season's disappointing 8-8 finish, Reid is under orders to get to the playoffs or else. OK, fine. But he doesn't get there without the help of his quarterback, and the question is: Which Michael Vick will it be this season? The guy who committed way too mistakes the first nine games of 2011 or the guy who couldn't lose the last four? There are people in and around Philadelphia who believe Vick poses a problem for the Eagles; that they can't take the next step without him avoiding injuries or avoiding critical mistakes. I don't know, the Michael Vick of 2010 was damned good, and the Michael Vick the last four games of 2011 was consistent and efficient. One reason the Eagles cratered last season was that they blew five fourth-quarter leads. But another was that they committed a zillion turnovers -- more than anyone but Tampa Bay, which lost its last 10 starts. The cleanup starts with Vick ... or else.
12. Matt Ryan, quarterback, Atlanta: Sooner or later, he absolutely, positively must win a playoff game, and here's hoping it's sooner. He's 0-3 in his career, and until or unless he breaks through he can't be considered one of the game's top quarterbacks. The New York Rangers' John Tortorella had it right the other night when he said your legacy is measured by your performance in the playoffs. All I know about Ryan's performance in the playoffs is that in four seasons as a starter he has one less victory than Tim Tebow does in one.
13. Mark Sanchez, quarterback, New York Jets: We can't have a pressure cooker without dropping this name in it. At least, that's the feeling in and around New York, where skeptical fans wonder what happens when Sanchez throws three interceptions or loses a game he shouldn't. I'll tell you what: The heat will be on coach Rex Ryan and Sparano to stand by their man, that's what. Yeah, Sanchez just took on another load, but it's his coaches who bear this burden because they're the ones who must make everything work. Already, the Jets are saying Sanchez needs to make better decisions, so maybe this whole Tim Tebow Thing is about how Sanchez responds to competition -- though, of course, nobody is calling it that. It took Philip Rivers to bring out the best in Drew Brees in his fourth season, so maybe, just maybe, the Jets make Sanchez compete at the position for the first time in his NFL career to push him forward. He responded well to the pressure of past playoffs. So why not surround him with pressure every day at practice and see what happens? I think the Jets just did.